Christmas Eve/Day – December 24/25, 2014

December 24/25, 2011

Set I

Isaiah 9:2-7 – For unto us a child is born, a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder

Psalm 96 – Sing to the Lord a new song… for he will judge the world with righteousness.

Titus 2:11-14 – For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all…

Luke 2:1-14, (15-20) – A decree from Caesar Augustus. The birth of Jesus. Shepherds watching their flock.

Set II

Isaiah 62:6-12 – Say to daughter Zion, behold your salvation comes.

Psalm 97 – The Lord is King; let the earth rejoice!

Titus 3:4-7 – When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us.

Luke 2:(1-7), 8-20 – The shepherds find Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Mary treasured their words in her heart.


Isaiah 52:7-10 – How beautiful the feet of the messenger who announces peace

Psalm 98 – sing to the Lord a new song… for he will judge the world with righteousness.

Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12) – In many and various ways God spoke to our ancestors by the prophets, but now God has spoken to us by his Son.

John 1:1-14 – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

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. 

These are historical figures.

Emperor/Caesar Augustus (63 BC – AD 14) was the first Roman emperor (27BC – AD 14) and the founder of the Roman Empire. He was the great nephew and adopted heir of Julius Caesar. He unified and expanded the empire by an incredible amount. During his lifetime taxes from conquered territories were so great, he completely rebuilt Rome, while those in present-day Italy did not have to pay taxes at all. His last words were purportedly, “Behold, I found Rome of clay, and leave her to you of marble.” He died at the age of 75 when Jesus was just a youth. He was succeeded by his adopted son Tiberius.


Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (Κυρήνιος) was a Roman aristocrat who lived 51 BC – AD 21. He was a military leader who was eventually appointed as Rector to Augustus’ grandson. According to Josephus (writing in AD 93-94, about the same time that the Gospel of Luke was written), Quirinius was appointed legate/governor of Syria around AD 6, with instructions to oversee the taxation of Judea, Samaria and Idumea. Taxation required a census. Since census taking was against Jewish law, and the Jews opposed pagan occupation anyway, the announcement of the census sparked the revolt of Judas of Galilee. People rioted in the streets of Judea. The Romans brutally crushed the rebellion.


Above:Mary and Joseph register for the census before Governor Quirinius. Byzantine mosaic at the Chora Church, Constantinople 1315–20.

Luke begins by grounding the story firmly in time and history, if also with a bit of hyperbole (“all the world”). He also grounds it in the Roman occupation. Richard Swanson of Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, points out that the Jews are clearly a subjugated people marching to the tune of the Romans.

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. 

Some say it’s plausible that the Romans would make everyone return to their home town for a census. I believe it spurious. It would be utter chaos, disrupting the economy on which the taxes depended, and there is no record of the Romans ever doing this to my knowledge. But Luke has Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem for one reason or another. In his dramatic retelling of the story, Luke lets us know that Mary and Joseph are engaged to be married, and she is quite pregnant. The child will be of the house of David because Joseph is of the house of David. As an adoptive father, I find it quite touching that Jesus is of the house of David even though Joseph claims to not be the father. 

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. 

Notice verse 7 says “firstborn” son. Does this suggest there are more children are to come? Bede thinks not. Firstborn is code for Bede, who says the well known words, “but to as many as received him he gave power to become children of God.”

The word tranlated “inn” is kataluma. It doesn’t really mean “inn.” The word for inn is pandokion. In Luke 22:11 and Mark 14:14, kataluma is translated “guest room.” It is in such a room where Jesus and the disciples have their last supper. Luke’s intent is to tell us that there is not even a guest room available because it is already occupied. However, the rules of hospitality require that you provide housing, so they ended up staying in the area of the house with the animals. Today we have a hard time understanding this, but that place was in the house. People brought their animals into the house. The Latin Vulgate translated kataluma as diversorio. In 1611 the King James version, which was translated from the Latin Vulgate, properly rendered diversorio as “inn.” And so, today we have Jesus born in a barn because there was no room for him at the hotel. I wouldn’t try to tell your congregation otherwise. People don’t like it when you mess with their childhood stories.

