Christmas day was on a Sunday this year, which meant we gathered for worship and fellowship. Our church had a wonderful service on Christmas morning. This is my message from the service.
Here’s the link to Luke 2:1-20.
One of the reasons we have four gospels rather than one is that each of them, while telling the story of Jesus, does so in a unique way. Luke has a special emphasis on the poor and the outcast. And in his infancy narrative, Luke draws attention to the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth. And this morning I want to draw attention to what Jesus’ humble birth in a Bethlehem manger reveals to us.
“Lying in a manger”
Jesus’ humble birth reveals the good news that God is with us. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus has already been called the Son of God, the Son of the Most High. Gabriel told Mary that his reign will never end. This points us to the belief that this Jesus is somehow eternal.
This also tells us that the biblical writers believed in the incarnation, that Jesus is somehow both divine and human. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is called Immanuel, which means God is with us.
In Jesus, God comes as one of us. He arrives in our flesh and blood. He comes to us as a vulnerable child. He adopts our humanity.
Imagine having the God of the universe as a next door neighbour. Imagine having the Son of God, having been raised by a carpenter, work on your house, hanging a door or fixing a set of steps. Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase The Message says, The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.
More importantly, think of a low moment in your life and imagine having God right there with you, listening to your words and to your tears. Imagine God being with you in your frustration and your anxiety. How significant is this? What does this mean for you and I?
This means we have a God who fully understands us. He knows what it’s like to be us. He knows what it’s like to be you. Even without falling prey to sin, Jesus knows what it’s like to be a human being — with all the emotions and experiences familiar to us.
We also have a God who takes the initiative. We don’t have to find our way to him. He meets us where we are. And this is the good news. This is what the angel Gabriel came to announce. This is what the angel choir sung about when they appeared to the shepherds.
“In the same region, shepherds”
That brings to mind the very strange, counter-intuitive idea that the first ones to hear about the birth of Jesus are a group of shepherds. We’re so used to the Christmas story that we might not think anything of the angels telling the shepherds.
Yet think about it. God was finally fulfilling his promise. And in a way infinitely more amazing than anyone expected. Yes, the Messiah was coming. And it was God himself that was coming in Jesus. This is history-shaking, world-changing news.
If you had written the story, who would have heard first of Jesus’ birth? Who should be told first? Wouldn’t you think that the powerful and influential should have been the first to know, so they could spread the news more effectively far and wide? If the news is that important, shouldn’t important people hear it first?
Because shepherds are among the most ordinary, even the poor and lowly. And yet God chose to announce the good news of Jesus’ arrival to them first — not to the religious leaders, not to the political elite. God’s Messiah has come and yet it was to everyday, ordinary people that Gabriel told the news.
So: Jesus’ humble birth reveals that the good news is for everybody.
There is a lot in this world that excludes ordinary, everyday people. But the truth is, most people are ordinary, everyday people. Dare I say that most of us fall into this category?
You know, once in awhile one our kids will jokingly ask, “Am I your favourite child?” or “Which of us is your favourite?” Sometimes, to get them going, I might actually say, “Well, I love all of you, but . . .” How I finish the sentence depends on which of our kids I’m talking to!
Maybe you’ve felt sometimes like you’re no one’s favourite. Maybe you know what it’s like to feel like you never get noticed.
But here’s the thing: this also means that since the good news is for everybody, we know that God doesn’t exclude or play favourites. We can’t exclude ourselves nor can we exclude others from the scope of God’s grace.
In the incarnation, we are all included. In the incarnation, we are all noticed. In the incarnation, we are all loved.
“Let’s go straight to Bethlehem”
Of course, what we do with what God has revealed in Jesus matters. How we respond to the good news matters. Notice how in the story the angel Gabriel doesn’t order the shepherds to go see the baby Jesus. He announces his birth and tells the what the sign will be that his announcement is on the up and up. You will find a baby wrapped tightly in cloth and lying in a manger.
But it was up to the shepherds to respond to this news. They had heard Gabriel and the angel choir. They had heard about the birth of Jesus and what it meant. What would they do with what they saw and heard?
What does our story say? Let’s go straight to Bethlehem and see what has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.
What’s interesting is that our passage begins with the names of some high status people. Caesar Augustus and the governor Quirinius. Men of high status. Men of influence. Men of wealth. And they’re only in the story to show, first, the historical setting of Jesus’ birth, and, two, how God worked through the historical circumstances to accomplish his purposes. And we also know from Matthew’s Gospel that King Herod did hear about the birth of Jesus. However, he sought to eliminate Jesus, seeing him as a threat to his own rule.
Maybe this tells us something about why God revealed the good news of Jesus’ birth to shepherds. Maybe they were in the position to receive the good news as well as hear it.
In other words: Jesus’ humble birth reveals that it’s how we respond to the good news and not our status that matters.
It’s not our social, economic, cultural, or political status that determines our relationship with God or his posture towards us.
What matters is how we respond to this child, this Messiah, this Jesus, who chose to come as he did, humbly and quietly into the world in a feeding trough.
We will respond with a corresponding humility?
Even if we don’t have a high status in our community, we can still have pride. Even if we’re not wealthy, we still might not see how spiritually poor we are. Responding to the birth of Jesus means laying down our pride at his feet. It means admitting our need.
Of course, not only did the shepherds go to Bethlehem to see the infant Jesus; they forwarded Gabriel’s message to anyone who would listen. These ordinary shepherds began spreading the news and sharing what they had heard and seen: They reported the message they were told about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.
Here’s the thing: God includes us in the story of what he’s doing. Like the shepherds, we are also invited to share what we have seen and heard. We get to participate! And we’re called to share it with anyone willing to hear. With anyone willing to receive the good news. It’s not up to us to pick and choose.
This is why churches are always a bag of mixed nuts. Look who Jesus has brought here! If there is any place where social and economic status or situation shouldn’t matter, it’s the church, the community of people formed to follow this Jesus born more than two thousand years ago. What matters is how we respond to Jesus together.
The truth is, it’s responding in faith to Jesus that gives us status. It brings us into God’s family. It’s our faith that changes our identity. It’s because of Christ and our relationship with him that we know who we are.
Jesus’ humble birth matters because it means that we can know God and experience his good news right where we are. We don’t need to be someone else or have specific qualifications for God to love us. We don’t have to come from a particular place or set of circumstances for God to have a relationship with us.
And like the shepherds, he invites us to respond to what we have heard, to what he has revealed and made known in Jesus: that he is God in flesh and blood and that the good news that he has come to enter our lives and redeem them is for everyone.
This is what Christmas is, of course, really about. Everything else is decoration.
How will you respond? Because just as Christ came humbly into this world, he awaits our humble response.