December 21, 1997
If there is a single word that describes what Christmas is all about, it’s the little word “joy.” Several of our favorite carols mention it: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come,” “O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,” “Shepherds, why this jubilee, why your joyous strains prolong?” “Good Christian men, rejoice, with heart and soul and voice,” “Joyful all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies, with th’ angelic host proclaim, ‘Christ is born in Bethlehem.’”
I wonder how many of us feel joyful this morning? It’s not hard to feel joy when you come to church and sing these wonderful songs. But it’s not always easy to feel joyful. William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, says that joy can be a challenge to the church. Sometimes all we do is talk about the imperatives of life: Do this, don’t do that. You can walk away from church pretty depressed some days.
Part of our problem is that we’ve got the wrong idea about joy. We tend to connect it with happiness and think that joy depends on our circumstances. You can’t have joy by going from one party to another or frantically racing through the shopping mall. In fact, going to the mall this time of year is an excellent way to lose your joy.
Where does Christmas joy come from? Listen to the words of Luke 2:8-10 and see if you can discover the answer:
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
Here’s a quote from Dean Willimon that seems to put this passage in perspective: “Christmas is a delightful disruption of the way things normally go.” I like that phrase “delightful disruption” because it catches the spirit of Luke 2. One moment you’re tending the sheep in the middle of the night, the next you’re being scared out of your wits by an angelic choir. I don’t know how delightful that is, but it’s definitely a disruption.
The angel comes with “good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” What is this “good news of great joy?” Verse 11 has the answer. I’m going to give it to you in the King James Version because it is the traditional version most of us learned as children (I find that even when I read the Christmas story in a modern version, my brain automatically converts it to King James English): “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”
If you are looking for Christmas joy, I suggest that you can find all you need in this single verse.
I. The Prophecy of His Coming
Notice the simple phrase—”born this day in the city of David.” The city of David is not Jerusalem—it’s Bethlehem, which is about 5 miles south of Jerusalem. I have been there three times—most recently about in October when we toured the Holy Land. Today Bethlehem is a Arab town under Palestinian control, but when Jesus was born it was a tiny Jewish community.
Modern Bethlehem is a bustling, busy town filled with thousands of people who jostle each other as they walk the narrow streets. The major industry of Bethlehem is tourism and the most important site is the Church of the Holy Nativity in the very center of the city. This is the one of the oldest churches in the Holy Land, having been first built on that site 1700 years ago, then built upon, added to, and restored many times over the centuries. Today when you visit Bethlehem you’ll have a hard time envisioning what it was like when Jesus was born.
In 1867 a Boston pastor named Phillips Brooks visited the Holy Land at Christmastime. Upon his return he wrote a Christmas carol, which was set to music by his choir director for their Christmas concert the next year. We still sing it today. “O little of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above they deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.” He wrote it that way because 130 years ago Bethlehem was still a tiny village—a quiet and peaceful place.
There is a fascinating connection between that Boston church and Calvary Memorial Church. When the Trinity Church of Boston burned down, Pastor Brooks led in its rebuilding in the 1870s. It is a magnificent structure that still stands on the Boston Commons. When the First Presbyterian Church of Oak Park decided to build a new sanctuary in the 1890s, the building committee corresponded with the building committee of Trinity Church and used their drawings as a guide for our present sanctuary, which was designed by noted church architect W. G. Williamson in 1901. The Trinity Church was built by H. H. Richardson in a style sometimes called Richardsonian Romanesque. Echoes of that style can be seen in the vaulted arches of our sanctuary and the covered portico leading to the West Wing.
Bethlehem is called the “city of David” because David grew up here along with his father Jesse and his seven brothers (see 1 Samuel 16:1-3 for the story of David’s selection as the king who would replace Saul). In fact, David tended sheep in the fields outside the village just the shepherds were doing the night the angel appeared to them.
There is one other fact you need to know. Seven hundred earlier the Lord had spoken through the prophet Micah and declared that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Here is the exact Scripture from Micah 5:2.
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.
Notice the phrase “though you are small among the clans of Judah.” That prophecy came from the Lord in 700 B.C. when Bethlehem was a tiny, inconsequential village. No one would ever had named it as one of the Top Ten Vacation Spots in Israel. If you went there, you would find a few small houses and that’s about it.
When Jesus was born Bethlehem was still off the beaten track, so to speak. However, all the Jews knew that the Messiah would be born there. How do I know that? Matthew 2 tells us that when the Magi came to Herod in Jerusalem, they asked “Where is he who is King of Jews? We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him.” Good question. Where is the Messiah going to be born? Herod gathered his theology council and asked them the same question. They replied by quoting Micah 5:2 (you can find this episode in Matthew 2:1-6). That’s what I mean by the fact that all the Jews knew. God had told them 700 years before exactly where Christ would be born. There was no secret about it at all.
