For me, the most difficult part of preparing a sermon is typically not my study and understanding of the text. Yes, sometimes I come to a difficult passage that require intense labor to understand, and even then I may not be sure about a lot of the details. But most of the time, I work through a passage and feel like I have a good understanding of what it means. The hard part is then thinking about you all and asking myself, “What is the best way to frame our approach to this text for the life of our church at this time?” There may be countless ways to answer that question, and settling on one approach that is timely and focused is usually the most difficult thing that I do in preparing to preach.
So I am thankful for brothers who help me with this. This past week I was working through that question, and Tom showed me a video of author Paul Tripp talking about Christmas, and when I heard it I thought, “That’s it!” Here is what Tripp says on the video:
“I love the Christmas season. I love the sights, the sounds, the colors, the tastes. Maybe what that means is I love the Christmas season for all the wrong reasons. And I think there’s a reason for that. I think it’s because the story that Christmas is really about has become so familiar to me that I don’t pay the kind of attention to it that I should. I know what I need. I need—again and again—to revisit that story, to revisit what it tells me about God and about myself and about life in a fallen world and about the amazing glory of God’s grace. You see, this season is exciting to all of us, but maybe it’s exciting for the wrong reasons. Maybe the deeper joys of Christmas have been lost on us because we quit paying attention to what the angels are telling us and what the manger preaches to us and what the worship of the shepherds says to us and all of the truths that are embedded there. I know what I need. I need to reexamine that story again and again and again because there are layers and layers of life-altering, heart-rescuing, agenda-setting truths that are embedded in every piece of that story. I know that I often celebrate Christmas for the wrong reason, and I would suspect that I am not alone.”
Tripp highlights here the problem of familiarity. When we are overly familiar with something, we often lose touch with its power and wonder. We can all too easily domesticate it. And as a culture, that is what we have done with the Christmas story. Instead of hearing it as the shocking announcement of the dawning of a kingdom that upends everything, we have turned it into an annual reaffirmation of non-threatening middle class values. For most Americans, Christmas is the chance to rededicate ourselves once more to valuing our families, or being kind to our neighbors, or recapturing the wonder of childhood.
There is no way you can pay close attention to the details of Luke 2 and derive a reaffirmation of American middle class values from it. Try as we might, we cannot domesticate this story. Luke wants us, like Mary in verse 19, to ponder these things in our hearts, searching out what God is saying to us and asking how it should affect us. And as we do that, we find that the story of the Messiah’s birth overturns our expectations about God and his kingdom and thus reorients our entire lives. The birth of the Messiah does not merely summon us to love our families, to be kind to others, or to hold on to our sense of childlike wonder. It summons us to die to ourselves and find life again—true life—in the one born to be our Savior, Christ the Lord.
I want to make two observations on the birth of the Messiah from this passage. First,
I. The Messiah’s Birth Is an Act of God (vv. 1-5, 21).
Insurance companies use the phrase “acts of God” to refer to events that are completely beyond human control: floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes. And I am using the phrase in a similar way here: the birth of the Messiah is an event completely beyond human ability. Only God can establish his kingdom. Only God can save.
Three observations in these verses highlight that point. One is political, one is biological, and one is covenantal. Politically, the house of David lies in ruins. There is no king reigning from David’s throne, nor has there been one since King Zedekiah’s removal from the throne by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The reason for this is that David’s line had been a miserable failure, declining into greater and greater idolatry until God removed the throne and left the once glorious kingdom of Israel in ruins.
The story highlights that political reality by showing us who is calling the shots. It is no Davidic king. It is a Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus. His word moves the masses of people to their ancestral homes to register so that they can pay taxes to the Roman government. The bureaucratic words “registered” and “registration” appear four times in five verses here, two Roman officials are identified by name, and the one man in this story who is a descendant of David is a nobody from the backwoods town of Nazareth in Galilee. All of this is a painful reminder that the kings from David’s line had been unable to establish a permanent kingdom that would bring God’s promises to fulfillment. And yet, this passage is pulsating with a hopeful reminder that those promises still stand. In verse 4, when Joseph is identified as a man “of the house and lineage of David,” that word “house” should ring in our ears. In 2 Samuel 7 David decided to build a temple in Jerusalem as a home for the Ark of the Covenant. But instead, God said to David, “You won’t build me a house. I will build you a house.” And that divinely built house would be a dynasty that would hold an everlasting throne that would become the central focus of God’s promises of redemption. The exile had appeared to topple that house to the ground. And yet, here we have a descendant of David making his way to the city of David, the city prophesied in Micah 5:2 as the birthplace of the coming Messiah, and it is all happening fortuitously as a result of a pagan emperor’s decree. In other words, God is moving to fulfill his promise.
