The Nativity

December 24, 2020

Bible Text: Luke 2:1-20 |

Series:

Jesus the Savior: The Nativity | Luke 2:1-20
Brian Hedges | December 24, 2020

I want to invite you to turn in your Bibles tonight to the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Luke 2:1-20. We’re going to be reading verses 1-20 in the course of the message tonight.

While you’re turning there, let me tell you about an article that C.S. Lewis wrote when he was 59 years old, called “What Christmas Means to Me”. I’d actually never read this article until this week, and I came across it, and in just two pages Lewis talks about the three things that go by the name of Christmas, three different things that all have this word Christmas attached to it.

There is, first of all, what Lewis calls “the religious festival, which is important and obligatory for all Christians.” Of course he means our celebration of the birth of Christ, the incarnation of Christ—what we’re doing here tonight, gathering to remember the birth and the nativity of our Lord. That’s the first thing.

There is, secondly, the “popular holiday,” as Lewis calls it, “an occasion for merrymaking and hospitality.” Lewis says, “I approve of merrymaking.” He’s all for that. It’s fine to gather and to have Christmas parties and to make Christmas desserts and have these parties and food all the events that go with it. He says, “I approve of that, but,” he says, “what I approve of much more is everybody minding his own business.”

That leads into the third thing that goes by the name Christmas, and that’s what he calls “the commercial racket.” The commercial racket. Of course, we’re all familiar with this; all of the commercialism, all of the press to buy presents and gifts and to shop, and all the craziness that’s going on in the world because of that. Of course, he’s writing this in 1957; if anything, it’s only worse now in 2020.

Lewis complains about the commercial racket for several reasons. He says it gives more pain than pleasure. He says it’s involuntary, and he really goes on a tirade about the obligation to give gifts and to send cards, and especially that moment when you think all of your shopping is done, and then you get an unexpected present from somebody else and you feel like you have to return the favor.

Then he says that these gifts that are given as presents “no mortal would ever buy for himself: gaudy and useless gadgets, novelties because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before.” He just complains about the nuisance of the commercial racket of Christmas.

I think that little article shows two things. It shows, first of all, that even the venerable C.S. Lewis could be a grumpy old man. There is a little bit of a “bah-humbug” spirit in that article, which is kind of unusual for Lewis. He was actually a very generous man, but he was reacting to a very real problem with the way Christmas is celebrated today. This is the second thing about the article, is that he’s right. There is a huge difference between the religious Christmas and the commercial Christmas. There’s a huge difference between the real and honest and genuine celebration of the nativity and the birth of our Lord and all that often goes under the name of Christmas in the worldly sense.

Well, for the last several weeks we’ve been opening up the Gospel of Luke. We’ve been looking at the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel on Sunday mornings, and we’ve really been leading up to this point tonight, where we’re looking at Luke 2 and the birth, or the nativity, of Christ. It’s 20 verses, so kind of a long passage, so what I want to do is just break it down into four steps, and we’ll just look at this in four segments and read the passage as we get to each point. We’re going to look at: the decree, the birth, the news, and the response.

My hope is that by the time we’re done we will have at least a renewed, if not even a fresh and deeper, understanding of the meaning of Christmas, the real religious meaning, the Christian meaning of Christmas, what it is that we celebrate in the birth of our Lord and how we ourselves should respond to it.

1. The Decree (v. 1-5) 

We begin in verses 1-5 with the decree, and this is really giving us some of the setting in which the Lord Jesus was born. Look at Luke 2:1. It says,

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” This was a census that was being taken for the purpose of taxation. Verse 2, “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.”

Now, as I’ve already commented, the journey from Nazareth to the hill country of Judea, as Mary took this journey some months before, was actually a long journey. It was about 80 miles, so about a four or five day journey. Now Joseph and pregnant Mary, great with child, are making this journey again because Joseph has to go to his hometown of Bethlehem in order to be registered for this census.

This decree from Caesar Augustus reminds us of several things. It reminds us of, again, the historical context in which the Gospels were written. Every historian agrees that there really was such a figure as Caesar Augustus. His name was Octavius; he was the first Augustus, the first August figure, that is, the first emperor of Rome, and he had been the emperor of Rome for some time when this now takes place.

