1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
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. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 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 guest room available for them.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
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.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 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.
There are a lot of people to keep track of in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, Caesar Augustus, Quirinius, the citizens of the entire Roman world, Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the angels, the shepherds and all the people who the shepherds share the news with in Bethlehem. Luke’s gospel account of Jesus’ birth can be overwhelming to us. There are so many facts, but so little explanation.
Luke’s training as a medical doctor made his gospel rich in facts, but sometimes we get lost in the importance of all the things he mentioned. Notice how Luke began with a global view, he told us who the leader of the Roman Empire was and that a major tax overhaul was underway…sound familiar. Luke included this point to give us the reason why Mary and Joseph were on the move, even though Mary was late into her pregnancy. Caesar’s decree meant that all the people needed to go and register in their towns so that Rome knew who to tax and how much.
Luke’s point about taxes clued his audience in about the reason for Mary and Joseph’s stay in Bethlehem. Both Mary and Joseph were descendants from King David and were pledged to be married, so they were making their way together to Bethlehem the city of David, in order to register for the tax rolls. Then,
6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 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 guest room available for them.
These are all the details we get from Luke on the most important birth of all time. I have to write down more details on my medical chart when I go to the doctor for a runny nose and sore throat. Luke doesn’t even make all the connections from the Old Testament about the city of Bethlehem or about Jesus, the Savior, being descended from King David. Luke could have mentioned what the prophet Micah wrote, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Jesus was from ancient times, as God himself, he was timeless and eternal and he would be a king over all Israel, which leads us to King David. God said to David in 2 Samuel 7,
12 When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be his father, and he will be my son.
Jesus was God’s son, his kingdom would not be an earthly kingdom of Israel, but a spiritual kingdom of Israel made up of all who believe in God. Yet, he would also be born a man, to earthly parents descended from David. All of the prophecies about the Savior were coming alive this one night in Bethlehem, but Luke was silent on them. Perhaps he was silent because no one else had made the connections that night either, for Mary and Joseph were alone.
Luke wrote his gospel the way he did because he knew most of his audience would not be familiar with all of the connections to the Old Testament. The Holy Spirit gave him these words to write down to make a plain and simple testimony for anyone to read that the Savior of all people from all places and all time had been born. So tonight, we will focus on the simple message the angels gave to the shepherds.
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
The shepherds are the group we can identify with when weeding through all of the people Luke mentioned. They are the ones who didn’t really understand what was going on at first, but by the end of the night, they were the ones telling everyone all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. Simply put, the first Christmas Eve, the shepherds went from being terrified of the angels to God being glorified by their spread of the good news of the Savior’s birth.
The shepherds had no idea the Savior of the world was going to be born that night. For them it was a typical night at work. They were standing around watching their sheep making sure none of them wondered off, were stolen or eaten. Then, out of nowhere an angel appeared. The angel was bright white and shining with the glory of God, a stark contrast to the dark night and dirty shepherds’ robes that smelled like a barn yard. When the shepherds saw them, they were terrified, but the true terror was not in their sudden appearance or white glow. The true terror was the glory of God.
Any of us would have been terrified that night as well. If we were to stand in the glory of God we would be terrified because of our sins. God’s glory contains all of his goodness and when we stand before him, it means our lack of good or our sins are exposed. Our sins are terrifying, they are all the things we do to hurt others and the things they do to hurt us. These sins come in all shapes and sizes. Some hurt only a short time like an angry toddler hitting his greedy brother after he stole his freshly unwrapped toy. Other sins hurt for a lifetime like a husband or wife caught cheating that causes their spouse to lose the ability to trust, to carry around the guilt of betrayal, to destroy a marriage and to segment the lives of their children. These terrible results of sin are just what we experience now, we haven’t even touched on God’s reaction to our sins.
God must punish us for our sins. God is our Creator, he gave us life and wants what is best for us, but our bad behavior results in God’s punishment and finally death. God cuts our lives short to only 70 or 80 years to prevent us from causing even more pain to one another. And, God’s punishment goes beyond death. God created us to live forever, but he cannot stand to live with us when we are sinful. Instead, eternal separation from God in hell waits for all who are lost in their sins. When we are left in our sins, the results are terrifying.
10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” The shepherd’s terror began to fade as the angel spoke, then left them as the angel choir broke out in song, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
The angel’s song may have stopped the shepherd’s fear, but we still have our fear for our sins. The guilt you carry in your heart for those harsh words you spoke just a few days ago is still there. Your frustration over the sickness you’ve watched your loved one endure for so long going in and out of the hospital wasn’t washed away because you heard Mary had her first-born child without complications, in one of the dirtiest places you can imagine and without doctors or nurses. Your inner struggle with anxiety that obsesses over how others see you and wonders if you are really worth anything to anyone remains because no angel has appeared to give you a message of joy. What relief does the angel’s message to the shepherds give you from the sins that terrorize you?
The message of Jesus’ birth brought you relief from sin because he is our Savior too. God knows that we cannot overcome our sins. We can’t work hard enough on our lives to get to a point where we always do the right thing. Even if we could get to a point where we treat others with kindness and respect, we still have our own inner thoughts of jealously, greed or lust to contend with and guilt from the things we have done wrong in the past. God knows we face a battle we cannot win with the consequence of death we cannot overcome. This is why he sent Jesus to be our Savior the way he did, as a baby, lying in a manger.
Jesus was human, just like you and me. Jesus’ mother Mary was pregnant, Jesus grew inside of her for nine months and he was born. There were no TV cameras or great crowds awaiting his birth, just like you and me, it was just his mom and dad. Jesus grew up like you and me, eating, sleeping, playing and learning. Jesus’ worked as a carpenter and then left that career becoming a traveling teacher and preacher. Then one night Jesus was arrested, put on trial and the next day he was crucified and died. All of this happened to Jesus according to God’s plan, but there was more to God’s plan for him.
Jesus was also nothing like you and me because he is also true God. The virgin Mary became pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. The night Jesus was born, all of heaven was watching as the Son of God took his first breath. Joseph and Mary raised Jesus, but it was obvious that he was not like the other children. Jesus lived among us, but did not sin. He was never jealous, greedy or lustful, instead he was always kind, patient and gentle. Jesus left behind carpentry to go from town to town sharing the good news that he was the promised Savior of the world. It was a hard message for many to swallow and eventually the uprising against Jesus for his claim that he was God got him the death penalty on the cross. Jesus died, laid in the grave three days and then by God’s power came back to life Easter morning. This was his final miracle to reveal that he was the Savior and he held the power to save people from their sin and separation from God.
The message the angels brought the shepherds was the good news of great joy for all the people. What the shepherds went and saw lying in a manger was the fulfillment of God’s love for all people. This led them to, spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child,
18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.
You and I have every reason to glorify God this Christmas Eve because we no longer live in fear of God. Whatever guilt you have because of things you’ve done to others has been forgiven through Jesus. Whatever pain you experience in this life will eventually end in death, but you will be brought back to life and given a place to live in heaven with God to join the angels in singing praise to God forever. Whatever terror you had because you didn’t understand God can be put to rest by the message the angels brought. God showed his love for you and all people with the birth of our Savior Jesus. You now have peace with God because everything was, just as the Shepherds had been told. Amen.