Good News For All People
Luke 1:1 – 21
Busting Christmas myths
“4 Christmas Myths We’ve All Totally Bought.”
It was a headline from Relevant Magazine that I couldn’t resist.
And as I read the article, I must confess to a certain sense of superiority welling up within me, because I hadn’t bought any of the myths,
And looking at you, I suspect you probably wouldn’t have fallen for them either.
Perhaps I should have been alerted by the fact that the article opened by saying, we all know that Christmas began, “with Santa and 8 tiny reindeer”!
So perhaps no surprise that it was all downhill from there!
But Luke, the historian whose words we’ve read this morning he’s very determined to make sure that we as his readers, haven’t bought into any Christmas myths.
He wants us to be absolutely convinced, that Christmas is history.
Christmas is history (v 1 – 3).
Take a look at the historical detail that he begins this section with.
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.
Luke wants us to understand this event as a real moment in history,
Not alternative facts,
Not some kernel of truth embellished with imagination.
This is something you can rely on.
If you’d been in the right place at the right time, you’d have been able to witness these things exactly as Luke describes them.
Christmas is history.
Luke’s writing some time in the 60s of the first century AD, and we learn as we read this account of Jesus’ life and ministry, that Luke is a very careful historian.
At one level, he needs to be. Because he’s writing only about 30 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, there’s still hundreds, thousands of people around, who were eye-witnesses of the events he’s writing about. So if he got any details wrong,
If he mixed up his dates,
If he got the wrong names, there’d be countless people around just eager to correct him!
I’m sure you know how eager people are to correct you when you’re wrong! That’s nothing new!
Or remember back in September, when Donald Trump referred to the non-existent African nation of Nambia, in a speech. It was simply a case of mis-speaking. He was referring to the nation of Namibia, but of course all of Twitter lit up and everyone took great delight in the birth of a brand new country!
But even before Twitter, if you don’t get your facts right, it’s immediately obvious to the people who are there at the time. And the fact that Luke’s historical account of the life of Jesus became widely read, and copied, and distributed, while there were still thousands of eye-witnesses still alive, gives us good reason to have confidence in what he says.
But we can also look at other historical documents besides the Bible, to learn about these events and people.
The Jewish historian Josephus, recording history for the Roman government, he writes about Quirinius, governor of Syria taking a census.
And in fact Caesar August left records in his own handwriting, filled with information gained from exactly these kinds of census.
Certainly I get, that once you’ve seen a hundred Christmas cards, with rustic, but beautiful and well-lit stables,
A baby Jesus, glowing somehow, radiating light,
A very white baby Jesus, I should say, that tends to be what the Christmas cards, have, isn’t it?!
You see enough of that kind of thing, and eventually you can concluded that there’s not really much historical fact behind the Christmas story, But that maybe that’s OK, because perhaps what’s important isn’t the history, but the meaning of the story, or whatever interpretation we can get out of it.
Well, Luke won’t let us reach that conclusion, will he?
The first thing he wants us to know,
The first thing he wants us to understand as vitally important,
Is that Christmas is history.
Not, let me point out, that Jesus was actually born on the 25 of December. Notice that Luke doesn’t tell us that at all.
Centuries ago, December 25 just became a convenient date for people to celebrate Jesus’s birth, really in much the same way as we have a public holiday for the Queen’s birthday in June, when she’s actually born in April.
Sometimes we hear people talking about things being “real for me.” A person might say “Christmas is real for me.” And the implication is that it might not be real for you, but it is for me.
Well, Luke couldn’t really care less whether Christmas feel real for you.
He just says it is real.
Christmas is history.
Christmas happened in a place with its own history (v 4)
And in a real place.
Verse 4, 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.
Now, the Romans, who ruled pretty much all of the known world, they didn’t really care how a census was taken. As long as they ended up with figures for, how much tax they could collect, and how men you could put into the army, they were happy for the details of the census to be worked out according to the customs and traditions of each of the nations they had taken over.
