Over the last few weeks, we have heard the Christmas story so many times that today on Christmas day, it is hard to say something that has not already been said. Play writers, song writers and yes, even preachers, try as much as they can to keep people interested in the story. As a result, many of the accounts we hear at Christmas time are embellished with all kinds of additions that are not in Scripture. We are quite used to Christmas stories that include a stable that looks like a loose housing shed, animals that talk, snow on the stable roof, a star and angels over the stable, wise-men and shepherds at the manger scene at the same time, Mary wearing a blue robe, Mary riding on a donkey and a baby that doesn’t cry. None of these things are mentioned in the Bible, but we have heard or seen them as the story has been presented. That is OK, as long as we make sure that we separate what is essential from what is embellishment and still focus on the main story. What is sad is that sometimes, all these things are added because the story itself isn’t enough. The embellishments distract from the truth because the truth is no longer the interesting thing. It would be like a bride whose dress is so beautiful that no one sees the bride anymore or a newspaper where the side-bar stories become the focus instead of the main story.
This morning, I want to focus again on the center of the story for a few moments in order to remind us of the very exciting truths about what God has done for us.
I. He Took The First Step
The story begins with a decree. Caesar Augustus, the king of the Roman empire, which spread over much of the Mediterranean region and even beyond, decided that it was time to find out how many people there were in the region, what they did and what their resources were. The purpose of the decree was likely to find out what kind of a tax burden he could place on them and still keep them viable. It was a politically reasonable thing to do. From Caesar’s perspective, he was making a good political decision and that was all.
Joseph, living in Nazareth at the time, heard about the decree. Because it required enrolment in one’s own home town, he had to travel 80 or 90 miles, with a pregnant woman, to Bethlehem which was where he was actually from. From Joseph’s perspective, it was another government nuisance - something you had to do whether you wanted to or not.
What about God’s perspective? Long ago, in Micah 5:2, God had promised that his anointed one, the Messiah, would be born in Bethlehem. Is it just coincidence that Joseph found himself in Bethlehem at exactly the time when Mary was to give birth to the child in her womb? Was it just coincidence that Caesar should make the decree at just this time so that Joseph would be there at the right time?
The point of this is that God had a plan. God had promised the plan long ago and had prepared for it and now was bringing it into fulfillment. The wonderful thing we learn from all of this is that God has taken the initiative to bring salvation to people. It was His purpose and He started it all.
After the birth of Jesus, God announced the message to the shepherds. The angels came down and told them, “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you…” What was the purpose of the announcement? It was, in essence, God coming down and saying to the people of earth, “I’m here!” With this announcement, God initiated what He had planned long ago.
Salvation does not begin with us, but with God. We did not seek for God, God came to us. God took the initiative! This is the center of the story. It is the exciting news that no amount of embellishment can improve upon.
I read the following, “One of the most touching stories concerning Pope John XXIII is about the day after Christmas several years ago when he visited one of the worst prisons in Rome. It was the first time in ninety years that a pope had gone to a prison, and in greeting the prisoners, the Pope said, "You could not come to me, so I have come to you." That is precisely what God did. We could not go to Him, so He took the initiative to come to us.
Although we read the Christmas story from Luke 2, it could just as well be read from Romans 5:8 where Paul says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God started it. God has taken the first step towards us. God has not cast us out because of our great sin and rebellion against Him. He has taken a huge step towards us. Prophecy, the message to Mary, the appearance of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, the announcement to the shepherds all communicate this good news that God is the initiator of our salvation.
II. He Humbled Himself
And so Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem. The passage tells us that Mary was “pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.” The exact nature of their relationship is a little hard for us to understand because we don’t have a firm understanding of all the marriage customs of the day. They were promised to each other and it is possible that in a legal sense they were married. It may be that in that day a couple was not considered married until they had consummated the marriage and that is the essential point - they had not yet consummated the marriage. Mary was pregnant, but had never known her husband. This, of course, is what was announced to her when the angel first told her that she would become pregnant through the Holy Spirit and would have a son. Why this unusual birth? It was the way in which God chose to come into the world. God humbled himself by entering our world as a child.
In a poem written some 15 centuries ago, Augustine tried to capture the mystery of the Incarnation:
Maker of the sun,
He is made under the sun.
In the Father he remains,
From his mother he goes forth.
Creator of heaven and earth,
He was born on earth under heaven.
He is wisely speechless.
Filling the world,
He lies in a manger.
Ruler of the stars,
He nurses at his mother's bosom.
He is both great in the nature of God,
and small in the form of a servant.
