Topic: Christmas Scripture: Luke 2:1-14
One of the first things that comes to my mind when I think about how Christmas is celebrated in our culture is packaging. In many ways, it is a celebration of marketing and presentation. Every store and downtown have their great displays. The movie studios, television and radio stations all change their scheduling and content. People adorn their homes in lights and tinsel and then, of course, we have all the packaging and tape and paper in which the presents themselves are packaged.
All this glitz and packaging are designed to get people excited but ironically, those very things also tend to obscure the reality of Christmas. The more layers we add, the harder it can be to clearly see the real thing. The more magic we try to generate through marketing and packaging, the harder it is to appreciate the power in the simplicity of the true Christmas.
This morning, I want us to go back to that first night, set aside all the trappings, and packaging and think carefully about the real meaning of Christmas. There are four realities about Christmas I hope to show you from our text this morning. Four realities about Christmas that show that the real meaning of Christmas is not about the packaging. It isn’t about family and friends, or fruitcake, or eggnog. It isn’t even about any gifts we could possibly give to one another.
As we read Luke’s account, I want us to see the following four realities about Christmas:
- Christmas is history, not fantasy.
- Christmas is about real people.
- Christmas is about grace.
- Christmas demands a response.
Luke tells us what happened that first Christmas night in Luke chapter 2:1–14,
2 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
The first thing I want us to notice is that Christmas is actual history. These events took place on the earth in real time and in the lives of real people. Luke gives us a lot of detail to show when this happened. He says,
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town.
Listen to all these historical references. It was at the time of Augustus, the first registration, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Luke also makes sure we know Joseph is a real historical figure, telling us he went up to Bethlehem because he was of the house and lineage of David.
There are a couple reasons Luke does this. Most importantly, it shows that Jesus is in the family of King David and thus fulfills that prophetic requirement for the Messiah. But this is also significant for another reason. We are a culture that is adrift in fantasy. The great heroes of our age are often connected to people and places that never existed. The great stories and great heroes of our culture and time are fantasies. Star Wars, Marvel Universe, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and so forth.
It is increasingly the case that the way to deal with problems in the world is for us to escape them through entertainment. In fact, Christmas itself shows this. Think of how much attention is given to Santa, Rudolf, Ralphie, and a host of other fictional stories rather than to Jesus. Imagination and entertainment fill up every open space in our time. But Christmas is a real event that happened in real history.
That is really important because once the televisions are turned off, we must live in the real world. Hollywood and the internet might be able to make us feel better for a moment by taking our attention off our problems for a time, but God has provided real hope and a real solution for the deepest need of human beings. God has provided real salvation in a real savior who has come to this real world.
Christmas is not a fantasy. It is not like those stories people tell their children just to make them feel better even though they are not true. God came down that night in real flesh and blood. We are told in verses 8-9 that shepherds were outside watching their sheep when an angel appeared to them and made an amazing announcement about a baby that had been born.
10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
This announcement summarizes the meaning and significance of Christmas. The announcement is very specific. It is not a general announcement about peace and joy, it is a specific proclamation that a child had been born. Of course, babies are born every day. What is special about this announcement isn’t just the birth of the baby, but who this baby is.
The angel says the one who is born is a Savior. He is not a political or economic savior, but the one who has been promised from ages ago. In Matthew 1:21 an angel had told Joseph what was going to happen saying,
21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
This baby was the promised one who would finally bring salvation from sin. The angel also calls the child, “Christ, the Lord”. The word Christ is from the word Χριστός and it means one who is anointed. It is the Greek form of the Hebrew word Messiah and it refers to one being chosen by God as an anointed King. It is a title. When we say Jesus Christ, what we are saying is Jesus, the Messiah, or Jesus, the anointed King.
This Messiah was promised from ancient times through the prophets of Israel. The prophet Micah had foretold of this Christmas night around 700 years before it happened. Micah 5:2 says,
2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.
This birth fulfills the ancient prophecy that a king would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David. Notice also that this king is not simply any man. His coming is from old, from ancient of days. This child is eternal. He has existed since the beginning and the world had waited in anticipation of his coming from ancient times. Now, here on this Christmas night, the eternal God has visited his people. The transcendent has come in the flesh. The eternal has entered into history, the great God has come as a man to save his people.
God had become man so that the effects of sin could be reversed. Sin separates us from God and since God is righteous, he cannot overlook sin. Sin had to be punished in the flesh for flesh to be saved and reconciled to God. The Bible says that to accomplish salvation, Jesus had to die in our place. This eternal child came to die, so that those who were dying could inherit eternity. Jesus, our king, came to die so all those who put their faith in him can be forgiven and saved from their sins.
