St Michael’s, 24th December 2013
Reading – Luke 2:1-14
Why did Luke write his account of Christmas?
There’s no doubt it’s a cracking tale, that bears retelling over and over again – whether, for example, in a school nativity play or up on the big screen or maybe even in a humorous poem. It contains all the elements we love to hear in a good story – the poor against the rich, the outsider excluded from society, the unexpected plot twist. And like any good author, Luke leaves us with intriguing details we’d love to know more about, like the manger or rejection at the inn, or the shepherds out in the fields. It’s little wonder the early church considered Luke to be an artist, and there’s no doubt his work has inspired many to produce great works of their own.
But Luke was a doctor, not an artist. And his primary aim was not to create a well-crafted story we could embellish each year or a work of art we could imitate, but to produce a reliable account of what actually happened at Bethlehem all those years ago. Indeed right at the beginning of the gospel, writing to someone called Theophilus, he explicitly states: Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Lk 1:3-4). In other words, the Christmas story is the result of methodical and meticulous investigation, to sort out fact from fiction, to provide the historical evidence we need to make sense of these extraordinary events.
And this being the case, there are three important points we need to understand about this well-known passage many of us have heard year after year.
First of all, the events Luke describes are real.
That’s why Luke is so careful to place the story in its historical context. In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This gives us a real date and a real background for all that Luke is about to describe. Caesar Augustus ruled from 43BC to 14 AD, and in those 57 years the Roman Empire entered a new era of peace and prosperity. He truly was one of the great leaders of history, and his actions here are totally consistent with what we know of him from other historical records. In order to produce a stable economy for his rapidly expanding empire he introduced a system of regular taxation across all his territories. But of course in order to raise taxation you have to find out how many people you have to tax – hence the need for a census.
Now the next verse of Luke’s account is often put in brackets, but it’s helpful because it provides yet further historical background to what he’s about to tell us. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And it should not surprise us to learn that again this is again a reliable piece of evidence, backed up by other records. There really was a Quirinius who governed that part of the world at that time, although there is some argument as to when his census actually took place.
But like any good social historian, Luke wants to show us how the decisions made by the great and the powerful impact on the ordinary lives of ordinary people. And so he moves rapidly on to turn his attention to one particular family he has already highlighted in the opening chapter of his gospel. What does this census mean for them? Well, it means a long journey, back to the family home in Bethlehem. It means personal inconvenience as Nazareth was the place where Joseph earned his living. It means a birth in difficult circumstances as Mary has to place her new-born son in a manger.
But then the story takes an unexpected twist. The focus suddenly switches to a group of shepherds out on nearby hills. What’s this got to do with the census? Or indeed anything that Luke has so carefully described so far in his gospel? The answer comes in verse 9, and it’s one that we need to actually pause and consider carefully: An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
What Luke is telling us is quite astonishing, that at a definite point in time and place God has broken into our history. He has chosen to intervene into human affairs and done so in the most extraordinary and surprising of ways. He could have intervened at the seat of earthly power, right at the heart of the Roman empire, or chosen the most powerful family in the world, the dynasty of Caesar Augustus, but no, he has taken a poor couple living in the furthest corner of the empire and through the birth of a child to them decisively entered into our affairs, so that nothing would ever be the same again.
So why does this angel of the Lord decide to appear to a bunch of shepherds? We find an important clue in the next verse: 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”. Now the thing about shepherds is that by the very nature of their work they are outsiders. I don’t mean simply that that they work outside, but that they work long, anti-social hours. At that time they couldn’t, for example, easily attend many of the religious festivals everyone was expected to go to, and so for this reason the ruling authorities looked down upon them. Yet it is not to priests or prophets that the angel brings his news – it is to these shepherds, these outsiders, these working men.
And what I want you to see is that the events Luke describes are not only real but also relevant.
Because one thing I hold on to passionately in my ministry is that the message of Christmas really is good news of great joy for all the people, and this is one thing above all else I hope you can grasp. Unfortunately when folk encounter the church of Jesus Christ, they can sometimes come away with the impression that the gospel is not really for them. The unwritten message they pick up is that it’s for people who are well dressed or who can read and write well, or who appear to live good lives. Maybe it’s the fact they are given six different books at the door they are expected to know their way round. Maybe it’s the fact everyone else is wearing a tie or a hat. Maybe it’s the fact the best places in the church – the back row – is reserved for those who seem most well-heeled.
