The Birth of Christ
This morning we begin a new sermon series called “Windows of Our Church.” Each of the stained glass windows in our sanctuary have a Scripture reference. All but two have an image imbedded in the window. I am going to preach on the Bible reference in each of the nine windows. My hope is that when we see the windows we will not only admire their beauty but know the place in God’s Word of which they speak.
These windows were made and installed in 2010. The windows are centered on Christ and go through his life. So the logical place to start is his birth. The Bible passage is Luke 2:11:
“Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”
We usually only hear this in December. Maybe it’s strange for you to hear this in the hot, dry season of June. But June is a perfect time to hear this because Jesus most likely wasn’t born in December. And it was in Bethlehem where there is rarely, if ever, snow. In fact, most of what we have made Christmas to be has nothing to do with the birth of Christ.
Look at the image in the window. Angels floating around. A sheep. A donkey. Mary and Joseph are pretty bundled up. A nice, clean bed of straw. We see this type of scene all the time. Very pristine.
If you think you have heard what we call the Christmas story so much that you know it too well, let me start with a little quiz to see how well you really know Luke’s account of the birth of Christ. It is multiple choice.
Who told Mary and Joseph to go to Bethlehem?
John the Baptist
The answer is c. Caesar Augustus. Mary and Joseph were compelled to go to Bethlehem because Caesar had issued an order that the population be counted and then taxes be taken.
What did the Innkeeper say to Mary and Joseph?
We have no room in the inn.
You can stay in our stable.
A and B
The Holiday Inn is not too shabby.
Inn keeper? What inn keeper?
The answer is e. There is no inn keeper mentioned in the Bible.
Where did the shepherds find the child Jesus?
a. In a stable
b. In a house
c. In the Holiday Inn, which was not too shabby.
d. In a cave.
e. Who knows?
The answer is e. It says the child was lying in a manger which was a trough used for animal feed. It could have been in a stable, a cave, or somewhere else. Who knows?
How did Mary and Joseph get to Bethlehem?
They walked (she waddled)
He walked. She rode a donkey.
Bethlehem shuttle service.
The answer is d. It doesn’t say.
What animals were around the manger?
Sheep, goats and camels.
Sheep, goats and donkeys.
Pigs, cows and donkeys.
The answer is d. Since there is no mention of a stable there is no mention of animals.
How well did you do? For those who didn’t score well on this, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to say after the service.
There are many things about the birth of Jesus that have been circulated that aren’t necessarily true. Our knowledge of Christ’s birth is formed more by cards, songs, Christmas pageants and the like, but not always the account written in the Bible. When we read the event of the birth of Christ and really pay attention it can be revealing.
Luke records the birth of Jesus, and there are eighty-plus verses of lead up to his birth. Surely the birth of Jesus is going to knock our socks off. We probably need to brace ourselves for the magnitude of it all. Yet, we read the seven verses that describe the actual birth of Jesus and it’s all rather common. The birth of the Savior of the world itself is only two verses. Thirty-nine words in the English text for the birth of the Son of God.
We get the names of world rulers: Augustus and Quirinius. We hear about a registration – a census. Several places mentioned: Syria, Nazareth, Galilee, Judea, Bethlehem. Taxes, government, and geography.
We get Joseph and Mary, who are pledged to be married but also expecting a child. Serious social and religious implications there, at least in first century Palestine. They give birth to a son and he isn’t even named. The most important person in the whole event is the only one not named. All it says is “the baby,” “firstborn,” and “son.”
If these were the only verses we had about Christ we would yawn and move on to something more exciting. God works through miracles. But he also works without them, too.
Sure the heavenly host shows up but to shepherds. The angels do not show up at the birth. Mary and Joseph hear about this from the shepherds. They experience nothing.
The prophecy of Micah hundreds of years before had been that God’s Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. It took an edict from the ruler of the Roman world to bring Jesus’ parents to Bethlehem. Not an angel’s directive or some revelation from God, but a command from the Feds.
God used a decree from the Emperor to bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. All those words that you’ve heard many times before, but never really paid much attention to “in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the world should be registered (or taxed).” The stuff about Quirinius, governor of Syria and everyone going from their own towns to be registered. It’s not insignificant. It speaks of the providence of God.
God moves the hand of world rulers to work his purposes. Emperors, presidents, and governments serve the purposes of God without even knowing it. Emperor Caesar may have thought he was in charge of the world but he was an instrument of God’s will.
The angels proclamation to the shepherds was a direct counter proclamation against Caesar Augustus. Caesar had designated himself as (get this) “savior of the world.” That is the phrase he used for himself. And the propaganda from the Roman government declared that Augustus ushered in a new age of peace, order, and prosperity, fulfilling the longings of all people. It was called (get this) “good news.” Another title for Caesar was (get this) “Son of God.” He was believed to be from the Roman gods.
