Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased! —Luke 2:14
Luke tells the story of how Jesus was born 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 historical setting of his birth locates Jesus right inside this life we live. The meaning of his birth surprises us with the deepest truth of what’s going on. It’s better than we know. And the two different responses to the birth of Christ show us how we can miss his goodness or get inside his goodness. What makes the difference? God wants us to know. He wants to help us live inside his overruling goodness, a goodness nothing in this world can destroy, not even our own sin and stupidity. This is a treasure that will last forever.
The birth of Jesus was true to this world (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 the history we’re stuck in. 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. You matter to God. Even in the absurdities of this life, God is with us.
That’s why Luke starts this account over in Rome. Caesar Augustus ordered a census of the empire. One decision by one man disrupted the lives of millions of people. Isn’t that true to this 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. Where are we going to stay in Bethlehem? Who’s going to mind the store here? Look what we’ve sunk to – a Roman big-shot has his foot right on our neck!” That’s what Jesus was born into – a world where our lives are vulnerable to people who don’t care. Look at the mismanagement of our financial markets this year. How much did you lose? Privileged people far away raking in millions for themselves – they make the decisions, but everybody pays the price. But we know that already. Here’s what you have to come down to church to hear. God knows how to pick up in his hands human foolishness and evil and bend it around to his own good purpose. Do you see that here in the passage?
God had made a promise 700 years before Christ. The prophet Micah predicted 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, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. —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 Augustus that all the world should be registered. God moved history, to keep his word. That’s the real world we live in today – a place where God is moving his plan forward even through powerful people that don’t have his purpose at heart. God owns every moment of human history. There’s a lot we don’t understand about that. But doesn’t it make a difference to see history as the stage in a cosmic theater where God is telling his own story through it all?
God is shrewd and powerful. But he’s also humble, as we see here. Jesus could have been born in Rome or some classy place, if God cared about those things. But he doesn’t. God is downwardly mobile. So Christ was born in a dumpy little village few people in the world even knew about. And there wasn’t even room for Mary and Joseph in the local inn – no privacy, no comfort. The fact that Mary put her baby down for his nap in a manger – a feeding trough – tells us he was born in a stable. An early 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 difficulty. We can only imagine what Mary went through and how Joseph endured it with her. Christ chose as his birthplace a location where he would not be honored. And that’s true to this world too, isn’t it?
Now, why does it even matter that Jesus was born into this real world we live in? Think of the difference between the Bible and, say, The Book of Virtues by William Bennett. I gave it to Jani for Christmas years ago. It’s a good book to read to your kids. In The Book of Virtues, we’re told stories – some true, others made up. But it doesn’t matter one way or the other. All that matters is “the moral of the story.” If that makes an impact, it’s enough. Bennett writes on page 14 of the Introduction:
In telling these stories I am interested more in the moral than the historical lesson. In some of the older stories – Horatius at the bridge, William Tell, George Washington and the cherry tree – the line between legend and history has been blurred. But it is the instruction in the moral that matters.
The Bible is different. It tells us about a real man who lived a perfect life under our conditions in this real world. And he didn’t do that primarily as an example for us to follow but as a substitute for our failure to follow. If you were taught in your college Intro to Civ course that the Bible is a bunch of made up stories to get us living better lives, then the Bible will defeat you, the same way you’ve been defeated by every other unattainable ideal. But the Bible is better than that. Sure, there are parables here. But they’re embedded within an overall historical narrative from cover to cover. It’s all about a real Jesus. So as we read Luke 2 and how he has born, God is not telling us to suspend mental judgment; he is inviting us to satisfy it.
Do you remember the film Crimes and Misdemeanors, where Woody Allen goes back in his memory to his boyhood? He sees his atheist aunt at the dinner table ridiculing his uncle for believing in God here in this world where the Holocaust occurred. 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 pious fuzzies we have to invent. The Bible never calls us to “a leap of faith.” Here’s what the Bible says. The Son of God took a leap – down into a smelly stall in a third world village 2000 years ago, because he wanted to get involved in the real world. And he’s willing to get involved with you today. He’s not asking you to be perfect. He’s offering you his perfection. If you want Christ, your mind doesn’t have to stoop to wishful thinking. The gospel is reality-based. And Christ will receive whatever weak faith you have and make it strong so that it works for you in your real problems.
