by Chris Ritter
On Sunday, December 13 news crews and satellite trucks descended on the town of Portage, Michigan to watch semi-trucks pull out of the parking lot of nondescript industrial facility. CBS, NBC, MSNBC, FOX, ABC and countless others were all there, standing out in the cold. Crowds of onlookers gathered with them. Why did everyone want to watch these UPS and FedEx trucks roll out from the Pfizer Plant? Well, those trucks contained the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. No one gathered expected to receive those particular doses, but it was worth going to see.
It was important for the same reason it was necessary for the angels to call the shepherds to visit the manger. Something good is on the move. Help is on the way. Hope is alive. Let’s focus on Luke’s account of the first Christmas:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.Luke 2:1-20
Do you have a box in your house of old high school trophies and ribbons? Every once in a while I run across mine. I have no athletic trophies… not even for participation. There are two reasons for this: (1) In the 1980’s they didn’t give out participation trophies, (2) I didn’t participate. My senior high school class elected me class president, most likely to succeed, and LEAST athletic. So my trophies were for other things.
I did “Forensics,” which is called “speech team” in some places. I was editor of our school newspaper and we went to competitions sponsored by SISPA, the Southern Illinois School Press Association. My nicest trophy was from my senior year when I competed against other high school seniors from about twenty different schools in an interview contest. We interviewed a well-known college basketball coach and had an hour to write a story. Before God called me to ministry I was considering becoming a journalist. My daughter, Sarah, inherited this family gene and works for the Kansas City Star.
I sense in Luke this same journalistic lens. His audience are Gentile Christians. In fact, Luke is the only Gentile to write a Gospel. With the addition of Acts, he ended up writing more of the New Testament than any other person. It is clear that Luke believes the coming of Jesus changes everything. Luke also believes that Christmas matters. Like a good journalist he gives us the WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHY, WHERE and HOW of Christmas.
The When of Christmas
Luke provides us with the WHEN of Christmas. Luke anchors his story in secular history with which to Roman world would have been very familiar. It was when Caesar Augustus ruled Roman Empire. It was when Quirinius was Governor of Syria. Sometime we have stylized the Christmas story so much that we might as well start with “Once upon a time.” But the events surrounding the birth of Jesus happened at a real time and place.
Speaking of when, there are two words for time in the Greek language, the original language of the New Testament. One is chronos. That is where we get words like “chronologicial” and “chronometer.” The chronological time of Jesus’ birth is the rule of Caesar Augustus. The other Greek work is kairos. If chronos means the right time, kairos is the RIPE time. Sometimes the Bible will use the phrase “in the fullness of time.” The birth of Jesus was both a chronos event and a kairos moment.
The angels announced to the shepherds, “For unto you is born this day…”. This Day was something special, planned in the mind of God before the creation of time and space The Apostle Paul would say it this way:
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law”Galatians 4:4
Jesus arrived just when God intended him to arrive. This should give us encouragement for all the things we pray for. God’s timing is perfect. He is never late and he is never early. God is right on time.
The Where of Christmas
Luke is also very helpful to provide us with the WHERE of Jesus’ birth. Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the City of David. It is called the City of David because that is where David was born. Later David would conquer and become King. Jerusalem would also become the City of David. But the prophets foretold that the Messiah, like his father David before him, would arise out of Bethlehem.
Luke tells us that “Joseph also went up from Galilee to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.” The “up” is not a north/south “up.” Bethlehem is 90 miles south of Nazareth. Luke is speaking in terms of elevation. Bethlehem is just six miles from Jerusalem and sits 1000 feet higher than Nazareth. When you travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem you are travelling uphill.
Joseph was not travelling to Bethlehem to fulfill some ancient prophecy. Taking a 90-mile uphill walk was the last thing he wanted to be doing. But he had to pay his taxes and participate in the most inconvenient census of all time. It was dangerous to take his pregnant wife on the trip. It must have even been more dangerous to leave her behind with no one to protect her.
A lot of things conspired to put Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem at this exact time… fear, decrees from distant governments, etc. But above all human action is God’s action. God moves in mysterious and sovereign ways. I saw a bumper sticker one time. “God moves in mysterious ways, but you don’t have to. Use your blinker.”
A friend and I were talking one time about how God seemed to be at work through the ministry of someone we knew to have serious flaws. I will never forget what my friend told me: “God can hit a straight lick with a crooked stick.” Hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth, God would work through all sort of human forces to make sure Jesus was born just where he decreed:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.Micah 5:2
The What of Christmas
Luke gives us the WHAT of Christmas. The angel goes to the shepherds in the field and tell them: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” A manger is a feed trough. It was not a proper place to lay a baby. It was a crib only because of the unique circumstances in which Mary and Joseph found themselves. Bethlehem, though the place of Joseph’s ancestry, was strange to him. He had no relatives there close enough to take them in. Bethlehem was a one-hotel town and that hotel was full. The overflow was the nearby caves where the livestock found shelter.
Joseph probably felt ashamed that he had to place his baby in a manger instead of a cradle. If they were home he could have built a suitable baby bed. I bet this carpenter made a lousy midwife. “Okay, Mary… push… or something.” It was the normal job for other women to surround a woman giving birth. Mary had none of her relatives around. He wished the baby was born in a better place. He wanted better for Mary. This was not the birthday he would have chosen for his son, so much less the Son of God.