It reminds us also of the power, the dominant power that Rome had over the world at that time, including over Judea and over the people of God. They were a people who were under rule by pagans. They were under rule by the ungodly. The very circumstances which we read here reminds us of that situation.

In other words, this was a dark time. It was a dark time for the people of Israel. Even though they were in their own land, it is occupied by the Romans and they are being taxed by this foreign power. And we see the very personal inconvenience of the circumstances of Joseph and Mary, that they have to go on this 80-mile journey—again, this is before there’s anything like planes or trains or automobiles, so they have to go on this long journey on foot, or perhaps on horseback or on camel, and they have to do that while Mary is nine months pregnant. They have to do all of this because of the decree of Caesar.

Now, what Luke doesn’t say but if you read between the lines is pretty clear is that there’s also another decree. It’s not just the decree of Caesar, but there’s a reason, based on the Old Testament, why God wanted Joseph and Mary to be in Bethlehem. Joseph is going to Bethlehem because this is hometown, but anyone who knows their Bibles will know that the prophet Micah had prophesied that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem.

Here’s the passage, Micah 5:2, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are 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 coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” That passage actually is alluded to directly in Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew 2, but when you read between the lines in Luke’s Gospel it’s pretty clear that this is the reason why there was this decree.

This is a reminder for us, brothers and sisters, that even though the lords and the rulers and the kings of this world exercise their power, execute their decrees, they give their edicts, their executive orders—even though they do all these things, there’s always another power that is ruling over them, and that is the power of God. We see here the providence of God, who uses, as one commentator says, “an unwitting Caesar to accomplish divine purposes so that this child will be born in the town of David.”

I think the first application for each one of us is that we trust in the sovereignty of God over the kings and kingdoms of this world. There is not a Caesar that rules, there’s not a president, an emperor, a senate, any kind of government in the world that is not under the sovereign sway and control of the King of heaven, our God, and we see his purposes being worked out here. That’s the decree, verses 1-5.

2. The Birth (v. 6-7) 

Then, in just two verses, you have the birth, in verses 6-7. This is very simply told. There’s very little ornamentation here; it’s just a straightforward, simple, humble telling of the birth of Christ. “And while they were there [that is, in Bethlehem], the time came for her [Mary] to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

This record of the birth of the Lord Jesus is striking in its utter simplicity. The earthly circumstances of his birth were modest, humble; they were ordinary. Jesus is born and is laid in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. He is wrapped in these swaddling cloths, which, as we will see in a moment, will be a sign for the shepherds. But all of it takes place in these very humble circumstances. He’s not born into a stately palace in Rome, he’s not born into a priestly family in Jerusalem; he’s born to this humble little family from Nazareth in this little town of Bethlehem, and the only audience are probably the animals, and perhaps there were other travelers who were staying there in the inn. The inn is actually a guest chamber which is attached to the home; there was no room for them there, so they were in another part of this very simple accommodation, probably weathering even the outside weather in their circumstances.

All of it shows us the humble circumstances of the birth of the Lord Jesus, and it reminds us of the incredible theological truth that we’re celebrating together tonight, and that is the incarnation and the humility of Christ in the incarnation.

We get what we might call the inner story, the inner meaning of the incarnation, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Philippians 2:5-7. You remember what he said: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

This is an amazing thing! I think it’s hard for us even to grasp what a step this was for the eternal God, the word eternally with God, to take on human flesh. It means that the very Creator of the universe took upon himself created humanity so that created humanity was joined in the person of the Son with the eternal Godhead.

Upon birth, Jesus begins the very ordinary process of development and growth. He will be fully dependent upon his mother’s milk for life and nourishment. He will have to rely upon the tender care of his parents from his infancy through childhood and up until adulthood. This is just astounding, that God became flesh and dwelt among us! That God, Jesus Christ, the eternal God, became a baby.

It’s an amazing thing that we celebrate when we celebrate Christmas, and perhaps no one has ever put it more eloquently than St. Augustine in words that I’ve read here before; some of you will perhaps remember these words, but I think beautifully put a description of the incarnation. Augustine said, “The maker of man was made man so that the director of stars might be a babe at the breast; that bread might be hungry and the fountain thirsty, that the light might sleep and the way be weary from a journey; that the truth might be accused by false witnesses, that the judge of the living and the dead would be judged by a mortal judge, that justice might be convicted by the unjust, that the cluster of grapes might be crowned with thorns, that the foundation be hung upon a tree, that strength might grow weak, eternal health be wounded, and life die.” That’s what happened in the incarnation, and it all began when Jesus was conceived by the virgin Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit and then brought into the world that night in Bethlehem. The birth of Christ.

