Jerusalem was forsaken. At least that was the opinion of those hauled away into Babylonian captivity who watched Jerusalem’s walls topple and who saw the rising plume of smoke as her buildings went up in flames. Having returned, post exile, to her ruins the people were dismayed by the devastation. How could they rebuild this once great city and again enjoy the produce of the fields that surrounded her, and the peace that was present within her walls?
So called ‘Third Isaiah’ was written to encourage the returning Israelites. In our Hebrew Bible reading for Christmas day the prophet ensures the people of their security–“Upon your walls , O Jerusalem, I have posted sentinels; all day and all night.” It is possible at the time of this writing that Jerusalem did not even have walls, or that the walls were still under construction. The point remains–I, your God, will protect you. The promise of protection comes with a promise that never again will strangers eat the produce of the land while the Israelites go hungry.
The turnaround brought about by God for the Israelites will be so great that the Israelites will be nicknamed “The Redeemed of the Lord” and Jerusalem will be called, “Sought out, a city not forsaken.”
Our Isaiah reading reminds us that advent is no longer with us; Christmas is here. Even though the Christ child is a helpless infant, we know that deliverance has come. Even though the walls that surround us are still toppled we have made it out of exile, and we know there will be a time when sentinels are posted night and day for our protection. The promise of God has arrived.
“The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice!”, so opens the Psalms for Christmas day which extols YHWH as the great king of all the earth. Unlike rival claimants to God’s reign, the throne of God is founded upon righteousness and justice. At his coming God’s rivals are consumed in fire, especially those who exalt idols, and put their faith in earthly power and might. While this news is troubling to the centers of power, to Zion (Jerusalem) and the towns of Judah the news is met with gladness and rejoicing.
A.T. Hanson was the first to point to the rich theological language and the creedal like feel of Titus 2-3 and suggest that it was derived from an ancient baptismal liturgy. If so the words we read this Sunday may have been spoken at countless clandestine Christian baptisms in a hostile Roman world. If Jesus’ birth was a subversive act of God meant to bring low the kingdoms of the world (see the commentary below), then Titus reminds us that our own baptisms are similar in function. We are born anew from water and the Spirit, not because we are mighty and great, but because God is gracious. Having been born anew, sharing in the Spirit poured out also on Christ, we are now co-heirs to the kingdom of God in which the greatest of all is the servant of others.
Luke 2:(1-7), 8-20
We owe our cherished nativity scene to oppressive Rome–go figure! The providence of God is on display in the details.
When Emperor Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of his empire, and that people should be registered (for revenue projection and collection purposes) he had no idea that he was setting in motion events that would lead to the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy–“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans[a] of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” [Note that great ink has been spilt trying to smooth over a difficult historical incongruity between Luke’s timing of the census in the reign of Emperor Augustus and Quirinius’s reign as governor of Syria. It is probably best not to try to harmonize Luke’s account with what we know of Augustus and Quirinius from other historical sources, but to see Luke’s use of these two rulers and the census, and what they represent as faces and symbols of the oppressive empire, as theologically motivated.]
As a descendent of the house of David, Joseph, along with pregnant Mary, traveled to the city of Bethlehem (the hometown of David). Because of the hoards traveling the roads in obedience to Augustus’s decree there was no room in the local inn. Therefore Mary and Joseph took up residence in a manger, and there, amid the chaos of the bleating animals, and hay strewn floor, Mary delivered her child, wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and named him Jesus.
At this point Rome’s hand in bringing about Israel’s ancient prophecies disappears from the scene and is replaced by the hands of itinerant shepherds. We have gone from the height of power, to the complete absence of power, from the very emperor of Rome, to the shepherd of the field. The height of power is used ironically by God to fulfill the prophecies of old, but it is the absence of power that receives the good news of the prophecy’s fulfillment. That shepherding was David’s profession before God reversed David’s fortunes and made him a great king in Israel adds to the theological significance. God is the one who brings down the mighty, and exalts the humble.
The angels announcement to the shepherds–“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”–is more than a kind Christmas card saying. By calling for peace for Israel the angels were making a political statement. The one has been born who will bring about the kingdom of God, and change the fortunes of God’s people.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship this Christmas day consider the Christian call to rejoice at the coming of the Lord. In as much as we welcome God’s justice and participate in God’s righteousness we welcome and are glad at the coming of the Christ child. As Christ is born to live a peculiar life and bring visions of the kingdom to a world in sore need of new walls and restoration, so we who share in the new birth of baptism are called to a peculiar life of service and to herald Christ’s second coming while we welcome his first.