In the face of such a political-theology, the angels proclaim that the baby born is the true Savior of the world and Son of God. The angels also proclaimed that the birth of this Jesus was “good news.”
Messiah is the Hebrew form of Christ. They mean the same. It means “Anointed One.” The Jews expected God to send his Messiah/Christ.
But there was one designation that was only for Jesus. That is: “Lord” which was a title in the Old Testament reserved exclusively for God, Yahweh, Maker of heaven and earth. Jesus is not only Messiah but Lord.
And no one would have known what had happened, who was born, or the significance had it not come by revelation of God. “…that the Lord has made known to us…” God reveals the meaning of what has taken place.
Nancy and I have been to Bethlehem. Bethlehem is hardly the little town we sing about in the Christmas hymn. It is a crowded, built up, bustling, somewhat depressed city. The city has suffered economically. The unemployment rate is around 24%. Most residents are Muslim, but there is a very small minority of Christians in Bethlehem. We had the privilege of worshipping with some of them. Let’s remember our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters. They face unique pressures being both Palestinian and Christian in the midst of Israel and Islam.
One of the things that struck me as I walked where Jesus walked in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Galilee, and other places, was how unspectacular it was. What a common, even severe place, for God to touch down. It’s stone and dirt, olive trees and hillsides, crowds and markets.
If you were from some other world and knew nothing about human history, Jesus Christ, or the significance of the holy land, and you came to this earth and visited the Holy Land and then you visited Las Vegas, you would think Las Vegas was more significant. If you were told about Christ you might guess that Vegas was where he was born and carried out his ministry. It looks much more exciting and energizing.
There is nothing about Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth that suggest this is where God touched down, save the churches that have been built that tell you, “Jesus was here.” Of course, much has changed in two-thousand years. The Holy Land is a “first world”, developed place now. But even walking in the places that point to more ancient times, I was struck by how unremarkable it all really was.
And when we read Luke’s account of Jesus birth, we get a very unremarkable account.
To be sure, the fireworks come with the shepherds as the host of heaven, the mighty army of angels, have a praise service in those fields. But in terms of Christ’s birth – very unspectacular. There is a lot less flash and splash than we tend to give it in our images of his birth. The way we have decorated it with our paintings, works of art and Christmas scenes have clouded what it really was.
And therein lies part of the mystery and power of the message of Jesus’ birth. God comes from the glories of eternity and heaven to this planet, to poor, plain people, in a poor, plain way. It’s all so common. He almost sneaks into this world.
Jesus takes on ordinary human flesh and lives within the confines of our humanity, while mysteriously remaining as God. His remarkableness was not in his appearance, or his influence amidst the powers of earth, or being recognized even by religion. He lived without a home, faced threats, was accused of treason, and crucified by the government.
But he was not held down by death. An empty tomb ignited people to give their lives to him in worship and devotion. He entrusted his message to a very unremarkable, socially insignificant group of followers.
I think Luke knew exactly what he was doing as he related the events surrounding the birth of Christ, and the birth itself. The understated way that Christ’s birth is given is a message in itself.
We don’t have to be particularly great or worthy to receive him. It is not our reaching him, it is his coming down to us. And it’s so easy to miss.
Jesus is still being born in places and in people that aren’t all that spectacular.
He comes to lives that are not particularly ornate.
He is found in places that don’t seem to be incredibly spiritual.
He is still born quietly, sneaking under the radar of our world time and time again.
He comes outside of the headlines, the spotlight, and what is trending right now.
He is known by faith, through prayer, and poverty of spirit.
He comes to meek hearts that receive him still.
And if the God of the universe has entered this place as an infant still trying to take his first breath, who knows when and how and to whom he still might come and make himself known.
We don’t have to be super spiritual.
We don’t have to be important.
We don’t have to be wealthy.
We don’t have to be educated.
We don’t have to be flashy and impressive.
God comes right to us, where we are, as we are.
Communion isn’t about what we do for God but what he has done for us. It isn’t about how high we can rise to get to God but how low he went to get to us.
He became poor for our sake that we might become rich. Even to the point of death on a cross.
What do we need to know to take the bread and drink the cup, this ordinary stuff?
We don’t have to know lots of Bible verses.
We don’t need to know all the spiritual and theological meanings of this table.
We don’t need to know any special creed.
We don’t even need to know the Lord’s Prayer.
We do need to know Jesus as Lord and Savior. “Today…a Savior has been born to you….”
It’s personal: “to you.” He came for you. He died for you. He lives for you. You are made for a relationship with him.
We do need to know who that infant was and is: the Savior, the Messiah, who is the Lord.
When you look at that window remember that God came in Christ for me and you.