Saturday, December 31, 2016

How to Celebrate Christmas (Luke 2:1-20)


There is something that just seems right about being here this morning to celebrate Christmas here in worship on Christmas Day. In fact, long before Christians began to celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25, Christians began gathering on Sunday to worship the Lord in commemoration of His resurrection, which was on a Sunday. It was several centuries before Christmas traditions began to arise, and nearly two millennia before observances such as we are accustomed to keeping began to develop. So, it is doubly fitting for us to gather together today for worship – first and foremost because it is the Lord’s Day, Sunday; and secondarily because this Lord’s Day happens to coincide with Christmas.

If you are in the regular habit of being in a service like this on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, you are part of a very slight majority in America. A 2013 study by the Pew Forum reported that 54% of Americans do so. Meanwhile, the same study revealed that 86% of Americans gather with extended family or friends on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and the same percentage buy gifts for family and friends. It is reported that 79% of Americans put up a Christmas tree, and 65% send Christmas cards.

If you wanted to be more creative in your Christmas celebrations, you could adopt some more unusual customs that are practiced elsewhere in the world. According to a 2010 article from Travel and Leisure’s website, in Guatemala, the devil is burned in effigy on a bonfire. In Japan, eating at KFC for Christmas is so popular that some locations require reservations. In Wales, friends go from home to home singing, accompanied by someone dressed up as a dead horse.[1] Or maybe you are like Ebenezer Scrooge, who sternly rebuked his gracious nephew, saying, “Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine!” To which his nephew said, “But you don’t keep it,” and Scrooge retorted, “Let me leave it alone then!”

Undoubtedly your family has its own Christmas customs, as does mine. But if we really want to know how to celebrate Christmas, we need to look no further than the passage of Scripture which has just been read for us Luke 2:1-20. Here in the first Christmas, we find examples of the best ways for us to honor Christ and celebrate His birth in our Christmases! After the angel announced the good news of the Savior who had been born in Bethlehem, and the angelic host erupted in a song of cosmic praise, the shepherds, and those they encountered, celebrated the coming of Christ into the world in ways that we would do well to emulate!

I. Come and behold Christ the Lord! (vv15-16)

In the familiar song, “O Come All Ye Faithful,” we sing the familiar words, “Come and behold Him, born the King of Angels! O come let us adore Him, o come let us adore Him, o come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!” As we sing those words, we are giving voice to the ancient shepherds who heard the angelic announcement. While they were out in the fields with their flocks, the angel appeared and said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you; you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” This was more than an announcement of good news, it was an invitation to come and meet this Child and behold Him for themselves.

Notice what the shepherds did. They said to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” And we read that “they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph and the baby as He lay in the manger.” How else should we respond to the good news, the Gospel, that a Savior has been born for us?

We, who are separated from God by our sins, have been invited to come and meet the One who was born to take away our sins. The Christ of Christmas’s manger is the Christ of Easter’s cross. This baby would grow to live a life of perfect righteousness, completely free from sin, and He would die to be our substitute, so that in Him our sins can receive the full penalty they deserve under the holy justice of God. He takes our sins, and He offers us His righteousness in exchange. This is how He becomes our Savior, as we turn from our sins in repentance and claim Him by faith as our Lord, trusting Him to save us and reconcile us to God. You have heard the good news – a Savior has been born for you. Have you come to behold Him by faith for yourself, and call upon Him to save you? If not, then this is the best of all possible ways to celebrate Christmas – to come in a hurry and find your way to Jesus. Then you will be able to receive Christ as the gift of Heaven given to you as your Savior to rescue you from sin and reconcile you to God.

II. Go and tell the good news to others (v17)

These shepherds had a story to tell! They had seen and met the Savior! God had become a human being in the person of Jesus the Christ, and they had just seen Him with their own eyes! They had to tell others what had happened to them. The Bible says, “When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child.” As James Montgomery Boice said, “If their story was not worth telling, then no story that has ever been told is worth telling.”[2]

Not only did they have a story to tell, they knew that other people needed to hear this news as well. Others needed to know that a Savior had been born so that they could have hope and peace with God as well! These shepherds knew that they lived in a world filled with people who were lost, confused, and dying. Their world was no different than ours. All around us are multitudes who are, in the words of Ephesians 2:12, without hope and without God in the world. Lost, confused, dying, and separated from God the Father – this is the universal human condition. But Jesus had come to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life, that we might come to the Father by faith in Him (John 14:6). People who are lost need to find the way. Jesus is the Way! People who are confused need to find the truth, and Jesus is the Truth! People who are dying need to find life, and Jesus is the Life, and He said that no one comes to the Father but by Him. Therefore, it is incumbent upon all of us who have met Jesus and trusted Him as our Lord to proclaim to others that all of their desperate longings can be satisfied eternally in this Savior who has been born for them. We who have met Christ can celebrate His birth by announcing the good news to a world that needs to hear it!

