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Introduction To The Scripture For Christmas Eve / Day - The Nativity of Our Lord - Year B
Proper 1 - Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
Proper 2 - Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:1-20
Proper 3 - Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; John 1:1-14

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John normally structures his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Christmas Eve / Day - The Nativity of Our Lord - Year B


     NOTE: Because Christmas Eve and Christmas Day fall on a Saturday 
     and Sunday, all three options for the assigned lessons are 
     included in this file as shown in the Revised Common Lectionary.  
     Combined in this way, it is possible to use the readings at 
     various services during the weekend.  The RCL listings posted on 
     the Vanderbilt Library website shows their arrangement for use 
     as Propers 1, 2 & 3
 

ISAIAH 9:2-7 (Proper 1)                This messianic prophecy has had an 
honoured place in Christian thought and liturgy from the 1st century when 
Matthew quoted from it in relation to Jesus’ Galilean ministry (Matt:15-
16).  However, two problems arise from it in the context of Isaiah.   1.) 
Does it refer to a specific contemporary king of David’s line or to an 
ideal king?  2) Is the prophecy attributable to Isaiah in the 8th century 
BCE or to another hand writing after the last king of Judah had been 
carried away into exile in Babylon in 586 BCE? Neither question can be 
answered for certain although numerous scholars have attempted to do so.  


ISAIAH 62:6-12 (Proper 2)              Although it does have messianic 
undertones, at first glance this passage appears to have little or no 
relation to the Nativity.  Its selection may rest of on its poetic 
description of a new relationship between Yahweh and the covenant people 
in a new age.  Taken from what scholars designate as Third Isaiah, (Isa.  
56-66) it depends largely on the works of the unknown poet of the 
Babylonian exile known as Second or Deutero-Isaiah (Isa. 40-55).  The 
solemn oath of Yahweh that the economic plight of Judah will alleviated 
and its produce not be given to its enemies sounds with thunderous echoes 
to us in the rich nations as we sit down to our Christmas feasts.


ISAIAH 52:7-10 (Proper 3)              This brief excerpt from a longer 
poem (52:1-12) celebrates the coming of Yahweh to Zion to comfort and 
restore Yahweh’s chosen people.  The familiar prophetic concept of the Day 
of the Lord when divine sovereignty and justice over all the earth is 
proclaimed lies behind the poem.  While not unique to Isaiah 40-55, 
universalism is prominent in the thought of this poet.  Salvation is not 
only for Israel alone, but for fulfilling Israel’s history and destiny to 
bring news of salvation to all the world.


PSALMS 96, 97 & 98 (Propers 1, 2 & 3)  The three psalms used in this 
sequence of lessons all come from the same collection of celebratory 
psalms probably used in the enthronement ceremonies of the New Year.  One 
can imagine the triumphant procession of worshippers led by a host of 
priests and Levites entering the temple with voices raised in exultant 
praise.  Pss.  47, 93 & 95 also belonged to this group and possibly also 
Pss.  24 and 68.  They all proclaimed Yawheh as Israel’s god and king.


TITUS 2:11-14 (Proper 1)               Scholars argue inconclusively 
whether or not Titus belongs in the Pauline corpus with 1st and 2nd Timothy 
as one of the so-called “Pastoral Letters” ostensibly written by Paul.  
This brief passage presents a point of view echoing Paul’s theology of 
salvation and justification by grace alone.  At the same time, the promise 
of the Second Coming of Christ is not so urgently expressed as in other 
letters attributed to Paul.  The writer counsels disciplined ethical 
behavior as we wait hopeful of the final manifestation of divine glory 
whenever that may occur.


TITUS 3:4-7 (Proper 2)                 Again the author reiterates the 
Pauline tradition of the vital experience of being set right with God by 
faith alone.  Few sermons on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day may offer such 
deep theological insight, yet that is what we sing in our hymns and carols 
at these services.  Is that also why so many people try to reconnect with 
the ancient tradition by attending worship, especially on Christmas Eve? 
Why should we not tell them so if one by pointing out what their praises 
mean?


HEBREWS 1:1-4,(5-12)                   Using poetic quotations from the 
Greek text of the Old Testament, the author of this Letter to the Hebrews 
begins his proclamation of the meaning of the gospel story about the life, 
death, resurrection, ascension Christ and the giving of the Holy Spirit to 
the Christian Church.  Because of the emphasis on the fulfillment of the 
Hebrew scriptures, the intended audience was almost certainly Jewish but 
their specific location and circumstances remain unknown.  


