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Nativity of Our Lord

Isaiah 9:2-7
The usage of religious traditions affects the form and even the content of those traditions. For example, usage of evergreen trees that are brought into our homes, stores, and churches during the season of Christmas over periods of time has affected the trees themselves. The use of such trees, especially when they are placed into stores and even into homes and churches many weeks prior to Christmas, has mandated that unless the trees are constructed out of materials that are made to look as if they were live trees cut from a forest or tree farm, even though they were not, they will deteriorate to the point that they are no longer useful objects of beauty. When automobiles began to be used not only to transport people slowly from one place to another on gravel roads, but to become portable sound systems transported at high speeds on superhighways, the form and the content of the vehicles have been changed radically. The automobiles themselves have become, in a sense, religious traditions. The time when teenagers are able to drive and to own their own cars or trucks becomes a “religious rite of passage” for them and for their families. Usage affects form and content.

Usage has affected the form and the content of Isaiah 9:2-7 dramatically, and of course, of other religious texts as well. While the precise details of the environment in which Isaiah 9:2-7 had its origins are unknown to us, it is likely that life conditions had been difficult for the Israelite people and for their nation. Now, however, there was reason to be hopeful. A young man, a descendant of King David, was being acclaimed as the new king. There was an expectation that, unlike their recent kings, this one would be wise, compassionate, strengthened by God, as concerned for them as a loving father would be, a king whose reign would be a reign of justice and of peace. Unfortunately, the hopes and the dreams of the people were never realized. Once the king had power and authority, his power and his authority were misused and lost and the people again suffered, sometimes even more than they had earlier.

As the ancient Israelites and the Jews who came after them experienced repeated injustices and hardships, their hopes for an ideal king repeatedly rose and fell. Especially when for long periods of time they had no autonomy as a nation, their hopes and expectations for their own fair and just “king” and “messiah” were embellished by their poets and heroes. The poetic expressions of faith in Isaiah 9:2-7 and in Isaiah 11:1-9 are evidence of their efforts and they remain useful as expressions of Messianic expectations for Jews today. For many Orthodox Jews, expectations of the coming of a truly worthy earthly ruler sent by God continue, even after countless disappointments. For most non-Orthodox Jews, these texts are treasured as expressions of the coming Messianic Age of justice and of peace, for which they should strive.

For followers of Jesus whose efforts eventually resulted in the Christian tradition, these same texts initially provided expressions of hope that were similar to those of Jews who did not become Christians. Many of these followers of Jesus developed a belief that Jesus was the ideal Messianic King, not merely human, but also divine. Their usage of Isaiah 9:2-7, and of other Israelite-Jewish texts, affected the form and the content of the texts. Long before Handel composed his magnificent “Messiah,” and certainly ever since that time, translations of Isaiah 9:2-7, and most of all of the titles given to the ideal king in the latter portion of Isaiah 9:6 were affected for Christians in ways that departed significantly from the texts and translations used by Jews. As is well known, in most of our Christian translations into the English language we see the adjectives beginning in upper case form as “Wonderful!” “Counselor,” or “Wonderful Counselor,” as “Mighty God,” “Everlasting Father,” and “Prince of Peace.” The usage has almost indelibly affected the form and the content of Isaiah 9:2-7, for Christians differently than for Jews.

Does this mean that we should not use Isaiah 9:2-7 as it has evolved for us? Should we use instead the text only in its most primitive possible form? No. We should no more do that than we should use only Christmas trees cut live from the forest or make and utilize only automobiles that are like the first horseless carriages. We should use and enjoy fully the text of Isaiah 9:2-7 as we have it, while at the same time fully appreciating and respecting Jews who use it as it has been affected by their experiences.

Psalm 96
This is one of a series of psalms in which the Israelites were and Jews and Christians are called upon to worship the Lord God, the Creator and Righteous Ruler of the earth. In this beautiful psalm even the elements of nature are urged to sing praises to the Lord God. Since we as Christians perceive the Christmas season as the primary time when we give thanks to the Lord God as the Father of the one who is for us God’s Son, Jesus the Christ, God in another form, it is in every way fitting that we, together with all Jews, praise the Lord God on Christmas Eve. Jews praise God in a universal sense at all times; we as Christians, especially during the Christmas season, praise God in a particular, as well as in a more general, universal sense at this time. It is essential that we emphasize the Christmas season is first and foremost a celebration of God’s unique gift to us all.

Titus 2:11-14
Although this text was written from a post Good Friday and Easter Christian perspective rather than from a festival of Christmas Christian perspective, it is also adaptable to our use here on this occasion. Its emphasis is on the grace of God and on our lives that are to be appropriate responses to God’s grace. This text also from its perspective provides for us an early link to Good Friday and to Easter, which for us are only a few short months away.

Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
Within popular Christianity, this vivid Christmas drama written by the inspired author of the “Gospel According to Luke” dominates all other texts. We as leaders in public worship services should, therefore, center our proclamation upon it every Christmas Eve. If we were to do otherwise, it would hardly be Christmas Eve for us and for the people worshiping God as Christians among us, so powerful has this Lukan drama become! Here and in the other instances in which the writer of Luke-Acts was not dependent upon written sources known to us, it is likely that the writer researched the subject thoroughly and then composed freely and with inspired creativity, much as we do when we prepare our sermons and homilies.

We must read this text with every oral interpretation skill given to us, or perhaps, after memorizing a particular translation of the text, proclaim it with the techniques employed in dramatic biblical storytelling. We can also portray it in vivid chancel drama with parts for both children and adults and with the “holy family” of the parents of the youngest child in the congregation and their infant “baby Jesus” seated in the chancel. (We did this in a young mission congregation in which I served many decades ago. During the worship service, the infant cried and the mother discreetly nursed him.) Infants and children should certainly be highlighted during the worship service on Christmas Eve.

But what in addition can we do to make this worship experience as meaningful and as memorable as possible? We all want to sing our favorite Christmas carols, hear well-rehearsed anthems from the choirs, and gaze at the Christmas trees in the chancel. How can we best explicate and apply the message of the Lukan Christmas story? What will God do within us that will be a continuation of what God has done within the Lukan writer? How shall we paraphrase the text with a bit of additional historicizing?

If then, now, and always the Lord comes within the activities of the people of God, as we see in all of the texts selected here, should we not proclaim some specifics about how God comes as Savior, Christ, and Lord (the three designations used in the message of the angel in Luke 2:11) within the parishes in which we serve? We can, also with well-researched and inspired creativity like that of the Lukan writer, proclaim something such as “During the early decades of the twenty-first century, while _________ was the President of the United States and ________ was the governor of ______, within a local congregation in (your location), the Lord God came to a woman stricken by cancer and sustained her and her family and friends in their grief. The Lord came to a young businessman who would not sacrifice his moral principles to gain an advantage over his competitor. The Lord came to an old rancher and his wife who shared some of their land with people who were unemployed, and the Lord was born here, and the angels in the church choir sang, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on the earth peace and good will!’ and the shepherds in the congregation told this story, and Jesus was Savior, Christ, and Lord among all of them.”

Are we not the “shepherds” where we are? Can we not repeat what the “angels” have sung about what happens when the Lord comes within the activities of the people of God where we are? This can then be our most meaningful Christmas Eve message, a proclamation and application of the texts selected for this night. Perhaps it would also be a proclamation and application that Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, and our other non-Christian guests could receive in a Christmas Eve worship service to which they were invited. They may want to be invited to this Christian mountaintop experience, if they know that their religious traditions and practices are respected by us.

I cannot leave this text, most of all Luke 2:7 with its depiction of the mother of the baby Jesus wrapping him in soft material and tenderly placing him into a “manger” so that he and she could sleep, until I share with you an experience that I had during the years in which I was growing up on our small farm in Northwest Ohio. While my friends in town were playing sandlot baseball after school and later going to football, basketball, and track practices and games, I, five miles from town, was doing what my parents wanted and expected me to do, the daily chores of feeding our chickens, hogs, and calves, and helping to cut and husk corn with hand tools, drive our Farmall H tractor so that my mother could come back to our house to prepare our supper and bring in our four or five cows to be milked by hand as well, which she often did so that my father and I could keep the tractor and team of horses going until dark during planting and harvesting times.

We had a calf shed, which unlike our other farm buildings, we never painted, in which at any given time, we had one or two calves. There was a narrow walkway along the north side of the shed, which we used so that we could bring straw to soak up the manure that the calves produced, hay and corn fodder for roughage, water for the calves to drink, and a small scoop of oats, which the calves relished eagerly. Apart from the larger area into which we placed the hay and the corn fodder, there were two feedboxes into which I would pour the oats. (There had to be two feedboxes for two calves. If you know anything about animals eating oats, you know why there had to be two feedboxes.)

The relation of all of this to Luke 2:7 is that these feedboxes, built into the feeding area by my grandfather, were raised from the floor perhaps 24 inches, were approximately ten inches wide and eighteen to twenty inches long, with sides perhaps six inches high so that the calves as they licked up the grains of oats would not spill them out of the manger. Many generations of calves, over a period of more than four decades had with their raspy tongues licked the boards smooth, even wearing away with their tongues over the course of many years grooves in the soft wood between the darker bands of hard wood. These feed mangers were just the right size into which a mother could place her newborn child! We did not use these mangers for that, but in the Lukan Christmas story the Virgin Mary did. In Luke’s Christmas story the mother of Jesus placed him into a feedbox like the ones into which I had poured scoops of oats for our calves. The mangers in the feedlots in Bethlehem were intended for use by the sheep and goats, but in Luke’s Christmas story Mary placed the baby Jesus into one of them, while Caesar and Herod lounged lavishly in their richly adorned palaces.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen