Christmas Eve 2014 / Pastor Terry Defoe / Luke 2:10-12 / "For You!"
10 … the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
It’s good to have you here tonight – in this sacred place – on this Christmas Eve. All of us know the story of Jesus’ birth – it’s certainly well-known, worldwide. But my goal in the next few minutes is to dig a little deeper into the story. My goal is to put a frame on the picture. There are a few important questions that need answers tonight. I pray that God would bless our consideration of His Holy Word!
Our Bible text on this Christmas Eve is found in Luke’s Gospel. Luke places the account of Jesus’ birth into a context, and that context is a census – a Roman census, not Jewish – registering, counting, taxing the people of Israel. But all of this, for Luke, is really secondary. The main focus of this account is to be found elsewhere. For Luke, the most important parts of the story take place on the fringe, far from the center of power in the Roman empire, in a little village called Bethlehem. In this off-the-beaten-path place, an anxious teenage mother and her equally anxious husband can't find a place for the imminent arrival of their first child. They’re forced to take refuge in a shelter – shared with an assortment of farm animals.
Luke wants us to know that it’s Roman power that makes Joseph and Mary dance to its tune. Rome sent Joseph to his ancestral home to be "counted." In those days, the tax burden was excessive. Many people lived in grinding poverty, under the thumb of their Roman oppressors. Mary and Joseph were living in occupied territory. The Romans were cruel taskmasters, and the people of Israel resented their presence. But, in spite of all this, God was at work.
The Roman emperor was Caesar Augustus. His name means, "the exalted king." In the fields outside Bethlehem, a few shepherds stomped their feet to keep warm and chatted to stay awake through the night. In Bethlehem, that teenage mother I mentioned a moment ago, birthed a child. That night, unbeknownst to the people of that town, a miracle occurred. Among the everyday affairs of ordinary people, God became a human being.
This was definitely not a night like all the others. God had a surprise in store. It’s interesting that God’s surprises, as recorded for us in the Bible, often come in the midst of darkness. The creation was in darkness when God said, “Let there be light.” The children of Israel were locked in their homes in faraway Egypt when the angel of death passed over their doors, which they had carefully marked with the blood of a Passover lamb. And, just before sunrise on Easter morning, while it was still dark, Jesus rose from the dead, surprising His disciples.
Luke wants us to know that Jesus's first visitors were not well-off, not the connected, or the powerful, or the wealthy. They were certainly not state royalty. Jesus’ first visitors were common people. Having received a special angelic invitation, they came and worshipped the Child. Their fear turned to joy. And this was a joy which they shared with those around them. Luke, ch. 2, v. 17:
When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child.
But who was this child? And what did all these strange events mean? Like every mother who has ever given birth, Mary "treasured up these things and pondered them in her heart," wondering what would become of her newborn child (Luke 2:19). Hundreds of years before this night, one of God’s prophets, a man by the name of Isaiah, had predicted,
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who live in a land of darkness, on them, a light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)
Pastor Ed Lehman, retired president of the Lutheran Church – Canada, reminds us that the angels’ announcement, and everything that followed, is what we and Christians around the world celebrate tonight. We celebrate because Jesus has come as a gift from God, and God’s Gift is for all of us! It’s hard to imagine Christmas without gifts, Pastor Lehman says, gifts given or received. Ever since the time of St. Nicholas, Christians have given gifts to each other at this time of year. Even when there’s extreme poverty, parents still try to find some kind of gift for their children. It may be a simple toy or something handmade, but it’s still a gift – and it’s given from the heart.
But, when you think about it, gifts don’t make Christmas, any more than candles make a birthday. That’s because Christmas is all about Jesus. He’s the gift that really matters. Without Jesus, we may have a holiday, but it won’t be a holy day. And who then, is this Jesus? And what makes him such a perfect gift? The angel’s message to the shepherds gives us a hint. The angel said that the shepherds would find a “Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (2:11–12).
What God had promised to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, what he promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and what he kept repeating through the prophets during all the previous centuries, had finally come to pass. The long-promised Messiah, the one they called the Christ, had now arrived. And the world would never be the same. It’s amazing, when you think about it, how God works. Jesus’ birth was announced to shepherds in the field, not to the powerful in rich palaces. This Child was to be the Savior of the entire world. It’s interesting that the word “savior” isn’t used very often in the Gospels. It was a politically-charged word in those days. That’s because it was said that the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, was himself "the savior of the world." So Luke's announcement was really a way of saying,
"Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not."