In addition to a political observation, there is also a biological observation showing that this event is an act of God. Verse 5 tells us that Joseph went up from Nazareth to Bethlehem “with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.” That’s an odd combination of words. Mary is identified as both Joseph’s “betrothed,” and the one who is “with child.” The fact that Joseph and Mary travel together indicates that they were living together as husband and wife now. And yet, Luke does not refer to Mary as his wife because the marriage has not yet been consummated. Mary is still a virgin. By all natural accounts, nothing should be able to come from the womb of this girl. In the book of Genesis, when Abraham’s wife Sarah believes that she will never be able to have a child in fulfillment of God’s promise to her husband Abraham, she gives to Abraham her servant girl Hagar so that he can impregnate her. Abraham does just that, and Ishmael is born. But Ishmael is born according to the initiative of Sarah and Abraham, according to their plan to fulfill God’s promise. Fourteen years later, when Sarah’s monthly cycle has long since ended and her body no longer produces the natural potential for life, God fulfills his word of promise and gives Abraham and Sarah a son, Isaac. Isaac was born miraculously, by God’s extraordinary power in fulfillment of his word, but it still involved Abraham and Sarah’s participation through sexual intercourse. Here, we have a similar story, only the human element has been completely removed. Mary is not a barren woman. She is a virgin. She and her husband have never consummated their marriage, and the child she carries in her womb, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, is there by God’s power alone, without any human contribution.
And then a third observation that highlights that the Messiah’s birth is an act of God is covenantal. At the end of this story, we see in verse 21 that Jesus was circumcised and named on the eighth day of his life. It’s important for us to ponder the meaning of the rite of circumcision. As an act, it represents the cutting off of the flesh. In Scripture, the word “flesh” is often used to refer to human weakness and inability before God. When God originally gave that sign to Abraham in Genesis 17 as a sign of his covenant, it was as though he was saying, “With this act, you will demonstrate that the power to bring forth from your body a son, and then from that son a whole nation, does not come from you but from my Spirit.” And the rite of circumcision was practiced for generations. Every time an Israelite boy was circumcised, it was another reminder that only God can fulfill his promises. The circumcision of Jesus shows us his submission to the Law and signifies that his saving work is not accomplished by the power of the flesh but by the Spirit of God. It’s no accident that one chapter over, the Spirit will descend upon Jesus at his baptism, anointing and empowering him for his ministry, and then in the following chapter Jesus will stand in a synagogue in Nazareth and launch his public ministry by reading from Isaiah 61, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” It is not by the flesh, but by the power of the Spirit that God’s purpose is fulfilled and his kingdom is established.
The birth of the Messiah is an act of God. That’s a message we need to be reminded of constantly. How easy is it for us to slip into a pattern of life in which we imagine that we are in control! We make plans, we implement plans, we manage plans. Those are all good things, but if we’re not careful, we can be sucked into the common American mentality that our plans are the supreme good, the source of our greatest security, and the rightful focus of our most eager pursuits. And we don’t intend to leave God out of our plans. We have a little place carved out for him right there, where he can fit easily and always be available to support us in the building of our own little kingdom.
But what if God decided instead to topple that little kingdom? What if he burned it to the ground and said, “No. I have no interest in what your idolatrous hands can produce. Now leave that paltry kingdom behind and come enter my kingdom. It’s more glorious than anything you have ever imagined, if you can get over the fact that it’s not yours to plan, build, or manage. It’s only yours to receive.”? Would you follow him? Would you relinquish the ridiculous notion that you are in control of your life and submit yourself in humble faith to him? The Christmas story is a vivid reminder that the only hope for this broken human race is found in the kingdom of God, unilaterally established by him through the work of Jesus Christ, the God-man.
