Christmas Eve, Year B, December 24, 2023

Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20 John 1:1-14 Isaiah 62:6-12 Titus 3:4-7 Psalm 97

The Annunciation to the Shepherds by Cuyp Benjamin Gerritsz (1612-1652)

Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

[In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.]

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.


Mary is the focus of Luke’s account rather than Joseph.

In this narrative Luke sets forth the wonder of Christmas. The story unfolds in three parts. The first (vv. 1-7) locates the birth of Jesus. It happened when Augustus was Caesar, emperor of the Roman world (27B.C.-14 A.D) (1) It happened in Bethlehem, the city of David, where Joseph and Mary had gone to be enrolled for a census. It happened in a place where there was a manger. Then and there Jesus was born and wrapped in swaddling clothes. ", Luke reminds his readers of the belief that Bethlehem was the place where a ruler like David, would be born

The second part (vv. 8-14) interprets this birth. Using the form of an announcement story Luke tells of the appearance of an angel, of the fear of the shepherds, of the message they were given, and of the sign which confirmed it (2) Added to the announcement is a canticle. A heavenly host joins the angels in offering praise to God for this event and proclaims peace to people with whom God is pleased.(3)

The third part (vv. 15-20) describes responses made to the news of this event. The shepherds checked out the message, found the sign, the babe lying in a manger, and shared the interpretation which they had given. The people marvelled at their words. Mary kept them in her heart and wondered. The shepherds then returned to their work, glorifying and praising God for the event and its interpretation.


Perhaps the shepherds could receive the news of God's reign with pure hearts. Jesus will later thank God (Luke 10:21) for having "hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to infants." The simplicity of the first public witnesses is a wonder. Jesus' apostles have surprising credentials: "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it" (Luke 10:23-24).

While shepherds could be romanticized (as was King David), they were usually ranked with ass drivers, tanners, sailors, butchers, camel drivers, and other despised occupations. Being away from home at night they were unable to protect their women, hence considered dishonorable. In addition, they often were considered thieves because they grazed their flocks on other people's property.

Nonetheless, it is to these unlikely and unworthy characters that the first news of the birth of Jesus is given, and not to the Kings, Caesars, and Governors mentioned at the beginning of this passage. But then again, perhaps it is precisely the despised and the disreputable who are most in need of - and receptive to - the Good News of peace on earth and God's good will. To Luke they probably represented the common people, the lowly, the persons loved and befriended by Luke’s Jesus (cf. Luke 19:10).

The image of the shepherd also is a reminder that King David, soon to be mentioned yet again, was also a shepherd. Shepherds–lowly, unpretentious shepherds–have found the chief shepherd–the shepherd who seeks lost sheep until he finds them.

The shepherds share what they have learned. Already, we get signs of the mutuality and reciprocity of the kingdom of God. The shepherds share with each other, and with Joseph and Mary--no privileged information here. The words of the shepherds stir "all" who hear them. They return praising God

They were familiar from their Scriptures with the biblical stories of David, the shepherd from Bethlehem (I Sam. 16:11); and they knew the prophetic expectation that out of Bethlehem would come forth a ruler of Israel (Micah 5:2,4). Also as denizens of the Hellenistic world, they would have known that shepherds commonly were present at the births of heroes and gods.

Why as the Angel’s message be a shock to them? Three reasons:

An infant?

Who expected the Messiah would have to “grow up?

In Bethlehem?

Yes, the prophets had foretold that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, but even the greatest religious minds of Jerusalem didn’t figure that out until after the magi had arrived from the east.

We don’t expect “big things” to come by unassuming means and from humble circumstances; yet that is another antecedent to understanding the Messiah’s intrinsic character.

In a manger?

Defenseless and vulnerable, unassuming and humble, do we see why we often miss the “Real Jesus” not just at Christmas but throughout our entire lives

There it is, the angels turn their commission over to “mere shepherds.” These are the first evangelicals of the Good News. These shepherds – with no religious training – innately take the intentional action that many of us “in the religious trade” neglect (or prefer to forget).


