All mighty God, we thank you for your word and the way that you in it revealed to us who you are and what you've done for us in Christ. Now as we open that word we pray that your spirit may be present, that all thoughts of worry or distraction may be removed and that the Spirit will allow us to hear your voice. And so oh God fill us with your spirit through the reading and proclamation of your word this day. We pray in Jesus name. Amen
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:1-20, NRSV)
"The Message Of Christmas"
In the Christmas gospel, we are given a word picture of that first Nativity Scene in the stable in Bethlehem. It’s a picture that has been burned into the minds of Christians and non-Christians alike. Some of you might even have one set up in your yard or in your home.
For many, it’s merely a seasonal decoration to be taken down come December 26th. For us as Christians, we recognize there’s something special about that Nativity Scene. What is it? What might those people in that scene be thinking about as they gaze upon the Christ child? What was it really like to be there that first Christmas day? That’s what I want to explore with you. So with the eyes of faith, let’s go back in time to the first Nativity Scene.
The first thing that is going to stand out is the environment you’re standing in. Watch where you step, you might get an unpleasant surprise. After all, remember, this is a stable. Not the nice, cleaned up, pristine type you usually see in Nativity Scenes today, but a real stable, a barn, a place used to house animals. So that means, yeah, you have all the smells and everything else a stable usually has. This doesn’t look like the place where you’re going to find anything glorious. Finding glory in this scene is going to be like, well, finding a needle in a haystack. As we make our way through the stable, we see a young couple, and a baby. Let’s go see what they’re up to.
We see the new mother, Mary, laying her newborn Son into his first bed, a manger, a feeding trough for animals. No doubt, this is not how she envisioned giving birth to her first child. And we’re not just talking about her surroundings either. You see, the last nine months have been quite a journey for this young woman. She was going about what up to that point had been a pretty ordinary life for a young woman in Nazareth, and had even become betrothed, or engaged, to Joseph, the local carpenter. Things were going pretty well for her, and it seemed as if she’d just live her life anonymously, until an angel showed up. “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you.” (Luke 1:28) With that announcement, the angel declared to Mary that she would not only become a mother, but she would be the mother of the long promised Savior of the Nations. Being a virgin, Mary asked how this would work, and the angel told her “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will be called holy-the Son of God.” (v. 35) It was clear from that moment that this was not going to be an ordinary pregnancy. Not only that, but she would have to face the ridicule and scorn of the community. And of course, what would Joseph think of all of this?
Speaking of Joseph, there he is, next to his bride and the newborn child. He’s not rich by worldly standards. He’s certainly not a king, or someone with a lot of power and stature in the world, or even in Nazareth for that matter. He’s also been through quite an emotional roller coaster. Things were going along as planned, he had been preparing his home so that he could take Mary fully as his wife, and then, she has some bad news. “Joseph, I’m pregnant.” Joseph knows it can’t be his child. What has Mary done? Why him? Mary tries to tell him what happened, about the angel, about the conception by the Holy Spirit, and that she had done nothing wrong, but he just can’t believe it. He considers what to do about the situation. He could turn Mary in, after all, in those days, adultery was an offense punishable by stoning to death. But he cares too much for Mary to have that happen, so he decided to just simply divorce her quietly and wash his hands of the situation. That is, until he received a visit from an angel himself. In a dream, an angel tells him: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is convinced in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Indeed, Mary was telling him the truth. The prophecy from Isaiah was true: “The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) Joseph is now charged with the task of being the step-father to the long promised Messiah. What an awesome responsibility, knowing that his savior from sin, death, and the devil is entrusted to his care. There’s a lot of joy in that man’s face that night; he, a humble, ordinary carpenter, is among the first to look into the face of his Savior.
Off in the distance, we see some shepherds making their way into this scene. Yeah, those same shepherds we passed by out in the fields outside of Bethlehem that you probably ignored on our way into town. They’re not the cleanest people in the world. Their occupation is among the lowest on the totem pole of the day. They are among the last people you would expect to be the first ones to pay homage to the newborn King. How do they know about this event? An angel appeared to them with this message: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (v. 10-12) An angel, sent from the presence of God himself, told them this! That this baby was the sign that God had kept His promise of a Savior from sin, death, and the power of the devil. So here these shepherds come, to see their Savior for themselves, to see that promise from God be fulfilled.
