Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 2:1-20. These chapters tell of how the birth of Jesus Christ came about, how God controls history, sets standards, satisfies those who seek Him and brings forgiveness and peace to those who receive Him.
What speaks loudly to you about the statements made in these passages?
Dwight Eisenhower said, “Good leadership is getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it.” Some people have an extraordinary ability to get others involved in getting things done. One person calls it “planting a seed in someone else’s pot”, that “someone else” then waters it, helps it grow, and brings it to fruition – and usually gets the credit for it.
It seems that this is common practice with God. God gets people to do what he wants them to do, because they want to do it – and they have no idea what’s happening! God the Father is working behind the scenes, orchestrating the events that culminated in Jesus’ death and resurrection. That’s God’s characteristic way of working. He is behind everything, invisible to us.
Luke chapter 2 is the most familiar New Testament text about the birth of Christ. It gives us an excellent view of God’s way of doing things behind the scenes – invisible, but very much in control! This classic narrative of Christ’s birth discloses several truths about God that are a source of great joy to humankind.
FIRST, GOD CONTROLS HISTORY
God uses unwitting human agents to do his bidding. Christ’s birth proved that God is in charge.
(Luke 2:1) In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.
(Luke 2:2) This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
(Luke 2:3) And everyone went to his own town to register.
(Luke 2:4) So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.
(Luke 2:5) He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
(Luke 2:6) While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born,
(Luke 2:7) and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
God worked through the decree by the supreme ruler of the empire. Caesar Augustus was also called Octavian. He is regarded as one of the great administrative geniuses of history. He centralized the power of the empire in Rome itself, and established the Pax Romana – Roman peace. Rome ruled the world but the Roman Emperor was not really in charge of the world.
Quirinius was governor of Syria. At that time, the Roman province of Syria included Palestine under its jurisdiction. Augustus, that great imperial genius, had no idea that he was being used by a power infinitely higher and greater than his own. The emperor ordered a census to evaluate taxation potential. A census was never good news. The empire always wanted more taxes, but the plan for a census came not from Augustus, but from God. It’s hard to admit that God could actually be behind increased taxes. Couldn’t God have arranged some other means to get the couple to Bethlehem at the right time? But God chose to use the mighty Roman Empire. Hundreds of thousands of people thought they were following Caesar’s decree, but they had no idea that Caesar was just doing the Lord’s bidding.
The census usually meant that a person had to return to where the family owned property. Joseph’s legal residence was apparently still in Bethlehem. He may have owned some property there, so he had to go to Bethlehem for the census. Bethlehem was about 80 miles south of Nazareth. It’s only claim to fame was that King David had been born in Bethlehem about 1,000 years earlier. Joseph decided to take Mary along with him. Maybe he didn’t want to leave her alone so late in the pregnancy.
You probably think Caesar’s decree was highly inconvenient for the couple. You probably imagine them saying, “Of all the times for Caesar to order a census – why now?” But it may have been the other way around. Maybe Mary and Joseph welcomed it. “Yessss! Now we have reason to get away from the staring and the glaring. Bethlehem, here we come!”
When Mary’s time came, the only available place for the little family was one usually occupied by animals. We today probably get more upset about the unavailability of a room in the inn than Mary and Joseph were. The inns of that era were neither comfortable nor safe. Travelers were often robbed at inns. In fact, if the inn was crowded, it may have been much better for Jesus to be born in a relatively quiet stable bit in an animal shelter, unknown to the world. Mary delivered baby Jesus and wrapped him in cloths, and lay him in a feeding trough.
It’s amazing to read the story and capture a central truth: God is in control. Caesar’s world empire was just a tool in the mighty hand of God. God is all-powerful, and in control of history. Who would ever have imagined that the most powerful man on earth, Caesar Augustus, unbeknown to himself, was God’s instrument in bringing the virgin from Nazareth to Bethlehem at just the right time for the birth of the Savior, according to prophecy? God chose to move the world for the occasion.
I wonder if it was for the benefit of the principalities and powers – the gods of the age and all his demons. They would see what was happening. The world was supposedly under their control – and here is the Almighty orchestrating his plan, kind of a holy “in-your-face” to Satan. That’s truth number one that brings joy to humankind: “God is in control.”
SECOND, GOD SETS STANDARDS
God makes the rules. God doesn’t conform to our standards. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord (Isaiah 55:8). “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9)
The people we overlook as insignificant may be the focus of God’s affection. God chooses unlikely people for glorious purposes:
(Luke 2:8) And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.
(Luke 2:9) An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
(Luke 2:10) But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
(Luke 2:11) Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
(Luke 2:12) This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.
(Luke 2:13) Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
Luke 2:14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
Do you ever feel like a nobody?
When we read in Luke 2 that angels appeared to shepherds living out in the fields nearby, I think the question we’re supposed to ask is, “The angels appeared to whom? Did I hear you say shepherds?”
God chose to make the announcement to humble shepherds. The good news first came to the social outcasts of the day, the shepherd’s work made them ceremonially unclean, and looked upon as being insignificant in the culture of the day.
The shepherds were the first of all the millions of ordinary people through the centuries who have heard and received the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ, the Savior. This was a momentous event in heaven. There were no yawns among the angels. It was good news that evoked great joy in the highest – among the angels. God’s way of inaugurating his greatest act was so contrary to what anyone might have expected. God makes the rules. That’s good news. God doesn’t rule out humble, struggling people.
