************ Sermon on Luke 2:1-20 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on December 25, 2013
"Responses to Christmas"
Christmas Day 2013
Hardly anyone is as weak as a newborn baby. I go to the hospital after a little one is born and see how helpless they are and how dependent they are upon their parents for everything. For a new mother it can be overwhelming.
Humanly speaking, the baby Jesus was as weak any other baby. However, as far as heaven was concerned, He was also the center of all power. When we study our Scripture reading we see that His birth uprooted the entire Roman world. His birth brought angels from heaven. And, His birth caused shepherds to hurry off.
This year for Advent we've been looking at responses to the good news of Christmas according to the Gospel of Luke. So far we have seen the unbelief of Zechariah - Take One; the faith of Mary; the joy of baby John, Elizabeth, and Mary; and, the worship of Zechariah - Take Two. Today, in the Christmas story, we see three more responses to the good news of Christmas as we look at Caesar, the angels, and the shepherds.
I Caesar and the Entire Roman World
A "In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world ... And everyone went to his own town to register" (Lk 2:1,3). Do you know what this tells me? This tells me Caesar was one of the great men of the world. He commanded the thousands of the Roman legions. His was an empire that stretched to the far corners of the earth. His was power and might. Augustus commanded and the whole world was on the road to be enrolled. People heeded his every command and followed his every wish.
I read this past week that 94.5 million Americans are traveling for Christmas. The number sounds impressive but it includes only 30% of the population. In comparison, the decree of Caesar Augustus included every adult male in the Empire.
B Throughout the history of salvation God made many promises about the Messiah. He promised that this Savior would be fully and completely human – not an animal, not an angel, but a man (Gen 3:15; Heb 2:16). He was going to be a Jew, not a Gentile (Gen 12:1-3; Num 24:17). He would be from the tribe of Judah (Gen 49:10). He would be of the family of David (2 Sam 7:1-17). He would be born of a virgin (Isa 7:14). He would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).
All of this happened just as Scripture said, and Caesar unknowingly played an important part. If it wasn't for Caesar's decree, Joseph and Mary would have stayed in Nazareth. After all, Mary was in her ninth month of pregnancy and about to give birth. Even today, travel is not easy for women about to give birth. So you can well imagine that the 80 mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was not taken by choice.
Every fourteen years or so Rome took a census for both military and tax purposes. Every male had to return to the city of his fathers to record his name, occupation, property, and family. Caesar issued a decree that it was census time again.
Because of Caesar's decree, Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem. Because of Caesar's decree, the baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem, just as God had announced centuries before. Telling us what? Telling us Caesar Augustus may have been ruling but God was in control. As God says through Jeremiah, "I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled" (Jer 1:12).
C Did you notice the title used for the baby in the manger? He is called "Christ the Lord" (Lk 2:11). Caesar is the one with armies, palaces, tax collectors, and governors; yet, the baby in the manager is called "Christ the Lord." He was born in a stable, not a palace; He was laid in a manger, not a cradle; His earthly parents were but poor peasants; He had no servants, yet they called Him Master; He had no degree, yet they called Him Teacher; He had no medicines, yet He was the Healer; He had no army, yet kings feared Him; He won no military battles, yet He conquered the world. He, not Caesar, is the Greatest Man in history.
In the Roman world, Caesar was called lord. Does this mean Jesus is the rival of Caesar? Absolutely not! Rivalry implies equality. Caesar, as we know, is not Jesus' equal. Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords. As God asks through Isaiah, "To whom will you compare me or count me equal? To whom will you liken me that we may be compared?" (Isa 46:5).
Already in the Christmas story we see that Jesus is the King and Lord of the universe. He is not a limited monarch, reduced by constitutional restrictions; rather, He is an absolute sovereign. He is the Rock cut out of the mountain in Daniel 2 Who breaks in pieces all the kingdoms of this world, scattering them as dust and ashes in the wind.
II The Angels of Heaven
A So far we have looked at earthly responses to the good news of Christmas. Luke now informs us there is a heavenly response as well.
The angels of heaven must have been amazed when they saw the Creator born as a creature. They must have been amazed when they saw the Word coming as a speechless baby. They must have been amazed when they saw the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor (2 Cor 8:9). Speaking about the good news, Peter tells us "angels long to look into these things" (1 Pet 1:12). In other words, the Christmas angels did not fully see or understand what was going on. But what they did see the first Christmas amazed them. As Paul wrote to Timothy:
(1Tim 3:16) Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.It is a mystery. It is amazing. Even to the angels.
B Luke begins with one angel. This angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds and announced good news of great joy for all the people: a Savior has been born; He is Christ the Lord. The first evangelist, telling others about the Savior, was one of God's mighty angels. He was God's messenger – even as you and I are called to be God's messengers – and brings good news.
I want you to notice what happens after this angel announces the good news of great joy: the news of Jesus' birth brought a host of angels from heaven to earth.
(Lk 2:13-14) Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, (14) "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."
