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Wrestling with the Word, episode 102: Christmas Eve, Year A (December 24, 2010) December 17, 2010

Posted by fostermccurley in Wrestling With The Word podcast.
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Christmas Eve

The birth of Jesus, and the way Luke and Matthew tell the birth stories, challenged much of the thinking of ancient times. The Christmas story, comforting and mysterious as it is, challenges us also—if we are willing to allow it. The challenge is primarily this. Thanks to worldwide influence of Plato’s philosophy, all of life, as we see it, is merely shadows on the wall of a cave. What causes the shadows to appear are unseen, immaterial, and ideal realities. Quite contrary to that view, the birth of Jesus—or more theologically, the incarnation of God’s word—affirms the reality of flesh and blood, the sublimity of cells and organisms, and the value of physical existence. Christmas is not a celebration of an ideal but of the ordinary. It has been said many times that the trouble with the church is that it is not worldly enough. Perhaps from the church’s very early days “St. Plato” has steered us away from the announcement of Genesis 1 that the physical phenomena are good and interconnected (“very good”) in God’s eyes. To consider as reality only some invisible ideal essence prevents us from being incarnational, as the birth of Jesus calls us to be in a troubled and hungry world. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice … which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).

Download or listen to Wrestling with the Word, episode 102: Christmas Eve, Year A.


Psalm 96
Like Psalms 47, 95, and 98, this song calls an assembly (v. 1: “all the earth”) to sing their acclamation and praise to God who reigns over the universe. The eyes of faith see God as its Creator (v. 5). The summons to sing actually conveys the message about “the good news” of God’s victory (v. 2) that brings a reign of order versus the chaos that threatens the world. The psalm invites worshipers from all nations (“O families of the peoples” in v. 7) to participate in the joyous song. Beyond human singers, the choir will include God’s creatures of the sea and the fields and even the trees of the woods. Their universal joy results from the confidence that the Lord comes to bring justice and righteousness to the entire creation, to make it whole and integrated, and to restore it to health (vss. 10-13; recall the divine evaluation of each phenomenon as “good” in Gen 1).


Isaiah 9:2-7
Over against the gloom of the present time, God conquers the forces of chaos and crowns as king a Davidic ruler who will reign with justice and righteousness.

Following the Isaiah memoirs of chapters 6–8, this hymn celebrating either the birth of a royal child or the coronation of a Davidic king appears as an appropriate addendum, for it gives the impression that the turmoil of the Syro-Ephraimite alliance (or Aramean-Israelite Coalition; see 7:1-9) has ended by God’s hand. The Assyrian invasion of the northern kingdom has taken place, and the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali have been devastated (9:1).

Key Words
V. 3.  hirbîtā haggôy lô’ higdaltā_ hassimchâ = “you have increased the nation; you have not magnified the joy”:  The Hebrew words were probably hirbîtā haggîlâ higdaltā hassimchâ = you have increased the joy; you have magnified the rejoicing,” thus establishing a parallelism in the verse (cf. Ps. 45:16; Isa. 16:10; Jer. 48:33; Joel 1:16).

V. 4.  “the day of Midian”:  The words refer to the battle described in Judg. 6:33–7:25 in which the judge Gideon summoned Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali to join him against the Midianites and Amalekites. In the battle, the Lord caused self-destructive panic among the enemy and so they fled—characteristics of a War of YHWH.

V. 6.  kî-yeled yullad-lānû bēn nittan-lānû = “for a child is born to us, a son is given to us”:  The allusion raises two possibilities:  (1) the physical birth of a royal child; (2) the coronation of a king who becomes “son of God” (cf. Ps. 2:7). Whether the hymn was composed for a specific royal birth or coronation is no longer possible to determine.

V. 6.  Like many kings of the ancient world, this ruler will bear many throne names:  pele’ yô’ēts = “wonder of a counselor” (cf. Isa. 29:14; Ps. 77:12; 88:13; 89:6); ’ēl gibbôr = “mighty God” (usually used of YHWH; cf. Isa. 10:21; Ps. 24:8; Deut. 10:17; Jer. 32:18; Neh. 9:32; however used of Davidic king at Ps. 45:6); abî-‘ad = “father of eternity” (used only here in OT); sar-šālôm = “prince of peace” (cf. Judg. 6:24 where “YHWH is peace” in the story of Gideon).