The Messiah’s birth is an act of God. A second observation for us to ponder is this:
II. The Messiah’s Birth Is Good News for the Poor (vv. 6-20).
Good news for the poor is a major theme of Luke’s Gospel. I earlier made reference to Jesus launching his ministry in Nazareth by reading from the scroll of Isaiah 61. Here is the full quotation of what he reads at that time: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke frames Jesus’ ministry as the fulfillment of the Old Testament law of the Jubilee. The Jubilee was an institution that God commanded Israel to observe in which, every fifty years, debts would be forgiven, slaves would be released, and land would be returned to families who had been forced to sell it for survival. In other words, the Jubilee was a brand new start for the poor.
In Luke’s Gospel, “the poor” to whom Jesus brings good news are not merely the financially destitute. They are poor in a number of ways: sometimes financially, sometimes socially, often times both, but always spiritually. We see examples of “the poor” in the various stories of Jesus’ ministry: the untouchable leper whom Jesus touches and heals, the demon-oppressed man among the tombs whom Jesus liberates from spiritual oppression, the twelve nobody disciples whom Jesus chooses to reconstitute Israel, the ceremonially unclean woman with a perpetual flow of blood who reaches out to Jesus in a crowd and is healed. Even wealthy Zacchaeus is “poor” because he is a social outcast as a chief tax collector for the Roman government, a traitor to his people, and an encounter with Jesus changes him forever.
What about this story shows that the Messiah’s birth is good news for the poor? Two things. First, the humble circumstances of his birth, by which he identified with the poor he came to save. Verses 6-7 tell us in very simple terms what happened while Joseph and Mary were stuck in Bethlehem for their government registration: the days of her pregnancy were fulfilled, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. Like any mother would, she swaddled him, but then surprisingly, she laid him in a feeding trough for animals because the local shelter was completely full. We don’t know the exact setting where Jesus was born. It could have been a stable, a cave, or even a courtyard. But we can tell from this story that he was born in a setting that was not fit for giving birth. He was born in a place where animals were kept, showing from his first breath on earth that he had come to identify with the poor, the outcast, the needy, the destitute. When Prince George, the son of William and Kate and the future king of England, was born in 2013, the news spread across the world instantly. But the birth of Jesus, the King of all kings, was not heralded across the empire. It was, in fact, barely noticed, much like the poor to whom Jesus came to proclaim good news.
But he was announced to some, and that brings us to the second element that shows us his birth is good news for the poor. As a group of shepherds were watching over their flock in the open fields near Bethlehem, all of a sudden the veil of heaven was pulled back before their eyes, revealing the presence of a supernatural visitor and the shining light of divine glory all around them. Naturally, they were terrified, but the angel calmed them with a joyful announcement: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Those beautiful words “unto you” echo Isaiah 9:6: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.” Jesus was not born merely unto Mary and Joseph. He belongs to “all the people” (v. 10), meaning all the people of Israel (redefined by the new covenant). He came, not merely to be a Savior, but to be Savior to you and to me. And these shepherds are the ones privileged to hear of it first. The angel was not sent to the elites of society: the rulers, the priests, the experts in the law. He came to common shepherds, another example of “the poor” who receive good news. We would have expected that when the veil of heaven was pulled back, giving a glimpse into the world of the supernatural, it would have happened at the Temple, where, literally, a veil hung that separated God’s place from the public. But instead, it happened in an open field, among ordinary men.
