Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Your Savior is Born -- A Christmas Lectionary Meditation

Isaiah 9:2-7

Titus 2:11-14

Luke 2:11-20

Your Savior Is Born

Christmas is finally upon us. The time of waiting is now giving way to the time of fulfillment. And the message is clear, even though darkness surrounds us, the light is breaking through. Where hope was seemingly lost, it has now been restored. “The Savior,” so says the angel of the Lord, “is Born.” And the salvation that comes to us isn’t pie in the sky, in the next life kind of hope, but a vision of God’s work of wholeness now, in this world. So often we think of salvation in terms of rescuing the perishing from this dying world, but is that the biblical vision? Is that the Christmas vision?

As we contemplate the Christmas story, as told in the gospels, we need to get out of the way the usual claptrap about the pagan origins of many of our observances, including trees, and that Jesus surely wasn’t born on December 25th, a date that coincides with the Roman observance of the Winter Solstice – the return of the Unconquered Sun – Sol Invictus. Yes, I know all of that. We needn’t run away from it. Christians have from the beginning found ways of baptizing rites, feasts, and ideas. That being said, we still have a message to attend to, the one that emerges from the lectionary texts for Christmas Eve/Christmas Day. Matthew’s Gospel has a sparse telling of the Christmas story, which is why we are typically led to the more detailed story in Luke, a story that in many ways differs markedly from Matthew’s, but we’ll get to that later.

Let us begin with Isaiah 9, a passage that gave us one of Handel’s great choruses: “For unto us a child is born, unto us, a son is given, . . .” Isaiah, here the 8th century prophet, speaks to people facing the prospect of an Assyrian conquest. The opening verse of this chapter, which isn’t part of the lection, speaks of northern territories that have already been conquered. Things look bad for Judah, but there is a word of hope here. A light will shine in the darkness, and the people will again rejoice, for the “rod of their oppressor” will be broken and the yoke will be lifted. Yes, and the “boots of the trampling warriors . . . will be burned as fuel for the fire.” The people are fearful, for they are living in a time of darkness. Do you feel their pain and their fear? Are you feeling it for yourself? Is darkness crowding in upon you? These are questions that the text asks of us, before it offers us the word of hope. Even as Isaiah speaks of a child born of a young woman, who will be a sign that “God is with us,” so a child will be born, upon whom authority will be laid, and we will call him: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Yes, one is coming who will take up David’s throne and his rule will bring eternal peace, justice, and righteousness from this time on. Do you hear the messianic tone here? The early Christians did, and they made the application to Jesus. Did Isaiah have Jesus in mind when he gave this word of hope? I doubt it. Does the appellation “Mighty God” require that the bearer of this calling be divine? Not necessarily – the king was in the minds of the people of that day, “God’s son.” Each of these statements affirms that the one who is to take the throne will represent God on earth and will rule justly and bring peace. But ultimately, however we think of this series of titles, the point is this: God will do this. And if God will do this, are we ready to join God in this work?

The passage from Titus, which is the only time that Titus appears in the lectionary (likely because some of the other points made in this letter are less than conducive to preaching ), but the writer makes good on this one appearance, and does so by continuing the thought from Isaiah, though instead of light appearing, it’s grace, and with this grace will come salvation to all people. I love the next phrase in this passage, for it speaks of this grace that is appearing in our midst educating us so that “we can live sensible, ethical, and godly lives right now by rejecting ungodly lives and the desires of this world” (Tit. 2:12 CEB). Grace is appearing, not just to cover our sins, but to educate us or train us, so that we might live “sensible, ethical, and godly lives.” We could take this passage as a bit of moralizing, but the point is key – our faith, if it reflects the light that has come into the darkness should lead us to living sensibly and ethically. There should be a change in how we live our lives, as we embrace the grace that comes to us in Christ. The letter to Titus reminds us that even as we live in a time of waiting, anticipating the appearance of the “blessed hope” and the glorious appearing of our Great God and our savior Jesus Christ. The closing verses of this passage can be taken in a substitutionary way, but that’s not necessary and perhaps not even warranted. Instead, it would seem best, to me, that we see Jesus giving his live to bring us out of lawless lives so that he might create from us a people for himself who are eager to accomplish good deeds.

We close, appropriately enough, with the Gospel lection from Luke. We begin with Luke’s desire to get the parents of Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem. Matthew just assumes that they are from Bethlehem and then have to move north because it’s unsafe for them to be in that part of Palestine. Instead, Luke has Joseph and Mary head south to his family’s hometown Bethlehem due to a census or an enrollment on tax lists. There are a number of historical difficulties with this introduction, including the question why the Roman governor of Syria would call for something like this in what was the territory of Herod. There is also the problem of population displacement if everyone had to leave their current home to travel to their ancestral home. But, by creating this scenario, the residents of Nazareth get themselves to Bethlehem, where Mary, the one betrothed to Joseph, and pregnant with her first born son, makes the trip south to Bethlehem, but finding no place to stay, they end up in a stable and when she gives birth to this child, she wraps him up as snugly as possible and gently places him in a manger – essentially the feeding trough. We know this scene so well from creche scenes and from carols that we seemingly need little exposition. Though, maybe it would be nice to have Matthew’s discussion of the naming of Jesus.

Whereas Matthew has Jesus being born in Bethlehem and visited by magi from the east who follow a star, and then warned by the magi flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of a rival king – Herod the Great – Luke has an accompanying story of his own, by which he makes clear how special this birth really is. From the manger scene, we move out into the fields surrounding Bethlehem, where shepherds are tending their flocks by night. Again, the carols have given us the setting, and as the shepherds watched their flock, an angel of God appeared, “and the glory of the Lord shone around them” (vs. 9). And the angel said to the terrified shepherds: “Fear not . . . Glad tidings of great joy I bring to all of humankind, to all of humankind” (Nahum Tate, “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks.”). The message is this: today a child is born in the city of David who is the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. The one you’ve been waiting for, the one promised by Isaiah, he is here and you will find him lying in a manger in Bethlehem. And as the angel made this announcement the angelic host joined together in the greatest choral concert ever, singing: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth among those whom he favors!” (Vs. 15).

So, what is the message to take from all of this? What message should we be taking in this Christmas season? Is it not simply this – a light shines in the darkness, bringing hope, grace, instruction, and a new way of life – if we will receive this message then surely there will be glory to God in the highest and peace on earth. As for the caveat – “on those whom he favors.” I’m of the belief that God shows favor to all humanity, and not just some among us!

Merry Christmas!

1 comment:

McKinless said...

Bob, there's an interesting article from the BAR entitled "How December 25 Became Christmas" ( It links December 25 to the resurrection--nine months precisely between them.

Enjoy your thoughts very much (and on DOCDISC too).

Ed Coble, Fort Worth