St Michael’s, 24th December 2015
Readings – Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-14
The big picture
Some of you of a certain age may remember a quiz programme hosted by Robert Robinson called Ask the Family. It was staple viewing when I was growing up, and for some reason I always remember the mystery object round. With what must have been cutting edge technology way back then, the contestants were shown a picture of an everyday item, photographed close-up and at an unusual angle. Usually no-one managed to guess what it was immediately but as the picture zoomed out, gradually more and more of the object was revealed until finally everyone could work out what they were looking at.
Today we are coming to what is almost the last celebration of the Christmas story this year, and if like me, you’ve already been to carol services, and nativity plays, you are probably more than a little familiar with our reading tonight. We already know the details of that first Christmas – the visit of the angel to Mary, and then to Joseph, the journey to Bethlehem, the birth in a manger, the visit of the shepherds and the wise men. But I would put it to you, that so often when we tell the Christmas story we concentrate so much on the details, we can be in danger of failing to see the bigger picture. Like the contestants on that quiz show we look up close and don’t appreciate that what is in front of us is part of a much bigger whole.
So what is the big picture behind the Christmas story? This is where it is good to go back and actually look at what Luke writes in our reading tonight. Because we need to understand when Luke sat down to write his gospel, his aim wasn’t to give us a lovely story to remember once a year. Rather his aim was to show how the coming of Jesus remains of lasting and enduring significance, and so he carefully crafts the account of his birth in such a way that helps us to understand just why it is important.
First of all, the birth of Jesus is about God intervening in history.
Verse 1: In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. Who was Caesar Augustus? Quite simply, one of the greatest rulers the world has ever known. He was born Gaius Octavius in 63 BC, and he became the undisputed leader of the Roman Empire in 27 BC. During his long reign that lasted until 14AD he brought unparalleled peace and security and we still benefit from the legal and political reforms that he instituted. And how did he get the title Augustus?
Let the contemporary historian Nicolaus of Damascus explain:
Men gave him this name (that is, Augustus) in view of his claim to honour; and, scattered over islands and continents, through city and tribe, they revere him by building temples and by sacrificing to him, thus requiting him for his great virtue and acts of kindness toward themselves. For this man, having attained preeminent power and discretion, ruled over the greatest number of people within the memory of man, established the farthest boundaries for the Roman Empire, and settled securely not only the tribes of Greeks and barbarians, but also their dispositions; at first with arms but afterward even without arms, by attracting them of their own free will. By making himself known through kindness he persuaded them to obey him.
As you can tell, Nicolaus was a big fan of Caesar Augustus and I am not sure many would recognise Caesar’s attempts at persuasion as kindness! The emperor was a man of great power, with authority over most of Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia, even receiving a delegation from India towards the end of his life. So when he decided to take a census, yes, the information he collected might have been useful. But really it was a reminder to folk who was really in control, and a demand for their loyalty and obedience. After all, if you have the means to affect the lives of people from Spain to Israel, from Libya to Germany, then you are going to use it. And I imagine he scarcely had thought for the obscure eastern border of his empire called at that time Syria (which included much of what we would now call the Middle-East).
Yet the amazing fact is that this is the only verse in the whole Bible where the name of Caesar Augustus is mentioned. You would have thought that someone so powerful and so great would merit rather more attention. But no, we have just one reference, right here in Luke chapter 2. And this spells out a very important message for us. Because who is in fact greater – the one sitting in imperial splendour in Rome, or the one born in a manger in Bethlehem? The answer at the time would have been clear, indeed the very question would have seemed ludicrous.
But as history has shown, it is actually Jesus of Nazareth who has made the greater impact, who has arguably had the greatest influence of any person who ever lived. Indeed ever since that birth in Bethlehem history has to a lesser or greater extent been His story. We can trace how the Christian faith spread across the Roman empire until the emperor Constantine was converted early in the fourth century, how in the middle ages pagan nations abandoned their gods for Jesus Christ, how missionaries not only brought the gospel but literacy and health to remote nations around the world. Today it is fashionable to downplay or ignore the contribution of the Christian faith to our nation and to our society. But you cannot understand the history of the last two thousand years without taking account of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Here is God intervening in a way that still impacts upon us even now.
And why was Jesus’ birth so significant? To answer that question, we have to go back beyond the birth of Jesus and see how, secondly, it is about God fulfilling the promises of the Old Testament.
One of the problems I find with nativity plays is that they always begin with the angel appearing to Mary, as if God had suddenly taken the decision to do something new. Actually if you look at the Old Testament carefully, you will see that He planned the coming of Jesus from the very beginning and that the events of that portion of Scripture all point forward to this one event.
Listen to what Luke says in verse 4: So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. Now to our modern ears this sounds just like so much background information. But Luke is making an important point here, which he underlines by repeating the name “David” and if we still haven’t grasped what’s saying, he mentions “David” again in the angel’s message to the shepherds in verse 11.