The apostle Paul explains what all this means in Romans 5:6–11,
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
This message of Christmas is not a sentimental story or a metaphor. Christmas is history, not fantasy. Do you realize that Christianity is the only faith or philosophy that cannot be separated from the person who established it. Every other worldview hangs in the air as a series of teachings or concepts that one could follow without the details of its founder’s life being historically accurate.
A person can be a Buddhist or Confucian even if Buddha or Confucius never lived. One could follow philosophers even if the philosophers failed to live up to their own teachings. Even Muhammed is only a prophet and is not himself necessary to the revelation. Jesus, however, is indispensable to Christianity. The entire faith and the entire promise rests on him being who he claimed and completing the work he came to do.
He didn’t do these things in a corner. He did them openly in history for all to see who would humble themselves and accept it. The Lord of Glory has come into this world to provide salvation and so there is real hope for real salvation in Jesus.
The second reality I want us to see is Christmas is for real people. The real Christmas couldn’t be more different from these hallmark shows with the perfect people and their perfect clothes celebrating a perfect Christmas in their perfect mini-mansions. I am often tempted to laugh when I see these nativity scenes they sell at the stores. Sometimes you have these crystal or ceramic figurines that all look so peaceful and well-groomed.
You have the beautiful bouncy baby Jesus sleeping sweetly on a soft bed of hay attended to by these wise men in their ornate robes. Mary looking upon the child with a sweet restful face. All those little lambs perfectly groomed and white peacefully kneeling around the child. That is sentimental nonsense.
First of all, the shepherds are in the field and so there would not yet have been any harvest of hay the way you see in these scenes. The manger scene is not a peaceful scene, it is a scene of brokenness, neglect, and poverty. Baby Jesus would not have been comfortably sleeping peacefully on a soft bed. These mangers in Israel at the time were essentially sheep stalls.
What we really have is a place filled with dirt and filth. The stalls would have been soaked with urine and animal droppings. This wasn’t a large storage barn like you might find in Iowa. This was essentially a cramped place where animals were warehoused and slept.
Mary was around 15 or 16 years old and just finished a grueling trek on foot and donkey from many miles before getting turned away at the inn. These were poor people, neglected, nobody cared about them. There was no place for them in the inn. Here is this young girl giving birth in an animal stall, surrounded by filth. No anesthetics or medical equipment and no concern about her or her baby.
God chose a poor girl, who was betrothed to a carpenter. He revealed this great announcement to shepherds tending their flocks in the field. These were all nobodies, the bottom of the ladder. We have here a picture of what grace looks like. God did not come to the religious leaders or the kings or the wealthy. He reveals himself to the humble and the weak and the broken.
This child in the manger is an offense to human pride. It is a denial that anything in us is worthy of glory. We are taken aback by the Son of God lying in the filth of a sheep stall, but it was a far greater humiliation for him to leave behind the glory of heaven and come in the flesh to die for those who did not deserve it.
That night the leaders and wealthy ate and had their fill. They rested comfortably and made their plans. Everything went on as it always had. They took no notice of the young people in the barn. Even today, that is how it is. Those who are satisfied with their lives do not see him. They do not recognize God when he comes humbly because they look for him in glory rather than in humility.
God’s grace is opposed to our pride, and it is in those who know they have nothing that could deserve it to whom it is most precious. Christmas is for real people who are real sinners.
Jesus came for real people. If you know you are a sinner, rejoice this morning because Jesus Christ came to save sinners. If you struggle each day to honor God and glorify him in your circumstances but know that you fall short. Praise God, because he did not require you to come to him through your own righteousness but came to you with the righteousness of Jesus.
Too often afraid to share with each other our real fears and weaknesses because even as believers we often fall into this trap of thinking that there must be something good in us for God to love us and accept us. We try to look like we have it all together as if there is some small part of us that deserves God’s favor. Christmas shows us that salvation is an act of God’s mercy that we can accept with joy. It is a salvation that is offered freely in Jesus.
A few years ago, I was with another brother in the city when a man approached us for money. He was dirty and weathered and appeared to be homeless. One of us asked him what he was going to do with the money, and he said he was hungry. We were both a little hesitant because the man smelled strongly of alcohol, and we thought surely, he would use the money to buy booze. We ended up giving him some money but encouraged him to buy food rather than alcohol.
