I do hope that you have had a good Christmas. Indeed this is a special time of year. Really there is no other part of the calendar that compares to this season. Even Easter does not compare with Christmas. The music evidences that. Part of the reason everyone loves Christmas is because it is filled with such good music.
But Christmas is not always filled with happy emotions. Statistics show that most suicides occur during this time of the year.
Christmas is an emotionally charged holiday. And it has always been like that. Even from the very first Christmas.
The passage we look at tonight also contains an emotion mixed message. On the one hand it declares the good news of Christ’s Advent. But on the other hand it declares the bad news of Christ’s advent.
You’re probably asking “What do you mean by that?” Well, you have to remember something about the book of Matthew. Matthew was a Jew, and he was writing to his countrymen. So when you read this book you have to put yourself in the shoes of a Jew. And when you do that, you may begin to see how the message of Christmas is a mixed one.
If you put yourself in the shoes of a Jew and you read verses 1-2 you might begin to feel uneasy. Let me suggest a theme for these two verses that might help to put things in perspective. We might summarize the theme of these verses like this: The nations (i.e. foreigners) enjoy the privileges that rightfully belong to the Lord’s covenant people.
As members in this church you are entitled to special privileges. You get to worship and hear the Word of God. You get to vote when the opportunity presents itself. You are entitled to the special care and oversight of the elders. All these things are your privileges if you are a member of this church.
But suppose you come to find someone enjoying those privileges in your place. You probably wince at the thought.
The same idea is portrayed in this passage. We think of the Christmas story as filled with warm-fuzzies. But that is not the original intent of this passage. This passage was designed to provoke God’s people.
Perhaps we can see that more vividly as we examine the details of the passage. Let’s look at what privileges these foreigners enjoyed. The first privilege we see this that …
I. The revelation of the Messiah’s advent comes to the foreigners
That is to say, these Maji, these foreigners of all people, hear about the Messiah’s advent first. They hear about it before the Jews do.
It would be one thing to say that these foreigners are the recipients of special revelation. The Ninevites were recipients of revelation, weren’t they? And you can think of many other prophets who delivered messages to foreign kings. And even today, we can think of many people outside of the church who hear the preaching, and receive God’s revelation that way. But in all these situations those outside the church (or Israel) received the message second hand. The message first came to the prophet or preacher. Israel (or the church) was the conduit.
But these Maji are unique because they received this revelation before the Jews. Or maybe it would be better put, they received the message without the Jews.
So here you have people who are way out of the loop when it comes to being a part of the people God has covenanted with. But they are the ones who enjoy the privilege of hearing from God about the Christ child.
Perhaps this is God’s way of saying the covenant people are no longer his people. All through history he has spoken to them, but they had not listened. Now he speaks to someone who will.
And that is part of the gospel of Christmas. God has and is speaking to us right now. “We who were far off, without hope and without God in this world, have been brought near.” What the Jews had neglected has come to us.
Whenever someone dies, that person’s possessions are bequeathed to another. You could say that we are the beneficiaries of the Jew’s deadness. We now enjoy the special privilege that once belonged to them. The Word of Christ and his advent has been spoken to us.
And we must never forget how great a privilege that is. And we must remember that we now assume the position of the Israelites of old.
The good news of our enjoying their special privilege also caries with it a warning: Should we become stagnate in our zeal for the Lord, we may fall under the same punishment. If we fail to appropriate the word of God, the special privilege we have of being the ones God speaks to by his Word and Spirit can be stripped from us. God does not guarantee that it is ours forever and without any conditions. Once we fail to serve as caretakers of God’s word, God will find another to fill our places.
That the nations enjoy the special privileges of the covenant people is not only evidenced in the fact that God speaks to them, but it is also manifested in that the Lord speaks through them.
II. The revelation of the messiah’s advent comes through the foreigners to the covenant people.
Now that we have considered that first point, don’t you find it odd that the foreigners are the ones who announce to the Jews in Jerusalem that their long awaited Messiah has come?
I want you to think about how God orders this. To understand the full impact of this we need to consider the star that the Maji followed.
All sorts of ink has been spilled trying to pin down what exactly this star is. Scholars have debated it ever since it appeared. Some have said that it must have been a super nova (A super nova is a star that explodes). The immense amount of energy that would have been emitted in that catastrophe would have produced a light in the sky that shined day and night for weeks. A problem with that theory though is that Herod doesn’t seem to know anything about it. He asks the maji about the star and when it appeared. In other words, the maji are the only ones who were able to see it.
Other hypotheses have also been submitted, such as a conjunction of planets or a comet (that’s what John Calvin supposes). The problem with those theories is that the star stops. It comes to stand right over Jesus’ house. And that is the way the Maji know where to go.
For these reasons some have even said that the star wasn’t a natural phenomena. They supposed that it was a heavenly messenger. In the Book of Revelation Jesus is said to hold the seven stars of the churches in his hand. These seven stars we take to mean the seven men who act as messengers within the church (or the pastors). Some interpret the star that way, the star was a messenger from God (or an angel). This theory has something going for it. It would help us to understand why the wise men were so eager to follow the star: If a messenger of God appeared to the wise men and told them what was happening they might be more willing to pack up and go.