V. 7.  bemišpāt ûbitsedāqâ = “in justice and in righteousness”:  The pair of words appear often, several times as marks of the Davidic reign (Ps. 72:2; Isa. 11:4-5) as of YHWH’s reign (Ps. 96:13; 97:2; 99:4). In fact, YHWH owns the pair of words and bestows them on the Davidic rulers (Ps. 72:1-2). The actions required—either divine or royal—focus repeatedly on the care of the poor and the needy.

V. 7.  qin’at YHWH tsebā’ôt ta`aseh-zō’t = “the zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this”:  The entire event takes place at divine initiative, not human, and as God’s promise, the people can count on its fulfillment.

Titus 2:11-14
The incarnation of the grace of God that brings salvation to all people calls us to live faithful and serving lives as we wait for the return of our Lord.

The Pastoral Epistles–1 and 2 Timothy and Titus–are pseudonymous. Pauline authorship has been questioned since the early days of the church. Probably written in the first half of the second century, they reflect an ambivalent attitude toward the world. On the one hand, it is the enemy (1 Tim. 5:14), not to be loved (see 2 Tim. 4:10, and it stands in sharp contrast to the people of God (Titus 2:14). On the other hand, the author takes seriously the incarnation and instructs his readers in faithfulness while they live in this world (Titus 2:9-10; 3:1).

Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
Within the context of human history and against all human claims to be the good news for the world, God causes His Son to be born in humble surroundings as the beginning of a new time for all people.

The precise historical context is difficult to determine.  Quirinius began his position about A.D. 6-7, and the first census taken in the Roman Empire after that date occurred in A.D. 14. In this period, the Emperor was Augustus. He was born on September 23: “The birthday of the god has marked the beginning of the good news for the world.”

Key Words
V. 4.  “the city of David called Bethlehem“:  Luke rewrites the tradition here because in the OT, the city of David is Jerusalem. Bethlehem, the home of Jesse and his family, enters into messianic prophecy at Micah 5:2-4.
V. 7. esparganōsen auton = “she wrapped him in bands of cloth”: In the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon, Solomon claims “I was nursed with care in swaddling cloths” (Wisd. Sol. 7:4).

V. 10.  euaggelizomai = “I bring you good tidings”:  The non-theological use of the verb in the LXX is either the act of a herald in announcing victory in battle (see 2 Sam. 18:19-33) or that of a messenger announcing to a father the birth of a son (Jer. 20:15). In either case, it is the beginning of a new time. Apart from Matt. 11:5, the verb form appears only in Luke-Acts among the four gospels. In the epistles that are genuinely Pauline, the verb form appears almost twenty times. Note that the verb appears in the LXX at Psalm 96:2 where it announces the victory and subsequent glory of God over the whole creation.

V. 11.  sēmeron = “today”: In Luke the word marks the beginning of the new time, the eschatological moment:  see 4:21; 5:26; 19:5, 9; 22:43. The word serves the same purpose as “on that day,” i.e., the Day of the Lord.

V. 11.  hoti etechthē hymin = “for to you is born”:  While Luke normally follows the LXX in phraseology, the Greek text of Isa. 9:5 reads hoti paidion egennēthē hēmin, huois kai edothē hēmin = “for a child has been born for us, and a son has been given to us.” Strikingly, the “you” in the angel’s announcement is directed to shepherds.

V. 11. sōtēr = “savior”:  Augustus also claimed this title, even that of “the savior of the whole world.” The title appears for Jesus Christ more than twenty times in the NT, but the first occurrence canonically is Mary’s Magnificat in which she acclaims God as her Savior (Luke 1:47). In the OT, the title appears occasionally for human persons that God sends (Jehoahaz in 2 Kings 13:5; unnamed persons at Neh. 9:27), but a dozen times the title is for YHWH. In all cases in the Bible, divine or human, the word defines one who responds to cries for help.