Christmas sermon series: God's Greatest Gift
Do you realize that most of our mental images about Christmas come from medieval art and Christmas cards? I recently talked to someone about how many Christmas cards show three wise men coming to the Christ child just minutes after His birth. If you read the biblical account carefully, it could have been up to two years after Jesus was born that the magi offered their tribute to the Child. Herod sought out the male children two years old and younger. We have no idea how many wise men actually came. Christmas cards show three. The biblical account does not give a number. We know it was more than one because the Bible talks about men - plural. But was it two, three, or six? We don't know, because the story in Matthew doesn't tell us. You don't believe me? You're sure you've seen it there, in Matthew 2. As a matter of fact, the number three is not even mentioned in chapter two. The unnumbered magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I guess that's where we get the idea of three.
I shared this idea in our church, and I later received a handmade Christmas card from one of our senior adults. It displayed six magi bearing gifts to the newborn King. We had a good laugh. She had gotten the point.
If we're confused about the magi, then we probably misinterpret the shepherds as well. We have an image of gentle folk singing sweet songs by a campfire. In fact, shepherding was a despised occupation. The picture of shepherds in the field getting ready to hear angels sing evokes a positive, pastoral image for us. It reminds us of Jesus' association with the line of David.
In the first century, shepherds were generally scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on others' lands. They weren't the pleasant Hallmark faces we're used to seeing this time of year. We have sentimentalized them so on our Christmas cards and art that they look like gentle folk waiting to go to a homecoming celebration. No picture is farther from reality.
Now, notice to whom the angels first go to share their news. Notice whom the angels tell: the shepherds! Isn't that strange? I want the angels to do something widescreen and high-definition. I want them shouting from the mountain tops and parading the streets of Jerusalem shouting, "Wake up and hear this!" The angels should have gone to the Temple to tell the religious leaders what God was doing. They should have gone to the governor and let him know that something awesome was happening in Bethlehem. They should have gone to Herod. After all, he was the current king of Judea. They should have told him that God was doing a great thing in Bethlehem, and that the King of kings had been born.
When Moses was born, God delivered him straight to the top, right to Pharaoh. But the angels, instead of telling somebody important, announced Messiah's birth to a rag-tag bunch of shepherds. That's not what we would tell them to do. That's not what we would have done. But, that is the way God wanted it. I wonder why?
I. He came because of them
In this account, we discover the heart of God and the meaning of the birth of this child. Here is a graphic picture of Jesus, the One sent to the lowly and outcast. In this picture, we are reminded that Jesus came for people like the shepherds. The shepherds - not the religious elite, the politically savvy, or the rulers of the people - become the metaphor for the kind of people Jesus came to save. Listen to the power of the text:
In the same region, shepherds were staying out in the fields and keeping watch at night over their flock. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Don't be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David (Luke 2:8-11 HCSB).
The angels came to shepherds. People who were doing what they did every day and every night. People going through the routines of life. People living their ordinary lives
Isn't that what the birth of Jesus is all about? It's about God meeting us, not on high holy days, but on ordinary days, in ordinary places, in an extraordinary way.
The birth of this child is about God coming to us in our everyday lives and saying to us, "Don't be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news."
It's about God meeting us in our pain and loneliness.
It's about God meeting us in our frustration and anger.
It's about God meeting us Monday and Wednesday and Friday.
It's about God wanting to be a part of our lives every day.
I think that's why God sent the angels to the shepherds - to let us know that this child was for all people, even the most ordinary.
Illustration: His name was Bill. He had wild hair, wore a T-shirt with holes in it, jeans, and shoes with no socks. This was his wardrobe during four years of college. Though mildly eccentric, he was a brilliant person. He became a Christian while attending college.
Across from the campus was a traditional church. They wanted to develop a ministry to students, but weren't sure how to go about it. One day Bill decided to go worship there. He walked in with his wild hair, T-shirt with holes in it, jeans, and shoes with no socks. The service had started. Bill started down the aisle looking for a seat but the church was full.
By now people were looking a bit uncomfortable, but no one said anything. Bill got closer and closer to the front, when he realized there were no seats. He just sat down right on the floor. Although perfectly acceptable behavior at a college fellowship, this had never happened in this church! By now the people were really uptight, and the tension in the air was thick.
A deacon slowly made his way toward Bill. This deacon was in his eighties, a distinguished man with silver-gray hair and a three-piece suit. He walked with a cane. Everyone thought, "You can't blame him for what he's going to do. How could you expect a man of his age and background to understand some college kid, thinking he can worship sitting on the floor?"
It took time for the man to reach the boy. The church became utterly silent, except for the clicking of the man's cane on the tiled floor. All eyes focused on him. When the elderly deacon got next to the boy, he dropped his cane to the floor. With great difficulty he lowered himself and asked Bill, "May I sit with you?" The man sat down next to Bill and worshiped with him, so he wouldn't be alone.
That's what the birth of Jesus means.
II. The shepherds in shock
You can only imagine the first reaction of the shepherds. They were scared to death. They understood the appearance of angels as an omen, as though God were bringing His wrath upon them. To allay their fears, the angels said, "Don't be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy. Today a Savior is born!"
With that, the heavens opened with glorious music. The heavenly chorus praised God and said, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people He favors!" (vs. 12, HCSB). In the midst of an ordinary night, ordinary shepherds encountered an extraordinary God. The shepherds must have been surprised that God broke into their ordinary lives. For us, Christ sometimes breaks into our lives when we least expect it.