Regardless of translation, Luke’s intent here is nevertheless clear. Jesus is born in meager circumstances, not laid in an expensive crib, but rather, laid in a feeding trough. While men of power like Caesar and Quirinius call the shots in Rome and Syria, in a pastoral, little town far from those seats of power, a baby is born quietly in obscurity. Yet long after most people have forgotten the name Quirinius, Jesus will be held in the highest regard, his birthday celebrated by hundreds of millions of people. In the scope of history, the name above all names will not be an emperor or military commander, but a Jewish carpenter’s son who preached peace and love.

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!” 

Luke doesn’t tell us when these things happened. Maybe here we have a clue. Bethlehem and Nazareth (32°N) are on roughly the same latitude as Houston (30°N). While it is technically possible, therefore, that shepherds would be outside in the winter, it is more likely autumn of AD 6. I’ve read that folks in that time and part of the world tended to bring their animals in at night during the winter. Not that Luke would know any of this. He thinks there are tiles on roofs in Galilee (Luke 5:9). Luke is a wealthy, well-educated Roman, and he gets confused about Palestinian geography and customs.

Luke’s shepherds experience profound theophany. Angels announcing mysteries, and singing “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to all whom God favors.” Unlike the secret identity of Jesus in Mark, that no one gets until the centurion at the cross, in Luke the announcement comes early and to all: The child born in Bethlehem is Messiah, Savior, Lord. 

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. 

The shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for all they had seen. The word “shepherd” is the same as the word for “pastor.” Bede says, “for in a mystery, those shepherds and their flocks signify all teachers and guides of faithful souls.” (Jeffrey, Luke) Shepherds and pastors are those who have been captivated by the glory of God, and go for glorifying and praising God and telling the world that Jesus is Messiah, Savior and Lord.

The child born in “House of Bread“ (“Bethlehem,” in Hebrew) will be the bread of life. His birthday is not trumpeted by warriors, but by angels. His legacy is not war and conquering armies, but peace and conquering love. His is the embodiment of his own sermon: “The meek shall inherit the earth.”

We still have much to learn from him. History still has much to learn from him.

Here is a beloved Christmas hymn that didn’t make ELW. LBW 74: A Stable Lamp is Lighted, the words of American poet Richard Wilbur, connects the manger and the cross…

1. A stable lamp is lighted whose glow shall wake the sky;
the stars shall bend their voices, and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry, and straw like gold shall shine;
a barn shall harbour heaven,
a stall become a shrine.

2. This child through David’s city
shall ride in triumph by;
the palm shall strew its branches,
and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
though heavy, dull and dumb,
and lie within the roadway to pave his kingdom come.

3. Yet he shall be forsaken,
and yielded up to die;
the sky shall groan and darken,
and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
for stony hearts of men;
God’s blood upon the spearhead,
God’s love refused again.

4. But now, as at the ending,
the low is lifted high;
the stars shall bend their voices,
and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
in praises of the child
by whose descent among us
the worlds are reconciled.

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The country that incarcerates the highest percentage of its population

200,000 people are now in federal prison. Over half of them are there on nonviolent drug charges. #In sane

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Palestine 1898-1914 under Ottoman rule

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Gitmo inmate: My treatment shames U.S. flag

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The CIA warned that release of the report on torture yesterday (December 9, 2014) would lead to a violent response. Yesterday security was beefed up at embassies around the world. And… nada.

“I know from personal experience that abuse of prisoners is not a reliable means of getting accurate information.”

— John McCain

The report showed that information leading to the location of Osama bin Laden was obtained prior to “enhanced interrogation.” No critical information was obtained through the 20 cases of torture studied.

Today I’m proud that we have a country that confesses and admits it’s mistakes. Torture is immoral. Period. We did things 10 years ago for which we convicted the Japanese of war crimes after World War II. Transparency is the sign of a healthy government of the people.