Those theories are somewhat fun to think about (at least to me!). But I think they miss the point. I’m not so much concerned about what the star is, I think it is more fascinating what the star does. It leads them to Jerusalem and then hides. I bet the wise men are thinking, “OK we are here. We just need to find out which house he is in.” So they go around town saying, “Where is the one who is born the king of the Jews.”
Maybe you have read this before and thought that they just needed directions. Well, I bet that is what they were doing. But I don’t think they needed directions. Once they step outside the gates of Jerusalem, what happens? “POP” out comes the star again. And it leads them right to the door of Jesus’ house.
No, these guys didn’t need directions to Bethlehem. God intentionally guided them to Jerusalem. And he guided them there so that they would serve as his messengers. Whether or not the wise men were cognizant of it or not, their question wasn’t an inquiry. It was an announcement. They were bringing the message of Christmas to the Jews.
Odd, isn’t it? The Jews were supposed to be God’s covenant people. As God’s people they were supposed to be God’s “emissaries to the world.” They were to declare to the nation God’s ways and his redeeming love. But here we have the exact opposite. The foreign nations become the evangelists. The Jews become the ones who were evangelized.
The covenant people are stripped of their special privilege as God’s witnesses. And perhaps that is why all Jerusalem was troubled.
If the gospel no longer is no longer declared by us, and is declared to us, the gospel no longer becomes “good news” to us. If the privilege of being God’s witnesses is stripped from us, when we hear that the king is coming or has come, it is to us no longer a message of grace. It is a message of judgment and death.
If we fail to serve as God’s agents in the world to the world, he goes out and gets someone else who will speak. And when the gospel comes round to be preached to us through them, it is a signal that God is no longer using us. It would be then a sign that He has rejected us.
No doubt we see many churches today that have lost the gospel fire. They no longer promote Christ as the only Savior from sins. And this is a great mystery. Those churches that started out as the ones God used for revival early in American history. By this I am thinking of the 1st and 2nd Great Awakenings. But now many of those denominations have come to believe that Christ is not the only Savior (if a savior at all). Their understanding of missions has transformed from proclaiming salvation in Christ to helping societies with poverty. While there is nothing wrong with trying to help people economically, it is a far cry from helping them eternally.
In our day we are finding these “churches” open mission fields. The message of Christmas, the message of Christ coming into this world to save sinners, is coming to them. It is a sign that God’s judgment is coming. They must listen to the gospel call before time runs out.
And the same is true for us. The gospel call is alive and well. The Jews were faithful in attending church, yet they needed the gospel preached to them through agents of God. They needed to be awakened to the fact that they needed a living and active faith. So too, we must not think that our being a part of a church alone will save us. Only living faith will save us.
I’m notorious around home for eating anything and everything that is not pinned down. I like to eat. And my family knows that they can’t leave any sweets out without proper notification. If one of my girls happens to have a doughnut and they carelessly leave it on the counter, most likely, I’m going to come along and scarf it down.
That is to say, if they do not take care to possess that blessing that has been bestowed upon them, then they may come to find that I will enjoy it in their place.
I want you to understand that this is exactly what is being communicated here in this passage about Christ. The Savior, Jesus Christ, is a glorious treasure. The word of God is more precious than gold or silver. Each are gifts that God gives for your eternal enjoyment. They are blessings that God graciously bestows upon you.
And if you do not actively embrace them and possess them with a living faith, then you will find that one day they will be gone. If tepid indifference comes to be found in the place of a full blooded zeal, you should not be surprised if one day you find someone else enjoying your place in the kingdom to come.
Matthew wrote this as a reminder to his fellow countrymen. On the one hand it was a glorious reminder that the Lord was patient. He was still extending his hand to his people, offering them life and salvation. But at the same time, it was a sobering reminder that His patience would not last forever.
And the message is the same for us. This passage is a glorious reminder of God’s infinite grace: Christ has been born in Bethlehem. He has condescended to become the savior of sinners. And we must grasp on to it heartily, before time runs out.
This last week I listened in on a study on this passage. It was an advent series and the leader was kindly trying to help people prepare for the season of Christmas. The only thing is that his study was quite poor, or at least I deemed it was.
The reason why I thought this was because his study focused on Mary. Now the leader of the study was not a Catholic priest or anyone associated with the Roman church. He was a Protestant and a well meaning fellow. I don’t doubt that we can say a lot about Mary from this passage. We certainly can deduce much. But we must always remember that we do not celebrate Marimas. Neither do we celebrate Josephmas. We celebrate Christmas.
What we all must remember is that all the people mentioned in the Bible play secondary roles. Jesus is always the primary figure in every story. That holds particularly true for this passage. Mary is not the central figure here. Neither is the angel who comes to her. When we read this text, our eyes should be thrown upon Jesus and what he is doing to accomplish our salvation.
What makes this passage so great is that it is about Jesus and his redemptive work. As a matter of fact, it tells us about the first step of his redemptive work. They say that ever journey begins with a first step. That is true, you cannot go on a journey without that initial stride. Here in this text we find the first step of Christ’s journey. What is remarkable is that his first step was downward. The road that would eventually lead back to heaven began with a descent into the virgin’s womb.
To put it succinctly, our Savior’s redemptive work begins with his holy conception. And as we look at this passage I want us to consider what it teaches about Jesus’ being “born of the virgin.”
The first thing that we must mention is that Jesus was indeed, born of a virgin. It is a fact that we are required to believe.