3. The News (v. 8-14) 

Then, in verses 8-14, we have the news of this birth—we have an announcement, something like a birth announcement, and it’s an announcement made to humble shepherds. Once again, we just see the humility of the circumstances. Shepherds were not the rich and the famous, they were not the mighty and the powerful; they were actually even despised in the ancient world. They would have been considered peasants and the lower class of society, sometimes even considered the riffraff of society, not even trusted sometimes. Yet it’s to shepherds that God sends the message that the Christ has been born. Let’s read it, verses 8-14.

It says, “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.” This is a reminder to us, once again, as I’ve stated several times in this series, that the appearance of angels was not a common thing even in biblical times. Up until just a few months before there had been no voice from God, no appearance of an angel, no prophecy—nothing like that for 400 years. And here are shepherds; they’ve never seen angels before, and when this angel appears and they see the glory of the Lord, the bright resplendent light of the glory of God, they are terrified.

But notice the message as the angel speaks in verse 10. “And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’ And 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!’”

Now, this is once again a significant passage that gives us insight into the nature of the incarnation, the news of what God was doing through the birth of Christ. I think we can see three things I’ll just point out briefly.

(a) This is, first of all, news of a Savior and of salvation. You see that in verses 10-11 when the angel says, “Fear not, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior…” A Savior.

What is this Savior? A savior is someone who rescues others from danger of some kind. I’ve already pointed out in this series that salvation is a theme in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus himself says later in the Gospel of Luke that he “came to seek and to save the lost.” So God through the angels is telling these shepherds that a Savior has been born.

When we celebrate Christmas, we are celebrating salvation, we are celebrating the birth of the Savior, we are celebrating the salvation that he came to bring.

A few nights ago my family and I went to one of the neighborhoods in Mishawaka, the Edison Lakes neighborhood, and we were looking at lights for maybe an hour or so, kind of driving around, looking at all these homes that have been decorated. Beautiful lights, beautiful homes, and you kind of wonder if some of these neighbors are trying to outdo one another, because some of them go all out. You just wonder what their electric bill must be this time of the year.

But the one house that struck me, that really stood out to me, was not the nicest house in the neighborhood. It wasn’t the biggest setup or display of lights or anything like that. It was actually a pretty simple house with a few lights, but there was a message. There was a message, and this is what it said: “Rescued. Thank you, dear Jesus.”

I saw that and I thought, “That’s a Christian family, because they are trying to send a message here about the real meaning of Christmas.” What is Christmas about? It’s about being rescued; rescued by the divine Savior, who rescues us from sin, from judgment, from death.

(b) It’s news of a Savior and salvation; secondly, it’s news of a king and his kingdom. You see that in those words “Christ the Lord” in verse 11. “...unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The word Christ, of course, is Christos, the anointed one, or the Messiah. In the Old Testament, there were three offices, people who could be anointed for a specific vocation; there were prophets, priests, and kings. Christ is all of those things, but especially I think in view here is his kingship, that here is Christ the king, the Messiah, who is born among us.

He is called Christ the Lord. This would have been significant to the original readers. Remember that Luke is addressing his Gospel to Theophilus, who is probably a Roman dignitary of some kind. Well, every Roman person understood that the basic of Rome was “Caesar is lord,” but here Luke is telling us that Christ is Lord, he is the true king, and he has come to set up his kingdom.

The very heart of the Christian gospel is that through Jesus Christ God is establishing his kingdom, his kingship, his authority among the hearts and lives of men and women. So this is news of a king and a kingdom.

(c) Then, thirdly, of glory and peace. You see that in verses 13-14, where you have this multitude of a heavenly host praising God. This word “multitude” carries the idea of thousands upon thousands. Some have even speculated that this was the greatest revelation of angels in all the history of the world. There were perhaps tens of thousands of angels that the shepherds were able to see and hear as they broke forth in this exclamation in verse 14, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased,” or perhaps better, “among those upon whom his favor rests.”

This shows us the very purpose of salvation. The purpose of salvation is twofold: it is to bring glory to God and it is to establish God’s peace among men.

