Sermon / Christmas Day 2015 / Luke 2:4-7 / Diamond in the Rough / Pastor Terry Defoe
Our sermon text for this Christmas Day is these very familiar words from Luke's Gospel, chapter 2, verses 4 through 7:
Joseph went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to Judea, to Bethlehem, the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to marry him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Adapted from the N.I.V.)
Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!
On this Christmas morning, we're going to revisit the Christmas story as we find it recorded for us in the second chapter of Luke's Gospel. This morning, we'll review these events with the goal of learning more about the people involved. We'll consider what these events teach us about God. And we'll relate what we've found to our world today. Hopefully, we can see how these events relate to our daily lives as well. As we begin on this Christmas morning, I pray that God would bless our consideration of his Holy Word so that, as His Holy Spirit enables, we may hear His word, understand it, and put it into practice in our lives every day.
Luke chapter 2 speaks of a decree that came from the Roman Caesar. The Caesar at the time of Jesus' birth was Augustus. It's important to remember that these events took place while Israel was under Roman occupation. Palestine was a very small province in a huge empire that stretched from Britain in the north to Libya in the south, and from Persia [modern-day Iran] in the east, to Spain in the west. You can be sure that a decree originating in Rome would have far-reaching implications. Common sense would lead us to believe that the birth of a Jewish child in a far-off corner of the Roman Empire 2000 years ago would be an event of no real consequence. But common sense, in this case, would be wrong. And common sense would also lead us to think that that historians would remember Augustus and his decrees but would know nothing about the birth of Jesus. And again, common sense would be wrong. In our world today, Caesar Augustus is virtually unknown, except for his connection to the Christmas story. Few people give any thought to a Roman decree that seemed so important at the time. Amazingly, billions of people around the world know about the birth of Jesus. Time certainly has a way of separating that which is important from that which is not.
This particular Caesar was the one who, humanly speaking, began the process that led to Jesus’ begin born at Bethlehem rather than at Nazareth, even though Nazareth was Joseph's ancestral home. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we realize that Augustus was being used by God for God's own purposes. Augustus, of course, didn't know that. His decree made sure that a Biblical prophecy, made hundreds of years before, would be fulfilled. Consider the following words, words which we heard last Sunday, recorded for us in the Old Testament book of Micah, chapter 5, verse 2, where God's prophet says:
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come -- for me -- ONE WHO WILL BE RULER OVER ISRAEL, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.
Verse 4 says:
He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord, his God. And he will be their peace.
And so, because of a decree made thousands of miles away in Rome, an ancient Biblical prophecy was fulfilled. Such is the wisdom of God! You know, when we consider the Christmas story, we often think of the shepherds. They were faithful people. They heard God's call. They heard that call, but more importantly, they acted on it as well. They went looking for the sign they had been told about. And they were not disappointed. It's interesting that shepherds back then were near the bottom of the social scale. I think there’s great significance in the fact that Jesus' birth was first revealed, not to those at the top of the social ladder, but to those near the bottom. The same, by the way, was true of His death!
Those lowly shepherds were privileged to see what few human beings have ever seen. They saw the glory of God. The doors of heaven swing open for them -- just for a few moments. They saw the angelic hosts. And they heard the GOOD NEWS regarding this child’s birth, and the meaning of His birth as well. After traveling to the manger and seeing the babe for themselves, they spread the good news. They returned to their flocks as changed individuals. The would never be the same again.
The innkeeper and the townsfolk weren’t like the shepherds. Mary and Joseph entered Bethlehem virtually unnoticed. They were denied accommodation because all available places had been claimed for the night. Finally, they found a spot with the animals, in a shelter of some kind. What’s most amazing, considering what we now know, is that no one noticed them. What’s most amazing, considering what we now know, is that when this baby was born, it was no big deal. The Bethlehem innkeeper and the townsfolk weren't evil people. They didn't persecute this little family and try to make things difficult for them. They were simply busy with other things. If they expected the coming of the Messiah at all, they thought it would happen in a very different way. Why? Because the Messiah was supposed to be the King of Israel. And a king would be born in a palace – with much fanfare. So nothing that happened that night would lead these townfolks to think that the Messiah had arrived in their midst. Nothing was out of the ordinary that night. Nothing, except that star in the East. But they had no way of connecting that star and the birth of the Messiah.
Mary and Joseph, of course, knew what God was doing. But Joseph had trouble believing God's word – at least at first. It took him a while to figure out what God was doing. Both Mary and Joseph were faithful servants of the Lord. Both were pleased to do his will. When it came to the birth of this child, and the meaning of the birth, they knew a fair bit. But there was still much they didn't know. God's revelation came to them in small pieces – like the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle. God didn’t give them all the answers, all at once. And the same is true of us, today.
People respond in very different ways to what God is doing. Some, like the Roman Caesar, are competely unaware of God. Others, like the townsfolk and the innkeeper in Bethlehem, are either preoccupied with other things or have conflicting expectations about what God is going to do. And still others, and here I'm thinking of Mary and Joseph, are open to what God is doing, and, more importantly, are willing to be used in his service.
