For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. —Luke 2:11
This week on Facebook I received this message from one of my students at Re:Train in Seattle last month. It moved my heart:
I just wanted you tell you how much our conversation about the work I do was a game-changer for me. It took about two weeks after Re:Train, but I kept hearing you say in my head, over and over, “Thank you for being where you are,” and “Go back and tell those girls how much they are truly loved.” I was convicted.
I am working the strip clubs, doing makeup on my girls, and I do talk with them about their concerns, about Jesus, but I noticed in hearing your voice on repeat in my head how much of me I was not letting God have in that environment, because I want out, not further in.
So I have begun taking prayer requests from my girls. And I am putting together hosting an Italian-style Christmas dinner for my girls and their children (and hope to have Jesus Storybook Bibles for each family). They know that I love all things Italian, and so I will make for them homemade, from-scratch lasagna. An Italian dinner done right will allow for at least four hours of gospel-centered conversation and community.
I have no clue what I’m doing or how I will do it, but God does and he is in total control over this, and for that I am grateful.
I may put the dinner off until January due to timing, but that will be a good thing, because I will be fresh from “Counseling and Community” at Re:Train (if I can get a plane ticket, I still don’t have one and am starting to get nervous!) and so will be better equipped to counsel the girls. By that time too they will have already broken their New Years’ resolutions and will take note of the emptiness still there post-holiday, so that will be an excellent place from which to engage them.
I am praying over this, as I am unsure if I am ready to make that kind of a commitment to them emotionally, as it is heavy, and I know I will need people around me to pour into me if I commit to this.
What I love most about that is how she says, “My girls.” Not “Those girls” but “My girls.” I love the way she’s honest about the emotional price she’s going to pay if she allows them into her heart at that level. But she’s going to, because it’s what Jesus did for us all. “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Jesus looks at us and says, “What I am, I am for your sakes. What I do, I do for you. Unto you. I am yours, if you will be mine.” Let’s get past “those people.” Let’s press into “my people.” Let’s become emotionally vulnerable. Let’s make Italian dinners for strippers and the men who go to strip clubs. Let’s pay the price, for unto us was born that day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.
Luke tells the story of Jesus’ birth in three scenes: the setting of his birth (verses 1-7), the meaning of his birth (verses 8-14), the response to his birth (verses 15-20).
The setting of his birth (verses 1-7)
It’s obvious from verses 1-2 that Luke is presenting the birth of Jesus not as legend but as history. Throughout the Bible we see God at work here in our real world. The first four words of the Bible are not “Once upon a time” but “In the beginning God.” The beginning of what? This world we live in. This world matters to God.
That’s why Luke starts this account over in Rome. Caesar Augustus ordered a census of the empire. One powerful man disrupted the lives of millions of little people. Isn’t that the world we live in? If I’d been Joseph, I would have thought, “Great. Mary’s pregnant, I have deadlines at work, and that moron in Rome orders us out of town!” That’s what Jesus was born into – a world where our lives are disrupted by powerful people who do whatever they want, and everybody else pays the price. But God is shrewd.
700 years before, God had predicted through the prophet Micah where the Messiah would be born:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel. —Micah 5:2
How did God get Mary and Joseph from Nazareth down to Bethlehem? A decree went out from God that a decree would go out from Caesar that all the world would be rearranged for a while. This world we live in is where God is moving his plan forward even through powerful people who don’t care. There’s a lot we don’t understand about that. But doesn’t it make a difference to see history as the stage where God is telling his own story, whether or not people intend to cooperate?
God is wise. But he’s also humble. Jesus could have been born in Rome or any classy place, if God cared about those things. But he doesn’t. Christ was born in a dumpy village few people in the world knew about. And there wasn’t even room there for Mary and Joseph – no privacy, no comfort. The fact that Mary put her baby down for his nap in a feeding trough tells us he was born in a stable. Tradition says it was a cave. But it may have been in the open air, out in the courtyard of the inn where the caravans parked their camels and donkeys. Everything points to obscurity and poverty and hardship. We can only imagine what Mary went through and how Joseph endured it with her. That’s the world we live in, isn’t it?
If you’ve seen the film Crimes and Misdemeanors, you might remember when Woody Allen goes back in his memory to his boyhood and sees his atheist aunt at the dinner table ridiculing his uncle for believing in God here in this brutal world. And his uncle answers, “If I have to choose between truth and God, I’ll choose God every time.” That way of thinking allows for two kinds of truth – hard truth in the facts, which leave us cold, and soft truth in religion, which warms our hearts. But that relegates God to sentimentality we invent. The gospel never calls us to “a leap of faith.” It was the Son of God who took the leap – down into a smelly stall in a third world village. If you want God, you don’t have to stoop to wishful thinking. The gospel is reality-based. We see that in the setting of Jesus’ birth.
The meaning of his birth (verses 8-14)
Verse 11 says, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” That is the heart of Christmas. But Jesus as Savior, Christ and Lord might sound like a cliché. So let’s get to the point. What does it mean that Jesus is Savior, Christ and Lord? And how is that “good news of great joy”?
First, Savior. In the first century that title did not have the religious overtones it has today. It was a common word for politicians, for heroic public figures, for the god Asclepius, the god of healing, for Zeus, who gave people safe voyage at sea, and so forth. “Savior” meant someone who preserves life, who holds society together, who prevents disaster. That’s why the angel chose that word. It was a perfect fit. Jesus is the only real hero this world will ever see.
Second, Christ, that is, the promised Messiah of the Old Testament. He came to fulfill all the promises of the Bible we’ve failed to live up to. The title Christ or Messiah means the anointed one. Jesus has the greatest anointing of the Holy Spirit in all of human history. He has the Spirit without limit. So he is fully qualified to be the perfect second Adam for a whole new human race. And now he invites us into his fullness, into his anointing, to share it with him.