LUKE 2:1-20 (May be divided between Proper 1 and Proper 2)   Luke’s 
Nativity story is a beautiful prose poem, but cannot be regarded as 
reliably historical.  Nonetheless, it still enhances our festive 
celebrations quite apart from scholarly dispute.  The whole point of the 
story is the identity of this newborn infant.  His humble birth is vividly 
juxtapositioned against the imperial census, the angelic chorus over the 
Bethlehem’s fields, the amazement of the shepherds at finding the infant 
where the heavenly messengers had directed them, then rushing out to tell 
the world what they had seen and heard.


JOHN 1:1-14 (Proper 3)                 Whereas Matthew began his Gospel 
story with ancestry and birth of Jesus and Luke began with his conception, 
John went much further back to the creation of the world.  He identifies 
the Christ with the Word (Logos) of God.  In this case, however, he is not 
simply the first created being as Wisdom was identified in earlier Jewish 
writings, but was “in the beginning with God.” He was co-creator and also 
the life and light of all that is created.  
	
Having so stated the divinity of Jesus, John goes on to state the other, 
human aspect of his nature.  He was in the world, a Jew among Jews, but 
not accepted by his own people.  This statement presages the controversy 
Jews had with the Jews about his pre-existence and his authority to teach 
and perform miracles (chs.  6-8).  To those who did accept him, he gave 
the power of the Spirit to be the children of God.  This prologue to 
John’s Gospel goes much farther than any of the other three Gospels in its 
interpretation of what the Nativity means.  It is theology, not story.  It 
declares the divine intention in the birth of this child.


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS

ISAIAH 9:2-7 (Proper 1)   This messianic prophecy has had an honoured 
place in Christian though and liturgy from the 1st century when Matthew 
quoted from it in relation to Jesus’ Galilean ministry (Matt.  4:15-16).  
However, two problems arise from it in the context of Isaiah: 1) Does it 
refer to a specific contemporary king of David’s line or to an ideal king?  
2) Is the prophecy attributable to Isaiah in the 8th century BCE or to 
another hand writing after the last king of Judah had been carried away 
into exile in Babylon in 586 BCE? Neither question can be answered for 
certain although numerous scholars have attempted to do so.  

In his excellent exegesis of the passage in The Interpreter’s Bible (vol.  
5, 231ff) the late Prof. R.B.Y. Scott, of McGill University, Montreal, and 
Princeton University, stated his belief that the oracle referred to the 
nation’s hope for some unnamed Judean king, possibly Ahaz (742-727 BCE) or 
Hezekiah (727-698 BCE), as preferred by “a persistent Jewish tradition”. 
Scott also claimed that there is no need for the passage to refer to a 
recently born child since by his anointing at the time of his coronation a 
monarch was metaphorically begotten as a son of Yahweh.  This was a 
natural time for a hopeful new beginning for a beleaguered nation as 
suggested in vss. 4-6.  

The oracle presents many motifs of the Davidic dynasty found in the 
Psalms: the dawn of great light, exultant rejoicing, the overthrow of 
enemies, burning fire, the gift of a divine Son, the proclamation of royal 
qualities, and the establishment of eternal peace and justice.  This leads 
to a conclusion that the passage may have had some place in the liturgy of 
the temple for a coronation ceremony.

Following Matthew’s use of the passage in reference to Jesus, it was 
natural for the Christian Church to claim the passage as a prophetic 
proclamation of Jesus, the true Messiah.  It should be noted, however, 
that Jesus did not in any way fulfill the particular expectations of this 
oracle.  The Nativity of our Lord does herald a new beginning for which we 
can truly rejoice, but the majesty of the moment rests on the grace of 
God, the Lord of all History.  Joyfully celebrating the birth of Jesus 
Christ still brings the world of our time the same hopes of for peace and 
justice


ISAIAH 62:6-12 (Proper 2)   Although it does have messianic undertones, at 
first glance this passage appears to have little or no relation to the 
Nativity.  Its selection may rest of on its poetic description of a new 
relationship between Yahweh and the covenant people in a new age.  Taken 
from what scholars designate as Third Isaiah (Isa. 56-66) it depends 
largely on the works of the unknown poet of the Babylonian exile known as 
Second or Deutero-Isaiah (Isa. 40-55).  