The highlights of Jesus' life and ministry were predicted in the scriptures long before they took place. Those predictions were addressed, first of all, to the Jewish people. They were part of the holy writings we now know as the Old Testament. It’s significant that the most important things God has accomplished in human history were predicted in advance. There’s no reason for God’s people to be caught unaware. The Christmas story reminds us that our God acts in the real world in real time. He’s not an absentee landlord. He cares enough to intervene at crucial times. And He doesn't hesitate to use unbelievers to carry out his will should that be necessary.
God works in mysterious ways. The Christmas story reminds us that our God often does the unexpected. Our God often acts in surprising ways. And when he acts, he often does things suddenly and decisively. When he acts, he's guided by standards and values that are foreign to our human nature. His ways, as the scripture says, are not our ways. A king born in a stable is not how we would do it if it was up to us. A king born in obscurity doesn't seem right somehow. But, when you think about it, neither is a king who DIES FOR his unruly servants to bring them forgiveness of their sins.
Those of you who know me will know that I don’t like to write a sermon without considering the modern relevance of the text. I love to proclaim the Scriptures. I love to explain them and interpret them. But, once I've done the proclaiming, and the explaining, and the interpreting, I dwant to relate what's been said to the real world that real people inhabit. Experts tell us that Christmas is a often a time when people ride an emotional roller-coaster. People tend to associate Christmas with the best of human nature -- with generosity, and compassion, and fellowship. People tend to associate Christmas with all that's good in the world. We do expect a lot from Christmas. But what we expect and what we actually receive are not always the same. A newspaper article that I have in my files analyzes this common Christmas let-down. The author suggests that we "Try to remember that Christmas is really just another day." The author of that article feels that people won't be let down if they reduce their expectations regarding Christmas. So let me ask you. What do you think? Is Christmas really just another day? Is it a day without real significance? Of course not.
A reporter for a Christian publication wanted to know what people thought of Jesus Christ. And so, at a high school, the reporter asked the students: "What does Jesus mean to you?" Students, by themselves, were hesitant to answer. But students in a group offered responses like these:
"Jesus is the Son of God, our Savior."
"He's a high person; he's important; he's good."
"He's a way of living -- a life form. He's like a symbol to people."
At a university campus, the reporter got this comment:
"He's a figure in the Christian religion. I'm not a Christian, but he probably was a real person ... a very good person."
So there seem to be as many opinions about Jesus as there are people to give them. It's interesting that very few people gave their answer on the basis of what the Bible has to say. Most just gave their personal opinions. Most Canadians do believe that Christmas brings out the best in people. Not too many Canadians believe that materialism and greed have gotten out of hand. Most Canadians believe that Christmas is a time for families. But very few believe that the main significance of Christmas is to reflect on the birth of Jesus Christ. So, what do you think? Is Christmas just another day for most Canadians? Only about a third of Canadians consider Christmas to be a spiritual event. For most Canadians, Christmas is a family time with vague religious overtones. When you think about it, most Canadians are like the townsfolk and the innkeeper in Bethlehem. Most Canadians, for whatever reason, are too preoccupied with other things to really notice the birth of Jesus. One Christian has said:
Just so casually -- through the mere drift of circumstance, and not through any particularly hostile will, Jesus (is) excluded from the inn of our hearts. We have merely filled in the space with other guests. We do not really mean to be irreligious, but our thoughts and feelings are so occupied with other matters at this time of year that Christ cannot find a place. In this world, with its noisy and demanding clamour, the crowd of common thoughts and common interests has poured in upon us and taken possession of our time and our attention, and when Christ comes with his infinite gift for the enrichment of our souls, there is no room for him in the inn.
We need God's help -- the Holy Spirit's help, actually -- to perceive the spiritual side of Christmas. The shepherds saw it. Mary and Joseph definitely saw it. God is at work in our world. But it’s easy to miss it. God is at work in our lives, too. But, again, that's easy to miss. It's easy to "tune out" God's word. It's easy to take "Christ" out of Christmas. But, you know, without the Christ of Christmas, and without faith in him, we are much more likely to experience a let-down at this time of year. Without the Christ of Christmas, we will miss out on the peace that only He can bring. What we need is a Holy Spirit-motivated openness to the work of God in our world and in our lives. We need to remember – every day -- that everything we have from God is ours by His grace – so that we may not boast. We need to remember that the babe in the manger went to a cross to die for our sins and bring us back into fellowship with God. God's Word clearly says,
"His will is that none should perish, but that everyone would come to everlasting life."
God longs to be near us. He longs to stoop down and help us. He sent His Son to earn salvation for us. Our God wants to bring wholeness to lives ruined by sin. It’s true. People do respond in very different ways to what God is doing and has done in our world. Some are unaware of God. Others either have mistaken expectations about what God is going to do or they let the circumstances of life distract them. Thankfully, some are open to what God is doing and are willing to be used in his service. On this Christmas Day, 2015, I pray that God would open our eyes to His work among us. May God grant it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Let's pray: DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER -- Help us perceive your Son in our midst. Help us perceive what he has done -- and continues to do -- for us and for all people. Grant us that peace that passes all human understanding. Grant us joy in Christ. In His name we pray. Amen.