To them "an angel of the Lord appeared." To speak of the appearance of an angel was a way of referring to the presence of God. For the terms angel and God often were interchangeable.( 6) Thus here, what v. 9 attributes to the angel, v. 15 attributes to the Lord. In the latter the shepherds say: "Let us go ... and see this thing which the Lord has made known to us." To be confronted by an angel of the Lord was to experience God’s glory (v.9). It was to experience the splendor, the brilliance, associated with God’s presence. (7) Luke’s shepherds, relatively free from the artifices of the sophisticated and the pride of intellectuals, were able to open up to a glory that was not their own (cf. I Cor. 1:26ff.).

Angels sing–out of the darkness–angels sing. From out of the light of glory, angels sing. Angels sing and light shines in the darkness. Yes the angels sing once more–even as they did at first. When they sang in the beginning–out of the darkness–sang the Creator's glory, the glory of the Creator who said, "Let there be light!" As it was in the beginning when the sons of God sang and all the morning stars sang together. First creation–new creation! Out of darkness, light–the dawning of the sun of righteousness–the outburst of the bright

Angels are by definition messengers, "ev-angels"; and the good news they bear in this story is in every case a promise. If the theology of hope does not already have such it had better get an angelology quick; angels--promise-bearers--should be its stock in trade.


Luke is writing about the true "savior of the world," one from the line of the great King David. He looks to Bethlehem, the city of David, and not to Rome, the city of Caesar

The birth is announced to shepherds in the field, and not to the powerful in rich palaces. The scandal of the virgin birth is not so much that Mary was a virgin. The scandal was that Jesus--a poor kid from a backwater town--was born of a virgin.

The word savior (sotare) appears only three times in the synoptics--Luke 1, Luke 2, and John 4. It was a politically-charged term since, after all, Caesar Augustus was known as "the savior of the world." He had brought peace to the world, the pax Augusta and in gratitude people celebrated his birthday and remembered the gift of peace received in and through him. Jesus’ peace is not the same as the peace brought about by Caesar Augustus. It has more in common with the quality of life envisioned in the Hebrew word, shalom, (be whole, be complete). In Luke’s scriptures this word meant not merely the end of hostilities, but rather the well-being that comes from God

Luke's announcement of Jesus as "savior" is a way of saying, "Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not." Moreover, this "savior" comes from the house of David. He is not only "lord," but "messiah."

Throughout his gospel Luke tells the story of the work that helped earn for Jesus the title "Savior." In a world where Samaritans were despised he showed Jesus telling stories in gratitude to God. In a society which treated women as second class citizens he showed Jesus welcoming them into his fellowship, along with the Twelve, and taking them with him on his travels through the cities and villages of Galilee. In a religious community that excluded sinners, he showed Jesus eating and drinking with them, telling stories accenting God’s care for them, and extending his hospitality and best wishes to them. The Jesus of Luke’s gospel was one who broke through the barriers of nationalism, sexism, and religious chauvinism, who awakened repentance, set people free, who opened communities and brought in peace. Indeed, as Luke stated, he was One who had come "to seek and to save the lost" (Luke19:10).

And the event at Bethlehem was the birth of this Christ; the birth of God’s agent for bringing a new form of salvation, a non-political, non-national salvation, to humankind. This was the good news of great joy, not only for Luke’s shepherds, but for his readers, past and present.

Another key concept is "joy," or "rejoicing." Commonly throughout the New Testament (and without exception in Luke's Christmas story) joy is not so much a response to a happening that is significant in and of itself as it is an anticipatory reaction to a promise that shows signs of moving toward fulfillment. Joy is an eschatological reaching out occasioned by anything that brings the ultimate promise into ken. Similarly, Luke consistently uses "evangel" (gospel, good news) not as the proclamation of something that has taken place but as promise of something about to take place; the tense of the good news is future.