The birth of Jesus was true to the higher world (verses 8-14)
Verses 1-7 are plain and simple. Why? Life down here is plain and simple and undramatic. But now, in verses 8-14, the fireworks come out, because the birth of Jesus was also true to the higher world. God revealed what that child’s birth was really all about, and the first ones he told were shepherds. We don’t even know their names, but they mattered to God. He wanted them to know “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (verse 10). What is the good news? “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (verse 11). And they were terrified.
The Swiss theologian Karl Barth called the gospel “the great disturbance.” If the thought of Jesus coming down into your life and taking over scares you, you’re not the first, and you’re not crazy. He is terrifying. He always has been. These shepherds were guarding their flocks for the umpteenth night in a row, the way their forefathers had done for generations, everything’s under control, predictable, routine, explainable, and an angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them. They must have thought, “So this is what it’s like to die.” But what did the angel say? “Do not fear. God has something to say to you. And it’s a message of happiness about a Savior, Christ, the Lord.”
What does that mean? For us today “savior” is a religious word. But back then the title “savior” was commonly used – 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” was for someone who preserved life, who held society together, who prevented disaster. That’s why the angel used that word. It was a perfect fit. Jesus is the real hero who saves the day. He is the Christ, the promised Messiah of the Old Testament. He is the Lord, the one true God of the whole world. And that makes him a disturbing person down here in this world of false saviors and broken promises and mini-gods.
I know it’s hard for some of us to accept that Jesus is the Savior, the Christ, the Lord. Aren’t there many ways to salvation? Shouldn’t we allow for a multi-perspectival view of this, to be fair to everyone? Well, let me ask you to consider this. The thought that pushes back against the gospel at this point – that thought itself is an absolute claim. Have you noticed that? If you say there must be many ways to God and that each claim to understand spiritual reality is like blind people feeling an elephant and one person think it’s all tail or all trunk or all leg or whatever – you know how that goes – the only way you can say that is if you are not blind and you alone see the whole elephant. The only way you can say all paths up the mountain lead to the same divine summit is if you’re at the summit and you alone see where they all end up. Have you noticed that? You want to be honest and humble and fair. But you’ve allowed in your thinking an absolute claim of your own. You’re just not admitting it. And how can you object to the Christian claim that Jesus is the Savior, the Christ, the Lord? We Christians aren’t saying that we see all of spiritual reality. All we’re saying is, we’re like these shepherds. God has come down and made real to our hearts this good news of great joy. But we don’t understand everything. We don’t understand as much as we should. We certainly don’t live up to what we see. But we can’t deny what God has revealed. If we did, would that be humble? Wouldn’t that be putting ourselves above God?
Jesus is our Savior, not our disaster. We need our lives disturbed. That’s salvation, true salvation. We have to be open to that, or we’ll never change. If you’re not trusting in him, you’re trusting in someone or something. Is it working for you? Or is it time for you to start looking beyond the mini-salvations of this world? The Savior God has sent to us is true to the higher world. Do you know how he proved it? “You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (verse 12). The Savior of the world was easily identified. The shepherds just had to look for a baby wrapped in rags and lying in a feeding trough. We never would have thought that up. Only God would humble himself that low. But that’s what heaven loves about God:
Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” —Luke 2:13-14
See that word “host”? It’s the word stratia. We get our word “strategic” from it. The word means “army.” A host is an army. So check this out. When the army of heaven invaded earth, when they hit the beach, they didn’t declare war; they declared peace: “On earth peace.” God doesn’t want to fight you. Why are you fighting him? He wants you to be one of “those with whom he is pleased.” Can’t you be open to that?
Here’s how God does it. He takes the perfect life Jesus lived for us and the guilty death Jesus died for us, and he credits those benefits to us – if we will open our hearts and receive him. If you’ll do that, two things will be true of you as you go forward in life. One, you’ll still be the desperate sinner you are right now. Two, you won’t be guilty any more. You won’t be filthy any more. All that ugliness goes over onto Christ on the cross, and all his merit comes over to you and covers you in the sight of God. Your original sin, your wasted youth, your rejection of God’s wisdom, your ignorance of his Word, your deadness to his love, your forgetfulness of his daily care, your weakness of character, your bad example to others, your self-centered lifestyle – the damnation it deserves goes to the cross, you’re free of it, it’s not on you any more. If you are in Christ, you are a desperate sinner, and you are not guilty any more. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
Here’s how every one of us can live in this good news of great joy:
The birth of Jesus can be the truth of your world (verses 15-20)
What we see here is two responses to the birth of Jesus: the shepherds and everyone who heard their report, 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. And they didn’t say, “Let us go over to Bethlehem to see whether this thing has happened.” They said, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened” (verse 15). They believed – like so many people in Nashville today. And they found that God had told them the truth. So they returned to their flocks, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (verse 20). Verse 18 pulls more people in: “And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.” They were blown away. That’s a good response. It was like a big event down at the Ryman, a rollicking good time for Jesus.