III. Hear the good news with wonder (v18)

During the Christmas season, we have the good news presented to us in a variety of ways. There are the songs that sing of Christ’s birth. Christmas cards express Christian messages of faith, hope, and love. Our hearts are warmed every time we hear Linus tell Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about. We hear these things, but I wonder, do we wonder? The Bible says that those who heard what the shepherds were saying “wondered.” The word means “to be amazed,” “to marvel,” even “to be surprised.”

You know how your ears can become to dull to sounds you hear over and over again. We live in a very noisy place. From our house, we can hear the train. We also have a very noisy nightclub nearby whose loud music can rattle our windows. Our house is also right under the flight path of jets taking off at PTI. Many years ago, these sounds kept us up at night. Today we hardly notice it. But when someone visits our home for the first time and hears these sounds, they are amazed that we don’t even notice it. I suppose for some, the Christmas story is kind of like that. We have lost our sense of wonder at it.

If we would celebrate Christmas in the right kind of way, we would chase after that sense of wonder and never let it out of our grasp. How can we “get used to” or “get over” this astounding news of the grace of God? How we grow dull and merely yawn at the message that God has become one of us and come to save us? Perhaps we need to pray and ask God to help us recapture the wonder and amazement of the miracle of Christmas that this Savior has come. That would be a good way to celebrate Christmas – to revel in wonder, and to ask the Lord to multiply that wonder exponentially in our souls, as we hear the glad tidings that Christ the Lord has been born to save us!

IV. Treasure the good news and ponder it (v19)

Around my office, I have many things that I treasure. There’s a sculpture that my grandfather made, pictures of my kids, and pictures they have drawn, pictures of my wife and my friends, objects I have brought back from my travels, and so on. And within all of our hearts, we have similar kinds of treasures. Memories of magical moments when we wished that time could just stand still. We cherish them and cling to them, pulling them to the forefronts of our minds just to behold them for a minute and smile.

The Bible says that Mary treasured this moment, when all of these things were occurring around her – the birth of her child, the visit of the shepherds, the stories they told of angels who had visited them, and the memories of her own visitation from an angel who announced God’s plan for her to bear this child. These things and many more, “all these things,” Mary treasured and pondered in her heart. To “ponder” is to reflect meditatively. When one is pondering, he or she is thinking intently about something, piecing it together like a puzzle, and tying together the strings of understanding and meaning. Mary was connecting dots in her mind, reflecting on God’s mercy and grace to her, and considering all that the birth of this child meant to her, and what it would mean to the whole world.

This is how we are to celebrate Christmas. We are to take the truths of God’s word as treasures into our hearts and ponder them. We are to take “all these things” in: the promises and prophecies that foretold the birth of the Savior, and the narrative accounts of how it came to pass, and the Gospel truths that proclaim the salvation that Jesus was born to bring us. We ponder them, reflecting meditatively upon them. We ponder the moment when these things became real to us personally, that moment when we first turned to Christ in faith and trusted in Him to save us. We ponder how His grace has worked within us since that day. We ponder the promise of heaven and the hope of eternity spent in God’s presence, all because this Savior has been born for us! We ponder the miracle, and we ponder the mystery, and we ask the Lord to deepen our understanding and sharpen our affection and adoration for Him as we rehearse these treasures in our hearts and minds.

It would be a wasted Christmas if we take in all the customs and traditions and do not spend time pondering the treasures of who Christ is and what it is that He has done for us, is doing in and through us, and will do with us forever. Though there is much perhaps that we do not understand, we cling to Him by faith, and ask Him to enlarge our faith into understanding, and to do so evermore until our faith becomes sight and we behold Him face to face.

And then finally, we can celebrate Christmas as we …

V. Go back with glory and praise to God for the gift of the Lord Jesus

Verse 20 says that the shepherds went back – back to their fields, back to their flocks – but they went back as changed men. They went back glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen. They were caught up in the worship of God-in-Christ.