Through all this Luke tells us something very important about Christmas. The Yuletide activity appropriate for us is not primarily that we "to the sessions of sweet silent thought ... summon up remembrance of things past." That remembrance is to be summoned not for itself but only that we may join the characters of Luke's story in anticipatory joy of the ultimate promise, the fulfillment of which is yet to come and at the moment is still in process of coming.

Luke and the people of his story celebrated the coming of Jesus Christ because it was a promise of the future of Jesus Christ. And for us too the proper stance toward Christmas is not to look back toward Bethlehem but, with them, to look through the stable into the Kingdom of God.

To hear the angel’s message we must place ourselves in the shepherd’s situation. Will we be close enough, humble enough, and attuned enough to hear the infant cry of Jesus in the alleys of our town this Christmas? Where would be the “most unpretentious place” for the real Jesus to enter my city?

Here is the Great News of Christmas. In this birth account of Christ, the Messengers of God declared that through the birth of Christ, God and humanity would be united again. The other facet of this announcement is whom it was intended to reach. The angels declared; “Peace among men with whom He is pleased.” The term pleased [GSN2107, eudokia] means “in whom God takes delight.”

We are now the ones sent to tell the world the good news:

So what is the Christmas message?

“Invite as many as you can to the wedding feast. The King has given us this great invitation in order to restore peace with all his people.”


Icon of the Sign

John 1:1-14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.

John's "Christmas" would be difficult to do in a children's program. There is no baby lying in a manger. There are no parents traveling to Bethlehem. There are no angels or shepherds. There is no star or magi. John doesn't give us much of a historical account of Christmas, instead he gives us a confession of faith about the incarnation of God. John isn't so concerned about exactly what happened in Bethlehem during the reign of Caesar Augustus (or King Herod). He is much more concerned about the proper beliefs about Jesus now

Matthew and Luke begin their gospels with the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, but for John, Jesus' beginnings are elsewhere. They are beginnings that cannot be confined to a nativity scene, or depicted on a Christmas card. They are beginnings that can neither be contained nor ignored. John doesn't introduce us to the babe in Bethlehem, but rather to the cosmic Christ.

A theme from these early hymns is that the almighty, all-powerful God, who created everything that exists, is far beyond our understanding and comprehension. This same God came to earth. God came to us, as a human being in human flesh. This is God's love in action. As the Gospel of John says it in chapter 3: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son." More than all the pageantry of the nativity scene, Christmas is a concrete demonstration of God's love for all of humanity -- a concrete expression of his love for you and me.

Christmas does mean a baby in a manger, but in the face of that infant, there is the outpouring of God's love for all humanity.

Christ the "first-born of all creation," he is not born at all in the fourth gospel. The Word was always with God even before creation began. Just as the Word was God's original means of self-revelation through the creation of all things; so, in John, the Son is the revelation of God's heart - of God's sight, insight, choosing, loving, valuing, etc. Bonding with Jesus means loving whom God loves, the way God loves

Jesus is the creative word of God, as God (ie. he is divine) and with God from before time. Jesus, as the word, created all that we know and experience. There is nothing in our time and space that is not from his hands.

John now uses two powerful Old Testament images that describe the divine eternal word; they are life and light. Just as God's revealed word in the law and the prophets was life and light to his people Israel, so Jesus is life and light. Jesus is the source of life, not just breath, but divine life, eternal life. He is light in that he radiates divine truth, knowledge, wisdom ..., and this truth, this revelation, is itself life-giving. This cosmic Christ, says John, radiates in the darkness of the cosmos and his light cannot be quenched.The light shines upon all humanity; truth shines over a broken world Yet, although Jesus created the world of human affairs, the human race neither recognizes him nor accepts him

Yet, those who do welcome him, who receive him, accept him for the person he is, "believe" in him, they will receive God's long awaited promise of sonship, immortality, divinity. John now describes this sonship. It is a new life, a rebirthing. It is nothing like the creation of life through human conception and birth, but rather a spiritual new life, a divine rebirthing.

