Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 25, 2022
Titus 3:4-7 Commentary
I suspect that few preachers will employ this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson as a Christmas Day “stand-alone text.” That doesn’t, however, mean that Titus 3:4-7 has no place in a Christmas message. It, in fact, offers a way for Jesus’ friends to think about just why Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is so important.
While many worshipers generally crave good moral advice from their preachers and their preaching, Christmas Day may offer respite from that craving. While other worshipers may crave solid theology from their preachers and preaching, Christmas Day may also offer an exception to that craving.
As the New Testament scholar Matt Skinner notes, “On Christmas Day, a sermon about doctrine will come across as well as socks and underwear under the tree–stuff we need, but not all that exciting or imaginative”.
On December 25 (and 24) worshipers mostly long to hear again the old, old story of Jesus’ birth in ways that bring light to their darkness and hope to their hopelessness. So preachers might consider using this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson to simply inform their proclamation of this Sunday’s Gospel Lesson. In other words, preachers might use Titus 3 to help explain the “why’s” of Luke 2’s “after-birth” account. The Spirit might offer some encouragement to hearers from preachers who interweave Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth and responses to it with Paul’s explanation to Titus of why it all happened. Jesus’ birth was, after all, not just some one-off event that had no lasting theological importance. Christmas has all sorts of theological implications.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson begins, of course, with the apostle’s “but” (4). It signals that what Paul writes after it flows from what he’s just written. The Message lyrically paraphrases the apostle as writing in verse 3, “It wasn’t so long ago that we ourselves were stupid and stubborn, dupes of sin, ordered every which way by our glands, going around with a chip on our shoulder, hated and hating back.”
Why, then, did the Holy Spirit come upon Mary and the power of the Most High overshadow her (Luke 1:35)? To respond with God’s kindness and love (4) to the human cruelty and hatred that characterized not just Jesus’ contemporaries and Titus’ readers, but also all of humanity. The Jesus whose birth Christians celebrate on Christmas Day is God’s great “but” to humankind’s great sin.
At Bethlehem’s manger, God meets humanity’s rebellion with ”kindness” (chrestotes) and “love” (philanthropia). Why, then, did Mary “give birth to her firstborn, a son” (Luke 2:7)? So that her oldest son might live out the name his parents gave him when they named him “Jesus.” Mary endured the agony of childbirth and all that followed it so that her firstborn, God our Savior (Soteros hemon Theou), might be a Savior to us (4).
In fact, Paul adds, Jesus’ birth anticipates our own “rebirth and renewal” (palingenesias kai anakainoseos) (5). The One who was born to save God’s dearly beloved people from our sins was born so that in the economy of God’s grace, we might be reborn by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was born in what was likely some kind of dirty barn so that the Spirit, in The Message’s paraphrase, might give us a “good bath” so that we might be “washed inside and out.”
When the angels sing of peace on earth and goodwill to all on whom God’s favor rests, the only peace the Middle Eastern corner of the world knows is that which the Romans enforce at the point of a sword. So why could the angels sing of a different and more lasting peace in Luke 2:14? Because when Jesus was born to save us, it wasn’t because of the peace that people created and cultivated. Jesus was born in Bethlehem because of God’s “mercy” (eleos) (5).
In fact, had God chosen to rescue God’s people because we were such nice people who longed for God to save us, there would have been no reason for the angels to sing and the shepherds to rejoice. Humanity would have, instead, gladly stayed on its one-way road to eternal separation from God and God’s purposes. That’s a reason why Christmas preachers might invite our hearers to think of Jesus’ birth as a means by which God compassionately opens another road for us.
When the shepherds find the baby Jesus just as the angels had promised, they respond by spreading the word concerning what those angels had told them about the child (Luke 2:17). Yet had God not generously (plousios) poured the Spirit out on God’s beloved people (6), no one would have believed that word. We would have remained in the spiritual darkness of assuming that Jesus, if he existed at all, was nothing more than a nice guy who offered some good advice.
In his commentary on this passage, the biblical scholar Michael Joseph Brown invites us to think about Titus 3 in a perhaps slightly new way. He summons God’s people to think of this passage as testimony.
“Christmas,” Brown writes, “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.” When the shepherds tell everyone they meet what the angels had said about the Christ-child, they testify.
The shepherds return to work on Christmas night “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20). God’s people join them on this Christmas Day because God has graced us with perhaps even more than God graced those shepherds. God has, after all, justified God’s adopted sons and daughters by God’s grace so that we’re now the recipients of “the hope of eternal life” (elpida zoes aioniou) (7).
Titus, in fact, lifts Christmas Day’s worshipers’ eyes beyond Bethlehem and Jesus’ first coming. As Skinner goes on to note (ibid), the Spirit uses this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson to point us beyond the manger to things like the gift of the Holy Spirit, Christians’ adoption into God’s family as heirs, and the hope of eternal life lived in God’s glorious presence. It’s a hope that God’s adopted sons and daughters carry back to our homes, not just on Christmas Day, but also on every day with which God graces us.
Jesus was not just an act of God’s mercy (5). He also lived a life of God’s mercy. In his book, Philemon’s Problem: The Daily Dilemma of the Christian, James T. Burtchaell notes, “Jesus was curiously unpreoccupied about the future of those who believed through him.”
“His attention went rather to those who were deprived: to the running sores of the leper; to the milky, sightless eye; to the dragging, withered leg; to the slack-mouthed village idiot; to the shrunken belly; even to the dead man in the grave. With all these he shared life as they had need.”
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