Christmas

by Bear Wade

Bringing God’s Peace to Earth
Luke 2:1-20
Christmas
analysis by Ed Schroeder

Sabbatarians, 
Here’s a Crossings Matrix for the Gospel for Christmas, Luke 2:1-20.
Peace & Joy! Ed

The first semester-long Crossings course ever offered had as its “Grounding” text the Gospel for Christmas Day. The course title was: “Crossings from Luke: Bringing God’s Peace to Earth.” For today’s edition of Sabb. Theol. I shall summarize the matrix we used in that course. Colleague Robert W. Bertram published it along with his commentary in CURRENTS IN THEOLOGY & MISSION, Vol. 6:344-351 (Dec. 1979, No. 6) under the title: “A Christmas Crossing.”

Preliminary note:
We all know the Christmas story by heart, and we already know what it means. So it will take some effort to hear Luke anew in chapter two. Try this once: consider chapter 2 as Luke’s overture for the entire rest of his Gospel. Imagine it to be equivalent to the first chapter in the Gospel of John, a prologue signalling the themes for the entire rest of the gospel.

The diagnostic three steps are:

  • Night
  • The Frightful Visitor
  • Lost

The prognostic triad is:

  • Savior
  • Joy
  • Glorifying

DIAGNOSIS

Night

“Shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night.” Night & darkness are not just physical terms in Luke, the time between sunset and sunrise. Darkness, night, are terms of theological diagnosis. Darkness is almost personified in Luke. RWB notes Luke’s pun that the benighted ones in the story are the “shepherds.” Poimenes, Luke’s Greek term here, is the normal NT term for pastors, congregational leaders. When applied to the leaders of God’s people throughout most of the Bible the darkness is deep. Just how deep that darkness is we see unfolding as Luke’s Gospel unfolds. Folks who “sit in darkness” are in the “shadow of death.” (Lk 1:79).

In Luke’s Gospel as Jesus does his own diagnosing, no one is more benighted than are the Pharisees. At the root of their darkness is that they “don’t repent.” Their self-perception is that “they have no need of repentance.” Most graphic in Luke for this is the Pharisee and tax-collector parable (only in Luke). The Pharisee gives God thanks [do not miss that point] for all his gifts and achievements. His concluding thanks to God is that he is not like the tax-collector. Who of us non-tax-collectors would not, does not, say the same? But the theological point of the Pharisee-heresy surfaces when the tax-collector offers his prayer. He is a penitent asking for mercy. The Pharisee’s prayer has no space for repentance. Apart from repentance, no mercy. What darkness!

Fear

“They feared a mega fear” is Luke’s literal Greek sentence. Luke gives more theological attention to fear than the other evangelists do. He specifically plays on the paradox of To fear and Not to Fear, both of which Jesus in Luke recommends. Well, which one is it? God is the only proper object of fear in Biblical theology. When people fear something else, they are putting some other object in the spot which God claims as his alone–even “jealously.” So to fear anything, anyone else than God is breaking the first commandment. Jesus upbraids the Pharisees because they do not fear God. That fits, of course, with a self-perception of not needing repentance.

The shepherds’ fear is rightly focused, but that does not leave them OK. For them the heavenly spectacle was the Day of the Lord, God’s final judgment. For uncovered sinners facing God “fear” is the absolutely appropriate response. Not to fear God in such a situation would be more evidence of the depths of darkness.

The Pharisee-heresy nudges us to take refuge in our darkness. But even the most deceptive night cannot save any of us from being found out. God finally visits sinners and sooner or later God blows their cover. What gets brought out into the open is the third-level diagnosis, what all sinners strive hard to hide.

Lost

“Lost,” a term not in this text, is Luke’s special term for the third-level depth diagnosis. Luke alone has the three “lost” parables in chapter 15. Remember in Luke the point is not that folks have lost God, but that God has lost the folks, his dear sons and daughters. But they don’t just stay wandering in their wildernesses, ancient or modern. No, alien owners make them their own, finally the arch-alien owner who reminded Jesus in the wilderness that the ownership of all the world was really in his own hands. Owned by aliens is to be lost to God. That is warrant enough for terror.

PROGNOSIS

Savior

The only grounds for “fear not” is the Mangered Messiah, who “saves” the “lost.” Hence his honorific title, Savior. The Christmas Gospel is no “Tut,tut, there never was anything to be scared about.” To be the Savior of God’s lost ones is to “go all the way” into the darkness, the fear, the turf of the alien owner(s), and risk everything, his own life included, to get back what is rightfully his father’s own. The efforts of the owner-savior (Lk. 15) to regain the lost ones point to the work and the suffering involved to do such saving. The baby all wrapped up and “lying” in a manger (mentioned 3 times in these few verses!) anticipates his being wrapped and “laid” (same verb) in a tomb at the end of Luke’s story. His being “Savior” entails costly grace. That’s what it takes “to seek and to save the lost.”

Joy

When rescued by such a Savior, the shepherds’ rightful fear when God blows their cover is replaced by joy. That joy has almost a joke-like quality. We can imagine them saying: We thought it was judgment day, and it was. But by virtue of the Baby it turned out to be a “saving” judgment, not a damning one. Fear was the right response, and yet it was “fear not” when it was all over. Bertram in the article mentioned above calls this “the hilarious surprise, that this Visit turns out to be not the final apocalypse, from whose terror there would be no recourse, but is rather a mercifully premature apocalypse which boldly scoops the final one, and actually averts and thwarts it. Not that there is no need anymore to fear God but rather that, with the coming of the Baby, even God-fear gets trumped — over-joyed.”

Glorifying

“And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen as it had been told them.” “Glory” is a luminous word in the scriptures, the very opposite of Darkness. There is “glow” in “glow-ry.” The shepherds “go public” with what has happened to them personally. Apparently while it is still “night” in and around Bethlehem, they get started undoing the darkness with “glory.” It’s no accident that the verbs initially assigned to the angelic emissaries are now predicated to the shepherds.

They might well have been quite “average” as believers and as witnesses. But their personal piety is not the point. They told others “all they had seen and heard, as it had been told them.” That itself already brings light to the darkness. When our (Lutheran) liturgy closes with “Go in peace. Serve the Lord,” and we respond, “Thanks be to God,” we too are joining the shepherds “going public” with “all we have seen and heard, as it has been told us.”

Author

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