At this time when the global economy is struggling with a widening gap 
between rich and the poor nations due to a large extent to the inequities 
of global trade, the providential promise of vs. 8-9 should fill us with 
shame.  The solemn oath of Yahweh that the economic plight of Judah will 
alleviated and its produce not be given to its enemies sounds with 
thunderous echoes to us in the rich nations as we sit down to our 
Christmas feasts.  Can we not do more than recite a blessing like that 
known as “The Selkirk Grace” attributed to Robert Burns?  “Some hae meat, 
and canna eat, And some wad eat that want it; But we hae meat, and we can 
eat, Sae the Lord be thankit.”


ISAIAH 52:7-10 (Proper 3)   This brief excerpt from a longer poem (52:1-
12) celebrates the coming of Yahweh to Zion to comfort and restore 
Yahweh’s chosen people.  The familiar prophetic concept of the Day of the 
Lord when divine sovereignty and justice over all the earth is proclaimed 
lies behind the poem.  While not unique to Isaiah 40-55, universalism is 
prominent in the thought of this poet.  Salvation is not only for Israel 
alone, but for fulfilling Israel’s history and destiny to bring news of 
salvation to all the world.

In vs. 7 the image of a messenger approaching along a mountain path the 
city with news of a great victory in battle recalls the story of David 
watching a similar scene in 2 Sam. 18:25-27.  In vs. 8 watchmen on the 
city walls hear the herald’s tidings and break into jubilation.  In vs. 9 
the citizenry responds with singing as the glad tidings spread.  Comfort, 
redemption and victory are attributable to Yahweh alone.

The lesson is appropriate for worship on the Day of Christ’s birth.  When 
so much distraction comes from so many secular sources, we need to pause 
to celebrate with joyful singing the true message of the season.  God has 
come among us to bring peace, justice and good will to all.


PSALMS 96, 97 & 98 (Propers 1, 2 & 3)   The three psalms used in this 
sequence of lessons all come from the same collection of celebratory 
psalms probably used in the enthronement ceremonies of the New Year.  One 
can imagine the triumphant procession of worshippers led by a host of 
priests and Levites entering the temple with voices raised in exultant 
praise.  Pss. 47, 93 & 95 also belonged to this group and possibly also 
Pss. 24 and 68.  They all proclaimed Yawheh as Israel’s god and king.

Although all three psalms probably date from post-exilic times, there was 
an earlier time when each nation had a chief god in its pantheon.  Here 
the conception is clear of Yahweh as the supreme God and creator of all.  
The Lord’s dominion is proclaimed throughout with verses selected from 
numerous other psalms and concepts drawn from the poetry of the latter 
part of Isaiah (40-66).  Ps. 98 in particular presents Yahweh as the 
righteous judge of all creation.

Monotheism was Israel’s great gift to religious traditions of all 
humanity.  The sovereignty of Yahweh runs through all, but the fundamental 
discovery of the Israelites that Yahweh is God alone stands out (96:4-5; 
97:7).  


TITUS 2:11-14 (Proper 1)   Scholars argue inconclusively whether or not 
Titus belongs in the Pauline corpus with 1st and 2nd Timothy as one of the 
so-called “Pastoral Letters” ostensibly written by Paul.  If there is any 
consensus and despite occasional personal notes that seem to authenticate 
them, the answer is likely in the negative for a number of reasons.  The 
purpose of the three letters is to counsel post-Pauline congregations on 
how to live in the world as the expectation of Christ’s return had faded 
and a number of false teachers were teaching false doctrine in Paul’s 
name.

This brief passage presents a point of view echoing Paul’s theology of 
salvation and justification by grace alone.  At the same time, the promise 
of the Second Coming of Christ is not so urgently expressed as in other 
letters attributed to Paul.  The writer counsels disciplined ethical 
behavior as we wait hopeful of the final manifestation of divine glory 
whenever that may occur.


TITUS 3:4-7 (Proper 2)   Again the author reiterates the Pauline tradition 
of the vital experience of being set right with God by faith alone.  Few 
sermons on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day may offer such deep theological 
insight, yet that is what we sing in our hymns and carols at these 
services.  Is that also why so many people try to reconnect with the 
ancient tradition by attending worship, especially on Christmas Eve? Why 
should we not tell them so if one by pointing out what their praises mean?


