And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, 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, good will toward men."
Sermon for Christmas Eve 12/24/20
The Wonder of It All
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
I have heard the Christmas story every year for the seventy 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 thirty 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 is so simple, and yet so profound. "In those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed." We are tempted to ask, "which days?" And Luke tells us. He tells us that it was in the days when Cyrenius - also known as "Quirinius" - was governing in Syria. He did it twice-once as a military officer, and once as a Roman Governor, as far as we know. But it places it in time, about 10 to 6 B.C., as we now reckon the years. Real people, like Caesar Augustus and Lucius Quirinius., and real places; not "once upon a time, in a land far-far away." Because Herod the Great is part of this story later on, we know that Jesus was actually born something like 4 to 6 B.C., because Herod died in the year we number 4 B.C..
It was a census, though, not a tax. Everyone had to go to their ancestral home-town and register. The purpose was for collecting taxes later on, and they may have also had to pay a tax at the time of registration. We just don't know. But everyone had to go to the family home-town. For Joseph, that meant Bethlehem, the City of David. He was a direct descendant of David – and so was Mary. So they went to register. Mary probably went along because she was unwilling to be left behind, pregnant, and all of that, and pregnant before her wedding day, which was a cause of great humiliation in those days. There is something to the idea that maybe they planned to move away from home in Nazareth to avoid the vicious gossip and withering looks of the neighbor ladies. We think about that possibility because of the visit of the Magi, the so called "wise men" from the East. They came and found Jesus in a house, not a stable, when they arrived, and they had been following the Star of Bethlehem for nearly two years!
In any case, while they were in Bethlehem, and still staying in the stable - because there was no room in the inn, Mary went into labor, and gave birth to her first-born Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, as every mother did with their newborn children in those days, and used a hay-rack (called a "manger") as a make-shift crib. It was likely not unusual for travelers to stay in the stables when the inn was full, and this current census was keeping the inn fully occupied. It is such a simple story - or account, if the word "story" makes you think that it might be fiction or something. Marvelous in its simplicity and paucity of details, this "account" nevertheless describes an earth-shaking miracle; the Incarnation of God - that is, God putting on human flesh and blood and becoming one of us. The Reformed still insist that it is not possible, although they admit part of it, they still say that the physical body of Jesus could not contain God. God presents us with a different perspective, though. Here he is, God in the flesh. Imagine the wonder of it all.
The Angels tell us about that. Those Shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night, were the first to hear the good news of the Incarnation. They would do that, when they were in the lower elevations, they would sit out under the stars and keep watch, guarding their flocks against the nocturnal predators of Israel's countryside. They must have been visited by the angels early in the darkness of the night, because everyone was still up in the stable, and there were still people on the streets for the shepherds to tell about their wonderful vision, and what it meant for the people, as they hurried back to their flocks later that night.
Anyhow, the shepherds were keeping guard over their sheep, and suddenly the sky above them lit up. And there was a angel floating in the middle of that light in the sky. They had never seen anything like it - not in paintings, and not in movies - because it had never happened yet, so no one would have thought to paint it or picture it somehow. The sky lit up bright, and the angel - they knew what it had to be, because it couldn't be anything else! - spoke to them. He said, "Fear not!" He had to say that because the shepherds were terrified - or "sore afraid" as the King James Version puts it. Besides, God is a God of comfort, and He wants to bring us peace and hope and joy - so He always tries to calm people down when they confront Him. Actually seeing the glory of God tends to be unnerving - even for those who are expecting it.
"Fear not, for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people, for unto you is born this night, in the city of David – right down the hill from them – a Savior who is Christ (the Messiah promised for so long in Scriptures) and who is God Himself!" The angel was pretty blunt and clear. "Christ the Lord" is our translation of Luke's translation of the words of the angels. The phrase would have been without meaning to them, but they all knew about the promised Messiah, and they all would have understood the word, "Lord" as the formal name of God, given to Moses to share with the people of Israel - "Tell them ‘I am' sent you."
After twelve hundred years of waiting since the time of Abraham, this was deliriously good news! Good tidings, indeed! It meant the end of death - and sin - and life's basic unfairness - although not immediately, but absolutely for sure in not too many years! Good tidings of great joy! And there was absolutely no doubt for the shepherds that it was true - only God can put on a light show like they were seeing, and only an angel of the Lord could stand in the sky and speak to them like this. Naturally, they wanted to see what the angels spoke about. They didn't doubt for a minute - nor did they think they would see all of the glory of the thing right there in the manger - after all, the angels said that he was just born that night. They just wanted to see - and God wanted them to see it, because you and I cannot get there. He wanted them to run and see and worship and report it to a whole bunch of people so that we would know that it was true and real, and not merely some story. He wanted them to see so that we could see through their eyes.
So the angel told them how to find this baby, and what to look for. "And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger." Ohhh! 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. The Angels gave them a sign - what to look for - and they found it. They found Mary and Joseph together with the Baby lying in the manger. But before they did, once the angel had delivered his message, suddenly there was a whole crowd of them - a multitude - of the heavenly host - the armies of God, singing in the sky. Not just one bright light, but a sky full, and they sang a blessing. We have all grown up hearing it in 16th Century English - "Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will to men." It sounds pretty good that way, too, but what they actually sang was more like, "Glory in the highest to God, and on earth, peace among men with whom He is well-pleased."
The "peace" is the 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.
So, when the angels had gone away from them back into heaven, the shepherds began to talk about what had just happened, and they decided that they had to go and see what it was that God had revealed to them. So they went – Luke says that they went with haste. And they found everything just as the angels had said. They told Mary and Joseph about the angels and the revelations of the night. Mary and Joseph were amazed too. And then, on the way back to their fields and flocks, they couldn't help themselves. They had to tell everyone what they had seen and heard, and how everything the angels had told them came true and was just as they were told.
That was the first evangelism team. They believed, and so they had to speak. They didn't know everything you and I know, but they knew about God coming in the flesh – Immanuel, God with us. They knew that the little one in the manger was the Savior. They knew God was doing something new and miraculous – and they just had to tell someone - in fact they just had to tell everyone they saw. Oh, the wonder of it all!
We are here to sing the song of the angels tonight, and see the sights the Shepherds saw. It is a wonder-filled story of love and grace. When you believe it, it makes you want to tell someone - anyone. So let's sing about the glory of God - which is Jesus Christ, and God's love for us poor sinners. And let us rejoice in God's promise of peace and love and grace through Jesus. Glory to God! And peace to you - you whom God counts as well-pleasing in His Son. OH, THE WONDER OF IT ALL!!
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)