Now as we look at those who are looking in at the Child in the manger, what do they all have in common? They were told what this Child was destined to do by an angel, a messenger sent directly from God. Quite often, you’ll see an angel depicted in a Nativity Scene. The Greek word for angel is literally translated as “Messenger”. The shepherds, Mary, and Joseph were all visited by a messenger from God Himself, who told them what this Child was destined to do. In the hymn “What Child is This”, we hear a hymn version of what this child will do, especially in the 2nd verse where we sing: “Why lies he in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding? Good Christian fear, for sinners here the silent word is pleading. Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me, for you. Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary!” This Child was no ordinary child, He is Immanuel, God with us in human flesh. This is the long promised Messiah, who would go to the Cross to win forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation for all people. This is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords! This is God Himself! Today, through the sharing of the Word, you have had a visit from an Angel, in this case, a called and ordained Messenger of God, who is bringing you the same message that the Angels gave to Mary, to Joseph, and to those Shepherds that first Christmas so many years ago. That message points you to the manger, where your peace, goodwill, and salvation are!
What’s amazing as we take one last look at this scene is how humble it is. The Word made flesh is born not in the powerful city of Jerusalem, but lowly Bethlehem. His parents are not of the family of Caesar Augustus, the Emperor of the day, but a humble carpenter and a young maiden. His first visitors are not rulers, military leaders, or the rich and mighty of society, but humble, lowly shepherds, among the lowest of society. His first bed is not the comfortable cradle one would expect to find in the palace, but an old wooden feeding trough filled with some straw. While angels sing “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” that night in the sky, it’s hard to find the glory, because it’s hidden in simple human flesh.
For most of our world today, when they gaze upon a Nativity Scene, the true Glory of God gets passed by. That’s the blindness of sin at work. You see, if we’re going to talk about that baby in the manger, we have to talk about him being a Savior. And when we talk about Him being a Savior, we have to talk about being saved from something, in particular, our own sin of thought, word, and deed. And on a day where the world wants to talk about peace and joy and just be happy, they want to keep that part of Christmas quiet. But, God has sent you a messenger, who has shared His Word with you; so now, you see that this picture in Bethlehem for it’s true glory. You see your Savior looking up at you in that manger. The One who was born to save you from sin, death, and the devil! And that’s good news!
When one thinks about it, just as His life begins in a humble, seemingly un-glorious way, His life will also end in a similar way. His glory will be hidden then when that same flesh we see in the manger is pierced by nails driven into His hands and side, and that same blood is shed on a cross outside of Jerusalem. To the eyes of the world, it’s one of the least glorious scenes one will ever see. But through the eyes of faith, we see the true Glory of this Man as our Savior suffers the punishment of our sin on that cross. That’s how He brings us peace with God. That’s what He was destined to do from his birth in this stable!
For the world, Christmas is a time of peace, joy, and happiness. Yet, that doesn’t change the fact that we live in a sinful, fallen world, and there are many people who have a hard time seeing it, or feel that their “Christmas Joy” has been ripped out from under them. Some this Christmas worry about their future, will they still have a job next year? How will we provide for our family’s needs? Others will sit down for family gatherings, and there will be an empty place because a loved one in the family has died. Others suffer through pain, suffering, and loneliness, caused by the actions and words of others who intended to cause that hurt, that leaves them ripped of any sense of joy and happiness, and they wonder if they will ever experience joy again. For them, a sentiment of peace and joy this Christmas is next to impossible to find, or some sort of a cruel joke.
But with the eyes of faith, we look into the manger, and find our true peace. That peace that the angels spoke about is not a worldly peace that can be easily disturbed, but a peace we have with God. Because of what His Son will do for us, our sins of thought, word, and deed are forgiven! For those of us who worry about what the future will bring, we find peace this Christmas Day because of the Baby in the manger! For those who have lost a loved one who has died in the faith, like I have, they can be comforted at the thought of their loved one spending this Christmas festival with that Baby forever, where they no longer know tears, sorrow, or pain. It’s all because of that baby in a manger.
He’s the greatest Gift ever given! Lots of gifts are going to be exchanged this Christmas. Some of them will be great gifts, things you’ve always wanted. Yet, toys break, electronic gates go on the fritz, or quickly become outdated. That new sweater you got will get snagged on the filing cabinet and become unraveled. Gifts of this world wear out or break. This gift in the manger from God to us, the gift of His Son in human flesh to save us from our sin, death, and the devil is the perfect gift. It never stops giving. It never comes in the wrong size. It never wears out or breaks. And in the Christmas Gospel, you see this Gift face to face!
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in deepest night, are lit up with a brilliant sight. Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. The spread of his influence and of his peace will never end. Therefore, go out into the world with great joy, and the grace of Bethlehem’s matchless Child, the love of the God who never ceases to amaze, and the fellowship of the Spirit who never wearies, will be with you this holy night and evermore.
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The Bible texts of the Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel lessons are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Church of Christ in the USA, and used by permission.
To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.