I. The fact of it
When we read this passage there are no indications that we are to believe otherwise. What is recorded here is put forth as an actual, historical event. It is not something that has been made up, nor is it a symbolic story that is trying to communicate something deeper than what it actually says. The account here tells us simply that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and He was born of a virgin.
Now that is something that the church has historically confessed throughout her existence. We affirm it every time we say the Apostle’s Creed. And when we do, we are acknowledging the truth of this Scripture right here.
I believe that I need to bring this out because so many in our day do not recognize the factuality of this passage. This passage has been put under scrutiny like no other passage in the Bible in the modern era. Al Molher has even gone so far as to say, “Of all biblical doctrines, the doctrine of Christ's virginal conception has often been the specific target of modern denial and attack.”
Ever since the Enlightenment (I rather call lit the Endarknement!) which began in the 18th century, people have struggled with or outright rejected that this event ever really happened. That is because at that time men started being guided more by reason and science, rather than revelation and the Bible. So all things that were supernatural began to sound absurd. And that is why to modern man a virgin birth and a miraculous conception is the most ridiculous thing that has ever happened.
But you know, Mary had the exact same question. She asked, “How can this be?” She wasn’t any neanderthal. She knew this stood against all reason and experience. But the difference is that she believed what the Angel said, “Nothing is impossible with God.” When you deny God, something like this is impossible.
Now you can understand why this passage has been the front line of the attack. This doctrine is the foundation for the rest of the supernatural events in the Scripture. If you can brush this one aside, then you can brush the rest of Jesus’ life and work aside. Jesus’ miracles and resurrection can be flushed right down behind it. So you can see why Satan attacks it with such vehemence. If you doubt this event, the rest of Jesus’ life and work can be erased. Ultimately, the whole of the gospel can be destroyed.
That’s what makes it so important to affirm what the Bible says here. As a matter of fact, we can go so far as to say that if you deny the holy conception of our Lord and the virgin birth, you cannot be a Christian in the true sense of the word. You can call yourself a Christian and go by that tag. But if you deny what the Bible says here, you cannot be a Christian inwardly. What it amounts to is a rejection of the authority of Scripture. And the essence of faith is that you receive as true of all that Christ as said in his word.
You not only reject Christ’s word, you reject Jesus Himself! When you throw out the fact that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, you end up dispensing with his deity. You cannot affirm Jesus’ deity that without a virgin birth. If his birth was not miraculous, he was just a man like everybody else—just like you and me. So what happens is that you end up compromising the whole of the gospel. And if you don’t believe the gospel, then you are not a Christian.
So that is where we must begin: The virgin birth, the Holy Spirit’s work of conceiving the Christ child is to be upheld as a fact of history. It is a vital part of the gospel. It is a truth that cannot be denied if you want to be a Christian.
Now that we have affirmed the factuality of it, let’s talk about its necessity.
II. The necessity of it
To a degree we have already said something of its necessity because we said that it is an integral part of the gospel. Why is it so integral though? The virgin birth is needed because it solves the problem that Adam started.
It is sort of funny how this passage brings this out. When the angel announced that marry would conceive and bear a child, Mary immediately asked, “How can this be since I am a virgin.” As I said before, she was no fool. She knew a little about the reproductive system. But what was a simple question of biology gave birth to one of the most profound theological teachings.
The angel response satisfies her curiosity, but it also provides us with an answer to the problem of our depravity. The real problem is that the best of men are men at best! In other words, we are all sinners. When Adam fell, we all fell in him and with him. As a result, when we are born we inherit a sinful nature from him. It has been passed down from generation to generation. So when a child is born we can say, “Oh he has your nose. He has your eyes.” And we can gush all over the little thing. But we also confess that he’s got your attitude. He’s got your corruption. He’s got your sinful nature.
When we see that Jesus is conceived in purity, it should remind us of what David said in Psalm 51, “We were conceived and born in sin.” Each one of us was. We got it from our parents. And they got it from their parents. We can go on and on like that until we get back to our very first parents, Adam & Eve.
As a matter of fact, if you read in Genesis 5 you read some eerie words. In Genesis 5 it says that Adam and Eve had a child. But the child was “born in the image of Adam.” You remember that Adam was created in the image of God. But after his fall, he lacked that original righteousness with which he was created. So every child after that was born in the image of Adam and after his likeness.
But what we see going on in this passage is that this pattern of ordinary generation is being broken. The angel explains that the Lord is going outside the normal means of reproduction.
Even the imagery the angel uses is great. The Angel says that the Holy Spirit is going to come upon her and the power of the Most High is going to “overshadow her.” It hearkens back to the very first words of the Bible. You remember that in the beginning of the creation account the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. The world was formless and without shape, but the Spirit was “overshadowing it” and getting ready to bring life to it.
Here the Holy Spirit hovers over the lifeless, formless womb. It is by the power of the Spirit that a child is going to be created within her womb. This will be the child of the new creation. This child will not be made in Adam’s image, but will be free of the corruption of Adam. He will be a sinless child and the first since Adam to have the original righteousness.