THIRD, GOD SATISFIED THOSE WHO SEEK HIM
God rewards those who are eager to find the truth. After the sensational announcement by the angel and the heavenly host, the shepherds did not stay put in the fields.
(Luke 2:15) When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
(Luke 2:16) So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.
(Luke 2:17) When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child,
(Luke 2:18) and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.
(Luke 2:19) But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
(Luke 2:20) The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
The shepherds agreed among themselves, “This we have to see!” It probably wasn’t too hard to find the stable with the baby. Bethlehem was just a small town. They were God’s chosen welcoming party sent to Mary and Joseph.
Try to picture Joseph meeting these shepherds who came out of the darkness, and asking them what they want. They say, “Please, sir. May we see the baby, Christ the Savior? Some angels told us that he was born. We just had to come.” I picture Joseph, with tears in his eyes, saying to Mary, “Mary, how could we ever doubt? This baby is the Son of the living God for certain. Angels just told these shepherds about him. They left their sheep and came right away!”
If you were making the arrangements, it would have been so different, wouldn’t it? I’d have called Plaido Domingo or Pavarotti to come and sing, and Yatzak Perlmann to play his violin for the Messiah. God arranged the shepherds to be an impromptu welcoming party for the entrance of the Son of the Most High, the Savior. Verse 17 tells us that the shepherds spread the word. They were the first Christian evangelists! The shepherds were seekers whom God satisfied. The shepherds came looking for Jesus, and they found him. (Luke 2:20) The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
The greatest event in history had just happened. The Messiah had been born! The Jews had waited for centuries for the Messiah to come, but when the big event finally occurred, it was announced to ordinary shepherds. The birth of Jesus was not announced to the elite in Jerusalem, or the wealthy of society; he does not come to the well-heeled or to those of position, he comes to all, including the plain and ordinary. No extraordinary qualifications are needed – Jesus comes to you just as you are.
FORTH, WE HAVE A SAVIOR
We don’t use the word savior much today. We know what it means: someone who saves. Most Jews would have thought that a savior would be a political leader who would deliver them from Roman rule. Others might have thought of the savior delivering them from sickness and hardship. But here we have the best news of all: “a Savior is born who delivers us from sin and death while he established a spiritual kingdom and healed diseases, his work is far more wide-reaching than we could have imagined.”
These days people tend to reduce things to the temporal and physical. When Jesus came, he could have brought political peace, and delivered Israel from Roman rule. He could have fed all the hunger and healed all the diseases. But our greatest problem isn’t physical or political: “it’s spiritual!”
Sometime ago I read a Christmas card that said:
“If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent an educator. If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent a scientist. If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent an economist. If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent an entertainer. But our greatest need was forgiveness, so he sent us a Savior.”
Did you hear that? Our greatest need is forgiveness and that’s why the angel’s message is such good news. We all live with a sense of regret because we are not perfect. Our problem is that we either don’t recognize we’re in trouble, or if we do, we try to save ourselves. There are many people who don’t realize that they need a Savior and there are many others who know they do, but they end up trying to save themselves. They say, “Look, God, my good works are this high. My bad works are this low. Looks like I get into heaven” but God says, in effect, “Only perfect people need apply for a perfect place.”
I talked to somebody at a Counterpoint Christmas concert last week. This individual is in his mid 30’s and already in his third career. He loves his job, but he says that he has time for almost nothing. He’s working like a dog, and he hopes that by the time he’s 50 or 60, he will have reached his goal in life: “security, contentment and peace. “
The world is looking for peace. For some this means drinking until they’re so drunk, they don’t feel the pain anymore. For others, it means going from relationship to relationship, hoping that someday someone will fill that void in their life. For others, it means working so hard that they never have to think about their lives. But peace is something that we all need, and not later in life – we need peace now.
When Jesus was born, the angels said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” If you read the Gospels, you find that those who met Jesus had their lives transformed, and ultimately found peace. The tax-collector who spent his life making money dishonestly? He paid back what he had stolen and then some, and followed Jesus. The women found in the act of adultery? She received forgiveness and was told to go and sin no more. The fishermen who were invited to follow Jesus? They found a cause to live for, and ultimately a cause to die for. No matter what happened in their lives, God gave them the strength to handle it.
That’s the good news. That Christmas is for nobodies. That we have been given a Savior to meet our greatest need: “forgiveness and that this Savior, Jesus, brings peace: peace with God, and peace within our hearts.”
Some of you might recognize your need for forgiveness. You’ve been trying to save yourself. You might understand your need for peace. That forgiveness and that peace is available to you this morning, free of charge. You can receive the most priceless gift you’ve ever received. You can have your past forgiven. God can clean up your past, take care of your present, and secure your future. It’s the gift you can only receive from the babe in the manger who grew up to be the man on the cross, the one who died for your sins. If you would like to receive this gift, the time is now, and that, my friends, is good news.
I’ D LIKE TO ASK FOR YOUR RESPONSE ?
How has God been at work in your history?
I wonder what God has been doing behind the scenes to bring you to the point where you are right now. Here we are, Christmas week. Do you think that God has anything to do with it? Are you amazed that God cares about you?
Are you sincere about “checking it out?”
Hebrews 11:6 says, “It is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that there is a God and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him.”
Are you seeking Him this Christmas?
Will you even look for him or are you mostly focused on all the other activities? The God who controls history, and the God who sets the standards, is the God who is willing to reward you this Christmas, if you diligently seek him because God satisfies seekers.