Read the report here:

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December 21, 2014 is Advent 4B

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 – David’s house is built, and now he wants to move God from the tent (wilderness tabernacle) to a house (temple).

Luke 1:47-55 – The Magnificat. Mary’s song. My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… (ELW pp. 314-315, hymns 236, 251, 573, 723, 882, 723)


Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 – I will establish David’s line forever.

Romans 16:25-27 – God will give you strength through the gospel… to bring about the obedience of faith.

Luke 1:26-38 – The Annunciation: Gabriel appears to Mary, betrothed to Joseph of the House of David. “Hail Mary! Be not afraid… You will bear a son and name him Jesus. Nothing is impossible with God.” Mary responds, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mother of God

This coming Sunday is Mary Sunday among churches that use the lectionary. The first Sunday of Advent often focuses on the second coming. The middle of Advent focuses on John the Baptist. The fourth Sunday in Advent often has us walking in the footsteps of the mother of Jesus. Luther holds Mary in very high regard, something that has become a bit lost in Lutheran devotional life.

The reformers used very strong rhetoric to oppose the cult of the saints in the 16th century that had become so abused, idea that the saints had some treasury of extra works in heaven, that the faithful on earth could access through penance, plenary indulgences and donations to church was an offense to Luther, and yet it is hard to imagine that he would agree with the disappearance of Marian devotions, as well as the eradication of statues, icons and other manifestations of longstanding Christian piety. For Luther, Mary was Theotokos, bearer of God, Mother of God.

For example, Luther said,

She became the Mother of God, in which work so many and such great good things are bestowed on her as pass mans understanding. For on this there follows all honor, all blessedness, and her unique place in the whole of mankind, among which she has no equal, namely, that she had a child by the Father in heaven, and such a Child. Hence men have crowded all her glory into a single word, calling her the Mother of God. None can say of her nor announce to her greater things, even though he had as many tongues as the earth possesses flowers and blades of grass: the sky, stars; and the sea, grains of sand. It needs to be pondered in the heart what it means to be the Mother of God.” (LW21:326ff)

You can see how Luther is drawn into the mystery of the incarnation, and Mary’s utterly unique role in this. Nor was this Luther’s piety alone. Listen to these words from the Lutheran Confessions, and their reference to her as the Blessed Virgin Mary:

On account of this personal union and communion of the natures, Mary, the most blessed virgin, did not conceive a mere, ordinary human being, but a human being who is truly the Son of the most high God, as the angel testifies. He demonstrated his divine majesty even in his mothers womb in that he was born of a virgin without violating her virginity. Therefore she is truly the mother of God and yet remained a virgin. (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration 8:24)

Most Lutherans do not espouse the perpetual virginity of Mary (that she was a virgin her whole life), but, interestingly, Luther did though Mark’s gospel even talks about Jesus’ brothers and sisters. One author, Anne Rice, gets around this in her midrash by having Joseph die, and Mary remarry another man, who had children already. She never has sex with husband two, so she remains a virgin, and Jesus has half-brothers.

Luther can’t seem to decide if Mary is sinless or not. At times he thinks so, but later writes: 

Mother Mary, like us, was born in sin of sinful parents, but the Holy Spirit covered her, sanctified and purified her so that this child was born of flesh and blood, but not with sinful flesh and blood. The Holy Spirit permitted the Virgin Mary to remain a true, natural human being of flesh and blood, just as we. However, he warded off sin from her flesh and blood so that she became the mother of a pure child, not poisoned by sin as we are. For in that moment when she conceived, she was a holy mother filled with the Holy Spirit and her fruit is a holy pure fruit, at once God and truly man, in one person.”

It is interesting to see the pre-modern theologians trying to work out all the implications of a high christology.

Luther supports praying with Mary, and even to Mary, though this gets thumped out in the period of Lutheran Orthodoxy (1580-1730). Luther and Melanchthon both believed the company of saints prayed for people on earth. In our communion liturgy we pray, “And so with Mary and Peter and all the witnesses of the resurrection, with earth and sea and all their creatures, with angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim we praise your name and join their unending hymn…” We embrace the idea of praying with the saints and angels. We are part of the communion of saints. It’s no stretch for the idea of praying with Mary. Praying to Mary is more debated. Luther did. In our Lutheran/Roman Catholic dialogues, theologians have pointed out that there is no scriptural prohibition against praying to the saints. The Magnificat is of course Scriptural and can be prayed by Lutherans. Peipkorn says Lutherans can and should pray the pre-Reformation first half of the Hail Mary.

VirgenOur Director of Evangelical Mission, Pastor Pedro Suárez, has pointed out to me that the Virgin Mary, for various cultural reasons, has a very high level of importance in various Latino cultures. She is blessed among all women. This is important: She is a person of low degree that God uses in powerful ways. There may be an opportunity here. Having a picture of Mary, or a statue of Mary is likely to make Latinos feel welcome. And in embracing these visual symbols of Mary in our churches to become more welcoming to our Latino members and friends, we might also receive a gift in reviving a sense of her importance. Churches in our tradition won’t hesitate to have a statue of Luther, and sometimes a statue of St. Francis, but put out a statue of Mary, and people start worrying that maybe you’re too “Catholic.” Does Mary belong only to Catholics? Is she not a central character of Jesus’ birth story?

One particular expression of Mary is particularly dear to Mexican Lutherans. Our Lady of Guadalupe’s day is December 12 each year. It is interesting to dig into her symbolic importance. Where Latinos go, they bring their Marian piety with them. It is part of their culture, just as Russian Lutherans have a love of St. Nicholas.

The story of the Virgin of Guadalupe dates back to an apparition of Mary in Mexico, to an Aztec man named Juan Diego in 1531 (coincidentally, the same year Luther composed his 15-stanza Christmas hymn “Von Himmel hoch da komm‘ ich her” “From Heav’n Above to Earth I Come.”) She was clothed with the sun and stars as in Revelation 12. Perhaps due to the incredible hardships of Latinos/as, there is tremendous resonance with Mary’s song: “He has lifted up the lowly…”

She speaks on behalf of those of low degree, the poor, broken-hearted, huddled masses, the hungry, the uninsured, the vulnerable, the oppressed. La Virginita shows that God cares about these folks, the forgotten and marginalized people of the world.

Some Catholics are embarrassed by the apparition story of Juan Diego. (See a great article in The Lutheran Forum on Mary, apparitions, and skepticism) Embarrassment aside, the Virgin is approachable. She is human, and, in contrast to so much of our patriarchal society, she is female. Perhaps there is a natural yearning to reclaim the feminine that was drummed out of Christianity after the Great Schism, with an all-male clergy, an all-male Trinity and an all male lay-leadership. Mary has served as a corrective to a men’s club Christianity, bringing the feminine back into play.

As with so much of religious iconography, we must get past the literal to understand the truth that is being symbolically expressed beneath the surface. God is not at work simply in a male-only cast of characters mortal and divine.

God chooses to act decisively in history, not through the rich and powerful, but rather through a very young, very poor, pregnant teenager. (Girls in Mary’s culture were generally betrothed at the age of 12 or 13 according to Culpepper.)

The Virgin of Guadalupe is not only female, she is Mestizo, pejoratively referred to as a half-breed. She is racially mixed, another powerful symbol. She becomes symbolic of the universal. As such she was a welcome face for the indigenous peoples of Mexico, and for its new, mixed population. Perhaps she is a sign for our “newly” mixed population in Texas as well. She is La Morenita for a browning America.

Just as a church might have a picture or statue of John the Baptist, it is perfectly appropriate for a church to have a picture or statue of Mary. She is held in reverence, certainly above Luther, as an important part of the story of incarnation, and as a model of a life submitted to God. Like John, she points to Christ.