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 that this was the greatest event in world history so far. But 30 years later, when Jesus began his public ministry, people didn’t say, “We’ve been waiting for you.” They wondered who he was. God had been so clear. How could everyone be so clueless – especially after their initial enthusiasm?
The answer is that it’s one thing to notice a dramatic event and get riled up about it; it’s another thing to take that event into our hearts, it’s another thing for that event to redefine the hope we’re living for. The shepherds were right to glorify and praise God. The people they spoke to were right to marvel. But Monday morning they went back to work, and they forgot about Jesus. They had other things to think about. The magic in the air and the sense that something amazing was happening – it was like the lights and sounds of Christmas becoming the drab January that right now is only three weeks away. One ordinary day began stacking on top of another, their personal problems demanded their all, and their sense of God wore off.
Everyday life can be so crushing, because we’re weak. We get married with high hopes, but building a great marriage is another matter. We go to college or start a job with bright expectations, but then come the exams and deadlines and pressures and even failure. We see God in a new way and start glorifying and praising him, but the world around doesn’t change, and we don’t even change.
What does God say to you and me in all our weakness? He wants us to know how to get inside his salvation and live there so that we change. Mary shows us how: “But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (verse 19). That is a different response. The tense of the Greek verb is different. It’s in the imperfect tense, which means ongoing action. Mary began treasuring it all up. That word translated “treasure” means “to protect, defend.” Mary defended within her thought world the truth about Christ. She prized it. She held onto it. She said to herself, “I must never forget what God has shown me. I will guard this in the deepest recesses of my being. This truth is my treasure.”
Luke tells us more about how Mary preserved and treasured and prized the truth about Christ. She “pondered” these things in her heart. Not even Mary understood Jesus fully. But she went on a journey of discovery. This word “pondering” is what we mean by “connecting the dots.” Mary began to put together a growing understanding of the biblical prophecies about her Son, the earlier birth of John the Baptist, the report of the shepherds, the later visit of the wise men, and so forth. She thought it through, again and again. And the truth sustained her, while others just lost interest.
Nashville is like a bell curve. At one end, a few of us are clearly not believers in Jesus. At the other end, a few of us are clearly believers in Jesus. But in the middle are so many nice people, church-going people, who are just hard to read. They like Jesus. They glorify and praise God, in their way. But they’re not being disrupted, they’re not changing, they’re not experiencing salvation – like these busy, hassled shepherds who had so much else to do. If that’s you, God has so much more for you.
But you don’t need to see an angel. It might be nice. But angels come and go. Spectacular moments come and go. What we all need is something to breathe life into us all the time. What is that? The truth of who Jesus is. That truth can always be in our hearts, just like Mary here. If God has made Christ real to you and you want to grow and deepen and you don’t want to lose your edge, here’s how you can do that today. Make your Bible your heart’s best friend. The Bible is how we access Jesus today. It’s how God changes us. So, treasure it up, personalize it, apply to yourself. In 2009 we’re going to be reading through the New Testament together day by day. Can you think of a better project for 2009? Do you have a personal growth plan for 2009? If you don’t, then nothing will happen and a year from now you’ll be who you are today and you will have wasted 2009. Starting in January, we men are going to be meeting on Wednesday mornings at Shoney’s in Brentwood from 6:30 to 7:30 to study the New Testament, as we all read through it. Can you men tell me of a better use of that hour in your week than studying the New Testament? Whatever else you might be doing from 6:30 to 7:30 on your Wednesday mornings, it has to be pretty astounding to be more urgent than serious study of the New Testament. You can know the New Testament pretty well by a year from now. And far better, you can know more of Christ. Will you join me in putting lesser things aside and treasuring up and pondering the New Testament in your heart in 2009? God will energize us all.