As we read on we find that when Joseph and Mary came to Bethlehem, they found that it was hard to find a place to stay. This is where the embellishments take monumental proportions. All it says is that there was no room for them in the inn. The embellishments of innkeeper after innkeeper refusing them like no vacancy signs on a chain of Holiday Inn like hotels stretches credibility. Some suggest that there were no inns in Bethlehem - certainly not in the sense of commercial hotels that we imagine. More than likely, it was guest rooms in private homes - and they were all full. Furthermore, they were not strangers in Bethlehem. They likely had at least extended family there, but none of them had room for them. We must also realize that it was not uncommon in those days to use an empty animal shelter to house guests if there was no room in the house. Poorer people who couldn’t pay for their stay would simply be given space in an empty barn. One writer says, “When the rooms were filled and the animals were at pasture, an inn could improvise quarters for poorer people.” And that is exactly the point. Mary and Joseph were poorer people. They were not people of means. And once again the theme of God’s humbling himself becomes the important point. When God came into this world, he humbled himself by coming in as a baby. He humbled himself by being born in a poor family.
When the angel announced the message to the shepherds, the point is made once again. The sign that the shepherds were to look for was a “baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” One writer suggests that this was a “paradoxical sign, since the promised Messiah is to be found in lowly conditions.”
This is the good news that is so exciting, that causes us to rejoice. When God came into the world, He did not come into a nice world, He came into a world that would eventually kill Him. He came not as conqueror, but gently as a baby. He was not born into a palace, but into humble circumstances. What wonderful news this is because it tells us of the gracious method of God. He came to identify with us. He came with grace and humility, reaching out to come to our level in order to be able to help us at our deepest need.
Joseph Damien was a nineteenth-century missionary who ministered to people with leprosy on the island of Molokai, Hawaii. Those suffering grew to love him and revered the sacrificial life he lived out before them.
One morning before Damien was to lead daily worship, he was pouring some hot water into a cup when the water swirled out and fell onto his bare foot. It took him a moment to realize that he had not felt any sensation. Gripped by the sudden fear of what this could mean, he poured more hot water on the same spot. No feeling whatsoever.
Damien immediately knew what had happened. As he walked tearfully to deliver his sermon, no one at first noticed the difference in his opening line. He normally began every sermon with, "My fellow believers." But this morning he began with, "My fellow lepers."
That is what God did at Christmas, he humbled himself by becoming a baby and entering the world in poverty in order to identify with us and to save us from within.
Although we often read the Christmas story from Luke 2, it could be just as well read from Philippians 2:6-8 which says, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!”
III. He Did What We Could Not Do
After Jesus was born, an angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds. The message of the angel was, “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you.” This message brings us right to the center of the Christmas story. It is about God taking the initiative. It is about God humbling himself in order to come into this world. But what was the purpose of these things? The purpose of God coming into the world was so that He could be our Saviour.
The Jewish people had all kinds of images that helped them understand the concept of saviour. There was the picture of redemption. When a person was too poor to pay for things, he could sell his land or even himself in order to get the money to pay his bills. The law of Moses made provision for the relative of such a person to redeem the land and thus keep it in the family ore redeem the person. The person who bought the land became, in a sense the saviour of the person who was poor. Many times in Israel’s history, military leaders like David, Samson and others had arisen to save the people from oppressing enemies.
The Greeks also had images of saviours. Their saviours were military leaders who helped a particular nation or state win a victory over some overbearing enemy.
The readers in that day would have understood what a saviour was. We also have images that help us understand what a saviour is.
We have a picture of Carla about 9 months pregnant with our first child. On the picture, I am kneeling down tying up her shoe. She couldn’t do it any more, so I helped her. We all have had occasions when because of illness, injury or inability, we looked to someone else to do something for us that we could do ourselves. That is what it means to be a saviour.
When God came to earth as a baby, he came as Saviour. He came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. He pulled us back from the devastating lifestyle of sin from which we could not free ourselves. He pulled us back from eternal destruction to which we were condemned. That is a marvellous story which needs no additions.
We usually tell the Christmas story from Luke 2, but it could be told just as well from Titus 3:4,5 which says, “But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit…”
As we celebrate, it is OK to imagine what it might have been like, but let us not let that distract us from the wonder at the center.
Over the last few weeks and for the next few days, we are participating in a lot of Christmas banquets. If we attended a banquet and the presentation of food was so beautiful that we just admired the beauty of the food, but never received nourishment from it because we never ate it that would be ridiculous. A banquet is to be enjoyed.
The message of Christmas is a banquet that must be eaten. Let us not just look at the different aspects of it or conjecture what all the different parts might be. Let us truly embrace and participate in the marvellous message. Let us rejoice in God who started it and humbled himself in order to do for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Henri Nouwen writes:
“I realized that songs, good feelings, beautiful liturgies, nice presents, big dinners, and many sweet words do not make Christmas. Christmas is saying "yes" to something beyond all emotions and feelings. Christmas is saying "yes" to a hope based on God's initiative, which has nothing to do with what I think or feel. Christmas is believing that the salvation of the world is God's work, and not mine.”