For the Jews, it was important that you go back to the town where your family line came from, so the Romans let the census happen that way.
Pretty sure they would have drawn the line at Australians doing their census online, because that system doesn’t really seem to work. But they were happy for the Jews to do it in way that seemed fitting for them.
Which is how come Joseph, travels from Nazareth right up in the north of the country, all the way down south to Bethlehem, the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.
David was the best king the country had every known. He was the high point in their history as a nation.
And so, while today, we link the town of Bethlehem inextricably to the Christmas story. It had its own history, because of its links with King David.
About a thousand years before Jesus, God had made a promise to David, that a king from his family line would come, and would rule over the people forever.
He’d rescue them,
He’d look after the people,
He’d protect them,
And this king would be called Messiah, which just means “anointed one”, or “chosen one.”
So Christmas is history.
Luke grounds these events in real history,
Real people’s lives,
The details we look for are strangely lacking (v 6 – 7)
And so having given us the historical context, and told us that Mary and Joseph have now arrived in Bethlehem, there’s really just 2 main events that take place in the story.
Firstly, the baby is born,
And secondly, his birth is announced, to the shepherds.
But look at the difference in the way the details are given, or in fact how much detail is given.
See, for the birth of Jesus, from the middle of verse 6, 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,
It’s really very succinct isn’t it?
As I said before, think of the detail that fills our Christmas cards,
Even some of the songs that get sung at Christmas,
This is just very straight forward and ordinary, isn’t it?
There’s no animals standing round,
No glowing gold halo behind Jesus’ head,
There’s no description of little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.
No innkeeper, and notice even that the newest Bible translations, based on the most accurate information we have, speak of there being no guest room available for them, rather than the older “no room at the inn.”
He’s a baby, he’s been born, but there’s no room in the town for him, so he’s wrapped up and put in a feed trough.
How many animals were there,
How much the baby cried,
What Jesus looked like,
Is there a donkey that they travelled on?
Whether the light from the star was streaming in the window onto where he slept, all of that stuff that so often fills our thinking about Christmas, and certainly our illustrations of Christmas.
It’s all noticeably absent, isn’t it?
Luke wants us to know that it happened,
He was born,
In real place,
In a town that had no room for him.
But the other details, including maybe some that we want to know, well, they’re just not important to him.
We know that Luke carefully investigated everything. He tells us that in the very beginning of his book.
He spoke to the eye-witnesses,
He knew the details,
It’s just that those details,
The cover illustration on the Christmas card kind of details, are not important for what he wants us to know about this baby.
Most of what Luke wants us to know about this baby, he tells us in the second great event of this section;, the announcement of Jesus’ birth.
Christmas is good news today (v 8 – 14)
And do you see the difference in how the story’s told?
The actual birth comes in just one or two sentences, the birth announcement comes in paragraphs, with multiple quotations, and direct speech, and supernatural signs.
And Luke slows the action down so much, that we know this must be important.
The scene shifts from inside the town of Bethlehem, to outside, in the fields and hills on the outskirts.
Christmas is good news for (very) ordinary people
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
Bethlehem was perhaps 9 kilometres from Jerusalem, the capital, so this is where flocks were raised and grazed, for sale in the city.
Which meant I realised this week that Mount Barker is the Bethlehem of Adelaide. Close enough that you can still get into town,
Far enough away that it’s still a little bit country and not too much traffic!!
Isn’t that nice?!
So there’s some shepherds looking after their flocks, and an angel appears, that is, just a messenger from heaven, to tell them that Jesus has been born.
Now, those of you who have been to our house have seen our Fisher Price nativity scene.
It’s very nice, there’s an angel sitting on top of the stable, and when you press on his head, he plays Silent Night!
But there’s also some shepherds in the set, and a few sheep.
And because we also have the Fisher Price Noah’s Ark, our nativity set also has 2 peacocks,
And 2 tigers!