The one thing that every good Jew knew was that they needed a spot free redeemer. They were faced with it every time they went to the temple to present a sacrifice. When you came to the temple the lamb you brought had to be without blemish. It had to be without defect. Otherwise it would not be accepted. If it had a limp or a rash, you had to go out and find another one. Every time you presented a sacrifice, this would have been brought home. And it all pointed to the fact that the one who would eventually come to satisfy for sins would be a spotless Lamb of God. You needed one who was pure who could take your sins and give you his righteousness. And that is what we have in Jesus.
I love what the Heidelberg Catechism says about this. It asks the question, “What benefit do you receive from the holy conception and birth of Christ?” In other words, what consolation is it to you? It answers by saying, “[Our consolation lies in the fact that] he is our Mediator, and with his innocence and perfect holiness covers, in the sight of God, my sin wherin I was conceived and brought forth.”
This passage is so necessary because it deals with that very need. This passage is here so that you may rest in Christ, and by resting in Christ you can rest assured that heaven is yours. What you most need is found only in him. The problem in your soul is solved through his perfection. When you trust Christ the perfection with which Christ was born is imputed to you. God no longer sees you in Adam. He sees only the righteous, purity of Christ.
Now, you see why the virgin birth is so important. This is why we believe in it. It is because our sinful nature needs it. But now that we have seen its factuality and its necessity, we need to talk about the consequence of it.
III. The consequence of it
Our passage makes it clear that the result of this conception would be that a King would be born. The messianic king, in the line of David—the one who was to rule over the house of Jacob, was going to enter the world. And that is exactly what happened.
We rejoice in God that Christ was the one who could make satisfaction for our sins, but that’s not the end of the gospel. The consequence of this birth is that an eternal kingdom would be established.
Christ came into this world to establish that kingdom. So from this passage we understand that Jesus didn’t come just to give up his life. Christ was on a conquest. His incarnation was, above all things, a military maneuver. It was an invasion of enemy territory. Christ was going behind enemy lines so that he might defeat death, crush Satan’s rule, and conquer hearts.
Now this same Christ is in heaven, and he continues his rule there. From his throne on high he continues to rule over his people. He defends them and cares for them. What’s more is that He continues to establish His kingdom by subduing more and more souls. He is always coordinating more attacks and he is sending his ministers, who are his special agents here in the world, to proclaim the reality of this kingdom. And one day he is coming back to finalize the work that he has begun. He is going to come back to sit upon the throne that is rightfully his.
It is for that reason that I am here today, to proclaim the kingdom of Christ to you. I have the privilege of telling you that the King comes offering terms of peace. If you surrender to him, he will gladly give you a place in his kingdom. You can enjoy all the blessings of citizenship in that kingdom for all eternity if you submit to Him. But if you refuse the terms of peace and you do not submit to him, then you must face the king on your own terms when he comes again.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that my daughter and I had been studying life in the Middle Ages. One of the things we studied was how wars were conducted. What would happen is that both sides would line up on either side of a plain or one army would surround a castle. Before the war commenced messengers would be sent to the opposing army to propose terms of peace. You had the opportunity to accept or reject those terms. If they sounded good, you could accept them. If you refused, then the war would commence.
That is exactly what is happening now, and whenever the gospel is preached. Christ offers you terms of peace. And what great terms they are! No army in the history of man has offered terms like these. If you pledge to honor King Jesus, you get to live forever in the most glorious kingdom that ever existed. You even become a prince in his land.
But be assured, this king cannot be stopped. In our passage it makes that clear. He is called “great” and the “Son of the Most High.” From those two terms you can understand that he is nothing other than God. Moreover he is invincible and there is nothing that will keep him from conquering the whole world.
You have all heard of Alexander the Great. Perhaps you’ve heard of Akbar the Great or Antiochus the Great. Why were they called “the Great”? it was because they were men who were great military forces. The lands they conquered stretched far and wide. The only thing is that these men were just that, they were men. As a result, their military might was eventually exhausted and their kingdoms came to an end.
Not so with the Son of God. His greatness will continue for all eternity. His kingdom will never end. And when it comes to deciding what to do with his terms, the answer should be obvious. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
Our Lord Jesus Christ has opened the doors of his kingdom to you. That is why he came into this world. He despised not the virgin’s womb because he knew you could not enter his kingdom on your own. He knew that you were unfit for his kingdom. But he came down from heaven so that you might possess that which you lack. Now he offers it to you. He says, “Come to me, poor sinner, and all will be well. I want to be your king. I want to have you rule along side of me in my kingdom.”
If you feel a little tired after reading this portion of Scripture, there is a reason for that. I don’t know if you realized it or not, but in those 7 verses you traveled almost 3,000 miles.
This morning I need you to pack up your things because we are going to be going on a journey. We sort of already have been on this journey for the last three weeks, because we’ve been on our way to Christmas. We’ve been trying to prepare for Christmas by looking at some different passages of Scripture. But this morning’s passage tells us of the road to Christmas. It is the Christmas road. We see here that the nativity of our Lord Jesus began with a long and arduous trek, and we are going along with Mary and Joseph. As a matter of fact, we travel a lot farther than the holy couple because we start out way over there in the city of Rome with Caesar Augustus. We sort of pick up with Joseph and Mary in Nazareth along the way, sort of joining in on their caravan.
So this morning’s message is, in a real sense, a trip. And I want you to buckle up. But more than that, I want you to keep your eyes and ears open because along this we are going to see some pretty amazing sites. Dr. Luke is our tour guide, and he is going to show us a lot about God on this journey. That’s because the road to Christmas reveals quite a bit about God.
