"Marveling at Bethlehem"
(Delivered Christmas Sunday, December 21, 2008 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
With all the things that need to be done around Christmas time, everyone feels a little pressure. But there's a particular holiday pressure that only a preacher feels. Each Christmas, he asks himself, "How can I say something about Christmas that hasn't already been said? After all of the Christmas sermons that are preached year after year, how can I find something to say about Christmas that's new and different?"
But the truth is that it's a big mistake to think that something new and different really needs to be said. So, this morning, I'm not going to worry about saying anything new and different. I'm convinced that the Christmas story—as told to us from of old in the pages of Scripture—is the most exciting, and most remarkable thing we could ever think of, all on its own. Our great need isn't for something new and different to entertain us. Rather, our great need is to shut-out all the other distractions that the world presses in on us; and in the enabling power of the Holy Spirit, simply marvel anew at the same old story of God's great gift of saving love to us in the person of His Son Jesus Christ.
When I think of the most basic of all Christmas stories in the Bible, my mind always turns to Luke 2:1-20. It's a passage that invites us to—as it were—take a trip back to Bethlehem on that first Christmas long ago, consider afresh the wonderful story of our Savior's birth, and to allow ourselves to marvel at some of the things that are told us there.
And just to whet your appetite, I'd like to point out to you that, as you'll see a little later, you and I—if we will respond rightly to this story by marveling over what God has done—can legitimately be said to be mentioned in it! And that should make it a very interesting thing to hear again and again.
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So; let's get right into it. The first thing we find in this great, simple, basic story of how our Savior came into this world—the first thing we're invited to marvel over—is . . .
1. THE HUMBLE CIRCUMSTANCE OF HIS BIRTH (vv. 1-7).
Luke tells us;
Luke is the great "historian" of the New Testament. When he tells us a story, he wraps that story in enough historic details to attest that it is not a fable—but rather is solid, objective fact. And here, in telling us of the Savior's birth, he includes the sort of names and dates and time-frames that make it clear that he's telling us about something that truly happened.
Caesar Augustus issued a decree that the population of the Roman empire—which at that time included much of the inhabited world—be "registered". The King James version has translated it that he decreed that "the world should be taxed". And that, of course, was the ultimate purpose of this registration decree. The emperor ordered that everyone be registered in order that a proper accounting of the citizens of the empire could be made, and so that taxes could then be levied.
You'll notice that this "census" was something taken more than once. We're told that this was the first census; and that it was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria—which would place the time of the events in this passage sometime shortly after the year 8 B.C. And so, people from all over the Roman empire had to return to the place of their birth to be "registered". This included Joseph, and his new bride Mary—who was "with child". Joseph was a man who had come from the lineage of King David, and who was born in the city that is called by David's name—also known as Bethlehem. And so, bringing his new wife with him, he made the long 90-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, in order for them both to be registered.
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And if I may, let me pause here and point something out to you. Did you know that—unwittingly—Caesar Augustus was thus being used by God to fulfill Scripture?
God had made a promise in the Scriptures that, from this very place—that is, at Bethlehem—He would raise up a King for Himself. In 1 Samuel 16:1, He told Samuel—the prophet whom God had appointed to anointed kings—"Fill your horn with oil, and go; I am sending you to Jesse the Bethlehemite. For I have provided Myself a king among his sons." Jesse, of Bethlehem, was the father of David. And we know, of course, that this promise from God was referring—in the immediate sense—to Jesse's son David.
But this promise of a king from Bethlehem extended far beyond just David. God had later made a promise to David that "When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever" (2 Samuel 7:12-13). This was a promise that the Messiah—the Christ—would be born from David's royal lineage. As Isaiah 11:1 says, long after David had died, "There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots."
And what's more, God even lets us know where this promised Messiah would be born. In Micah 5:2, the prophet Micah writes; "But you, Bethlehem Ephratha, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be the Ruler of Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting."
So; it was in the timing of God that right then—some two years or so after Caesar's decree went forth—that Joseph would have to take his new, pregnant bride Mary with him to be registered in Bethlehem; where she would then bring forth her firstborn Son in the very place that God had promised.
Caesar had his own reasons for issuing this decree. But unknown to him, God had His own, even greater and more astonishing reasons for it being issued. God used Caesar Augustus to fulfill Micah 5:2!