But our angels, and our shepherds, are all quite cute, rosy cheeked, all of that.
But neither angels nor shepherds fall into that category.
When people in the Bible meet angels, this is exactly the response. they were terrified, verse 9.
Seeing a messenger from heaven is usually enough to scare you out of your wits, which is my angels always seem to start their announcement like this one does, “Do not be afraid”
Sure, it’s unexpected, but you don’t have to fear this.
And similarly shepherds, they weren’t scary.
They were just ordinary.
Regular people, middle-class people in the first century AD often regarded shepherds as thieves.
Think of how the Gypsy or Roma people are regarded in parts of Europe today.
In fact some people used to say that shepherds were the second-to-bottom rung of the social ladder.
Who was below shepherds, you ask?
People with leprosy.
Do you get where they fit, in the world of their day?
Well it’s to these people, that a messenger from God announces the birth of Jesus.
Shepherds were never the first to be told about anything
But the birth of this baby is so significant, that it’s good news for all.
Including those, no one else seemed to care much about.
And if you’ve ever felt that that’s where you fit, that no one else seems to care much, well Christmas is good news for you, too.
And so here Luke just piles up the detail.
He wants us to slow down,
To listen carefully,
To understand who this baby is.
And there are 3 things the angel tells the shepherds about Jesus, that emphasise for us, that Christmas is good news.
Christmas is good news because Jesus is a Saviour
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.
Christmas is good news, because Jesus is a saviour.
Now, we know what a saviour is, a saviour is someone who saves!
We know from other historical documents, that Caesar Augustus who we met up in verse 1 there, he liked to be known as “saviour of the whole world.”
Well, Luke’s point is kind of that this world’s not big enough for 2 saviours. To say that Jesus is saviour, is to say very deliberately that Caesar is not Saviour.
But of course, to say “Jesus is saviour”, is also to say what? It’s to say, people need saving isn’t it?
We occasionally have trouble with the alarms in this building. The security alarms get switched on automatically at night, which makes a Christmas Eve service, potentially exciting!
We’ve also managed to set off smoke alarms in the past. And so when the CFS trucks pull up in the carpark, and the firefighter walks in in his fireproof suit and breathing apparatus, his or her presence, tends to make a statement. I don’t think I’d keep preaching, as they unroll their hoses down the aisle.
What does the arrival a savior say to us? We need saving.
But what do we need saving from?
If Caesar was saviour, well, he could save you from the Barbarians, from war. It was said you could walk from one end of the Roman Empire to the other in complete safety, because of the famed pax Romana, the Peace of Rome. That’s how Caesar saved you.
But it doesn’t seem that that’s what God thinks our greatest need is!
If you have one of those blue Bibles there, look just over at the previous column, at verses 76 and 77 of chapter 1.
A man named Zechariah is speaking, and God has revealed to him, how his son, who we call John the Baptist, is going to prepare people, for what Jesus has come to do.
And Zechariah says, And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
Salvation from sins.
Salvation that comes through forgiveness for sins
We perhaps tend to think of sin as a list of things that people do that they shouldn’t,
And maybe you find yourself trying to keep a bit of a tally, to make sure that you don’t ever go too far in that direction.
But the Bible’s picture of sin is much more straight forward, much easier to diagnose.
Sin is simply living in God’s world, but living as if God neither exists nor matters.
And it can be very polite,
Very socially acceptable,
Not going to get you exposed in the tabloid press.
And even if you reckon that in this past week, or maybe even just so far today, you’re pretty sure you haven’t murdered anyone,
Or committed adultery, that’s great, But if you’ve lived in God’s world, without honouring God as the rightful ruler of the world,
Putting him first in every decision,
Accepting that it’s God who determines right and wrong, and not you,
Then even in this past week, or so far today, you’ve lived as sinner, a rebel against God, someone who, the Bible tells us, is deserving of death and separation from God forever.
If that’s you, and, let’s face it, that’s all of us, you need this saviour.