The Gospel provides references John the Baptist after the paragraph on the Word. This gospel gives John the Baptist a new role. Here he becomes John the Witness, though his importance is in no way lessened. Whereas John in this gospel did baptize believers, he did not baptize Jesus. Instead, John's main purpose in this text was to serve as a witness to revelation. His greatness lay in pointing others to the true source of life, light and purpose (logos). He identified Jesus as divine and illustrated his presence as the "Lamb of God," referenc¬ing Exodus and Isaiah.

John was: “A voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” John the Baptist was not the light but pointed to the light. We are the same: we point to the greatest light in the whole world, Jesus Christ.


The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem

Isaiah 62:6-12


Upon your walls, O Jerusalem,
I have posted sentinels;
all day and all night
they shall never be silent.
You who remind the LORD,
take no rest,
and give him no rest
until he establishes Jerusalem
and makes it renowned throughout the earth.
The LORD has sworn by his right hand
and by his mighty arm:
I will not again give your grain
to be food for your enemies,
and foreigners shall not drink the wine
for which you have labored;
but those who garner it shall eat it
and praise the LORD,
and those who gather it shall drink it
in my holy courts.
Go through, go through the gates,
prepare the way for the people;
build up, build up the highway,
clear it of stones,
lift up an ensign over the peoples.
The LORD has proclaimed
to the end of the earth:
Say to daughter Zion,
"See, your salvation comes;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him."
They shall be called, "The Holy People,
The Redeemed of the LORD";
and you shall be called, "Sought Out,
A City Not Forsaken."

Isaiah 62 is part of ‘Third-Isaiah’, the last section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 55-66) that comes from a time when those from Judah and Jerusalem, who had been taken captive to Babylon, are allowed to return home. The year is probably somewhere between 540 and 520BCE. There is, especially in Isaiah 60-62, a strong sense of relief, joy, and anticipation of a renewed life for the people and for the city of Jerusalem.

Chapters 60-62 appear at the center of Third Isaiah. They portray Jerusalem as a bereaved woman who will be restored as a home for the righteous exiles returned to their homeland and to communion with their God. Scholars are generally agreed that these three chapters, bound together by the theme of the restoration of Zion, each present a lament with a corresponding response. The laments arise out of the people's despair at the deplorable conditions in Jerusalem upon their return and the tardiness of God's fulfillment of the glorious promises made in Second Isaiah.

The poetry emphasises the message by the repetition in the second line of the idea stated in first line. Vv. 6ff. describe the glory of Jerusalem because the Lord has decided to restore her so that she will be a sign to all around. The promise in vv.6-9 states that the enemy will never again be in a position to eat and drink that which is rightly the property of Israel. The language in vv.10-12 recalls Isa 40:1 (prepare the way, build up the highway) and a direct quote in v.11. Furthermore, vv.10-12 now instruct them to act after they have heard the great promises of salvation in the earlier chapters (60-62:5).

The Lord will establish Jerusalem. This is a certainty because it is not dependent on the people, but on God who declares that it will happen. This declaration of what God will do in Jerusalem is an encouragement to the people who might be feeling despondent. Isa 40-55 had promised a great and glorious return and the let down when the people saw the state of Jerusalem probably made them despondent. The prophet wants them to rebuild Jerusalem in order for it to be a sign of hope for others who might still be in exile and who are reluctant to return because the city is still in ruins and living conditions are hard. The prophet reminds the people that they have to be persistent in their faith (v.6) and in turn the prophet reminds God also to take no rest until Jerusalem is established.