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So, Caesar issued the decree; and away Joseph went, taking Mary with him. Do you notice that Mary was called his "betrothed wife"? There was nothing in this that should raise anyone's eyebrows. She was called "betrothed" because although they were already married, Joseph had not yet consummated that marriage with her (Matthew 1:24-25). She was still a virgin; and yet bore a Child—a Child that would inherit the royal lineage of His adopted father Joseph and be a true heir of David, but who had been conceived in His mother's womb by the Holy Spirit.
And just think of the circumstances that surrounded His royal birth. The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem wouldn't have been too hard on Joseph. But it must have been very uncomfortable for Mary. We're told that, "while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered". And because so many people were gathered together for the registration, there was no place available to them in any of the lodging houses—no decent place for Mary to give birth to her kingly Son.
Poor Joseph probably didn't have the money to buy his way up the waiting-list for better lodgings. There was no choice but to settle in a cave attached to the lodge, or in one of its storage areas, or in its stable—someplace where a "manger" (a simple feeding trough) would be found. And when Mary gave birth to her firstborn Son, we're told that He wasn't set into a nice warm incubator, or a cute bassinet. Instead, she wrapped Him in swaddling cloths (perhaps to keep Him warm because of the cold and exposed surroundings), and laid Him in an animal's feeding trough.
From a human standpoint, the circumstances of His birth couldn't have been more inappropriate to the identity of our Savior! The timing, it seems, couldn't have been more inconvenient; and the setting couldn't have been more undesirable! Knowing what Joseph and Mary knew about their baby, it would have seemed like everything was going horribly wrong.
But let's marvel at these circumstances! Our Lord—the pre-existent, eternal Son of God; the King of heavenly glory—could have been born in the very best of times and at the best of places. He could have come at a time when life on earth was prosperous and pleasant. But instead, He came in the midst of people who had to travel far and laboriously; in order to accommodate the demands of an earthly ruler who wished to take their personal information, and increase their taxes. And our Lord certainly could have been born in the midst of a luxurious palace, or in a warm and sanitized hospital. But instead, He came on the outside of an already overly-crowded inn; where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes to keep Him warm, and placed in an animal trough to keep Him off the cold ground.
He came into the kind of world that is endured by the people He came to save. He stepped into our struggles and miseries with us. He did this to display His grace to us. As the apostle Paul writes; "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich" (2 Corinthians 8:9).
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Just as we marvel at the humble circumstances of our glorious Savior's entry into this world, let's be sure that we also marvel at . . .
2. THE GLORIOUS SIGNIFICANCE OF HIS BIRTH (vv. 8-14).
Because the circumstances of His birth were so humble, there would have been nothing about them that would have humanly testified to His glory. In fact, if mankind had judged His significance only by the humble circumstances of His birth, it might have thought that there was nothing significant about Him at all. Poor, lost and needy humanity could never know what cause of rejoicing His birth was except by God revealing it.
And God does. Luke goes on to tell us;
I'll bet that you're like me; and you have tried to imagine this story many times. What would it have been like for these shepherds to be out in the fields of Bethlehem at night—where it was quiet, and still, and probably even more than just a little bit boring—taking turns to watch the flocks throughout the night? What would it have been like for the shepherd who was watching, and the other shepherd who were sleeping, to suddenly be startled out of their doldrums by the bright glory of God shining around them? What would it have been like to suddenly look in the midst of all the confusion, and see a glorious angel of the Lord standing before them—about to speak?
Well; actually, we don't need to wonder. We're told what it was like. It was frightening beyond description! We often see Christmas paintings of the shepherds casually leaning on their staffs in quiet enjoyment, as the harmless-looking angels spoke and sang. Some paintings almost make it look like the angels should have been afraid of the shepherds! But the Bible tells us that the shepherds were "greatly afraid" at the appearance of this one single angel. They were "sore afraid", as the King James version puts it. They were "terrified with fear", as it is in the original language. The angel even had to calm them down before he could speak to them; and told them, "Do not be afraid . . ." And perhaps it was a particular mercy of God that this one angel came and spoke to them before the heavenly host of angels sang God's praises in the sight of the shepherds; because the systems of these poor men may not have been able to endure that much shock!