I need this saviour.
We all need, someone who can save us from our sin.
My parents have the tradition of asking for a Christmas list, a list of presents that I’d like to receive. Which is a pretty good deal, I’m sure you’ll agree! Because it means I’m saved from ever having to look excited and pleased as I unwrap some gift I neither want nor need!
Friends, a saviour, is not that kind of gift;, a useless gift that we neither want, nor need.
Here is a saviour who enables us to be forgiven, not through his birth only, but later on, through his death.
I came across an article from Forbes Magazine that said forgiveness is the least understood aspect of our relationships, but one of the most significant.
Forgiveness changes everything, the author said.
Well, this forgiveness certainly does.
Through his life, his death in our place, his taking the punishment we deserve, he changes our standing before God.
He changes what we have to look forward to beyond the grave,
He changes the way we can relate to each other,
He makes it possible for us to have hope for this life, and the next.
That’s what kind of saviour he is.
Christmas is good news, for all people, because Jesus is saviour.
Christmas is good news because Jesus is God’s eternal king
Christmas is also good news for all, because Jesus is God’s chosen, eternal, king.
Verse 11 again, Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.
Remember that Luke’s already started us thinking about king David, and David’s line,
Well now the angel makes it explicit. The baby who’s just been born, is the Messiah, God’s eternal king.
He doesn’t look much like it, does he?
The detail Luke did give us about his birth is really just enough to let us know that Jesus was born into poverty, not wealth,
He came in obscurity, not fame,
He was kind of squeezed out, because the world had no room for him.
But God’s patterns are generally different to human expectations and plans.
You might remember earlier this year that the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince was ousted, after being held captive and pressured to give up his claim to the throne.
His replacement as crown prince quickly got to work, and within a few months began a purge of the enormous royal family, rounding up and imprisoning his relatives. Over 40 members of the royal family and politicians are still being held in what’s being called the world’s most exclusive prison, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh.
According to analysts, it’s all an attempt by the new crown prince to shore up his claim to the throne and to ensure he becomes the next king.
Well, this king here in Luke doesn’t need to resort to such palace intrigue, does he?
He doesn’t need to prove himself to be the rightful ruler.
Angels from heaven announce that he is the king.
If Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman knew about this kind of backing, I’m sure he’d spend a lot of Saudi Arabian oil money trying to get it! But this kind of announcement can’t be bought.
This is God’s testimony, about who Jesus is.
God’s saying, “My king has come”
And while we don’t really like the idea of submitting to someone else, and us South Australians pride ourselves on being free settlers and not under the rule of some outside authority like our convict-descended cousins interstate, Welcome if you’re from other parts of the country!
But we don’t like submitting to others, do we?
But the arrival of this king is good news, because his rule is good for us, best for us.
We’ve been watching The Crown, on Netflix in the last few weeks, and the show captures quite well, the Queen, wrestling with her decisions;, wanting to do what’s right for her people, for her rule, to be for their good.
This king, God’s eternal king, his rule is always for the good of his people. See there in verse 14, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
This isn’t some harsh rule that’s forced upon us,
The rule of this king, is the very thing we need.
This king brings peace with the God we’ve rejected.
You might know the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914. On Christmas Eve that year, German troops on the Western Front started decorating their trenches with Christmas trees and candles, and then the British forces opposite started singing carols and calling out to the Germans.
Eventually a few men scrambled up out of their trenches into no man’s land, and, British and German, they stood around talking, sharing food, swapping little gifts.
A young German corporal in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment complained “Such things should not happen in wartime. Have you Germans no sense of honor left at all?”
That corporal’s name happened to be Adolf Hitler, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, but even the commander of the British forces ordered that artillery be fired in order to keep the men in their trenches, so there would be no peace.
Of course, it wasn’t a permanent peace, anyway, was it?
The war dragged on for another 4 years.
But what extraordinary lengths these men would go to, risking court martial and artillery fire, for just a few minutes of it.
