Show yourself in all respects a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured; then any opponent will be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us. Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior. (Titus 2:7-10)
In his 2012 book The Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written, Marcus Borg summarizes current scholarship around New Testament authorship and pulls together a timeline that places each book in historical context.
One of the more dramatic conclusions his work reveals is that the early Christian church became notably less radical even during the 70-year period when the New Testament was being written.
The letter of Titus, from which our Epistle this morning is drawn, dates to about the 110s and is one of the last to be written. Borg writes that “the letter is about the need for order and the appointment of authorized leaders — in short, it is about institutionalization” (583).
Today’s letter seems to be as much about societal approval as God’s approval. That is to say, Christians should behave well so that no one can speak ill of them (and therefore of God).
A drunken spectacle
But look at the first of the women featured in today’s other readings — women who are true “ornaments to the doctrine of God our savior.”
Hannah has prayed that God would grant her a son, despite the disapproval of the Temple priest Eli, who sees her silent prayer as drunken rambling.
Her son Samuel will hear and respond to God’s call, and his first act will be to pronounce God’s displeasure with Eli and his sons — “scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or the duties of the priests to the people” (1 Sam. 2:12-13).
Hannah’s song, which we read this morning, praises God, who “raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor” (1 Sam. 2:8).
Those who recognize their need of a savior are the ornaments God chooses.
An unwed mother
Like Hannah before her, Mary is known in part for the song she sings — the canticle we know as the Magnificat.
She sings of the God who “has looked with favor on his lowly servant,” who “has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly” (BCP 91).
Today we read of God’s announcement to Mary, God’s invitation to her, God’s need of her participation in his plan for salvation.
With her response to the angel’s message — “Let it be to me according to your word” — Mary sets in motion the saving work of God, the birth of a son who will turn the Empire and the whole world upside down.
Those who will participate in God’s saving activity are the ornaments God chooses.
A mansion prepared for himself
In these last few days of Advent, we pray to God that “your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself” (BCP 212).
Like a house decorated for Christmas, we can be “ornaments to the doctrine of God our Savior.”
But we shine as we recognize our need of a savior, not as we seek to impress those around us.
We glow when we participate in God’s saving work, not when we win in arguments against our neighbors.
We sparkle when we reflect the Light that is coming into the world to accomplish the work of salvation. We (like John the Baptist) are not the light, but we bear witness to the Light.
This Christmas, may the Light — God’s Son, Jesus Christ — find in each of us a home richly prepared for himself, a fitting ornament to God our savior.