As a side note, I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that even though the Magi have suddenly shown up in Jerusalem, and even though the theologians knew where the baby was to be born, and even though Bethlehem was only 5 miles south of Jerusalem, as far as we know, not a one of them cared enough to investigate for himself. They were totally indifferent to the birth of the Messiah. They missed the most important event in world history because they couldn’t be bothered.
How different the shepherds are. As good Jews, they too must have known the prophecy in Micah. When the shepherds hear the glad tidings that Christ has come, they respond by saying, “Let’s go straight to Bethlehem.” The theologians knew the truth but wouldn’t act on it; the shepherds knew very little but what they knew, they believed and immediately acted upon.
So when we read “city of David” we should remember that Jesus was born in fulfillment of a prophecy made 700 years earlier. It should also remind us that knowledge alone is never enough to save us. It’s not what you know, but what you do with what you know that makes the difference.
II. The Reality of His Coming
Let’s look again at the text. The angel says, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David.” Just focus on the three words—”born this day.” They speak to the fact that what happened in Bethlehem was nothing less than the birth of a baby named Jesus Christ.
There are two aspects to this truth we need to mention. The first is that there were no miracles associated with the physical birth of Jesus Christ. Even though we often speak of the Virgin Birth of Christ, it’s important to remember that the real miracle took place nine months earlier when the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary with the result that although she was a virgin, she became pregnant. That was an enormous miracle which has never been repeated in the history of the world. However, from that point on Mary’s pregnancy followed the normal course of all human pregnancies leading to the momentous night in Bethlehem when she gave birth to the Lord Jesus in a stable. Although Luke gives no details, we may safely assume that the delivery itself was normal in every way. Or at least as normal as any birth could be under such trying circumstances. From time to time we read of women giving birth in strange places—in a car, at the mall, at a restaurant–sometimes alone, sometimes attended by a very frightened husband. Such instances are normal births that happen in extraordinary circumstances. The birth of Jesus falls into that category—a true event that took place in a normal way in a very abnormal situation.
Second, it’s important to remind ourselves that the phrase “this day” means that it really happened. Francis Schaeffer used to talk about “lower-story” truth and “upper-story” truth. “Lower-story” truth is made up of the facts of history—things that really happened at a certain time in a place to particular people. By contrast, “upper-story” truth refers to fables and stories—like the fables of Aesop—that everyone knows aren’t true but are meant to teach religious truth. Many people today read Luke 2 and call it “upper story” truth. It’s simply too fantastic to believe, or so they say. One professor called it “theological fiction”—that is, a story made up by the early church to explain the uniqueness of Jesus.
Some of you may have heard about the “Jesus Seminar”—a group of liberal scholars who use colored pebbles to vote on whether or not the gospel stories about Jesus are true or not. Several years ago they voted down the Virgin Birth of Christ. The vote was 24-1 against the biblical account of the Virgin Birth:
Voting with multi-colored pebbles, these pundits decided that Mary must have had sexual intercourse, either with Joseph or some unknown interloper, before she became pregnant with Jesus. They also decreed the visit of the wise men a fabrication, the slaughter of the innocents a fiction, and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt a fanciful allegory drawn from the Moses story in Exodus. (From “Why We Believe in the Virgin Birth” by Timothy George, Christianity Today, 1994.)
I mention that because the Christian church has always professed its belief in the literal truth of the Virgin Birth. The ancient creeds put this way: “Conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” This is one truth that has always been believed by all Christians everywhere. To use Francis Schaeffer’s term, the birth of Jesus is “lower-story” truth because it really and truly happened.
So when we read “unto you is born this day in the city of David,” let us remember that it points to something true—an event that really happened. Not a legend or a myth or a nicely-told fairy tale. Everything about the story is true, including the central truth that there really was a baby born in Bethlehem who really was the Son of God.
III. The Result of His Coming
Now we come to the climax of this verse: “A Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” Here’s a interesting a fact that comes from the Greek text of Luke 2. When Luke wrote his account, he didn’t use any articles to describe who Jesus is. It reads this way: Savior, Christ, Lord.
Each word is vitally important. Savior is actually an Old Testament word that means “One who delivers his people.” Lord is a term for Deity. It’s a synonym for God. Christ is the Greek version of the Hebrew word Messiah, which means “the anointed One.”
