How do I publish a message for Dec. 12 on Nov. 30? Easy--I work ahead!
THE MYSTERY OF CHRISTMAS
December 12. 2004
Dr. Glenn Layne
Charles Simpson, a great Southern Baptist preacher, joked about his attitude as a young preacher. “That Bible is only 3 inches thick. I’ll have it preached out in 3 or 4 years!”
But that is nonsense. You can never get to the bottom of Biblical truth. You can’t exhaust it. You can’t wear it out. God’s word says, in Isaiah 55:9,
As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
How high is heaven about the earth? Well, the known universe is at least 30 billion light years in all directions. We’re like ants crawling around trying to understand Einstein’s theory of relativity. There’s just no way to fit God-knowledge into our little pea-brains.
We aren’t lost in space, though. God has chosen to reveal Himself to us. That’s the key to it all. The God revealed in the Bible is the God who chooses to make Himself known, not a god we made up.
So we have two opposite realities: God’s ways and thoughts are a mystery to us, but God has chosen to show enough of Himself so we can receive His love and worship Him and become part of His forever family.
It was a process over time. Hebrews 1:1-3a says,
1In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.
God spoke through prophets, like Moses and Isaiah and Malachi. But all these guys were the opening act to the biggest self-revelation of God of all time: the Son of God. The Son is no mere prophet; He’s “the heir of all things” (everything belongs to Him); He’s how God made the universe; He’s the “radiance” of God, and the “exact representation of God’s being.” Now that’s a mystery—a wonderful, thrilling mystery. How can God become a man?
Simple fact is, while I can say the words, I can’t fully wrap my brain around this. How is it possible for eternal God to be born? How can the God who fills the universe also fit into a feeding trough? God, by definition, needs nothing to sustain Him, but this Jesus didn’t just eat—there was a time He nursed at Mary’s breast.
Last week, when we looked at the marvel of Christmas, we did so through the account of Jesus’ birth in Matthew. You may recall that Matthew’s account is written from the standpoint of Joseph. A “marvel” is deep, but a mystery is even deeper. Luke’s account relies on Mary, and is told from her point of view. Luke probably interviewed Mary around 60 AD, which means that she was probably in her late 70s or early 80s, and had had a long time to ponder the story. And that’s the story—the mysterious story—that we look to today.
The Background (Luke 2:1-3)
1In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3And everyone went to his own town to register.
In the Roman Empire censuses were taken every fourteen years for assessing taxes and figuring out who’s eligible for military service. There’s evidence this was done every 14 years, so Luke makes it clear that this is the first census done under Quirinius, which would make it 6 BC. That’s right; when a medieval monk tried to figure out the year Jesus was born, he was off by at least four years, more likely 6. So if you really want to be technical, I guess that this is really 2010 AD, not 2004!
That census forced Mary and Joseph to go to Bethlehem, which must have been Joseph’s hometown. It means he also probably had property there, some land. It was also a city of significance for both of them, since both were descendants of King David, and Bethlehem is David’s hometown. Jesus' birth in Bethlehem also fulfilled the prophecy that the Messiah would descend from David and be born in David's hometown. Micah 5:2 says,
"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times."
So just as Paul wrote in Galatians, the passage we looked at two weeks ago, Jesus was born at just the right place, and at just the right time. Galatians 4:4-5 says,
4But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, 5to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.
You see, God had been preparing for this moment from all eternity. The coming of Jesus was not a back-up plan. It’s the only plan. Jesus, the Son of God, is eternal, as is God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. In God’s plan to make a family for Himself from the peoples of earth, it was always the plan for God the Son to become one of us. Why? Only a human being can die for the sins of human beings. But no man was worthy—no one could bear that price. I can’t and you can’t. I can’t even atone for even one of my own sins. But a man who is also God can! That’s why John the Baptist called Him “the lamb of God”—the sacrifice that God supplies for the sins and wrongdoing of everybody who in days to come would put their trust in Him.
Let’s move on to the story of His birth.
The Birth (Luke 2:4-7)
4So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Joseph and Mary traveled eighty miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. What a lousy time to travel: her baby was due any day now! And Bethlehem was crammed. They had to settle for an open stall for animals, which is even worse than the Bethlehem Motel 6. You probably know that a very strong ancient tradition that this stable was in a cave, which was a common thing in that area. Jesus didn’t arrive the way we’d expect the King of the universe, but in the incredible humility. Born in a 1st century BC barn!