The angels don't fully understand what is going on. Christ Jesus did not come for the angels (Heb 2:16). Redemption is not for the angels. They have never experienced the grace of God. The angels only participate as witnesses. Yet, when the good news of Christmas is announced they go from heaven to earth and sing "Glory to God in the highest."
C The last couple of Sunday evenings we have looked at the glory of God in terms of the Tabernacle. Remember how the glory of God filled the tabernacle? Remember how the glory of God was with the Israelites during all their travels as a cloud by day and fire by night (cf Ex 40:34-38)? We know this same glory filled the Temple at its dedication (1 Kings 8:10-11). Now, the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians when they sacked the city of Jerusalem. Though it was rebuilt at the time of Ezra and renovated by Herod the Great, not once are we told that it was again filled with the glory of God. The glory had departed because of Israel's sin (1 Sam 4:21; Ezek 8:4; 9:3; 10:4,18; 11:22-23).
On Christmas Day, the glory of God returned to earth for the first time in centuries. As John put it in his gospel:
(Jn 1:14) The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.The lowly manger was filled with God's glory because Jesus was there.
The angels come from heaven to earth to sing of this glory: "Glory to God in the highest" (Lk 2:14).
III The Shepherds
A We also want to consider the shepherds' response to the good news of Christmas.
You need to realize that shepherds were outcasts in Israel. Their work made them ceremonially unclean and unfit for worship. Their work kept them away from the altar for weeks at a time; but it was only by coming to the altar that they could be made clean. It was so easy and so common for them to steal, that there were laws against buying wool, lambs, and milk directly from shepherds. Nor were shepherds allowed to testify in court.
It is no wonder the shepherds were terrified when an angel appeared to them (Lk 2:9). They were sinners who feared an encounter with a mighty warrior of the Holy God. As far as they knew, angels appeared to punish sin and lead into exile. So, of course they were terrified. They were as terrified as all sinners in the hands of an angry God.
B But the words of the angel were not judgment but good news: "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy ... a Savior has been born to you" (Lk 2:11). A Savior – for sinners like shepherds!
We need to see ourselves in the shepherds. We, too, are sinners who rebel against God. We, too, deserve punishment. We, too, are outcasts – away from God and His presence. But God has provided a Savior. God has provided a way of peace.
C So, notice what the shepherds do. When the shepherds hear the good news they "hurried off" to see this thing that has happened, which the Lord had told them about (Lk 2:16). They "hurried off" to see the baby lying in the manger. They "hurried off" to see the Savior.
When they had seen Him they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child (Lk 2:17). If an angel was the first evangelist of the good news of Christmas, then the shepherds were the second evangelist. But, then, as we all realize, good news is for sharing. It is not something you keep to yourself. For instance, yesterday we Skyped with our son Chris and family in South Dakota and we talked about the baby they are expecting in May. Yes, good news is meant to be shared. And that's exactly what the shepherds were doing and that is exactly what you and I are called to do. Do you see the irony? Shepherds, who were not permitted to testify in court, were the first human witnesses to Jesus as Savior and Lord.
Notice how it ends. We are told the shepherds were "glorifying and praising God" for all the things they had heard and seen (Lk 2:20). They saw the baby Jesus wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Somehow they believed this baby was Savior and Lord. So, they add their voices of praise to the echoes of the angels' song.
Let me end with Mary. "Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart" (Lk 2:19).
Mary "treasured" the good news of Christmas. She protected. She valued. She considered it to be important. And, Mary "pondered" the good news of Christmas. She thought about it. She considered it. She meditated on it.
What exactly did Mary treasure and ponder? Mary treasured and pondered the good news of Jesus as Savior and Lord. Mary treasured and pondered the good news of the Messiah's birth. Mary treasured and pondered the good news of the virgin birth and the conception by the Spirit. Mary treasured and pondered the good news of the Kingdom of heaven. Mary treasured and pondered how nothing is impossible with God. Mary treasured and pondered how God has remembered His covenant promises.
Contrast Mary with an article I read in the Visalia Times-Delta on Monday. Written by the same woman I quoted on Thanksgiving Day. Written by the woman who thanked the universe for all her good fortune. Listen to what she says about Christmas:
I grew up with an atheist. And not just any atheist, but a second-generation atheist. And not just a second-generation atheist, but one who loved Christmas.The title of the editorial: "Even unbelievers love this holiday."
Ladies and gentlemen, meet my mother.
Yes, it's true, my mother is an atheist. She does not believe in God, nor in any afterlife. She thinks you are born, you live, then you die, the end ...
And my mom loves Christmas. When I was a kid we did tons of holiday shopping for her many relatives, put up trees, and decorated the house. Mom sent out dozens of Christmas cards and we baked millions of cookies. My most favorite memories are of us singing Christmas Carols in the car with my mom and sister – my mom especially loved to belt out "Oh Holy Night" ...
We even had a nativity scene ...
No treasuring here, no pondering here, about the good news of Christmas. Instead, it is simply a holiday. It is a time of year to connect with family and friends and to shop until you drop.
Like Mary, I hope and pray that we treasure and ponder the good news of Christmas.
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