Third, Jesus is Lord. Over 40 times in the book of Acts the early Christians referred to Jesus as “Lord.” They couldn’t think of him any other way. One of the early Christian confessions of faith was simply, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3). The Bible says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). The early Christians saw Jesus as their Lord leading them, providing for them, correcting them, defending them, present with them in power and authority, no matter what they were facing. The Bible calls Jesus “the Lord of lords.” There is no other. There is none higher. The Bible says every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:9-11).
That makes Jesus a threat to every false lord we’ve created. But how did our true Lord come to us? “You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (verse 12). He was easily identified. The shepherds just had to look for a baby wrapped in rags and lying in a feeding trough. Only God would humble himself that low. We never would have done that.
Jesus is our only Savior, Messiah, Lord. But I wonder if those words sound like clichés. And we hate clichés. We want reality with God. He wants reality with us. So let’s press further into these words about Jesus. Yesterday at the Men’s Immanuel Theology Group Professor Jerram Barrs explained our seven alienations. We are torn apart at seven levels. And all of us experience all seven. We cannot escape them. Here they are.
One, the creation we live in is set against itself. Theologians call it “the curse.” Tennyson called it “nature red in tooth and claw.” We live in a predatory creation. We can all see that.
Two, our own loss of dominion over the creation, our own loss of control – not just dangers from animals but our failures at work. We are not on top of the reality we have to live with. We all see this.
Three, our very selves split apart when body and soul divide at death, which is often after disease and pain and humiliation. Death and suffering are wrong. We all see this and ultimately can’t do a thing about it.
Four, we alienate one another, we wrong one another, we betray one another. Even in a great marriage, it isn’t perfect. We wish it were. But we let each other down. We all know this.
Five, we don’t even like ourselves. In moments of clear self-awareness we despise what we see within. We are uncomfortable with our own selves, and we should be. We all experience this.
Six, we reject God. We keep our distance. We want enough of him to bless us, but not so much that he takes over, because we don’t really want him but only a sprinkling of his blessing so that we can get on with what we do want. We insult God. We all do this.
Finally, God is angry with us. God is rightly offended with how we treat him and one another. How could God be true to himself and be okay with the way we are? God is right to turn his face away. And these seven alienations are why life is bitter and disappointing and painful.
But here’s the point. Jesus came into this world as Savior, Christ and Lord at all seven levels. He is not small. He is as massive as the full extent of our real guilt and deep pain. We cannot escape the grip of all seven alienations except through Someone Else stronger and better than we are. Who is that, if not Jesus? He lived the perfect life we’ve never lived and died the guilty death we don’t want to die. He rose up from it all and will come again to eradicate all evil and renew this world and all who have received him as Savior, Messiah, Lord. Let’s get all small thoughts of Jesus out of our minds and let the magnitude of these titles land on us – Savior, Messiah, Lord at the level of everything that tears us apart. He is the complete Friend for the trapped, the angry, the fearful – for us.
The responses to his birth (verses 15-20)
We see two responses to the birth of Jesus: the shepherds, on the one hand, and Mary, on the other. Two very different responses.
Here’s one response. The shepherds, to their credit, hurried to Bethlehem: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened” (verse 15). In their way, they believed – like so many people in Nashville today. And the shepherds found that God had told them the truth. So they returned to their flocks, “glorifying and praising God” (verse 20). Verse 18 pulls more people in: “And all who heard it wondered [or marveled] at what the shepherds told them.” That’s a good response, as far as it goes.
But have you ever noticed that, after the Lord’s birth, with angels and the glory of God appearing and everyone being astounded by it all, they forgot about him? The Old Testament prophecies were clear. This was the greatest event in world history so far. But 30 years later, when Jesus went public with his adult ministry, people didn’t say, “We’ve been waiting for you.” They wondered who he was. What happened?
It’s one thing to get caught up in a dramatic event, with chills going up our spines; it’s another thing to take that reality into our hearts, to redefine the hope we’re living for. The shepherds were right to glorify and praise God. But Monday morning they went back to work and forgot about Jesus. The magic in the air and the sense that something amazing was happening – it was like the lights and sounds of Christmas fading into drab January. One ordinary day began stacking on top of another, and their sense of God wore off. Everyday life can be so crushing. We get excited about God, but then we have to walk back into the same old same old. Plus, we sin and we struggle, and we wonder how much of it was real. It doesn’t mean we stop going to church. It does mean we stop changing.
There is another way to respond. “But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (verse 19). That is a different response. That word translated “treasure” means “to protect, defend.” Mary defended within her thought world the truth about Jesus. She prized it. She held onto it. She refused to let daily life beat it out of her. She said to herself, “I must never forget what God has done. Jesus as my Savior, my Messiah, my Lord is now the treasure of my life. What else is there for me?”
Luke tells us more. Mary also “pondered” these things in her heart. Not even Mary understood Jesus fully. She had to think and re-think. This word “pondering” is what we mean by “connecting the dots.” Mary began to put together a growing understanding of Jesus from the Bible. She meditated and pondered and thought about him and journaled about him. And she grew, she changed, while others just lost interest.
You and I don’t need to see an angel. Angels come and go. Spectacular experiences come and go. What we all need is something to breathe life into us all the time. What is that? The good news of great joy about who Jesus really is – our only Savior, our only Messiah, our only Lord – getting past the clichés and pressing that good news.
If you’re not a Christian believer, here is what you need to do. To quote Bob Dylan: “Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground. Take off your mask.”
If you are a Christian believer, here is what you need to do. Don’t put Community or Mission first. Keep Jesus first. Only he is Savior, Messiah, Lord. If we’ll do that together, always cherishing this good news of great joy, we will make him non-ignorable.