What is that peace? Once again, if we understand something about the original context, it’s even more striking, because in the ancient world, the world that was dominated by Rome, there was something that was known as the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. It was Octavius, Caesar Augustus, who had established this, the peace of Rome. The idea was that the Roman empire was bringing peace to the world. Now, there were few people that believed that propaganda, but even the Roman historian Tacitus understood that for conquered nations the Pax Romana was something to be feared rather than cherished, and he spoke instead of the Vis Romana, the power of Rome. The way Caesar established this peace was at the point of a spear. It was either submit to Rome or you would be annihilated. So that’s how the peace of Rome would be established.

But the peace of God, the peace that God brings, how is he doing that? Not through violence. He’s not doing that through force. He’s doing that by sending his Son in the weakness of the incarnation, this Son who is born as a baby in Bethlehem, who will go all the way to death on a cross, and through taking violence upon himself he will establish peace with God.bIn fact, as Paul will say in Colossians, Ephesians, and other places, he established peace through the blood of the cross. Christ himself is our peace. Why? Because at the cross he takes sin and judgment upon himself.

This is the news. It is new of salvation, news of a kingdom, and news of peace with God that gives glory to him.

4. The Response (v. 15-20)

What then is to be our response? Look at verses 15-20. There are three things I think we see here, three ways that you see people responding to the news in this passage and three ways that you and I are to respond.

(a) First of all, share the news. Verse 15, “When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.”

They went and they investigated, and then they made it known, they shared the news with others. Surely the very first and obvious response of any one of us to the gospel, if we believe this gospel, if we believe this good news, should be a desire to share it with others, to share the news with others. The shepherds were, in a sense, the very first evangelists of the Christian gospel, as they shared this news with others. You and I are called to do the same.

(b) Not only are we to share the news, we are to ponder the mystery. Look at verses 18-19. “And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”

Have you ever been through a really significant life-changing, life-altering experience? It may be getting married, it may be the birth of a child, it may be the death of a family member, it may be some traumatic experience that you’ve gone through, it may be some incredibly joyful experience that you’ve gone through; but you go through that experience, and you know how it just takes time to process it? It just takes time. You have to think. You have to take time apart, you have to meditate on what’s taken place in your life.

Well, Mary has been through a significant life-changing—in fact, a world-changing—experience, and what does she do? She treasures these things and she ponders them in her heart. She’s thinking over what has taken place.

You and I should follow her example. We should ponder the mystery, ponder the mystery of the incarnation, ponder the mystery that God became man, that the word became flesh; to use C.S. Lewis’s words, that “myth became fact,” that God has entered into human history in order to bring salvation to us. In all the hustle and bustle of the holidays, let’s not forget to do this: to stop and to ponder what God has done through the birth of his Son.

(c) Number three, we are to worship the Lord. Look at verse 20. “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” Of course! What else would you do if you had seen and heard these things? You would glorify and praise God for it.

I think one of the great joys for me this evening has been to gather in worship with brothers and sisters and to hear you sing, to sing about the gospel, to sing these songs about what God has done through the incarnation of Christ. We have much reason to worship God, we have reason to praise God, we have reasons to sing—more reasons than anyone else in the world, no matter what we suffer, no matter what we go through. If this news is true, if God has sent his Son to be our Savior, if the word has become flesh, then we have reasons to worship, so we’re going to continue in worship together tonight. Would you bow with me in prayer?

Father, once again we just pause to say thank you for what you’ve done. Thank you for your love, your grace, your mercy. Thank you for your kindness, that you would look upon us, sinners that we are, and send your Son to be our Savior. Thank you that there is hope in this world, thank you that the darkness does not win, but that light has come and the darkness cannot overcome it. Thank you that you have worked personally in our hearts to bring us to a knowledge of Christ. Thank you, Lord, that we have the opportunity to respond to the gospel.

My prayer, Lord, is that tonight if there’s anyone here who has not responded, maybe a child, maybe a teenager, maybe a guest of someone else who’s come tonight, and perhaps for the first time the message of Christmas makes sense, Lord, I pray that tonight would be the night when they respond to this message in faith and repentance, embracing Jesus Christ as Savior and as Lord, embracing the good news of salvation that really is the true meaning of Christmas. As we sing about these things, may we continue in worship, and may you be glorified. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.