"See, your salvation comes," verse 11 proclaims. Indeed, the Septuagint (LXX), Syriac, Vulgate, and Targum all read "Savior" (soter) for "salvation." Whether "salvation" or "savior" is correct, for Christians celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ this day, there can be only one reading of Isaiah's message. While the prophet was the first to catch a glimpse of a resplendently restored Zion in verses 1-5, joined by the sentinels in verses 6-7; following Yahweh's sworn promise to the present inhabitants of Jerusalem in verses 8-9, it is "the end(s) of the earth" who are finally to announce to Zion the coming of deliverance (v. 11). In this way, Third Isaiah has transformed Second Isaiah's message of the impending return of the exiles from Babylon into a message of the utter restoration of Jerusalem at the end of time by applying it to a new situation. In the same way, we, too, are charged with announcing the arrival of God's eschatological salvation in Jesus, the Christ, on this the celebration of his birth.

Note above that this is the centre of Isa 56-66 and speaks of a fully redeemed people back in Jerusalem. Surrounding these central chapters are verses describing appearances of God proclaiming judgement. The emphasis in Isa 60-62 is on the consequences of God choosing to let his glory rest on Jerusalem. The images of light and radiance permeate these chapters which combined with the descriptions wealth leave us in no doubt about the restored splendour of Jerusalem. Even foreigners will come, bring their wealth and be subjugated to the Israelites. God is the provider in control of creation, history and their redemption

On Christmas Day it is a declaration to tell of the salvation which has come in the form a babe in a manger. It might be helpful to pick up the theme of persistence from Isa 62:6-7 in that God was persistent enough to give of self in the birth of Jesus. The reminder to many when Christmas can be a time of despair not joy that they also must be persistent and keep faith.

This person will not keep silent or rest until Zion’s vindication (in the Hebrew the word is ‘righteousness’ probably referring to the Lord’s righteous act toward Jerusalem) and its salvation are seen. It will be like dawn coming or the approach of a torch burning in the darkness (v. 1). The whole earth will see this act. Zion will be adorned as a bride before her husband and will receive new names – a new destiny. No more will she be called ‘Forsaken’ or ‘Desolate’ but ‘My delight is in her’ and ‘Married’\

We might often think of Advent, the season that has just finished, as a time of our waiting for the coming of the Lord, as if all the coming was on the Lord’s part, and the waiting on ours. To an extent that is true, but the image of these noisy and impatient sentinels suggests that our waiting should not be all passive. Our advent prayer, that the Lord come, should be active, passionate, impatient, urgent and not a little noisy, as we wait for the establishment of the Lord’s justice and rightness in the world, and as we wait for those in our world who have been ‘forsaken’ to be ‘not forsaken’ again.


Titus 3:4-7

When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.



Paul now examines right behavior in the wider society. As in chapter 2, he supports his exhortation with a word on God's grace in salvation and on the renewing work of the Spirit.

Paul asks Titus to remind the Cretan believers of some of the basic implications that flow from the gospel. When it comes to relating to secular society consider the following: i] Civil obedience, ii] Be ready for every good work. iii] Slander no one; iv] Don't be quarrelsome; v] Be conciliatory; vi] Show true humility. These exhortations may have the intention of maintaining the reputation of believers in the secular society for evangelistic purposes, but then they are, in themselves, worthy of a follower of Christ.

Paul now lists some vices that were part of his readers' old life and certainly should not be part of the new: i] Without understanding; ii] Disobedient to God; iii] Misguided - duped by Satan; iv] Driven by passion; v] Living with malice and envy; vi] Full of hate.

Out of kindness God saved us, not because of our effort (eg. works of the Law), but because of his mercy. God's salvation entails: i] a washing of the Spirit that brings regeneration - rebirth and renewal (both are synonymous metaphors God pours out the Spirit, expedited through the work of Christ

The salvation referred to in v5 also entails: ii] a justification through the work of Christ - the restoration of a new relationship with God. The means is "grace". Salvation primarily flows from God's mercy. The goal of this salvation is that we might become heirs of God's glory (become as Christ is) and possess eternal life Meaning

Christmas is a time for testimony firmly rooted in the Christian tradition. When we celebrate the Nativity, we remember what the birth of Jesus meant for the world (on a cosmic scale) and means for us individually and collectively. Out of this comes our testimony. "But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared," proclaims the author, "he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit" (3:4-5). This testimony, now a part of our Christian heritage, becomes our testimony as we appropriate the significance of God's appearance in the birth of Jesus.