Illustration: I needed to know that in December 1981. On Monday, December 14, 1981, my mother called to tell me that her doctor had sent her back to the hospital. She had battled cancer for ten months. She endured radiation therapy and had responded well. But now the doctor was concerned about a fluid buildup on her lungs. She was in good spirits the day she entered the hospital. I had prayer with her. The doctor told her she would be home by Christmas. We told her we would talk to her on the weekend.
Friday night my wife and I were in a restaurant. The atmosphere was festive, and everyone was enjoying the preparation for Christmas. Someone said that there was an emergency call for me. I was shocked and frightened to hear my uncle say, "Your mother is dying. Can you come right away?" I remember hanging up the phone feeling numb and looking around at all the people, decorations, lights, and happiness.
We drove home. I was half in shock, half realizing I knew this was coming. I wondered what Christmas would now be like for our two children. We flew to Philadelphia. We saw her. I prayed with her. She died on December 19. Her funeral was December 22, just three days before Christmas. I remember sitting in my parents' living room, where I had grown up, where I had eaten homemade cookies and helped to decorate the Christmas tree. I sat there, helpless and hopeless. Yet when I least expected it, hope entered and Christmas came. Not in the lights, or the tree, or the gifts, or the music, or the ringing of bells. No, hope came in the words of Christ who promised, "I will never leave you nor forsake you."
God met the shepherds when and where they least expected to be met. After all, that's what the birth of Jesus means.
III. Sometimes seeing is believing
And the heavenly chorus sang glory to God. After this powerful display of praise, the shepherds just had to see for themselves, so they ran off to Bethlehem to experience what the angels had told them. When they got to Bethlehem, "they hurried off and found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby who was lying in the feeding trough. After seeing [them], they reported the message they were told about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them" (Luke 2:16-18, HCSB).
When God offers grace, the appropriate response is exuberant joy. Eventually, the whole world would celebrate the coming of this child, but for now, only the shepherds knew what had happened in Bethlehem. The result was the response that should arise from all God's people: The shepherds returned to their flocks "glorifying and praising God" (v. 20).
Reading Luke's account, we're filled with wonder. We expect something miraculous. We expect the amazement to continue. We want the mystery of the moment to continue because - if we're really honest with ourselves - we long for something amazing in our lives. Our routines are so predictable and harried, our schedules so frantic and programmed. Our children are so busy with schoolwork, school activities, sports, and church. Our days are so packed with stuff, I wonder if we allow ourselves time to live. Yet, as we hear angels singing and shepherds hurrying and Mary pondering, we feel we may just find a little time for wonder.
Yet, again we are struck by the "routine-ness" of it all, the "normalness" of it all. We have come from angels singing glory to God, to the daily ticking of the clock. The challenge for us is always to find ways of celebrating the presence of God in the ordinary moments of everyday life - the smile of a friend, the sharing of a meal, the beauty of good music.
Perhaps the words of the familiar Appalachian carol grasp the idea best:
I wonder as I wander, out under the sky,How Jesus the Savior did come for to dieFor poor on'ry people like you and like I . . .I wonder as I wander, out under the sky.
When Mary birthed Jesus, 'twas in a cow's stall,With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all.But high from God's heaven a star's light did fall,And the promise of ages it then did recall.
If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing,A star in the sky, or a bird on the wing,Or all of God's angels in heav'n for to sing,He surely could have it, 'cause He was the King!
This wonder is also captured in the following prayer by Beth Moore.
Oh God of glory, Lord of love,Set our captive hearts free to adore You.Deliver us from all that blurs Your greatnessAnd distorts Your goodness.
Self . . . take your rightful, crucified place,And Son of God, You alone be raised.King of Glory, we approach Your throneby the blood of the risen Lamb!
We confess our prideAnd the poverty of our lives without You.We acknowledge that You are sovereignAnd You are perfect in all Your ways.
We rise in belief that we are Your treasure:The apple of Your eye!And as we worship in Spirit and in truth,Our awakened souls find rest.
Captivate our minds with kingdom thoughts;Unveil our eyes to share Your vision.Steal our hearts and set them Ablaze with Your passion.
Wrap us in garments of praise,The armor of light,And robes of Your righteousness.
Turn our mourning into dancing,And make our hearts beat as joyful tambourines before You.Rejoice over us, O God;Renew us with the breath of heaven.
And as we sing Your praises,May the song You sing over usDrown every worryAnd bind every broken heart - whispering hope to the hurting.And cause those crippled by fear to rise up and walk!And O God, as we walk, we ask for lives hidden in You -That Your life may be revealed in us!
O, God of Glory, Lord of Love - Your children worship You.
One of the charges against the early church was, "These men . . . have turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6, HCSB).
Illustration: Will Willimon told the story of a college couple who had met at an information meeting for the Spring Mission Team to Honduras. They had been going out together and things seemed great between them. "We're going to Honduras together," he said, "and who knows where it might lead for the two of us?"
One day, around Christmas time, a friend saw him walking dejectedly across campus. "What gives?" the friend said.
"Marianne isn't going to Honduras," he said gloomily.
"I'm sorry. I wonder why," the friend responded. "She can't afford the time?"
"No," he said, "Marianne said that her older sister, Clarinda, went down there and it changed her. Made her mom and dad furious. Clarinda said she got born again down there. Marianne said she got turned upside down."
When the shepherds had seen Jesus, their world was turned upside down. They spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. That's what the birth of Jesus means. Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
1 I Wonder as I Wander, Appalachian Carol for Voice and Piano, adapted and arranged by John Jacob Niles and Lewis Henry Norton (© 1934, 1944, C. Schirmer, Inc.).
2 Living Proof Live (© 1998 Genevox).