We desperately need a Savior, don’t we? When the angel announced the birth of Jesus to Joseph, he said, “Give him the name Jesus for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). I heard recently about a man in our church who went to visit his father over Thanksgiving. He had been praying for his father’s salvation for nearly 40 years. In all those years his father had never shown any real interest in spiritual things and in fact was often openly hostile to the gospel. Now he is dying of cancer. The son visited his father and they talked together but he didn’t accept Christ. However, a few days after Thanksgiving a pastor who knows his father called with the good news that his father had accepted Christ. The son couldn’t believe it and decided to wait for his father to share the news. A few days later his father called up and said, “What do you call it that happens when Billy Graham preaches?” The son didn’t understand the question so the father repeated it. Eventually the son figured out that his father was talking about the invitation, so he said, “That’s when people go forward to accept Christ.” “I’ve done that,” the father blurted out. Almost before the son could say anything else, his father asked, “Have you ever done that?” He told his father that he had accepted Christ almost 40 years ago. Then the father asked about his son’s wife: “Do you think she’s done it?” Yes, she trusted Christ years ago. The father was so amazed at what had suddenly happened to him that he wanted to make sure his son and daughter-in-law were saved too. And all these years they had been praying for him! That’s why Christ come—to be a Savior for everyone who will turn to him.
Not only that, but he came to be Lord or ruler of the universe. Today he is the Lord of heaven. One day he will return and set up his kingdom on the earth. Between now and then we Christians are called to make him Lord of our lives on a daily basis. That means surrendering your will to him and letting him lead the way. Yesterday I chatted again with my friend Dan Hoeksema down in Memphis. I told him that hundreds of people were using that simple prayer he shared with me and I shared with you. In case you’ve forgotten it, here is it: “Heavenly Father, you are in charge of everything that will happen in my life today—the good and the bad, the positive and the negative. Please make me thankful for everything that happens to me today. Amen.” That prayer works because it’s based on the truth that Jesus Christ is the Lord of all—and our lives won’t work right until they are completely surrendered to him.
He is the Savior, he is the Lord, and he is the Christ—the one sent from God. I called this the “result” of his coming, and in a sense that’s not entirely accurate. He is Savior, Lord and Christ even without his coming, but if he had never come, we would never have known it. The truth of Jesus would forever have been hidden from us.
This is the heart of Christmas. God loved us enough to send his only begotten Son. Think of it this way:
He didn’t send a committee
He didn’t write a book
He didn’t send a substitute
No, when God got ready to save the world, he sent the best that he had—his one and only Son. And in sending Jesus, he was really sending himself. This is the stupendous truth of Christmas—Immanuel—God with us.
IV. The Purpose of His Coming
Our text contains one final truth for our consideration. In the King James Version this truth comes first—”For unto you is born this day in the city of David.” Pause for a moment and consider who was speaking and who was being addressed. When the shepherds heard these words from the angel, they must have been flabbergasted. We tend to overlook the fact that shepherds were near the bottom of the social order of ancient Israel. They were often poor and uneducated and some were quite young. Not very many people would pick “shepherd” on their Career Preference Form. There were many easier ways to make a living in ancient Israel.
Doug Goins paints a vivid picture of how shepherds were viewed in that day:
The Judean shepherds were the lowest of the low socially-common men, a despised class with a bad reputation. Shepherds were known as thieves because they were nomadic, and as they moved their sheep around the country, sometimes they got confused about what was “mine” and what was “thine.” They were all tarred with the same brush-untrustworthy, dishonest. They were not allowed to give testimony in a Jewish court of law. Their work made it impossible for them to observe the Jewish ceremonial laws and temple rituals, so they were considered religiously unclean and unacceptable. It’s pretty amazing to think this heavenly invasion came to such social outcasts! (From the sermon “Journeys of Joy”)
So when the angel says, “To you is born,” he’s really saying, “Christ came for lowly shepherds.” But what about those theologians in Jerusalem who knew but didn’t care? He came for them too, but they never knew about it.
When Christ came, his birth was first announced to the outcasts of society. They were the first ones to hear the good news of Christmas. There is a great lesson in this for all of us. Our Lord came for the forgotten people of the earth and most of the time they are the ones who receive him with the greatest joy. Rich people often have no time for Christ, but the poor welcome him as an honored guest.
He Came For You
Let me now make a simple application. The angel said, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior.” “Unto you.” “For you.” He came for you. This is where Christmas becomes intensely personal. It’s not enough to say abstractly that you believe Christ came. Millions of people say that and are still lost in their sins. It’s not enough to say that Christ came for someone else.
You can never be saved until you say, “Christ came for me. He died for me. He rose from the dead for me.”
He came for you. Do you believe that?
In just a few days Christmas will be here. Families will gather around the tree to open their presents. Already some children are counting the hours until that glad moment arrives.
When you receive your gifts this Christmas, what will you do? Will you not open them? What use is a gift that is never opened?
Two thousand years ago God sent a gift wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Jesus is God’s Christmas gift to you. But you will never experience Christmas joy until you personally receive God’s gift—the Lord Jesus Christ.
I close with the words of the angel to the shepherds: “Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of great joy which shall be for all people.” And what is the source of that joy? “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
Joy the world, the Lord is come.