And this "savior," this Jesus, was the promised descendant of King David. He would not only be "lord," but He would also be "Messiah" – the anointed King of the Jews. He would be the great king promised from times long past. So, according to Luke, the true savior of the world was not Caesar Augustus. Augustus was an oppressor. He was a false savior. He protected, not the weak, but those with power and privilege. The birth of the true Savior of the world, said Luke, was "good news of great joy for all the people."
Earlier, Joseph had heard these words from an archangel:
“You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)
So the birth of Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of a long-standing promise. It was the fulfilment of a promise from none other than God Himself. Jesus would grow as a child. He would mature into adulthood. And, at the end of his earthly ministry, he would go to the cross to offer himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. There’s a Christmas carol that asks – and answers – a question that goes to the heart of the matter. It asks,
“What child is this, who laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
And it answers the question with these words:
This, this, is Christ the king,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing” (LSB 370:1).
“Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The cross be borne – for me, for you.” (370:2).
This child in the manger is God’s own Son, now “made flesh and dwelling among us.” The eternal God was born into this world that night. The very Creator of all things became a creature. He entered a human womb, grew and developed like any other baby, until the time came for him to be born. As I say, the shepherds didn’t find him in a king’s palace. He wasn’t surrounded by an entourage of dignitaries. He was “wrapped in swaddling cloths – and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). So when you think about it, the God who placed every star in the heavens, placed his love in a manger that night. Suddenly, in and through this surprising birth, God was no longer distant – unapproachable. He was – and He remains – Emmanuel… God with us. On first Christmas and every day after that, Jesus brings God down to us. More than that, He lifts us up to God. That’s the miracle of Christmas.
John’s gospel tells us that:
No one has ever seen God. But it is God the Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
So if you want to know what God is like, take a good close look at Jesus. In Him, God comes to us. In Him, God is not far off, but He’s close and accessible. He comes to us in his Word, the Bible. He comes to us in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. His forgiveness is there for us in the waters of Holy Baptism. He encourages us through His people in the church.
Tonight, as I say, we remember that God’s Son is His most precious Christmas gift to us. We didn’t create Him or invent him. We don’t deserve His coming. What we do deserve from God is His judgment, because of our sins. The Bible tells us that the human race is the high point of God’s creation but it’s also his deepest disappointment. We are his proudest joy and also his greatest heartache, because we disobeyed his will. We have sinned against him and against one another. What that means is that nothing’s more important than the two simple words that the angels spoke to the shepherds – the words were “for you.” What value does a gift have if it’s not addressed to you? Everything Jesus did, he did for you. His perfect obedience was for you. His innocent death, his glorious resurrection, all for you. If you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize that, in Jesus, God came into this world not at the top, but at the bottom. God didn't send His son into this world to make things a little bit better for us. He sent His Son into this world to make us a new creation, with sins forgiven, with the promise of eternal life.
The gift of Jesus was for the shepherds, even though they were at the bottom of the social ladder at that time. The gift was for the Wise Men, too. And today, through His Word, God is reminding us that his gift is “for all of us,” whoever we are, whatever our situation in life. God’s gift of His Son is for the homeless and for the poor, for those on welfare and those barely getting by. His gift is for those whose hearts are sad at this time of year when there’s so much outward merriment. The gift of His Son is for those who are chronically ill, wearied with doctor’s appointments and tests, overwhelmed with questions which don’t seem to have a lot of answers.
God’s gift is for those who celebrate Christmas with an empty place at the table because of a loved one who’s no longer there. Jesus comforts us with the assurance that those who die trusting the Lord continue to live with Him. The things of this world do not last, but the gift of God, His Son, is forever. So whoever you are, whatever your circumstances in life, this gift of the Savior is “for you.” God’s precious gift has your name on it. Whether you are rich or poor, he is your treasure. Whether you are young or old, he’s the one whose days are without number.
If you’re doing some traveling over the holidays, there are certain things you dare not forget. Money, a driver’s license, credit cards, and perhaps a passport are things you don’t want to leave behind. Maybe it’s a present you’re taking along on your holiday trip. As you make your journey through life, there’s something far more important to take along. It’s the precious, life-giving gift that God has given to you:
To you this day, in the city of David, a Savior has been born. He is Christ, the Lord.
This is God’s gift for you. Unwrap it. Embrace it. Own it. Above all, take it with you. It’s your greatest treasure.
And now may the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in this same Christ Jesus. Amen.
Let’s Pray – DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER – We thank you for the joy of Christmas, for the light in the darkness, for the hope and meaning and peace we find in Christ. Bless us with a strong and vibrant faith that will support us through this life and welcome us into the next. In Jesus’ most holy and precious name we pray. Amen.