Now I don’t want you to close your eyes because Luke doesn’t spare a second. The site seeing starts right away. As Luke starts us out on the Road to Christmas he begins by showing us God’s absolute control over the affairs of men.
I. God controls the affairs of men
The passage here begins with the decree of Caesar that a census should be taken. This would be the means that God would use to bring Mary and Joseph to the appointed place of birth. The Old Testament made it clear that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem. The problem though is that Mary and Joseph had made their home in the city of Nazareth, which was approximately 180 miles away as the crow flies. So, from all human perception, it would seem that the Christ would be born at the right time, but in the wrong place.
There would be only one way the Lord’s Word could be fulfilled: those who were comfortably situated would have to be compelled by a higher authority to take the long and tedious journey. As providence would have it, the Emperor called for a numbering of the people in his kingdom.
Certainly we could marvel at how one man could have such authority over such a vast region. People hop when he says hop. However, what is more amazing is that Caesar is nothing but a pawn in the hand of God. Despite his radical authority, he is still subject to the King of kings. Augustus is God’s servant in transporting Mary and Josephy. He is the means God uses to fulfill the OT prophecy.
Charles Spurgeon also notes that the Emperors of the Roman world were typically not the most virtuous of men. They were heathens and thus they were governed by the passions of their own inclinations. So the reason Caesar called for this census was probably for disingenuous purposes. Perhaps it was simply to horde more money through taxation. It may have very well been decreed simply to spite one of vassal kings who had offended him. This moves Spurgeon to say, “the Ruler of tempests knows how to rule the perverse spirits of princes. The Lord our God has a bit for the wildest war horse, and a hook for the most terrible leviathan. Autocratical Caesars are but puppets moved with invisible strings.
Indeed, all the affairs of men are governed by God. From the leaf that falls from the tree to the secret plans which are put together within the confines of Caesar’s palace, God is in control. Nothing happens without His personal approval. But what is beautiful about this passage is that the heathen nations are subservient to God’s church. Even with all their rebellious pursuits, they are the ministers of God for the welfare of God’s people.
What a wonderful thing for us to remember! As we enter into Christmas, we don’t just have to look at the manger to be reminded of God. We can look right into the Oval Office and remember that God is working all things for our good. Our president, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reed, what are they? They are nothing but pawns in the hands of God. The political leaders of our nation, and every other nation for that matter, are ultimately servants of the church. They are our servants!
History is replete with illustrations of this. Do you know why the Reformation was so successful? Why was it that a little monk named Martin Luther not burned at the stake like every other person Rome considered a heretic? The Pope had excommunicated him. The Emperor at that time was a devote Catholic. All things considered, Luther should have been put to death. The problem was the Turks! The Muslims were advancing against the Holy Roman Empire and the Emperor’s attention was directed elsewhere! If he got overly involve in a religious squabble, his kingdom would be compromised. So, in a sense, we owe the Muslim’s a great deal of thanks. God used them to save the church and preserve the faith just as much as He used Luther.
Do you know why the puritan movement was so strong in England? It was partially the doing of King Henry the VIII. The King was no friend of Protestantism. He persecuted them severely. But he was upset that his first wife would not bear him an heir. Because of her being barren he sought to divorce her. The only problem was that the pope would not permit it! So he decided to break with the Roman Catholic Church. The breach with Rome allowed Protestantism to grow more freely in the British realm. Imagine that! Protestantism was able to take deeper root because a king wanted a divorce! It just goes to show that the heads of state are the servants of heaven and the church!
Every day we hear threats of radical Muslim invasions. We hear of increasing tyranny in our nation. The news media may lead with another story about human rights violations in communist China, and another shipment of toxic toys. Such things can be overwhelming if faith is not the lens through which we see life. These are shifts of tectonic proportions. The mighty titans cast their scepters here and there doing all sorts of evil and increasing tyranny in the world. This could be overwhelming to the fleshly eye. Yet we are to understand that, whether their plans may be for good or ill, they are for us and for our eternal welfare. That’s because they are all under God’s omnipotent hand.
So as we look at this passage, let us take comfort in the fact that God controls all of the affairs of men. We have nothing to fear, even from the most powerful people on eart, because God reigns.
While we are on the road to Christmas, let us not only see how God rules over the affairs of men, but let us also see how God convolutes the expectations of men.
II. Convolutes the expectations of men
We come to these passages with so much knowledge that we often miss some of the quirks that are presented in them. I know that I missed this one. I owe recognition of it to Pastor Ligon Duncan, who pointed it out to me.
Last week you may remember that we looked at the passage over in Luke 1. It was the passage where the angel announced to Mary that she was to have a son. Do you remember that? Do you remember what the angel said to Mary? He began by saying, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” Then the angel repeats it, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” The angel goes on to say that she is going to be God’s agent in bringing the long expected Messiah into the world. He would be called great, the Son of the Most High. He would reign over the house of Jacob.
Now you can probably bet that Mary was flying high after that. Sure there might be a little confusion and concern here and there, but the more she thought about that the more her imagination probably took off. Wouldn’t you do the same? If you were to give birth to a king and you found out that you were the favored one of God, how would you react? You might start making big plans.