So who was David? He was the second king of Israel and he ruled about a thousand years before Jesus. He was a great ruler, who won many victories for God’s people and established a reign of peace and justice. He was renowned for his faith and his piety and it was he who first had the idea of building a temple in Jerusalem. And in answer to his prayers and the desires of his heart, the Lord gave Him a very special promise, which we read about in 2 Samuel 7:12-13:
When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever.
In many ways these words from the Lord set the agenda for the rest of the Old Testament. For the question becomes, who will be the son of David who will build the temple and establish an everlasting kingdom? For a while, it looks like the answer will be David’s actual son, Solomon, who does indeed build the temple and makes the nation of Israel even greater than in his father’s day. But Solomon turns away from the Lord in his old age, and the kings who follow after him are in general even worse. There are a few exceptions, but most of the time the history of Israel from that time is a sad, slow decay until the final king is killed and the nation utterly defeated.
So what about this promise to David? Well, there develops a longing for the Lord to send a new David, one who would intervene on behalf of God’s people and bring about the peace and security of a restored and renewed kingdom. And it is this longing that we find in so many of our familiar Christmas readings, for example in Isaiah 9:7:
Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever.
Did you notice that reference to David again? But by the time Joseph sets off for Bethlehem, it is nearly 600 years since the last king sat on the throne of Israel. The events of David’s reign would have been as far removed to him as the exploits of William the Conqueror to us. What has happened then to the promises the Lord has made? Has He forgotten them? Certainly, it must have seemed so to so many people back then.
Yet the astonishing and extraordinary claim of the Christmas story is that this child born in a manger is the one who fulfils all these ancient prophecies, and stills the longings of God’s people. He is not just a sweet little baby boy born to a peasant family; He is king. He may lack an earthly crown and He may have no subjects to rule over, but His kingdom is real and everlasting. It may not be a kingdom with physical borders, defended by armies and force of arms. But it is a kingdom that is untouched by the changing fortunes of this world, because it is a kingdom where the Lord reigns in justice, love and peace forever.
And when you understand that claim, you begin to realise that this baby Jesus is no ordinary child. He is not only the Son of David, but the Son of God. We are not here tonight just to remember an influential figure who came and profoundly altered the tide of human history. We are here today because we are called to recognise who Jesus is, still alive, still with us, still a king who bids us bow down and accept His authority over our lives.
But why do we do need to be concerned about making a response to the Christmas story?
This is where we need to consider the third dimension of this big picture that Luke is painting in our reading, that the birth of Jesus is about God bringing us good news.
Now when we read the account of the angels appearing to the shepherds we tend to focus on the words that they say. But it is important not to pass over what Luke says about the shepherds’ reaction to their appearance: An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. Or to translate the phrase more literally, they were afraid with a big fear.
But then you would have a big fear, wouldn’t you, if the glory of the Lord suddenly appeared before you? We find exactly the same phrase in Mark 4:41 after the disciples have witnessed Jesus calming the storm and rescuing them from certain death by drowning. Mark records: They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him! It is a dreadful and most terrible thing to encounter the power and majesty of the Lord. We do not worship a tame God we can control, or a weak God we can put in a box for high days and holidays. We worship a God who is master over all creation, who is greater than we can ever imagine, a God of utter purity, goodness and love.
And that is a problem. Because when we understand who God is, then we become aware of our own impurity, our own badness, our own lack of love. Yes, we have been made in God’s image but we have turned away from our Heavenly Father and followed our own course, and if you want any proof of what I am saying, look at the headlines on the news or indeed if we’re honest, at the state of our own lives.
That is why we need a Saviour, someone who can rescue us from all that is wrong in our hearts and restore us to a new relationship with the Lord. Because the other thing we recognise when we come before the Lord, is our total inability to change the situation. For all that we will make New Year’s resolutions, for all that we try to improve ourselves, somehow we lack the power to become the people God wants us to be. We need the Lord Himself to provide the means to make us who we are supposed to be, to restore us to children of the living God by taking away the sin and wrongdoing we cannot deal with ourselves.
And so we come to the message that the angels gave to the shepherds out on the hills around Bethlehem: Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. I hope by now you can see why this message is such profoundly good news. This child is not just a major historical figure. He is not only the Son of God. He is also the Messiah, the Christ, the one appointed and anointed by God to deal with all that is wrong in our hearts.
And how exactly does He do this? By being born in weakness, wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. By dying in weakness, stripped and naked, nailed to a cross. There is, you see, a profound and unbreakable link we should not miss between the events of Christmas and the events of Easter. If you stop the story after the visits of the shepherds, or maybe the wise men, you really are focusing on only a small portion of the overall picture and you will miss on why the birth of Jesus is so significant.
This Jesus born so many years ago in Bethlehem is, in the words of the angels, a Saviour, He is Christ the Lord. So let me ask you tonight: is Jesus your Saviour? Is He your Lord? Have you come to recognise the big picture behind the Christmas story and realised the identity of the baby born all those years ago in a manger? If not, then tonight may I invite you to ask Jesus to come into your heart, as the living Son of God, to rule over your life as King, and to take away your sins as Saviour and Lord of all. There is truly no better thing you can do this Christmas.