Christmas is a time to celebrate those things which are central to faith. This snippet of Titus appears to do just that, citing what may already be a well formed tradition before it finds its place in the writer's discourse. What a wonderful definition of Christmas: the appearance of the goodness and kindness (lit. philanthropy) of God. Not previously unseen; otherwise it would not have been recognised, but the splendid centrepiece of all that Jesus did and was. "Goodness" is active generosity and compassion, a will to love. That is what is "saving" or "liberating" about an encounter with God. God's will to set us free is not despite God's goodness, as if God must abandon goodness to be generous or as though there is a contradiction between what justice demands and what generosity wants to achieve. Quite the contrary, God's goodness consists precisely in the will to love, to set free, to set into a right and fulfilling relationship what has been alienated and unfulfilled.

3:5 underlines the theme. It is mercy or compassion which grounds our faith, not our efforts to conjure up our own worth. Of course we need to appreciate what we do well and that must impart a sense of well being. Ultimately, however, we survive not because of the credit we have built up within ourselves or with God on the basis of achievements, but because we have come to own for ourselves what we affirm as God's attitude towards us. That is an attitude of compassion and embrace - not a mindless or uncritical acceptance, which wants to look away from our weaknesses or even our sin, but a boots and all love which upholds us and asserts our worth and never writes us off. That kind of love, which does not need to pretend we are something we are not, but confronts us as we are with compassion, may be quite uncomfortable, even threatening - especially if we are bent on sustaining a phoney image of ourselves - to ourselves or others. But ultimately it is that kind of love which counts when the chips are down, when we lose the capacity to build ego capital for ourselves. That must come to us all. It is a very hard truth for high achievers to learn.

The washing evokes the experience of baptism, which, especially for adults, represented a renewal. For all, young and old, the water represents the flowing life of God - another image of God's love, which we need from the cradle to the grave. The shorthand reference to water and the Spirit stands for a very expansive story about coming to the community of faith, submersing oneself in divine love, identifying with the living and dying and living again of Jesus in a way that we are incorporated into the life of his Spirit in the world. There are many other images which may come to mind. Central here is the image of water which washes and makes fresh and new. It is more likely to speak to people today that the cultic images of blood which washed away sins, which meant so much to many former cultures.

Water is an image of life, God's life, renewing, refreshing, cleansing and making growth possible. 3:6 brings us back to what Christmas celebrates. Jesus is the water bringer, the rain man, who danced for us and we all got wet as we dared with muddy feet to share the rhythm of the dance. As God is the saviour and liberator, so this Jesus is the saviour and liberator. 3:7 draws on Paul's heritage to say it all again with the language of justification. It means being set into a right and fulfilling relationship with God, others and ourselves on the basis of God's compassion.


Psalm 97 Page 726, BCP

Dominus regnavit

The LORD is King;
let the earth rejoice; *
let the multitude of the isles be glad.

Clouds and darkness are round about him, *
righteousness and justice are the foundations of his throne.

A fire goes before him *
and burns up his enemies on every side.

His lightnings light up the world; *
the earth sees it and is afraid.

The mountains melt like wax at the presence of the LORD, *
at the presence of the Lord of the whole earth.

The heavens declare his righteousness, *
and all the peoples see his glory.

Confounded be all who worship carved images
and delight in false gods! *
Bow down before him, all you gods.

Zion hears and is glad, and the cities of Judah rejoice, *
because of your judgments, O LORD.

For you are the LORD,
most high over all the earth; *
you are exalted far above all gods.

The LORD loves those who hate evil; *
he preserves the lives of his saints
and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.

Light has sprung up for the righteous, *
and joyful gladness for those who are truehearted.