And then one angel suddenly became a multitude, singing a song of glory to God in the highest (in heaven) and singing of peace to men of God’s favor on earth. The veil was pulled back a bit more, and for a few brief moments the shepherds became the first and only witnesses of the heavenly celebration of the dawning of God’s kingdom on earth. When the angels left and the light of divine glory faded, the shepherds went immediately to Bethlehem to look for the sign announced by the angel. There were probably several babies in Bethlehem that night, but only one would have been found lying in a manger. And when they found him, they became the first evangelists in history, reporting the heavenly news about Jesus to all who had gathered there with his parents. Verse 20 tells us that after this, the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God. This is a common way for Luke to portray people who have had a life-changing encounter with Jesus. We don’t hear from these shepherds again in the Gospels, but here is what I like to imagine about them, at least some who lived long enough to see it. I like to imagine some of these men around 30 years later hearing about a bizarre prophet who is baptizing people in the desert of Judea. Intrigued, they go out to hear him preach, and they see a man dressed in camel hair calling on people to repent of their sins, announcing the nearness of the kingdom of God, and saying, “I baptize you with water, but the one who comes after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” And I can imagine the shepherds, now old men, looking at each other in that moment, and without saying anything, they all know what the others are thinking: “We know exactly who he’s talking about.”
Jesus did not come to the elite and self-sufficient. He came to the poor, the destitute, the needy. Now here’s a mental exercise for you. Most of us are middle class Americans. Compared to the rest of the world and the vast majority of people who have lived throughout history, we are actually very wealthy. When you read in Luke 4:18 that Jesus launches his mission with the words, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor,” is your first thought, “Well, I’m not poor. I guess that’s not for me”? If so, I want to ask you to think again. This is similar to the story in Luke 7 where a notoriously sinful woman shows great affection for Jesus, while Simon the Pharisee shows little. And Jesus tells Simon that one who is forgiven much loves much, and one who is forgiven little loves little. The point of that story is not so that nice, respectable people can read it and say, “Well, I guess I just won’t be able to love Jesus much.” The point is for you to recognize, no matter how respectable you are, that your sins are wretched, your guilt is far more than you can bear, and that yes, you too are desperately in need of the grace of God. In the same way, Jesus’ proclamation of good news for the poor is not meant to make us conclude, “Well, I guess the news isn’t quite so good for me, since I’m not poor.” The point is for us to see how poor we really are. The point is to drive us to the feet of Jesus, where we say to him, “All that I am, all that I have, is nothing. You are my only hope.” The point is for us to internalize the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” To be poor in spirit is to recognize your own spiritual bankruptcy. Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who see how hopeless they are apart from grace. He identifies with the poor in his birth, and the heavenly messenger first announces this glorious news to a rag-tag bunch of shepherds, so that we who are poor might see that, yes, he came for us.
In telling us the story of the dawning of a kingdom that comes only by God’s power and gives hope to those who know how needy they are, Luke exalts God and humbles us. In his book God Is in the Manger, Dietrich Bonhoeffer cuts through the familiarity of a domesticated Christmas story when he raises and answers this question: “Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness.”
God the Son took on human nature so that he might announce and establish a kingdom that overturns our expectations and reorients our lives. The surprising story of his birth testifies to that, as does the purpose for which he was born: not to ride into Jerusalem in triumphant battle over the enemies of Israel, but to be rejected by his own people, hung on a cross in shame, and left there to die under the curse of God. But that day, the darkest of all days in human history, was—again, contrary to our expectations—also the day of God’s greatest triumph. For it was on that day that Jesus Christ endured, in the place of his covenant people, the final judgment that we deserved. And in doing so he fulfilled the angel’s announcement that he had been born to be a savior. And then God raised him from the dead, and in this way Jesus Christ passed through the judgment of death into the life of the kingdom. You may enter into that same life with him if you will die to this world, die to every attempt to build a kingdom around yourself, and receive him in faith. We picture that reality in baptism: full immersion into Christ, showing that we have died, and we no longer live for ourselves, but for him. If you have not taken hold of Jesus Christ, see your poverty before God today and reach out to him in faith.
Those of us who are believers belong to a kingdom that is currently hidden from this world. But in the gathering of the church, we make that kingdom visible. And we do that preeminently through the Lord’s Supper, an act that marks us out weekly as followers of Jesus who are united into one body as his church. So if you are not a baptized believer who is a member in good standing with a local church, an organized group of believers who affirm you publicly as a follower of Jesus, then please let the plates go by this morning. But then let’s talk about the next step you should take to become publicly identifiable with Christ through public identification with a local church. If you are a baptized believer who is a member in good standing with a church, I invite you to eat and drink once again as a foretaste of the coming kingdom. Come, and welcome, to Jesus Christ.