Look what God does, so that we can have peace with him, for eternity.
God’s king comes, to take away our sin,
So that we can live under his good and just rule, forever.
Christmas is good news because Jesus is God, with us
The third thing the angel tells the shepherds about this baby, is that he is God with us.
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord
Of course, when we hear the word Lord, at Christmas time, if you’re anything like me you automatically think of 10 lord’s a leaping!
So let’s just put that to one side.
Lord is the word used in the Bible of Luke’s day, to refer to God.
We see it here in verse 9, twice,
In verse 15,
A bit further down in verse 22 and 23, quoting from the Old Testament.
This is unmistakeably, speaking of God.
Even that first part of the good news announcement, where Jesus is called savior, that language gets us ready for this, because in the history of the people of Israel, their saviour was God.
So to say that this baby is saviour, is to say he’s going to do, what God does.
I was here at Cornerstone for an event a few weeks ago, and there were lots of new parents and students who were starting here next year. Now I was neatly dressed, and I was wearing my church name badge, I’m here on campus a couple of days a week, so I tend to act like the I own the place a bit, so these new parents who didn’t know the school were coming up to me, thinking I was a teacher, and asking for information!
Now, I just told them what they needed to know, reminded them at all parents are expected to make a donation to the church that meets in the school!
But how do you think it would go, If I thought, “I really like this idea of being on staff at Cornerstone”?, making decisions, giving information, and so I find the school PA system, and start making announcements!
So about 9:30 AM, “All students, you’ve got an early minute, pack up your books, you’re free to go home.”
Or if, that day back in November, I send an email to all the staff, “You’ve put in such a great effort this year, you can start holidays today, a month early.
Well I probably find myself banned from the campus for life!
You can’t just act with authority you don’t have!
You can’t do somebody else’s job!
To claim that Jesus is the saviour, like the Old Testament saviour, it’s a claim to be doing someone else’s job,
But it’s not like me giving early minutes over the school PA,
Yes, if Jesus is saviour, then he’s doing God’s job, but Luke tells us he is God.
He actually has the authority to give the early minutes and send the staff home early.
In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, he tells us that this baby is also given the name Immanuel, which means “God with us”
Christmas is good news, because God has come to be with us.
If we want to know God,
See God act, we only need to look at Jesus.
This year Sydney City Council have installed what they’ve called an “Interactive Christmas Tree” in Martin Place. The “interactive” bit, in case you were wondering is that you can text messages from your phone, and they’re displayed on the tree for all to see.
Only thing is, according to people who have been there, the tree appears to filter out any message with the name “Jesus” in it.
“Seasons’ greetings” will appear,
“Peace and goodwill”, no problem.
But Jesus was carefully edited out,
In fact, even "Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king!” which was being sung by a choir at the base of the tree, was cut.
But actually, lots of us do it every other day of the year, just, filter Jesus out.
Friends, let’s not be that foolish.
These shepherds, they did something in response to the angel’s message, didn’t they?
Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
And then after they’d seen Jesus, verse 17, When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child,
and verse 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.
Notice once again, the importance of the message about Jesus, what the angel tells the shepherds,
The kind of soft watercolour pictures of stables and animals, and cloudless starlight skies, like so often captures our imagination,
That’s all much less significant,
Than who this baby is,
What he’s come to do,
And why Christmas is very, very good news.
It seems to me, that when it comes to Jesus, we can either be like the shepherds, or we can be like, pretty much the rest of Bethlehem.
There was no room,
They were double-booked,
Everyone was busy,
Jesus is left unacknowledged, and alone.
Sure, they were probably all doing what they thought they needed to do. The emperor had said everyone needed to be counted for one thing.
But they were so caught up in doing what they thought they needed to do, that they missed what they most needed.
These shepherds though, they’re ordinary people. Very ordinary.
But they hear, and believe,
And so they’re the ones who benefit from good news of Christmas.
Thanks for joining us!