The Birth of the Lord
Christmas has finally come! The Christmas season is fun as anticipation builds for the big day, but it is the arrival of the day that is best. Whether we are children longing for the day to open presents, or adults ready for all the preparation to be over, we are more than ready for the day itself. So are expecting parents. The first few months of anticipation are exciting, but by the ninth month, Mom and Dad (especially Mom!) are ready for the birth.
We are ready for the part about Jesus’ birth. We’ve heard about Daniel, and Joel, Isaiah and Mary. Now it’s time for Jesus.
We can divide our text into three portions: the birth (1-7), the announcement (8-14), and the response (15-21).
The Birth (vss. 1-7)
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
4 So Joseph also 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. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
Luke documents Jesus’ birth in the Roman empire. He was the firstborn son of Mary and Joseph. Though Joseph and Mary were residents of Nazareth in Galilee, Jesus was born in Bethlehem due to a census being taken at the time that required Joseph to register in his hometown. Caesar Augustus was emperor of Rome and Quirinius governor of Syria, which was the governing district that included Palestine. Perhaps Jesus’ name was documented in some Roman census book. Luke also documents Jesus’ credentials necessary for claim to the Messiah title. He was of the lineage of David and the firstborn son. Thus, he possessed the Messiah’s birthright.
Scholars debate the details of the exact story. Even so, Luke’s main point is that Jesus’ birth was humble even by human standards. His bed was a feeding trough; his family was essentially homeless, not even living in basic accommodations. There was “no guest room” for them. They were not even pawns in the Roman world. They were uprooted from their home merely for the sake of counting them in a register book. As far as Rome was concerned, they were nobodies. As far as Bethlehem was concerned, they were an imposition. But as far as God was concerned, they were the center of the universe, carefully moving along in the will of God and fulfilling the oracles. The Messiah is born of the lineage of David in the town of Bethlehem, just as the prophets had foretold. God was sovereignly moving about the Roman Empire to carry out his purpose
The Announcement (vss. 8-14)
If the birth of Jesus seems commonplace so far, the next event is anything but ordinary.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But 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.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
to God in the highest heaven,
Luke gives us a common scene with an uncommon event. Consider first the scene. From what scholars know about sheep and shepherding, it is evident that these sheep were those reserved for the sacrificial offerings in the temple. The profession of shepherd was at the low end of the scale for prestige, so much so that shepherds were not allowed to give testimony in court. It is possible that these shepherds had a little higher standing because of their specialty. Even so, at best they would be considered among the low-class citizens of society. We see then Luke’s continued theme of humble circumstance. Even when a heavenly choir appears, the audience is a small group of lower-class citizens. We almost want to question the purpose of the announcement. If you are going to announce important news, you certainly want to give it to a fitting audience. Well, as God said, “My ways are not your ways.”
The uncommon event is awe-inspiring (though it must have been humorous to watch the shepherds!). The men probably have their sheep herded in their pens. The night is no different from any other night. Then out of nowhere an angel appears in shining glory. Other people received visits from angels, but their appearance was typically low key, enough so that at times they were mistaken for human. But when this angel appears “the glory of the Lord shone around” the shepherds. I gather something like a bright light accompanied the angel.
No wonder they were afraid. Imagine standing outside your house enjoying a peaceful evening, looking up at the stars. Suddenly you are dazzled by a light that engulfs you, and an angel appears before you. Would your knees allow you to remain standing?
But the real story is not the appearance of an angel, but the message he has to tell. “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.”
The Messiah is born – a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord! Do you want to know the impact of that statement? Go back to the angel appearing in your yard. While dazzled and shaking with fear before the glorious angel, he says to you, “I’ve been sent to tell you that Christ has returned. Before he appears publicly and brings judgment to the world, he wants to meet you tonight. Here is his address. He’s waiting.”
Imagine the nervous excitement you must feel. “What? Christ has returned? Now? And you are telling me? I’m to go see him?”
But then, again, note the humble circumstance. What is the sign of the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of David who is the Lord? He will be found wrapped in “swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” I wonder if the shepherds found this peculiar? It doesn’t appear they had much time to consider the matter.
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
to God in the highest heaven,
We don’t know exactly how it was, but going back to your standing in your yard before the angel. You hear a switch and suddenly find yourself standing on the fifty-yard line of Levi’s Stadium, all the stadium lights flash on and the stands are filled with angels shouting out praise to God. Maybe the real miracle is that the shepherds didn’t fall over in a dead faint!”
But again, it’s not about the angels, but about God. “Glory to God in highest heaven.” Glory to God for his redemption. Glory to God that his promise is fulfilled. Glory to God that he has kept his covenant with Abraham and with David. Glory to God that his plan of redemption exceeds the imagination of man.
“. . . and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” It’s not about the angels, but about man whom God made a little lower than the angels. For the Messiah has come to bring peace for man with God. He has come to bring it for those on whom rests God’s favor. The Messiah has come for his people.
The Response (vss. 15-20)
We’ve had the birth and the announcement. What is the response?
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
Give the shepherds credit. I don’t know how they could keep their wits after such a visit from the angels. Even so, it is the message – and not the out-of-world visit – that they think about. They even have their theology straight, for they recognize that the message was from the Lord. (How strange that those who really are visited by angels turn their thoughts to God rather than angels.)