But our God works in less than ideal situations. In fact, God shines in less than ideal situations. Every miracle begins with a crisis. Every testimony begins with a test. Trace back through your life. God was present in your worst moments. Maybe you got a DUI. That DUI might have been the thing that spared you from dying or killing someone else. I know of people who went through a tragic divorce, but God used those circumstances to bring them to faith. God makes beautiful tapestries out of the tatters of our world.
I wonder what kind of testimonies are going to flow from 2020 when nothing, including Christmas, was like we wanted it to be. The first Christmas was no different. It was not the Christmas anyone would have chosen, but it is what God used.
The How of Christmas
Notice the HOW of Christmas. A baby. This is a strange way to save the world. God is addressing a MACRO problem in a MICRO way. There is nothing more vulnerable than a baby. They can do nothing for themselves. They cannot find their own food. Whatever they get has to be put right into their mouths. They can’t even take themselves to the bathroom. That’s what pampers are for. Babies can’t speak for themselves other than cry, and giggle and coo. Where do you find a newborn baby? Wherever you put them.
Paul would later say that God uses weak things to overthrown the mighty. He uses foolish things to confound the wise.
The Why of Christmas
Luke gives us the WHY of Christmas. We get this in the song sung by the Myriad of Angels. Luke includes several angelic encounters. But this one is unique. This is the only place in the Bible where angels sing on earth. They are depicted singing around God’s throne in several places. Here they do their heavenly business on earth. They sing, “Glory of God in the highest, and peace among men on whom his favor rests.”
Actually, Luke gives us two WHY’s for Christmas. This thing is going to result in glory to God and peace to us. No one can claim credit for the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ… other than God. This is his initiative, his sacrifice, hand is purpose. He is paying himself the debt owed to him by humanity. He is satisfying his own holiness with his own self-giving. Everything about the salvation that comes through Jesus is a gift from God. None of it is our earning, our doing, or our striving. God gets all the glory.
And when God gets all the glory, I get all the peace. This is not about me striving to be good enough. It is not about earning points, or making up for wrongs I have done. I have peace with God because of God’s actions in history on my behalf. When I get to heaven I do not have to try to explain what I did to deserve to get in. “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” It is not about me. It is about him. God gets all the glory. I get all the peace.
The Who of Christmas
And this leads us to the amazing WHO of Christmas.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.Luke 2:11
Gabriel told Mary that her baby was to be named Jesus, which means “The Lord Saves.” And here the angels tell the shepherds that “unto you” is born this day a Savior, Christ the Lord.”
Savior, Christ, and Lord
He is a Savior. This baby’s work will be saving work. Israel was tempted to look for a political savior or a military savior. This Savior that God has sent is not going to lead an army. He is going to save the world by conquering one heart at a time. Doctors write prescriptions based on the diagnosis. To send a Savior like Jesus, God is saying that our primary problems are not political, economic, or racial. Our main problem is a problem of the heart.
The Pharisees thought of our main problem as impurity. They prescribed rigorous washings and law-keeping. They weren’t all wrong, but the missed the main point.
Jesus said the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. Jesus said the first and greatest commandment is this:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself”Luke 10:27
What God wants is our heart and this is the realm where the transformation brought by Jesus will take place.
This baby is also the Christ. Christ means “anointed one.” It is the same word as “Messiah” and means ones supernaturally set apart and empowered by God for his divine purpose. In the Old Testament, prophets were seen as endued with the power of the Holy Spirit to speak forth the word and will of God. Priests were anointed with oil and set apart to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people. Kings became kings when oil, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, was poured over their heads as they were chosen and set apart to govern.
Jesus, as our anointed one, is our High Prophet, our High Priest, and our High King. He communicates God will, reconnects us with God, and rules over us.
He is the Lord.
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder. And His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.Isaiah 1:9
When we call Jesus our Lord, we are saying that the government of our lives is on his shoulders. He is our Wonderful Counselor that guides us toward truth. He is the Prince of Peace whose rule supersedes any disaster this world might throw at us. Living under the rule of Jesus will give you peace with God, peace with yourself, and peace with others.
He is the everlasting Father. Tough times are for a season. Our Father is Forever. He is the Mighty God who is bigger than any problem that we might face.
Don’t we all feel a little more vulnerable than we did this time last year? We went from cruising along to scrambling for toilet paper really quick. I am going to dare say that there has not been a year with as many deaths in Geneseo in a long time. One funeral director told me that they had passed their record back in November with no signs of letting up. Life on earth is fragile and uncertain.
To say Jesus is Lord is to say the Government is on his shoulders. And I checked this morning: He is still on the throne.
In 2020, the bad news just kept coming.
But this is what Luke proclaims when he calls Jesus the Lord:
Your life is not defined by what is thrown at you. It’s is defined by who is enthroned in you.
Because of Christmas, we don’t have to live in fear. The Savior has come. We live in faith.
There is someone reading this that needs to make that connection. You need to put the government of your life on his shoulders.
Consider a prayer like this one:
Merciful Jesus: Wonderful Counselor, Savior, Messiah, and Lord. I enthrone you in my heart today. Rule and reign there as the Prince of Peace. I thank you for how you came, when you came, where you came… but most of all why you came. Unto me is born this day a Savior, Christ the Lord.