But where do we find Mary in our passage? We find her in the last term of her pregnancy making what would have been a torturous journey to Bethlehem. We find her in a stable, surrounded by a bunch of animals (and all their associated aromas!). I would assume that wasn’t quite how she thought it would happen.
That’s the irony of this passage. The king was to be born. Mary was God’s favored one. But the circumstances in which they found themselves probably didn’t reflect what they had expected.
Isn’t that God’s way of working though? Doesn’t he always do that? We think things are going to turn out one way—typically it involves living in the lap of luxury and sitting on a pillow of ease. But God takes us in a totally different direction. Our expectations get tossed completely upside-down.
This is what we need to remember though. Our ways are not God’s ways, our thoughts do not always comport with God’s thoughts. He likes to take us down the path of humility and hardship.
The good thing is that you are the favored ones of God. And God has said to you, just like he said to Mary, “I am with you.” He is here today to affirm that promise to you today, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
You might be wondering if that is true or not. Because your circumstances are not exactly the way you want them or the way you like them, you might not think that you are all that favored.
You know, the apostles might have thought the same thing. I remember the stained glass window at the church where I grew up. Each pain of the window presented the way each disciple is said to have died. Let me say that they didn’t die natural deaths. At least two of them were crucified. One was slain with a spear. Another was stoned to death and then beheaded (just in case, I guess). Each of them has a peculiar story about their persecution and ultimate martyrdom. Their circumstances might not have revealed it, but before Jesus pushed them out of the nest he said to them, “Lo, I am with you—even to the end of the age.”
We could look around here and each of us could see in ourselves or in each other different circumstances that are not the best. We could even think of some “worse case scenarios” too. For all practical purposes what we see around us might seem like it negates what we hear God say to us. Our circumstances don’t seem to line up with the promises. Yet this passage is here to remind us that the road that Christ leads us down is not the freshly paved superhighway. His road is full of bumps and surprises.
So remember that God likes to convolute our human expectations. He did that for Mary and Joseph. He did it for the Apostles, and we shouldn’t think that we should be any different.
On our tour through Palestine we can say that we’ve seen some pretty amazing things. We’ve seen God’s power and his wisdom don’t even begin to compare with our own. But the greatest sight is yet to be seen. At the end of this journey we see his infinite love. At the end of this passage we see how God also condescends for the salvation of men.
III. Condescends for the salvation of men
When we look at this passage we don’t see any pomp or pageantry accompanying Jesus’ birth, do we ? We might even say there isn’t a single comfort that is afforded the babe, except some strips of linen with which he is wrapped. Providence might have been directing these events, but it led him to a stable, which in all likelihood was nothing more than a cave.
We might be able to accept the fact that after Mary gives birth to her baby there are no grand ceremonies or lofty exhibitions that would typically be associated with the birth of a king. What is odd though is that the passage ends with the fact that there is no room for them in the inn. The last note is not so much that a baby was born, but that there wasn’t any real place for the baby to be born. What we find is that this journey starts in the regal splendor of Caesar’s palace, but it ends up in nowhere. Literally, no where. We went through Samaria and Judea, and then passed right through Bethlehem. We didn’t even stop at the stall. Somewhere in that stable we hit a warp of some kind and it sent us out beyond the reaches of earth—to no where. It is amazing too. How would you like it if you went back to your own home town and no one there would take you in? All your friends and family say, “Sorry. No vacancy.”
This, of course, is one of the initial indications of how our Savior would live his entire life. That he was born in a stable laid in a manger reminds us that His life would be a life of lowliness. That our minds are cast to no where reminds us that he would be cast out by his own kind and rejected by men. That there was no room for them in their own home town reminds us that there would be no room for Christ on earth at all, so long as sinners existed. This was the message Christ heard all his days, “Get out of our faces! We don’t want you around here!”
We might have we finish our journey to Bethlehem. But as we turn off the ignition we are reminded that the journey has just begun. This road goes all the way to the cross. Actually, it would not end even there. It would go a little further until he reached another cave. The funny thing about Christ’s life was that when he was born he temporarily dwelt in a cavern filled with a horrid stench (the stench of animals). Then at the end of his life he temporarily was boarded in another cavern—this one bearing the stench of death.
This was the great condescension of our Lord. He was willing to stoop so low. He was willing to assume human flesh. He was willing to condescend to our nature. And he did it in order to bring everlasting life to his people—the very people who did not want him. Truly this passage gives us a glimpse into how great God’s love for us is.
The question that we can conclude with then is this, where does the road go from there? We began this journey witnessing the majestic power of God as he demonstrated his sovereign control over the mighty kings of the earth. We saw that it took a pathway that didn’t necessarily involve luxury and ease. And our journey ends with the Christ who was rejected by men. But where does it go from here?
Hopefully that won’t be the end. I hope that the Christmas road doesn’t go off to no where. I hope it ends in your heart. That is where God wants it to end. You might not have made room for him before, but he is willing to come. That’s why he came in the first place. That’s why he began the journey. He came so that we might have life and know the God who rules over all. He came that he might take up residence in our heart.
"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." John 1:5
We have the custom of hanging lights on our christmas trees. But do you ever wonder where that tradition came from? Most histiorians believe that the custom originated with Martin Lutehr.