The more we observe about these ordinary men, the more striking their actions are. Again, despite a visit that would have overwhelmed us, they hear and take to heart the message about the Messiah’s birth. They obey the message and visit the child. They then spread the news, carrying on the work of the angel. And note their message: they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child. So? It is striking that their message was about the child, not their extraordinary visit by an angel. Perhaps they did talk about the angels, but Luke makes clear that the real message is who the child is, not the neat-o experience of the shepherds.
And here is another work of the angels they continued: they glorified and praised . . . angels? No, of course not: they glorified and praised God. These men are examples to us all. We do not have to be extraordinary persons with extraordinary gifts to be chosen by God and to be used by him. God can use anyone who in humility hear and obey him.
Luke also makes a note about Mary: 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. Mary had already done her part in hearing and obeying when she was visited by an angel. Now she is preparing for the long haul. She is listening and observing, keeping all these experiences treasured up for contemplation and for remembrance in the later years.
We would do well to follow the examples of the shepherds and of Mary. Regarding the shepherds, we would do well to hear God speaking through the reading and teaching of God’s Word. You may wonder how they could not have gotten the message, considering how it was delivered. I wonder how they did get it. After the angels had left, I think I would have had trouble remembering what they had come for. But whether the proclaimer of God’s Word is overpowering in his delivery or a boring monotone, we need to hear the Word that God is speaking to us.
Second, we need to obey. James 1:23 says, “Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” The shepherds wasted no time in obeying the instruction of the Lord. Many others would have remained worshipping God after such a profound experience. Worship is good, but now was the time to go, and they went. We, too, are to worship God; we are to take time to study God’s Word and to be taught and trained. But there is also a time to go and carry out the task given us, and that time comes around more often than we think it does. Don’t put off unduly what the Lord has called you to do.
Third, they shared the good news about Jesus. Though the angel’s message was about Jesus, and though they did visit the baby, even so, they easily could have lost track in the excitement of the evening what it was about this baby that made him so important. This can happen in the church. We can become more excited about special church events and programs that we forget the real message and the real power of the church – that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord.
Finally, we would do well to follow their example of glorifying and praising God. Let the angels and the shepherds remind us – It is all about God. To him belongs all the glory, all the praise. How could we forget that? It is easy. It would have been easy for the shepherds to worship the angels. And if they did not blatantly fall on their knees before them in worship, they still could have kept their focus on their other-worldly experience. They could have gone forth declaring the glory of angels rather than of God. And which would have seemed more miraculous – the appearance of the angels or visiting a baby?
There are times when we Christians think we are glorifying God, when we are really excited over a big building or a great concert or whatever it might be that seems dynamic. Churches advertise excitement. "Come to our church where you will find excitement." "We have dynamic worship." "Come hear sermons that will inspire." And people come, and sure enough they find excitement. Whether they find God; whether they hear from God is another matter. Look, it's not bad to have an exciting experience in worship, but don't let the experience cause you to miss what the experience is supposed to do – lead you to glorifying and serving God.
Following the example of Mary, let us also treasure up what we are told of Christ and ponder these things. Many people saw again the TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” They heard Linus answer Charlie Brown’s question of what is the meaning of Christmas by reciting this very passage we read. And afterwards, they thought about how cute Snoopy was dancing. This season, millions of people attended special Christmas services, concerts, and live nativities. And afterwards, they busied themselves with their other holiday activities, no different than before. And today, many sit in church hearing the last Christmas messages of the year, ready to move on to New Year celebrations. If only they would “treasure up these things, pondering them in [their hearts].”
If only those who have yet to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord will take the time to ponder the good news of the Bible. What else is more important than what affects the state of your eternal soul? Who else is more important to know that the God who made you? Who is more important than the one who can save you? And yet, most people go about their daily business as though their lives will never end. They ponder the sports pages and the magazines about celebrities; they follow carefully the stock market or the fantasy football rankings or the ads of clothing stores, but give little attention to the revelation of God in his Word. And even when crises hit them, such things have little lasting impact other than to make them value life a little more in some general way. If they would but ponder the mysteries of God and the wondrous riches of his grace that is found in the story of Jesus!
And what about us? Will we have ears to hear God's message spoken through the Scriptures? We most likely will not be given messages through angels, but we have something better – the Scriptures that are "God-breathed," inspired by the Holy Spirit. We must read God's Word, hear it taught and preached. We must believe and obey it. Then, we must ponder the words and treasure them up in our hearts.
And here is the key to understand the Scriptures. In their pages you will find a Savior who is Christ the Lord. You will find in them the story of Christ's redemption and the story of his grace. You will find him if you seek him. Only the shepherds knew who to look for and where to find him because they had been told. You also have been told. That angel could have taken the shepherds to Jesus and pointed him out. Instead, he merely gave directions. Maybe he wanted them to move on their own initiative; maybe it was important to see what they would do on their own when he left. Would they obey? Would they follow instructions?
Maybe it was best for the angel not to be around when they found the Christ, so that to him alone would they give their attention and devotion. After all, it was, and still is, all about Jesus.