After the man went away, my friend and I talked about what had happened and I realized just how much about grace we had to learn. We both felt as though we had done something good and gracious. But this isn’t grace. You see, we had developed these criteria in our mind for who we would help. We would be generous if the man would do x and not y. Our mercy was tied to his performance, he had to meet our standards first, so that we could pat ourselves on the back for how giving we were. That is not the grace of God.
What we have in Christmas is something altogether different. God offers salvation not to those who jump through certain hoops or achieve a minimal level of respectability. No, God offers salvation in Jesus precisely to those who do not earn it and do not deserve it. It is only when we finally come to understand that we have absolutely nothing to contribute to our salvation that we can truly understand what God has done in Jesus. It is also only then that we can look upon others with the compassion and grace that God calls us to have.
That brings us to the third reality of Christmas. Christmas is all about grace. Grace means that our forgiveness is a gift that is not deserved. That it comes purely through the goodness and love of God. We did not earn it. We did not choose it. We did not deserve it in any way. If we think we have anything we can contribute, we have failed to understand the true nature of our need.
Christmas is inseparably linked to the gospel. The word gospel means good news, and that is what the message of Christmas is. Look again at verses 9 and 10,
9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
It is a fearful thing for a guilty man to come before a judge. It is a fearful thing therefore for sinners to come before a holy God. When these angels show up it says the shepherds were filled with great fear but what does the angel tell them. Do not be afraid, I bring you good news.
If God had come in his full glory all sinners would have been consumed. There is coming a time when Jesus returns with a great shout and the heavens and earth will melt away and his kingdom will come in its fullness. At that time, all who are in their sins will be judged and it will be a frightful day. But there is no need for anyone to be in that situation on that day. The good news that the angel announces here is that Christ has come.
All of us have sinned and deserve judgment, but Jesus has come and lived the perfect life that all people were called to live. He experienced everything we do from infancy to death, and he did it perfectly. He then exchanged his perfection for the sin of all those who would ever believe in him and paid for those sins on the cross. Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. But three days later he ascended into heaven where he is now seated at the right hand of the Father.
All those who put their faith in him are saved, having received the gift of eternal life. This gift is offered to all who will receive it by grace through faith. Jesus comes meek and mild so that all may approach him. He comes poor and lowly so that even the weakest might approach him. I like the way the early theologian Bernard of Clairvaux expressed it.
Behold, He comes as an infant, and without speech, for the voice of the wailing infant arouses compassion, not terror. If He is terrible to any, yet not to you. He is become a little one, His virgin mother swathes His tender limbs with bands, and do you still tremble with fear? By this weakness you may know that He comes not to destroy, but to save; not to bind, but to unbind. If He shall take up the sword, it will be against your enemies, and, as the Power and the Wisdom of God, He will trample on the necks of the proud and the mighty. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)
In this baby, heaven and earth are brought together. Christ has humbled himself so that the humble can be exalted. It shows us that it is only by the grace of God that salvation is possible. It shows us also how differently the values of heaven are from what is valued in this world.
Look what Luke says after the announcement is made,
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
There is great celebration in heaven over this announcement. Great rejoicing among the heavenly hosts while the palaces and temples upon the earth were silent. There is a promise here as well as a warning. Friends, do not evaluate your treasure in Christ based upon what the world thinks, for they do not understand the true value of the manger or the cross.
All glory to God and peace to all those in whom God is well pleased. That is to say, all those to whom God reveals himself and who come to him in faith. The reality that Christmas is fundamentally about grace reminds us to be constantly on guard against our pride. We are to measure our lives in light of Christ.
A speechless infant offers no satisfaction to talkative theologians. The cries of a baby in a hard and dirty bed will not be valued by those who seek worldly pleasures. Smelly swaddling clothes bear no attraction to those who seek only to be dressed in the finest clothes and a manger is offensive to any who think they deserve the finest places. If we are to be identified with Jesus, we are called to glorify God’s grace in our weakness.
That leads to the final reality about Christmas and that is that it demands a response. If the coming of Jesus was so glorious to the angels, how can we not be overflowing with joy? If Christmas causes even so many of our neighbors to sing and celebrate, who have so little to do with it, how is it that every day is not a celebration of Christmas in the hearts of those for whom Jesus died?
There is no single day set apart in scripture for us to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Instead, we are called each and every day to reveal Christ to the world. Christmas is not a date on a calendar or even a season of the year. It is an ever-present call by almighty God for us to find our deepest satisfaction in him. Christmas is the announcement of God’s mighty act to provide salvation to a lost world. It is the demonstration of God’s love for his people and that he keeps his promises. Every one of us is called therefore to respond by putting our faith and trust in Jesus Christ and sharing this good news with others.