The Boys in the Field (Luke 2:8-14)
Now if this were a movie, the script would say SCENE TWO. We cut from a cave to a field nearby.
8And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
13Suddenly 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."
Not only would it be a new scene in the movie, but we’re going to need some pretty good special effects!
You have to hear this story like you’ve never heard it before. Interrupting this quiet, dark night was the BANG of the shining presence of angels and the glory of the Lord. The angels brought good new to these shepherds, who were regarded as the skuzziest people around, kind of like a homeless guy living on a grate somewhere today.
Their reputation was that of petty thieves. There was even a law on the books that banned them from giving testimony in the law courts. That’s how long on the totem pole these guys were.
The angels announce the birth of a Savior, which is exactly what we all need. Funny thing, in all four gospels, Jesus is called Savior only twice—here and in John 4:42, where the Samaritans tell the woman at the well that they believe that Jesus is the Savior of the world. We don’t need another prophet, or another king, or a reformer, or a philosopher, or a politician or a committee, we need a Savior!
What’s a Savior? A savior is a rescuer—a spiritual rescuer. It means that on our own we’re in big trouble, but that God didn’t leave us there.
What’s the trouble? Remember three weeks ago when we looked at the Mission of Christian: the Son of God was coming into the world as a mere human to bring mere human beings into the family of God. There would be a terrible price to pay—the price of death on the cross—to make us God’s children, because on that cross He took all the wrong things in us, what the Bible calls sins, the things that keep us from being God’s children. That’s why we need a Savior.
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God… After the single angel’s announcement, a whole group of angels appeared. This was a heavenly host (that means a band of soldiers, an army. What is their message? Look at verse 14:
"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."
This is one of the most misunderstood verses in the Bible! And the reason is that the traditional King James Version didn’t get the translation quite right:
Glory to God in the highest; and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men.
It makes it sound like the message of the angel is that people ought to be nice to each other: “peace, goodwill toward men.” But it’s really all about God’s peace and goodwill toward the people of the world: “…and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."
Real peace comes only from God, only from the coming of Jesus. Even the pagans of the first century world sensed this need for peace and a savior. Epictetus, a first century Roman writer, said this: "While the emperor may give peace from war on land and sea, he is unable to give peace from passion, grief, and envy; he cannot give peace of heart, for which man yearn for more than even outward peace."
Do you have a peaceful heart? Everybody has storms in the soul from time to time. Jesus is the one and only way to know the kind of peace that lasts—all throughout life and forever. That’s the message of the angels. When Jesus was born, God’s peace had come into the world.
The Baby (Luke 2:15-20)
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."
16So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
So these guys rush into town and they find Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, and the blabbed about it all over the place. These guys were permanently changed. Smelly shepherds became God-praisers and ambassadors of truth. That’s what happens when you run into Jesus. He always changes you. He meets you out in left field and brings to the manger. He changes your priorities. He puts a song in your heart and in your mouth. He makes you His witnesses.
The mystery of Christmas is this: the Son of God, eternal and all-powerful, came into the world to die so that we can live as God’s adopted children. He traded heaven for the hell of the cross so we could be with God forever. He left a palace of glory to live in a garbage dump so that he could take those who unite their lives by faith in Him into that same heavenly palace. That’s a love that I can’t get over. That’s a love I really and truly can only describe—not really understand.
This I know: Jesus came into the world for you. He came as Savior for you. He had you in mind when He left the Father’s side and became one of us.
God has a Christmas present for you, and you can unwrap it today. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. Now go to Him, go to the Savior. Let’s pray.
Lord, we can’t understand it all, but we sure can see your love in Jesus’ coming. That You would come into this world for me blows my mind, Lord. Thank you so much.
If you don’t know Jesus as you Savior, would you pray with me? Lord, thank you for coming just for me. Thank you for dying for all my sins. Thank your for rising from the dead. Today, by faith, I unwrap the gift of a new life with you. From this day on, I will follow you. Thank your for the best Christmas present of all. Amen.
© Glenn Layne, 2004