There have been many popular Christmas songs over the years that asked why the special feeling of Christmas can’t last all year long. Maybe you have wondered the same. Within a few days, the presents will all be unwrapped and put away, the tree will come down, and we will go back. For some who are here visiting family and friends, you will go back home. For those who have enjoyed a few days off, you will go back to work. We have to go back. But we do not have to go back the same. If we have truly celebrated Christmas – if we have beheld Christ, if we have told the story, and heard it afresh with wonder, if we have treasured these things and ponder them in our hearts, we can go back praising and glorifying God for all that we have heard and seen concerning this Lord Jesus who was born to save us. We can go back with a fresh commitment to worship the Lord Jesus every day, and to serve Him with gladness, filled with His Spirit and with songs of praise in our hearts.
I have to tell you about one of the first times I ever heard Chad sing. Some years ago, when his brother Brad was on staff with me at a different church, Chad and his band came and they sang a song called “A Different Way.” It starts out about the visit of the Magi, who, after they visited Jesus and were warned of Herod’s evil plot, decided to leave a different way. The song says, “No matter what road you may be walking, come to Jesus today, and you’ll leave a different way.” The Magi did, and the shepherds did too. In fact, all who truly have a personal encounter with Jesus do.

If we encounter Him, He will transform us, and we will leave a different way. Then we will know that we have really celebrated Christmas, and the amazing thing is that everyone we meet will know it as well. And perchance, as we explain to them how we have celebrated Christmas, they may come to celebrate it in this true way as well.

Richard Walters gave me a copy of a wonderful prayer some time ago, and I think it captures my own sentiments and my prayer for us all as I bring this message to a close:
May you be filled with the wonder of Mary, the obedience of Joseph, the joy of the angels, the eagerness of the shepherds, the determination of the magi, and the peace of the Christ Child! May it be so today, and every day, for Christ’s sake, and in His name we pray, Amen.

[1] Accessed December 18, 2014.
[2] James Montgomery Boice, The Christ of Christmas (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2009), 170. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

O Little Town of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2; Luke 2:1-7)


Augustus Saint-Gaudens is one of America’s most famous sculptors. In Chicago’s Lincoln Park, his 12-foot tall statue of Abraham Lincoln stands, which is regarded the finest portrait statue in the United States. From the mid-1800s until his death in 1907, Gaudens sculpted some of the most notable figures in the world. But one of his lesser known works of a lesser known subject stands outside the Trinity Church in Boston. Standing before a large cross, with one arm draped across a Bible on a pulpit, with the figure of Jesus behind him with His hand on his shoulder, the robust figure of Rev. Phillips Brooks stands with one arm raised high. The inscription reads, “Phillips Brooks: Preacher of the Word of God; Lover of Mankind; Born in Boston, AD 1835; Died in Boston, AD 1893; This Monument is Erected By His Fellow Citizens, AD 1910.” If you pass by that statue sometime, you might find a small group of people standing there singing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which Brooks wrote in 1868. 
In the Winter of 1865, while Brooks was serving as pastor of Philadelphia’s Holy Trinity Church, he traveled through the land of the Bible. During Christmas week, he wrote home to say,

After an early dinner, we took our horses and rode to Bethlehem. It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens. It is a good-looking town, better built than any other we have seen in Palestine. . . . Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it (all the Holy Places are caves here), in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds. The story is absurd, but somewhere in those fields we rode through the shepherds must have been. . . . As we passed, the shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks or leading them home to fold.’

A few months later, the pastor wrote back to his church from Rome, reflecting on that Christmas Eve he spent in Bethlehem:

I remember especially on Christmas Eve, when I was standing in the old church at Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices that I knew well, telling each other of the ‘Wonderful Night’ of the Saviour's birth ….

It was the memory of that Christmas in Bethlehem that prompted him to write the carol that we all know so well. At Christmastime, we turn our thoughts to Bethlehem and to the wondrous thing that happened there as God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ and dwelt among us. But it was not by accident that Bethlehem was the place where this miracle occurred. God orchestrated the events of history to bring all these things to pass in the little town of Bethlehem. It was a place of promise, a place of providence, and a place of provision.

I. Bethlehem was a little town of promise (Micah 5:2)

Centuries before that night when Christ was born, God had announced through His prophet Micah that Bethlehem, the hometown of King David, would be the birthplace of another ruler. But this king who was coming would be no ordinary ruler. “From you [Bethlehem] One will go forth for Me [the LORD] to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity.”

With these words, God promises that the little town of Bethlehem is significant in His purposes, for from it, He will send forth One who will rule on His behalf. This One who is to be born in Bethlehem has origins that predate His own birth. His goings forth are from eternity. Only God is eternal, and in the person of Jesus Christ, God became one of us. John says of Him in his gospel, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God, … and the word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory.” Philippians 2:5-11 puts it this way, He “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, being made in the likeness of men.”