Rejoice in the LORD, you righteous, *
and give thanks to his holy Name.

Psalm 97 is an enthronement psalm, one of the set of psalms which celebrate the rule of God over all the world.

The birth of Jesus sees the coming of God to redeem creation in the guise of one who is weak and vulnerable. This is a different type of ‘kingship’ to that we normally envisage. It signals a different type of ‘rule’ than we might expect. The Old Testament readings for Christmas Day with their joyous description of the coming of God among us, and the psalms of God’s kingship over all, add a cosmic dimension to the story of the birth in Luke. The cosmic imagery of Ps 97:1-9 as a way of giving emphasis to the significance of the birth of Jesus.

The opening phrase of this psalm, “The LORD has become king!” is quite distinctive to this type of psalm. It celebrates not an ongoing state of affairs, nor an eschatological hope, but a present day reality for Israel, probably as a part of an annual celebration of God’s rule, where each year, the LORD is celebrated for becoming King.

However standard this opening is, this psalm proceeds with a set of images which is unusual to us. God is surrounded with clouds and darkness (v. 2), preceded by fire (v. 3), and the cause of lightning which light up the world. This description is of God’s presence in the midst of a great thunderstorm, with dark clouds and lightning. In the ancient world, this description would also have been used for Baal, the Canaanite fertility God. In the Canaanite religious system, Baal is the God of the storms which bring rain and so fertility to the land. However, in the psalm this imagery is associated with the LORD, the God of Israel, which associates God with these rain bearing storms and thunder, as well as with the righteousness and justice which are the foundation of his throne (v. 2). The imagery is clearly taken over from Canaanite religious practice. Occasionally this is to make the proclamation that the LORD, not Baal, rules. This could be part of the purpose here, but the main purpose of the imagery seems to be to paint a picture of the awe and majesty of God, appearing as king of all the earth.

Notice the ideas of creation and justice are linked. Think of the revelation at Mt. Sinai. God demonstrated his power through the natural phenomena of lighting, thunder, and earthquakes; he also demonstrated his power through the gift of his Law and covenant

The second set of imagery which is unusual to us on closer reflection is in the second stanza, vv. 6–9. The heavens and the earth both proclaim God’s glory and righteousness (v. 6). In v. 7, God’s victory and rule are extended beyond the bounds of Israel as the idolaters and worshippers of images are put to shame. God’s rule extends over those outside the faith, to include all worshippers, and those who worship other Gods are seen to be inadequate, shamed. Not, as we would expect, because they are worshipping images and idols, things which are not God. This is not the case at all – they are put to shame because “all gods bow down to him” (v. 7). The issue here is of choosing a lesser God, rather than something which is not a God. This idea is reinforced in v. 9, where the LORD is proclaimed to be “exalted far above all Gods.” By God’s command, Israel is only to worship the LORD – not any of these other gods, who are allocated to be gods of other nations. Here, the greatness of the LORD is proclaimed, the LORD is greater than all other gods.

97:7-11 compared the lives of the righteous vs. the evil. God’s justice (found in his Law) created the conditions for right living; implicitly, the psalmist used the wisdom of the Law as a reason to declare God “above all other gods,” for his righteous judgments were so above that any other deities. Idolaters were shamed by the glory of God because “their gods bowed before the Lord.” The nation rejoiced; the faithful would be preserved because of God’s judgments.

The psalm concludes with a statement of God’s choice and protection of people – choosing and guarding the faithful, those who choose good and not evil. This returns to the note of praise and the call to rejoice in God. It reminds us that God’s rule is over all of creation – all of the lived world from the immensity of storms, to the grandeur of mountains and hills. All of creation is under God’s rule. We do not, in general, believe that there are many gods. It is a stretch to our imaginations to conceive of a council of gods, with God, our God, as the greatest. It does, however, keep the focus on the greatness of God, and finally on his protection and care for the faithful, for those who turn from evil.