It was a cold winter's afternoon in the dense German forest, recounted one historian. Martin Luther did not notice the sun slowly setting and the sky growing dark. His thoughts were on the sermon he was preparing. The forest soon came alive with the night sounds of owls, wolves, and other wild creatures.
Luther shivered and pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders. Then he quickened his pace, saying a little prayer for comfort as he went.
The forest grew darker. Martin Luther scurried along, continuing to pray that he would not cross paths with a wild animal. He glanced up at the night sky which was filled with tiny pricks of light. Martin Luther realized that those stars were God’s handiwork. He said that they were "Lights from Heaven to guide and comfort me, just as a star led the Wise Men to the stable that first Christmas."
Martin Luther smiled up at the twinkling sky. He was no longer afraid. Feeling safer, Martin Luther looked around for a small tree he could take home for Christmas. He found a young fir tree, pulled it up, and dragged it with him through the forest.
At long last Martin Luther was safe at home. He quickly prepared the little fir tree, hoping to surprise his family. He noticed on the table by the window the triangle shaped candle holder.
Soon Martin Luther called his family in, so he could tell them about his long walk through the dark and dangerous forest. Everyone gasped at the sight of the little fir tree. It was customary to hang Christmas trees upside-down from the ceiling beams and leave them undecorated. Yet, Martin Luther had placed this little tree upright in a pot, high on the table. The candles had been removed from the triangle shaped holder. Now, as the very first Christmas tree lights, they flickered from the tree's delicate branches -- just as the stars had flickered through the forest to guide Martin Luther.
The family gathered around as Luther told them what had happened earlier that evening.
"Just as I was getting very frightened, I saw the stars twinkling through the trees as if God was saying, 'Don't be afraid, for I am with you.' And that's when I realized the theme for my sermon. God's light shines through the darkest night for everyone, but sometimes we have to look up to see it."
Indeed, that story recounts for us not just the story of why we decorate our Christmas trees. It recounts for us the entire theme of the book of John. John tells us that Jesus is the Light of the world who came to dispel the darkness of evil. And throughout this gospel account John tells us that everyone who looks to this light may have solace from the spiritual darkness that envelops us.
And certainly that is what we find in the verse that is before us this morning. John records for us in this one line the story of the original Christmas Light, the Lord Jesus Christ, and his penetrating power over darkness. And the first thing John tells us is that Christ, as the light, invades the realm of darkness.
I. The light invades the realm of the darkness
Look at how it begins. It says, “light shines in the darkness.” Now what you have to understand is that this is language of aggression. This is not just a passage that you read and is supposed to give you warm fuzzy feelings. It is the language of invasion.
You can understand it when you think back to the creation of the world. The imagery takes you right back to the book of Genesis. In Genesis 1:1 it says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The very next verse then says, “Now the earth was formless and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”
So, even though God had made everything—if you were there—you wouldn’t be able to see a single thing with the naked eye. But then verse 3 goes on to say, “And God said, “Let there be light.” All of a sudden the black velvety veil of darkness was peeled back. Everything was now visible because the darkness had been banished from the universe.
In the first creation, light invaded the universe. John uses that imagery to then describe the new creation. The spiritual darkness that covered the world (and continues to cover the world)—be it the ignorance, the unbelief, the immoral lifestyles—it finds itself under attack. It is shrinking back because of the shining light of Jesus Christ.
You see then, that the incarnation was not just a sweet little nativity scene with shepherds, animals and wise men. The incarnation was God’s Normandy. It was his D-Day. Light invaded the realm of darkness and there follows the conflict between light and darkness, truth and error, belief and unbelief.
Some people love Christmas, but they love it for the wrong reasons. I am tired of hearing all the silly reasons people celebrate Christmas. “It is about family.” “It is a time to think about others.” “It is a time to____”. But that is not what Christmas is about. Christmas is where God re-drew the battle lines of his war on evil. Christmas is God’s frontal attack on the Devil and his dominion over us. It is his Tet offensive. And when Mary gave birth to the Christ child, it was as if the world of darkness and evil had just been hit with a bombshell.
Some of you will probably know what the Ying and the Yang is and the religion that it represents. It is that circle with one side that is white and one side that is dark and it looks like two tad poles chasing each other. That symbol is a symbol of a dualistic system where light and dark are both equals. The good and the evil possess the same power and are in a continual struggle with one another. They battle back and forth and there is no telling which will be victorious (or, for that matter, if there will ever be a victory).
But this passage puts that silly religion to rest. The light here is shown to be infinitely superior to the darkness. When you walk into a dark room and flip on a light, the light streams throughout the room. The darkness has no power against it. When the light shines, darkness flees.
And that is exactly what happens with Christmas. The Light of the world had invaded the devil’s territory. He came to bring liberty to those who are in the darkness of their sins. Light came into the world to break the bonds of darkness and evil forever.
But you will notice that the light does not just invade the realm of the darkness. The light also exposes the filth of the darkness.
II. The light exposes the filth of the darkness
The thing about light is that darkness does not like it. That’s because when light shines, the things that are safely concealed in the darkness are exposed. And that is what you find in this passage. When it says that the light shines in the darkness, it is telling us that the vile and wicked things that were safely concealed in the world were exposed. They were shown to be what they really are.
