This week we celebrate the birth of Jesus . . . something we do every year.
And now that the tree is up, the house is decorated, the presents are bought, and the anticipation for Christmas morning is building . . . I’m wondering if we truly understand what happened on that night when Christ was born . . . are we able to grasp the significance of that moment in history when this baby enters into humanity, was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger?
In its context . . . this is something that history had been anticipating for years. From the first sin in Genesis 3 and the promise of a savior, all of the Old Testament, a few thousand years of history, was waiting for the coming of a savior, a rescuer, a deliverer, a hero.
Along the way certain prophecies were given, that coming would be none other than Immanuel, God with us. That he would be born of a virgin and that he would be born in the town of Bethlehem.
And then 400 years passed without any prophecy, without any word from God . . .
And then both Matthew and Luke write an account of the one whom all the prophecy spoke of and whom everyone was anticipating.
Let’s recap the story . . .
- It begins when the angel, Gabriel, made a visit to a small town called Nazareth—to a teenager, who was engaged to be married to a man, named Joseph. And he revealed to her that God had chosen her to give birth to Jesus.
- Her question obviously was, “How can this be since I am still a virgin?” And Gabriel essentially says to her, “Leave all the details up to God, because he’s got a plan . . . and you’re a part of it” Mary responded by simply saying, “Yes”
- Then the angel pays a visit to Joseph, who at this point has devised a plan to deal with Mary’s pregnancy. The girl would be sent back home where she and her child will live out their days in quiet shame. But the angel says to Joseph in a dream “don’t be afraid but go ahead and take Mary as your wife because this child was conceived by the Holy Spirit . . . this is God’s son”.
- And although he was still confused, Joseph follows through on his intention to marry and to raise this child as his own, allowing God to put together the pieces, make sense of this puzzle.
- As they were approaching the time of his birth, the government . . . for financial and political and military purposes, wanted to call a census. Everyone was required to go to their hometown to register.
- Both Joseph and Mary were from the line of David. And so they had to go to the city of David, Bethlehem. It was filled with people and so there was no place for them to stay. And so we know that they ended up in an animal stall, seeking shelter. There, Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Do you see what has happened here? God worked this all out so the couple from Nazareth would be in Bethlehem at just the right time for Jesus to be born of the virgin in Bethlehem, fulfilling all of the Old Testament prophetic expectation and promise.
Now you would think that God would want to announce this most amazing, incredible, joyous news ever; an event which will literally change the course of history – in a really big way; a parade, fireworks, twitter feeds, media blitzes, facebook announcements or even a YouTube video that goes viral.
And you would expect an event like the birth of Christ, the one for whom the nation of Israel has been waiting and hoping and praying for thousands of years to be announced to the most important people in the nation . . . Kings, governors, military leaders, men and women of distinction . . .
At the very least, you would think that the religious leaders would have been told. “Hey, the one that you’ve been talking about for so long . . . is here”
But none of them got word. None of them were invited.
Instead, an unidentified angel shows up in the fields to announce this birth to the shepherds . . . a very unlikely group to be chosen.
Why? Because the shepherds were weird.
They lived by themselves, outside of town, sleeping in the open, with animals all the time. That’s not the job you shoot for, that’s the job you end up with.
These guys were border line social outcasts who were often accused of being thieves; If something came up missing – well, it must have been those shepherds. They weren’t even allowed to give testimony in a legal proceeding because their word wasn’t considered trustworthy.
And to make it worse, they couldn’t make it to temple for sacrifices and feasts because they couldn’t abandon their flock, so they weren’t able to maintain religious devotion as the rest of God’s people did. Ironically, the sheep that they cared for were probably the ones used for sacrifices in the temple.
These are the lowest of the low.
So when the angel shows up, it’s surprising because no one ever showed up to hang out with the shepherds. And when he proclaimed to them that good news had come, these shepherds were the last people in the region who would have expected to hear good news, a message from God, via an angel.
Yet they do. But maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised . . . after all,
- Moses was a shepherd before God called him to lead his people out of bondage.
- David was a shepherd boy when he slew the giant Goliath.
- Amos the prophet says, “Why do you want me to preach, I’m just a shepherd?”
- And scripture says that Jesus comes as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
You see, God redeems even this really unpopular, insignificant profession and he does so for his glory.
After the announcement, the heavens open up and out of nowhere angels show up singing . . . glory to God in the highest and peace on earth . . . it’s like a heavenly flash mob.
And they’re singing and they’re dancing and their praising God. And the shepherd’s eyes are huge because they’ve never seen anything like this before and the sheep are freaking out. If they are those fainting sheep, well you know what happens next.
After hearing this good news, the shepherds make the journey—a mile or two—into the town of Bethlehem and it is packed with people registering for the census. And I’m sure it took a number of hours to ask questions, and go seeking this particular son who was born . . . but in the end they find Jesus, lying in a manger just as the angels had proclaimed.
It’s a beautiful scene . . . and every Christmas we celebrate this, right?
Your homes are filled with nativity scenes or we go to a live nativity: there’s Joseph and there’s Mary and there’s a feeding trough, and there’s baby Jesus, and there’s the shepherds, and there’s all the animals.
We know this story . . . we adore this story and we love to celebrate this story
But in its context . . . the first Christmas was highly inappropriate: a baby born in a stable surrounded by the smells and sounds of animals; the big announcement being made to a group of weird shepherds out in a field.
Come on . . . Thousands of years of prophecy and anticipation and then this.
What people wanted was a rescuer, a deliverer, and a hero . . . they wanted a king, like David, who would unify the nation, rally the troops, drive out the Romans, and reestablish the monarchy.
A messiah should make things right in the world by defeating God’s enemies and establishing a new order of things based on real power.
And so when Jesus was born, it slipped right under the radar screen. And the town itself, Bethlehem, David’s own town, didn’t so much as notice another baby born during tax season.
This Messiah was not exactly what people wanted at that time . . . or for that matter, what we want now, in this time.
Although we adore this Christmas story, honestly we expect . . . we anticipate . . . we demand . . . the arrival of a real God, a powerful God, and a God who will confirm our own ideas about who Jesus is and put our opponents in their proper places.
But that’s not what happened on that night when Christ was born . . . God came in a humble way to a humble Mary, and announces it to the humble shepherds. It’s amazing. God takes those people and things that are nothing and he works them for his glory . . . and he does so by his grace.
God chooses people who are humble and lowly and ordinary, because that makes His power and wisdom all the more evident.
If he were to have chosen people who are the obvious choices; the gifted the talented, the holy . . . then the results can be attributed to human effort and human talent.
But when he uses average people, then all the credit for the results go to him.
You see this is God’s story . . . it’s a story that has been written since the beginning of time and is a story that is still being written today . . . and what I love about his story is that God continually says, “I come down to you, and you don’t go up to me. It’s about me being humbled, not you being religious.”
And so, this Christmas let us be surprised by God’s Glory as he reveals himself in the most unexpected ways.
The angel said, “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.”
And Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes. He’s bundled up tight. He comes not in wealth but in poverty. He comes not to a big city but to a small town. He comes not to known parents but humble peasants. And he is laid in his first throne, which is not a bassinet or a crib, but it’s the feeding trough of an animal. God comes into human history humbly. And he comes in a way that no one expected for his glory and by grace. And he brings with him a kingdom that will reign forever and ever.
That’s the story. That’s the good news.
And it’s for me and it’s for you . . . hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!