HEBREWS 1:1-4,(5-12)   Using poetic quotations from the Greek text of the 
Old Testament, the author of this Letter to the Hebrews begins his 
proclamation of the meaning of the gospel story about the life, death, 
resurrection, ascension Christ and the giving of the Holy Spirit to the 
Christian Church.  Because of the emphasis on the fulfillment of the 
Hebrew Scriptures, the intended audience was almost certainly Jewish but 
their specific location and circumstances remain unknown.  

In recent decades since the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Qumran Community have 
become more widely known, scholars have begun to the discuss the 
possibility that this letter was written to counteract the teachings of 
the Jewish sect, the Essenes.  Their writings presented an alternative 
view of two Messiahs, one priestly and one royal of David’s line, both 
subordinate to the archangel Michael as the supreme head.  

The whole focus of this introductory passage is on Jesus, the Son of God, 
and his supremacy over all angels.  This is as it should be at 
celebrations of the Nativity.  Later passages cause many to suspect that 
wherever the community was that received the letter, it was threatened 
with imminent persecution for their faith.  There are Christians today who 
face similar circumstances – in Darfur, Sudan, for instance.  We cannot 
forget them as we celebrate in our comfortable surroundings where 
persecution is totally absent.


LUKE 2:1-20 (May be divided between Proper 1 and Proper 2)   Luke’s 
Nativity story is a beautiful prose poem, but cannot be regarded as 
reliably historical.  Nonetheless, it still enhances our festive 
celebrations quite apart from scholarly dispute.  

The whole point of the story is the identity of this newborn infant.  His 
humble birth is vividly juxtapositioned against the imperial census, the 
angelic chorus over the Bethlehem’s fields, and the amazement of the 
shepherds at finding the infant where the heavenly messengers had directed 
them, then rushing out to tell the world what they had seen and heard.

It is noteworthy that the emphasis in this passage is not on the 
miraculous conception as a biological phenomenon as in the preceding 
chapter.  Those details referred to the developing theology of the child’s 
divine origin.  Here Luke focuses attention on the humble humanity of the 
Christ Child.  On the other hand, R.E. Brown has argued against the theory 
that the stories of a virgin birth resulted from a developing Christology 
and the later insistence that Jesus was free from all sin.  (*The 
Interpreter’s Dictionary*, vol. 5, p. 941. Abingdon, 1976)

Is there even a hint in vs. 6 of the Jewish suspicion, already established 
in Luke’s time ca. 85 CE and later explicit in Jewish polemics, about the 
possible cause of Mary’s pregnancy?  And what if that were so? If he was 
indeed a “mamzer” as Bruce Chilton speculated in his *Rabbi Jesus: An 
Intimate Biography*, would that not enhance the redemptive aspect of 
Jesus’ birth announced by the herald angel as “the Saviour who is the 
Messiah, the Lord” (vs. 11)? (Harper San Francisco, 2000)

Every preacher has to confront in his or her own mind how to approach the 
story of the Nativity.  It is not a mistake to interpret ancient poetry by 
asking modern questions.  Doing so on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day may 
not be the right occasion to do it.  Yet even educated skeptics join the 
throngs worshiping at this time.  The child born in a manger is their 
Saviour too.


JOHN 1:1-14 (Proper 3)   Whereas Matthew began his Gospel story with 
ancestry and birth of Jesus and Luke began with his conception, John went 
much further back to the creation of the world.  He identifies the Christ 
with the Word (Logos) of God.  In this case, however, he is not simply the 
first created being as Wisdom was identified in earlier Jewish writings, 
but was “in the beginning with God.” He was co-creator and also the life 
and light of all that is created.  

Having so stated the divinity of Jesus, John goes on to state the other, 
human aspect of his nature.  He was in the world, a Jew among Jews, but 
not accepted by his own people.  This statement presages the controversy 
Jews had with the Jews about his pre-existence and his authority to teach 
and perform miracles (chs. 6-8).  To those who did accept him, he gave the 
power of the Spirit to be the children of God.

This prologue to John’s Gospel goes much farther than any of the other 
three Gospels in its interpretation of what the Nativity means.  It is 
theology, not story.  It declares the divine intention in the birth of 
this child.  If, as occasionally happens, a Christmas baptism is 
celebrated, this text, especially vs. 12-13, could be most effectively 
read and preached.  It places the birth of every child in the context of 
the Nativity.  The boundaries between the natural and the supernatural are 
swept away as the clouds of mystery vanish in the hope of every child who 
comes into the world of sin and darkness.  

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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