Perhaps the Virgin is a gift to American Christians. She is a kind and gentle Mary, shining like the sun, and yet a woman of the land, a woman of the people. She is beauty. She is compassion. She touches something deep within us.

Can Protestants celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe? In his book, “The Virgin of Guadalupe: Theological Reflections of an Anglo-Lutheran Liturgist” (2002), Maxwell E. Johnson says we must embrace her, because she proclaims the gospel – the good news of God who[,] in Christ[,] scatters the proud and lifts up the lowly. She represents what the church should be in the world.

Mark Mummert, musician at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Houston, composer of various liturgies and hymns, says the Magnificat, Mary’s Song, is the principal canticle the church needs to learn. It proclaims the Gospel.

In a Christmas Eve sermon Luther said:

This is the great joy, of which the angel speaks, this is the consolation and the superabundant goodness of God, that man (if he has this faith) may boast of such treasure as that Mary is his real mother, Christ his brother, and God his father. . . . See to it that you make [Christs] birth your own, and that you make an exchange with him, so that you rid yourself of your birth and receive instead, his. This happens if you have this faith. By this token you sit assuredly in the Virgin Marys lap and are her dear child. 

Jose David Rodriguez (LSTC) says the Virgin of Guadalupe is a dangerous narrative that counters colonial and imperialistic power. Is this not a message we need to hear, in a society that seems terrified at the thought of not being the overwhelmingly dominant force in the world, militarily, economically, or otherwise? Rodriguez says:

This popular expression of Marys witness dating from the sixteenth century in Mexico constitutes an important symbol of our tradition of faith to resist the forces that throughout time and space, intend to oppress our people and tear down our human dignity. 

I am ever humbled by Mary’s response to the tectonic events in her life: “Let it be done to me according to your word.” Wow. If only I could respond with such grace. “Let it be…” This is the ultimate act of submission to God, similar to Jesus’ prayer, “Thy will be done…”

Preachers looking for a way to connect by drawing upon the American psyche might consider the Beatle’s ‘Let It Be’. The lyrics, I feel, capture some of the sense of Mary’s song, sung on behalf of the lowly and downcast of the world:

When I find myself in times of trouble,
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom: Let it be
And in my hour of darkness
she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom: Let it be 

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be

And when the broken hearted people
living in the world agree
There will be an answer: Let it be
For though they may be parted,
there is still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer: Let it be

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
There will be an answer, let it be

Enjoy singing Mary’s song with her this Sunday. There are many settings of this sacred song. Marty Haugen’s Magnificat from his setting of Holden Evening Prayer has become extremely popular in many of our congregations, and is in ELW. Mark Mummert says the version of the Magnificat in the evening prayer on pages 314 and 315 is marvelous. It’s an arrangement by Schultz, in Austin, Texas. There are also arrangements in the hymn section of ELW: 234, 235, 236, 251, 573, 723, and 882. Another hymn that has become extremely popular in our congregations is the Canticle of the Turning, ELW 723, which has the bulk of the song of Mary, along with this marvelous phrase “and the world is about to turn.” Mary is no “anemic white waif” as someone gibed with me this week. Her song is the powerful voice of justice, reminding us that the arc of history bends toward justice.

I hope you enjoy Mary Sunday, and move into it fully, marveling at the magnificent willingness of Mary to be an instrument of God’s grace this world, encouraging us all to do the same.

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After Zion I stopped at the Burton Train Station to see St. Paul Rehburg folks at “Christmas at the Depot”

I got to meet Willhelm Friedrich, who was baptized last week, the seventh generation of his family to be baptized at St. Paul.


The St. Paul folks are raising money for their kids to go to the ELCA youth gathering in Detroit this summer.


The train depot dates to 1898. In 1885 there were only 150 people in Burton, but there were 400 just eleven years later in 1896. The highest population was in the late 1940s when there were nearly 1,000 people living in Burton.



Pastor Denise Seymore loves the kids.


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