In Matthew 2, when the magi came to inquire of Herod where to find the newborn King, Herod summoned all the chief priests and scribes and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. Without hesitation they responded, “In Bethlehem of Judea,” and they cited this prophetic passage of Micah to support their claim. The prophecy was well known that the Messiah was to be born in this little town of Bethlehem. It was a little town of promise.

II. Bethlehem was a little town of providence (Luke 2:1-5)

God has chosen a virgin named Mary to be the mother of the Messiah. Mary was betrothed to a carpenter named Joseph. They lived in another little insignificant town called Nazareth, but it was on the opposite end of the land from the place where the Messiah’s birth had been prophesied. But God providentially directs the affairs of men and the world in which we live. Paul says in Romans 13 that no governing authority exists except those which have been established by God. And in the providence of God, He raised up one Augustus Caesar to rule the Roman Empire. Mind you, Augustus was not a devout worshiper of God. In fact, not too many years after this, Augustus would be declared to be a god, and the worship of the Roman Emperor would be established during his reign as Caesar. But God can use anyone and anything to further His purposes. Throughout the Scritpures, we find Him speaking through a donkey, raising up pagan nations to discipline His own people, and using imperfect people to carry out His perfect purposes. So it should come as no surprise that He can use a godless emperor to set the events in motion that will bring about His promised events.

Augustus declared a census of the entire Empire. And one of the stipulations of this census was that everyone must go back to his own hometown. Jameson, Fausset, and Brown’s commentary gives this excellent summation:

But how came Joseph and Mary to remove thither from Nazareth, the place of their residence? Not of their own accord, and certainly not with the view of fulfilling the prophecy regarding Messiah's birthplace; nay, they stayed at Nazareth till it was almost too late for Mary to travel with safety; nor would they have stirred from it at all, had not an order which left them no choice forced them to the appointed place. A high hand was in all these movements.

God’s meticulous providence guided Mary and Joseph back to the place of promise where the prophet had foretold long ago that Messiah would be born. And so Bethlehem becomes ground zero for God’s entry into the world. It was a little town of providence.

Now finally …

III. Bethlehem was a little town of provision (2:6-7)

When the Lord commanded Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, Abraham told Isaac that they would go up to make a sacrifice. Isaac said, “We have fire and wood, but where is the sacrifice?” And Abraham’s response was this: “God will provide for Himself the lamb” (Gen 22:8). And from that time on, God was known to His people as YHWH Jireh, the Lord who provides. And we have come to know Him as such as well. He is the One who meets our need with His gracious provision.

It was here in this little town of Bethlehem that God provided for our greatest need, and provided for Himself the Lamb that would be our sacrifice. Had our greatest need been poverty, God would have sent a financier. Had it been ignorance, He would have sent a professor. Had our greatest need been boredom, He would have given us an entertainer. But our greatest need is deliverance from our sinful condition, which keeps us separated from God. Therefore God provided us with a Savior. When the angel appeared to Joseph in Matthew 1, he said, “You shall call His name Jesus.” The name “Jesus” means “YHWH is Salvation.” The angel said that this must be the child’s name, “for He will save His people from their sins.”

The name of the town, “Bethlehem,” means “House of Bread” in Hebrew. And here the One was born who said, “For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world … I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst” (John 6:33-35).

And so the first gift ever given at Christmas was the greatest gift ever given – a gift from God to man. And unlike some of the gifts we give each other, we don’t look at this gift and wonder, “What in the world do I need that for?” Rather, we look at this infant, born to live righteously in our place, born to die as a substitute on our behalf; and then we look at ourselves, born in sin, living in rebellion, destined for eternal separation from God because of our enmity with Him. And we take this gift in our arms, and say, “Thank you God, this is just what I needed! This is what I’ve always wanted.” “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Bethlehem was a little town of prophecy, providence, and provision.

It didn’t make it into our hymnals, but Phillips Brooks wrote a final stanza to his beloved Christmas carol about the little town of Bethlehem. It went like this:

Where children pure and happy
    Pray to the Blessed Child
Where misery cries out to Thee
    Son of the Undefiled
Where Charity stands watching
    And Faith holds wide the door
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks
    And Christmas comes once more

Pure and happy ones, the hymnwriter says to you, “Pray to this blessed Christmas child.” Miserable and afflicted one, cry out to this Son of the Most Holy God. And in love and faith, you will find the glory of the Lord breaking into your dark night, and Christmas will have come once more.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven. No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend on us we pray. Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell. O Come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel.