As you look back on your life, can you recall those moments when you just seemed to be in the right place at the right time? There was a chance meeting that led to a great job. You found the person who became your spouse because they just so happen to be at the same place at the same time.
What comes to mind for me took place during the Christmas season of my freshman year of college. A group of us went hotel hopping in downtown Kansas City. For those of you unfamiliar with this practice, it’s where you go from hotel to hotel to enjoy live music.
At one stop, we sat in the lobby listening to a pianist and some random gentlemen sat down next to us and struck up a conversation. He had been drinking, so it was entertaining but as we got to know each other over the course of an hour, he called over the server and said, “Give my friends a round of drinks, they’re on me.” Of course, none of us were 21 so we settled for soda.
When the drinks arrived, the man revealed who he was; the president of NBC studios.
And then he said something that I will never forget, “You want to know why I’m buying you a round of drinks? Because you showed up”. And then he looked each of us in the eye and told us, “There will be times in your lives where you just need to show up – even when you think you’re too busy, life is too hectic, or you just don’t feel like it - because sometimes when you just show up, you will find yourself at the right place, at the right time . . . today, you got a round of drinks but on another day, simply showing up might change the trajectory of your life.”
Things happen to us, both good and bad, that we can't foresee and couldn't have planned. We have no crystal ball that allows us to peer into the future. But there is someone who knows both the past and the future, and that is our Creator.
He doesn’t sit disinterestedly in heaven watching the world spin and saying, “Isn’t that interesting.” He acts and intervenes in the lives of people like us, revealing both his love and his power. His most definitive act was sending his Son, Jesus, whose birth we celebrate during in the Christmas season.
But the Bethlehem event was not a random occurrence. It was part of God's plan that had been in place since the creation of the world and it happened at just right place, at just the right moment, for just the right reason.
Earlier we heard a portion of Paul's letter to the Galatians where he wrote, “When the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman . . .”
When was that “right time”? Luke 2 tells us that Christ was born when Caesar Augustus ruled in Rome and Quirinius was governor of Syria. That was the moment in history when "the time was right."
Why was that the right moment?
As we look back on it from the vantage point of history, we can see that God had been getting the world ready for his Son's arrival. Events and circumstances had been falling into place over the course of centuries.
Three hundred years before those shepherds heard the angels sing in the skies just outside Bethlehem, the armies of Alexander the Great conquered the Mediterranean world and beyond. They left behind them the legacy of a common language and a shared culture. Wherever one went in the ancient world if you spoke Greek, you could be understood.
After the Greek empire faded along came the Romans. Their legions, like Alexander's before them, overcame nation after nation. By the time of Jesus, the empire of the Caesars spread for thousands of miles. They maintained a firm and sometimes harsh control over conquered peoples, but along with that control came some advantages.
There was a general peace and a consistent application of Roman law. They also created a network of roads that made it possible for them to move their troops quickly and easily from one place to another.
This was the world into which Christ was born, and because there was freedom of movement, the rule of law, a common language, a shared culture, and a general peace, the followers of Jesus could travel easily and safely, and tell the world about him in a language everyone could understand.
Never in the history of the world had something like this been possible. God had been at work arranging these factors through the course of centuries, even using pagan empires to bring about his plan.
But it wasn't just the presence of these logistical factors that made it just the right time for God's Son to be born. There was a spiritual hunger that made people look for something more than they had known.
That was true among the Jewish people. God had given them great promises. They were given a land and a system of laws to govern their worship, their work, and their corporate life that was moral, just, and compassionate.
Yet, by the time Jesus came, God's law had been turned into little more than measuring stick by which some people judged others as failures and themselves as "righteous."
Their worship had turned into sterile ceremonialism that left the common person wondering how to connect with God. The religious systems of other peoples were even worse. The gods of the Greeks and Romans were a confusing collection of immoral deities, superstition, and intellectualized beliefs that offered no solutions to the everyday problems of life.
When people asked questions the same questions we do, "Why am I here? What is life all about?” There were no answers.
The birth of Jesus at Bethlehem occurred at a crossroads moment in history. People in many places were primed to hear some good news and were more accessible than they had ever been before.
What was this good news? Look again at verse 4, “But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman...” Let that sink in for a moment: Of all the miraculous events connected with our faith, this may be the most amazing and most mysterious.
God sent his Son, born of a woman. He didn’t dispatch an angel or send a message through a prophet or put sign in the sky – he came himself. He became small and weak and vulnerable. God sent his Son, born of a woman.
The first part of the good news is that God came himself. The second part is this, “God sent his Son to buy freedom for us who were slaves”.
Everyone in the ancient world knew all about slavery. By the end of the 1st century there were 2-3 million slaves. A slave’s freedom could be purchased; this process of gaining their liberty was called “redemption.”
But what did Paul mean when he said Jesus came “to buy freedom for us”? He was writing about the basic human tendency to make a mess of our lives and our inability to correct it on our own.
In preparation for today’s sermon, I read a story about German scientist who did some experiments in which he blindfolded people and asked them to walk in a straight line. No one could do it. They all thought they were going straight, but none of them did.
The scientist concluded that “Without external cues, there’s something in us that makes us turn.” The only way to avoid a crooked course is to fix your eyes on something ahead of you.
The same thing happens when we try to live by the moral, ethical or relational compass that our culture gives us, or the one we try to make up for ourselves.
None of us is perfect, and in fact if we asked everyone here this morning if they live up to their own moral code, no matter where it comes from, we’d all say, “Well, not completely.”
In some ways we are all slaves to our passions or goals or ambitions. Or we allow other people to dictate our actions and manipulate our emotions.
When we take our eyes of God’s standards it’s like we put on a blindfold and even though we think we’re walking straight, we’re not. This crooked path alienates us from God, from others and from ourselves.
Jesus came to take off the blindfold, so we could see ourselves as we really are. Then he offers us forgiveness and freedom from our past. That was achieved when he died on the cross.
At Christmas we focus on Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ lowly birth, angels and shepherds. That’s all good, but there is a direct link between the manger and the cross; they cannot be separated. God sent his son, born of a woman, to gain our freedom through his death and resurrection.
The third piece of the good news is found in verse 5: “God sent his Son…so he could adopt us as his very own children.”
As you all know, my wife works in the adoptions field. She has described for me what happens when parents go through the process to adopt a child out of the foster care system and all I can say is that you really must want that child, to go through all the steps.
And on the day, they go to court for the finalization of the adoption. They invite family and friends to be there when the judge says to “this child is yours.” That is a moment of unfettered joy that is something to behold.
That’s what the whole Christmas story is about.
It’s about the moment when you realize that everything that happened –
- recruiting a young unmarried woman and her unsuspecting fiancé,
- the long trip to Bethlehem,
- the birth in a stable,
- the angels singing to the shepherds,
- the Magi trekking hundreds of miles following a star,
Jesus entering the world at just the right time when the good news about him could find its way to a waiting world in way that had never before been possible – was designed for that moment when you open your arms to God, and find he’s been waiting to adopt you into his family for a long time.
This was always his plan, and it was spawned by his deep and unshakable love for all of us and each of us. Maybe you have heard this good news many times before and it just never made much sense to you. Perhaps, though, this is the right time and the right place for you to join the family. There couldn’t be a better time.