Now it came about in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all were proceeding to register for the census, everyone to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register, along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. And it came about that while they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her first-born son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
And in the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. And the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger." And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased."
I have heard the Christmas story every year for the fifty-seven years of my life. As a child, I memorized parts of it each year for my place in the annual Christmas program of the Sunday School. I memorized different parts each year until I had committed to memory the entire passage, from Luke 2, verse one, to verse twenty. I have sung it, and shouted it, and cried my way through it. I have preached it for over twenty years, and written several Christmas programs for Sunday Schools of parishes I have been called to pastor. Through it all, I have never gotten tired of it, nor ever lost the sense of the Wonder of it all.
It almost seems like a faerie tale. It has so many legends built up around it that many people today think that it is a legend itself. The Archbishop of the world-wide Anglican fellowship declared the Christmas narrative to be legend and fiction just this past week. It has the best qualities of a legend it is oft repeated, generally known although not generally well known, and has characters larger than life and it is filled with elements almost too fantastic to believe. It is often called "The Christmas Story." I try to avoid that phrase because it permits people to go on thinking that it is fiction. I try to be careful to call it the Christmas Narrative or the Christmas account. This re-telling of the events of that night so long ago, events of such cosmic significance, are the focus of our attention this day. Our theme is, "The Wonder of It All".
One of the things that doesn't seem to naturally occur to people as they consider the Biblical account of the birth of Jesus is how this simple narrative separates the Christian faith from so many religions, and this account from all of those myths and legends. Have you ever noticed how myths and legends begin? "Once upon a time . . .". They have no historical particularity. You cannot place them in real time and you cannot place them among real people. You cannot ever say that they really happened, nor can you often assert that nothing like it ever did happen.
But Christianity is different. The Christmas account is filled with time and place and people data that gives our faith a firm rooting in real time and history. Christmas is the first, and a very vital step, in bringing God and our salvation down to earth and reality.
God became one of us. You are dust and to dust you shall return, so said God through the Scriptures. He took on that dust for us. He stepped down from the glory of heaven and from what it is to be God and took on our humanity. He did that in Bethlehem. He humbled Himself to the form of an infant. The Wonder of it all!
Think about it! Almighty God endured becoming a helpless infant. Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows! He bore every grief, not just the grief of death. On Christmas day, over two thousand years ago, God stepped out of His glory and into our humility. And there was nothing half-way about it. He did not simply become one of us, but He became a poor and helpless child, of poor and insignificant people. He was not born in a hospital, or a birthing room, or superintended by even a lowly midwife. He was born of a young girl in a stable. It puts me in mind of when I was a child and left a door open in my haste. My mother would ask, What? Were you born in a barn? Jesus would have had to answer, "Yes." Here he is, God in the flesh, born in a stable, cradled in a manger. Imagine the wonder of it all.
He had no glory that man could see. He was laid in a feed trough a hay-rack. The manger was no delightful nativity piece. It was a rough-hewn thing slapped together to hold hay or feed for the animals. The shepherds came because God could not contain Himself. Heaven burst with the joy and the glory of the plan of our salvation and the marvel of the Incarnation. "Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. "And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger." God announced it to mere shepherds, because He just had to tell someone. And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased." ! The wonder of it all! Not only did God come, as promised, to save His people from their sins, but He came so simple, and so humble, and so accessible. And you can bet that there were still shepherds alive who could hear someone read the words of Luke and say, "Yes, I was there!"
He not only humbled Himself to the point of flesh and poverty and ultimately suffering and dying for us, He left us the details. This is not a "Once Upon a Time" sort of yarn. This is an historical account filled with place and time and people identifiers. In those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus. We know of him! We know when he ruled, and how. We can place this man in history. We even know what his name was before he adopted the title Ceasar and called himself "Augustus". His name had been Gaius Octavius Thurinus, until Julius Caesar adopted him and he had been born in 63 B.C..
And this census was first taken when Quirinius was governing in Syria. Only a few people know today that Quirinius governed twice in Syria; once as a military governor and once as the official civil governor. One of those governings began in 8 A.D., so that would be too late for Jesus' birth. The other term was supposedly quite a while before Jesus could have been born. Some people thinks that means that the Bible is in error. Not so! The census (which the King James Version calls a tax because the census was for the purpose of assessing taxes from each region) was ordered originally while Quirinius served in his first term, which lasted until 5 B.C.. Things being what they were, it took a while for the order to be proclaimed and the actual census to happen, just in time for Jesus' birth in about 4 B.C. But many who first read or heard Luke's account would say, "Oh, the census ordered during the governorship of Quirinius in Syria. Yeah, I remember that!"
God has provided us with detail in time and place and people so that we can identify who and where and how in history. All of this was so that we might know for sure from this vantage in history, nearly two thousand years later, that it really happened. Jesus was born at an identifiable time in history, lived among people and through events we know about outside of our religion, walked in places you can visit today, if you wish. The details tell us that it is no myth, no legend, no work of fiction, but history that God came down to rescue us.
God got down to accomplishing that rescue three decades later. He took on our sins with all their shame and guilt, and suffered crucifixion. He was whipped and beaten, spit upon, cursed and mocked. He was nailed rudely to the cross and hung between heaven and earth betrayed and murdered by man, forsaken and punished by God. He endured it all for us and for our sins, to redeem us from sin and death, so that He might forgive us our sins and give us eternal life with Him. He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.
"Peace" is the word the angels sang to the Shepherds on that Christmas night so long ago. The sang of peace with God and peace from our sins and the condemnation due to us because of them - given to us in Christ. That is why the angels sang of it. And the judgment of well-pleasing is the judgment that is ours in Christ. He was Well-pleasing to His Father at His Baptism, as He began His public ministry. And He was well-pleasing to His Father on the Mount of Transfiguration as He began the descent into Jerusalem and to the cross. When our sins are forgiven, that is when God declares us well-pleasing to Him in Christ, and we are at peace with Him and at peace with one another in Christ. The blessing sung by the angels was nothing other than the Gospel, only in words that those who do not know the Gospel could not decipher. That is why the world loved the "Peace on earth, goodwill toward men", but despise the Prince of Peace, and reject the gift of Peace which He brings.
But even with all the details provided and the wonderful message of the promises of the Gospel, it is hard to believe, and many do not. Even from within the church, many call this miracle of grace a myth, a legend, or, worse yet, a symbol, and they deny the saving reality of God come into the flesh and the reality of the need to be saved. Outside the church they often don't even pay Christ any attention. Christmas is, to them, a nuisance, or a holiday of human good will and good works, a holiday for children's stories about Santa and Rudolph, and a traditional occasion of gift-giving. Unbelievers either in the church or outside of it are in grave danger for only those who know the truth and place their trust in Jesus Christ have eternal life. Jesus has purchased that salvation for everyone, paying with His own life and His own sufferings and His own blood. Those who would be saved need only take God at His Word, and trust Him, but those who reject Jesus, or His historical reality, or their own need for salvation, are lost.
But we have heard the song of the angels, announcing the glory of God, that He has sent His Son to be born among us Immanuel, God with us. We have heard it through the ears of the shepherds, and have seen it all through the eyes of the Apostles to the bitter end. And tonight we rejoice in it. This is the good news of a great joy, our Savior has been born. Our sins have been lifted off from our shoulders. We have the assurance of God's love and abiding concern. Let us rejoice tonight and sing with the angels of the glory of God which is His indescribable love for us and His remarkable and glorious grace which worked our salvation! Oh, the wonder of it all!
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.