I remember a time when I was a kid. It was a summer night and my best friend and I were running around the neighborhood being kids. We were just playing and having a good time. And we decided to cut through one of our neighbor’s yards in order to get back to home. As we walked along we saw something laying on the ground in front of us. It was easily seen because it was such a very light color and the ground was quite dark. But despite being able to see its outline, we didn’t quite know what it was. As we got closer, one of us noticed that it was an animal. We immediately concluded that it must be one of the neighborhood cats prowling around. Being that we were in no real hurry to get home we walked over to pet the cat. But it was not until we got right up on it and saw it in the fuller light of the moon that we realized that it wasn’t a cat. It was a possum! Since we were young we didn’t know anything about possum. So far as we knew this foreign animal was the deadliest and most vicious animal in the world. It could be a rabid, killer possum so far as we knew! So we freaked out. We ran home as fast as we could.
You see. That little animal, so long as the dark shrouded its real identity, was a nice little kitty cat. It was something to be admired and cherished. But once the light exposed it for the vile thing that it was, it was something to be avoided.
And that is what the light of Christ does. It exposes the true evil of evil. That which is vile, can be cherished as long as it remains in the darkness. But as soon as it comes into contact with Christ, it is shown to be what it really is.
I like the illustration that James Montgomery Boice, the former pastor of 10th Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, gave. He tells of the time when he was a young child at summer camp. Each night the kids would be laying in their bunk beds after the lights had been turned out. When it was dark in their cabin they would take up their flashlights and play silly games with them. One of the games they would play is “whose flashlight is the brightest?” That’s the game where you shine you flashlight in someone’s eyes and try to blind them. And all of you know that is great fun!
But as soon as the sun would come up in the morning, all of the flashlight games would end. That’s because the flashlights can’t compare with the intensity of the sun.
And Dr. Boice says this: So long as we live in this world we are able to compare the relative merits of human goodness. But all these distinctions fade away in the presence of the white light of the righteousness of Christ.
Do you hear what he is saying? We all can compare ourselves to one another now. We all can say, “Well, I’m better than so and so,” just like one kid could say, “My flashlight is brighter than yours.” But when we stand in the presence of Christ and are made to compare ourselves with him, we come to find that his righteousness far exceeds our own. All of our light is not that bright in comparison. All our righteousness is as filthy rags compared to his. When the light of Christ shines, we see our need for true righteousness—his righteousness!
And that is the glory of Christmas. Christ came to earth in order to obtain for us the very righteousness we need. The greatest gift of Christmas is that righteousness that is wrapped up in Christ. For God says that if we renounce our filthy works—if we see them for what they are in the light of Christ’s righteousness— and turn to Christ, we will receive that gift. We will be robed in the righteousness of Christ.
But there is one more thing to notice from this passage. The light not only invades the realm of darkness. It not only exposes the filth of the darkness. We also see that the light conquers the hostility of the darkness.
III. The light conquers the hostility of the darkness
The best way to react to the darkness is the way I just mentioned: to renounce your filthy life and turn to Christ. That is the way God prefers you to react. But there is another way to react: you can fight him.
Look again at this verse. It says, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.” Do you hear the tension? The darkness has not overcome the light. But in order for it to fail in overcoming it, it must at least attempt to overcome it, right?
That is exactly what happens when you are faced with a sudden blast of light, isn’t it? When you are in a dark room and someone flips on a light or shines a bright flashlight in your eyes, your immediate reaction is to put up your hands and shield your eyes. You try to fight against the light.
That is what happens when Christ shines his light. Christ came into the world, shining ever so brightly in his purity. And how did people react? They hated him, didn’t they? They couldn’t stand the fact that he was exposing their filthy lives. So they lashed back at him. The devil sought to fight against him. He tried to find a way to trip him up. The Jews looked for a way to be rid of him. At last they determined they had to kill him in order to snuff him out once and for all.
And that is how people continue to act, isn’t it? I mean the light is not finished shining, is it? The light continues to shine in every one of us! Remember that Chirst not only said, “I am the light of the world.” He also said, “You are the light of the world.” Every one of us who have come to faith in the Lord Jesus has him dwelling in us. And we are to let the light shine before men. Our lives are to radiate the light of Christ. And as they do the world has the same reaction to us as it did to Christ during his life. They will lash out at us, just like they did to Jesus.
But no matter how they try, they cannot overcome. Christ’s light always overcomes the hostility of the darkness. So what if they put us to death? So what if they mock us and treat us maliciously? Is that all that bad? Of course not. It is our confirmation that we are children of God.
I know that we often don’t see it. It often feels like the darkness wins many of the battles. But the darkness cannot overcome. Its hostility is futile.
I remember watching the news a while ago. They were doing a report on the tensions over in Palestine between the Israelis and the Palestinians. You know there has always been tension between those two groups. But the news cast showed pictures of a group of Palestinian kids throwing rocks at a group of Israeli soldiers. The soldiers were decked out in their riot gear. They had on helmets and body armor. They held huge shields in their hands to deflect whatever may come their way. And their weapons were visible too. They had machine guns and other artillery on hand and ready to fire.
But isn’t that a good illustration of the battle between Christ and his enemies. Their hostility is futile. They attempt to lash back, but they are merely tossing sticks and stones. They are nothing compared to the mighty force of Christ.
No matter how hard they may try, the darkness cannot overcome. Christ will always shine. His light is the light of righteousness that shines victoriously. And he shall always be victorious.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.