All I can say is that if that’s ever been your experience of church, I am sorry. The Christmas story is about working men – a carpenter and some shepherds. It’s about a teenage girl who is pregnant called Mary. It’s about a child born into poverty in difficult circumstances. God chose these circumstances to send us a message that no matter who you are, no matter where you have come from, there is good news for you.
So what exactly is this good news? Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. Now some world religions are based on the example and wisdom of a human teacher. Some world religions are based on a heavenly book that has been miraculously revealed to their founder. And there is no doubt, we need good examples and wise words to guide and help us day by day. But neither a teacher nor a book can actually get to the heart of the human problem – which is the problem of the human heart. If my heart is still basically selfish or lazy, it doesn’t matter how many good examples I see or how many words I hear. I will still do whatever I want to do, because that’s my desire.
No, what I need to change my heart is a God who has come and shared in my earthly life, who knows what it is like to be tempted, to experience real human emotions, to live as one of us, a God who is right there with us. Because that’s a God I can relate to – not one sitting on a heavenly cloud issuing decrees and punishing me when I get it wrong. I need a God I can approach for wisdom, for forgiveness, for the knowledge of His love. But I don’t need a weak God who can only offer sympathy and understanding, important though that is. I need a God who can change the very desires of my heart, by reaching in and taking control of my inmost being. Where is such a God to be found? This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.
Now that’s a sign all of us can easily understand. This is the Son of God Himself choosing to break into history by taking on our flesh, by taking our weakness. Yet before we get too dewy-eyed and sentimental about this miraculous event, let’s also remember what the angel said: He is Christ the Lord. Because this baby also has real authority and real power that we need to acknowledge. Why? For the simple reason that the manger leads inevitably to the cross and the empty tomb.
You see, Jesus did not come simply to be admired, but to be worshipped. His mission right from the very beginning was to die in our place for our sins because that was the only way we could ever be made right with God. And if we admire the baby, but fail to worship Him as Lord, we have missed the point of Christmas. The good news the angel brings us is that this Jesus is the Saviour we need, to change our hearts, to turn our lives around so that we live as we were always meant to live, in right relationship with God.
After all, when the angel appeared to the shepherds, he wasn’t simply delivering a piece of information or an interesting theory. And when the shepherds heard the news, they didn’t simply carry on sitting there, talking about the weather and the football results, or whatever was on their mind. The message they received gripped their imagination. They felt compelled to act. And if you come back tomorrow morning we’ll look a little more closely at what exactly they did. But the point I want to make for now is that if we think we can simply dust off the Christmas story once a year, listen to it, and then put it back in a box at the back of the cupboard, we are sadly mistaken. God has broken into history. He hasn’t acted just for a few special people, or those who call themselves. He has acted for you in a personal and real way. Surely we should do better than simply ignore Him most of the time?
So what then should our response be? Let’s listen again to the song of the heavenly host who confirmed the angel’s message: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests. Because the reason why Luke the great investigator includes these words is to surely point us to what our response should be, one of worship and praise and adoration.
Now we might not use exactly the same kind of words as the angels, but the basic sentiment should be the same. We should be so profoundly grateful to God who has sent His Son Jesus to be born for us, even more so when we consider none of us have done anything to deserve His mercy of His love. We should give thanks for the peace we can enjoy with God thanks to Jesus’ death on a cross for us. And the thanks we give should be so much more than the words we sing each year at Christmas time or perhaps the time we spend in church Sunday by Sunday. Our thanks should be an attitude of heart that stays with us day by day, hour by hour, throughout the year. After all, if Jesus gave up everything for us, even His very life, how can we give anything less in return than our very lives?
Let’s go back to where we started this evening. We began by looking at the reason why Luke wrote the Christmas story. He was a doctor who carefully researched the evidence so we might know the historical evidence for our faith. But there is another important way in which we can know the truth of the Christmas story. It is the simple fact that when men and women make a response, lives are changed. For two thousand years as folk have come before Jesus and put their faith in Him, they have discovered a love and forgiveness and peace they have never known before. Even as we speak, around the world, there will be thousands of people around the world who are coming to know Jesus for the first time.
So my invitation to you tonight is this – will you join the greatest kingdom the world has ever seen? Not an empire based on power and violence like that of Caesar Augustus, but an empire based on the self-giving love of a baby born in a manger who is Christ and Lord, who grew up to die in your place for your sins? Tonight take this opportunity to give your life to Jesus and make that response to Him the Christmas story asks of you. There really is nothing better you can do.