Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
An ecstatic declaration rings out about a Messiah – to oppressed people and to working shepherds.
The readings for Christmas Day are all ecstatic declarations. Something awesomely good has happened, and humble people, nations, and all beings high and low are invited to rejoice in it.
The prophetic reading concerns people sunk in gloom and oppression, people who currently know the “yoke” and the “rod” of their oppressor, people who have often seen the “boots of the tramping warriors” and the “garments rolled in blood” (verse 5, NRSV). They are called people who walk in darkness, who live in a land of deep darkness.
In the time of Isaiah ben Amoz (active about 740-700 BCE), the people referred to may have been the people of the former northern kingdom of Israel, people who had been conquered two or three decades before by the mighty kings of Assyria (733 BCE). They were now subject peoples living in newly created Assyrian provinces. However, something has now happened, something that makes the prophet believe that there is extremely good news for those subject peoples. The age of the great king David is about to return, the reign of the God of David is dawning for the subject peoples living in darkness.
The signal that a great change is happening is a birth. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us” (verse 6; Hebrew verse 5). A birth – a mere birth! How can a birth of a child, no matter how high on the status scale, signify such a revolutionary turn as this passage envisions?
Again, in the time of Isaiah ben Amoz we are probably not talking about a literal nativity. More likely is the kind of birth pronounced in the messianic psalm: “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’” (Psalm 2:7). The speaker is the newly enthroned king, whom God has “today” adopted, “begotten” as son to reign over the rebellious nations who oppose God and his Anointed (Psalm 2:2). The “birth” proclaimed in the Isaiah good news is the establishment of a new regime, for which great expectations are raised high among the hopeful people.
There is a new king in Jerusalem. A divine decision has been made to put an end to the oppression of the peoples, to establish justice and peace in place of slavery and war. Because of this new king, there is an ecstatic declaration of new light for people who have been trapped in darkness.
Under this new king, the oppression will be ended, the debris of war will be disposed of, and there will be the beginning of a true reign of peace (verses 4-5). This king will have some wonderful names pronounced in his honor, including “Prince of Peace” (verse 6). In his reign “there shall be endless peace” and the throne of David will be established “with justice and with righteousness / from this time onward and forevermore” (verse 7).
It came from Isaiah’s time, but it has become a vision and an ecstatic hope for the ages.
The ecstatic declaration in the Psalm reading is a “new song.”
This is perhaps the most emphatic of the “Enthronement of the Lord” psalms, those psalms that celebrate Yahweh as King of all creation and source of all stability and justice (Psalms 47, 93, 95-99). Its punch line as an enthronement psalm is verse 10: “Say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king!’” perhaps better rendered “The Lord has become king.” It is an event. Something has happened (at least in the liturgy).
The declaration of the Lord’s kingship always has as its corollary a judgment. “The world is firmly established, …[therefore] he will judge the peoples with equity” (verse 10). The kingship of the Lord is good news to the oppressed, the victims of injustice, but it is bad news to the oppressors, to the arrogant and those ruled by greed.
The Lord, who has now appeared, is on the side of the needy and downtrodden. For them, the ecstatic declaration at Christmas is good news.
The ecstatic declaration in the Epistle reading is the opening. “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all…” (verse 11, NRSV).
The great event that is declared always involves change. Here the change emphasized is not in the outward conditions but in how the saved ones live.
The emphasis is on the consequences of the saving event. What God has done includes a “training” in an orderly manner of life, and living with a hope for a greater glory to come. The climax of the great event is that Jesus Christ has prepared a people of his own, and this is a people who are “eager to do what is good” (verse 14, NIV translation, avoiding NRSV’s “zealous”).
The final consequence of God’s great act: a people eager to do what is good!
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20).
In the Gospel reading the ecstatic declaration is by the heavenly messengers. That, however, is the climax of the story.
The narrative begins with an imperial setting. “A decree went out from Emperor [Caesar] Augustus that all the world should be registered” (verse 1, NRSV). The writer of the Gospel has overstated the case a bit. It may have seemed to the local people that all the world was involved in the census, but in reality the census in question only involved Judea and Samaria.
Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great, had ruled Judea and Samaria for ten years after Herod’s death (from 4 BCE to 6 CE). However, he was such a tyrant and foolish administrator that the Romans had fired him. He was banished to distant lands (notice: he was not executed) and Judea and Samaria were put under the oversight of the governor of the province of Syria, whose name was Quirinius (verse 2). Judea and Samaria were now for the first time coming under direct Roman rule, instead of being run by native kings or tetrarchs (“rulers” in NRSV) approved by the Romans. It was Quirinius who took the census of Judea and Samaria in order to establish a realistic basis for taxing the people.
(When this census was taken – and it was the only Roman census of Judea on record – Jesus was already twelve years old, assuming with Matthew that he was born before the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE. For the Gospel writer, the imperial setting of Jesus’ birth was more important than precise chronology. What people remembered about those times – fifty or sixty years later – was the census that was taken at the beginning of direct Roman rule. As far as Luke’s informants were concerned that census must have been around the time when Jesus was born.)
As the Gospel presents it, it was the imperial census that caused Joseph to make a trip to Bethlehem, taking along his very pregnant wife. Joseph had to go to Bethlehem because he was a distant descendant of the great king David, who had himself been a shepherd around Bethlehem (I Samuel 17:12-14).
Descendant of a great king or not, there was no room at the inn. This little family is pretty humble, consigned in their great need to the barn with the animals. (The reference to the “manger” establishes this. That Greek word is used in the translation of Isaiah 1:3, where the donkey knows “its master’s crib.”) The birth is told in simple terms. “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger…” (verses 6-7).
The real fireworks that do some kind of justice to the magnitude of the event take place out in the countryside, where a bunch of shepherds were on night duty, working where David had worked over a thousand years before. A heavenly messenger (“angel”) appeared to these shepherds. It became obvious that this was not something ordinary! There is a blazing field of lazar light shining around this figure, which terrifies the shepherds. As is standard procedure with heavenly messengers, the first thing said is, “Do not be afraid.”
Then the messenger makes the ecstatic declaration. “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (verses 10-11). The messenger adds that the manger the baby is lying in is the sign by which he can be identified.
Then the Hallelujah Chorus breaks out – or more properly, the Gloria Dei Chorus. A “multitude of the heavenly host” declares, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, / and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (verse 14).
Christmas is a huge claim for a humble event, and this ecstatic declaration to the shepherds reveals the secret – the secret that makes it awesome for all of heaven and earth!