Any time heaven opens itself up just a little bit in order to declare something to earth, it would have to be a dreadful thing to poor, frail human beings. But how else would these shepherds have known—and indeed, the whole rest of the world—of the significance of the birth that had just occurred in the nearby town? The angel told them that the news of the birth of Jesus was "good tidings of great joy which will be to all people". It wasn't news meant just for these shepherds; or just for the people of Bethlehem; or even just for the Jewish people. It was news of great joy that was meant to be delivered to all people, living at all times, in all nations, in all cultures, and in all circumstances of life. Heaven had to make this announcement to earth!
The angel then told them that it was news about someone who was "born to you this day". Now; when has there ever been, in all of history, someone who was born into this world "to" someone else? But the angel from heaven made it clear that this Child was no ordinary child. He was born into this world for a purpose. He came for us! "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).
The angel went on to explain that this Child is three things. He was, first of all, called Savior. He was to be called Jesus; because He would save His people from their sins (Luke 1:31; see also Matthew 1:21). He was, second, called Christ; because God would give Him the throne of His father David (Luke 1:32). And He was, third, called Lord; because He was the Son of God in human flesh (Luke 1:32, 35), and because there would be no end to His reign over His kingdom (Luke 1:33).
The angel told the shepherds that this very specific Child would be identified by the humble circumstances of His birth—that is, that He would be found wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Mankind would not have known these things about the Child born in Bethlehem just on the basis of the circumstances of His birth alone. But these things were announced to mankind through this angel to these shepherds.
And we're called upon to marvel at the significance of it all. As if the announcement from this angel wasn't enough; we're told that a host of the heavenly angels suddenly appeared and sang praises in both directions—upward, to ascribe glory to God in the highest for giving His Son to be born into humanity; and downward, to announce peace on earth toward men who experience God's good favor through the Son He has graciously given.
And if the angels would marvel so much at the significance of this holy birth; how could we not marvel at it?
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Now finally; have you noticed that the angel didn't tell the shepherds, "I have good tidings for all mankind. Now go therefore to the great capitals and cultural centers of the world; and bring some important dignitaries and rulers to me; who will then hear the things I have to say, and who will then declare these things authoritatively to all!" Instead, it was entrusted to people who were, in that culture, considered pretty low on the social order—shepherds! And yet, it was to them that the angel said, "And this will be the sign to you . . ."; as if he expected them to run and look, and then to go and tell everyone about this Child who was born in Bethlehem.
How gracious God is! He entrusts the greatest news the world could hear to the people least worthy in this world's eyes to bear it! And this leads us, finally, to marvel at . . .
3. THE THRILLING DECLARATION OF HIS BIRTH (vv. 15-20).
As Luke goes on to tell us;
Consider their reaction to all this. Once the angels had left them—along with the great fear also leaving them—they said to one another, "Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us." The Lord? Wasn't it the angel that made it known to them? Yes; but they understood that they had been given good tidings from God Himself concerning His Son. And so, first, they were eager to go and see Him. They even came "with haste".
And then, finding Mary and Joseph and the Baby lying in a manger—seeing the sign by which the angel said that He would be identified—"they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child". That's the natural reaction to such glorious news—you have to share it. Mary kept all these things in her heart and pondered them; and perhaps, that's how it is that Luke is able to report them to us. But the shepherds didn't hide them—they shared them.
And then, when it was all over, they returned back to their flocks. But they themselves were transformed men. They glorified and praised God "for all the things they had heard and seen, as it was told them." They had a rare privilege. They were allowed to hear the true significance of this Child's birth; and then went to go and see Him for themselves in the humble circumstances in which He was born; and then, finally, to ran out and tell the world that the Savior of mankind has been born. They were the world's first "gospel evangelists". They took the good news about Jesus that was given to them, and shared it with the others.
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And do you remember that I told you that you and I are a part of this story? Verse 18 tells us that "all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds." Doesn't that include you and me today? I hope it does.
We don't need to make the story of Christmas more interesting. We don't need to say anything new and different about it. We just need to hear it, and to think carefully about what is told to us, and to genuinely marvel at what we hear.
As we come to the celebration of His birth in just a few short days; let's be sure that we take the time to revisit this glorious old story in all its simplicity and wonder; and to marvel anew at Bethlehem!
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