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Dec 22 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

December 18, 2010

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. Luke 2:10-11 (read verses 1-20)

INTRO: Let me say this just once this year:

I do not like the direction that our culture herds us at Christmas time

For example, there is the television commercial that lists all the important things a husband should tell his wife
– then we’re told that the way to communicate these things is with a gift of diamonds
I not only resent being told how I am supposed to express myself (let alone the cost of diamonds), but also the idea that a thing given can substitute for the words we need to say to each other and the deeds we need to perform for each other
– I think that too frequently we are trying to buy with gifts the affection we are too lazy to earn through our undying devotion

In this respect, Christianity is counter-cultural
– the direction in which we are herded at Christmas time is toward Bethlehem
– we see this first with Joseph and Mary (vv. 1-5) and then with the shepherds (vv. 11 & 16)

This story is dominated by all the characters that appear in it
– and the characters tend to show up in pairs

Verses 1-7, The Birth

On one side of the world: Caesar Augustus gives an order that is enforced by a local Roman governor
– the Emperor’s command sets the giant wheel of the Roman world in motion

On the other side of the world: Joseph and Mary
– two insignificant cogs that turn within the giant wheel

Then a simple scene change

On one side of the pair of characters: Mary – she has delivered her baby and she is caring for him
On the other side: Mary’s first born Son, about whom we are soon to learn more

Verses 8-14, The Heavenly Announcement

On one side of the pair of characters: shepherds
– the words shepherd and Bethlehem inevitably remind us of King David
– shepherds are also used in the Hebrew Scriptures symbolically of human leaders–political and spiritual (Jer. 23 & Eze. 34)

He also chose David His servant
And took him from the sheepfolds;
From the care of the ewes with suckling lambs He brought him
To shepherd Jacob His people,
And Israel His inheritance.
So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart,
And guided them with his skillful hands
(Ps. 78:70-72)

The shepherds bring more depth to this story and that is precisely because of their ordinariness

On the other side: an angel and then a “multitude” of angels
– there are two parts to the angelic message

  • witness – good news for everyone and a Savior for you
  • worship – “praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest . . .'”
    – their worship spans the greatest distances, from “God in the highest” to people “on earth”

Verses 15-16, The Shepherds Go and Look

On one side of the pair: shepherds (again)
– “they came . . . and found their way” – how?
– perhaps the only place where a light burned in the small village
At any rate, they had to go and see it for themselves

But this raises an issue we take for granted
– the Bible does not say Jesus was born at night (only that shepherds were watching their flock by night)
– but maybe this is how we have to read the story
 – it was nighttime when the first visitors found Jesus and it is in the nighttime of our lives when Jesus finds us

Only the shepherds receive this announcement
– it seems that it would have been more effective to tell people in several social groups
– but God knew shepherds would take the news where it needed to go

On the other side: Mary, Joseph and the baby
– the holy family has no other role or obligation than to simply be there

Verses 17-18, The Earthly Announcement

On one side of the pair of characters: the shepherds
– they went to Jesus because of what was made known to them
– what they did when they left was they made known to others what was told them

On the other side: all who heard “wondered”–they were impressed by the message

Verses 19-20, The Epilogue

On one side of the pair: Mary – she held all this close to her heart
– mothers have an ability to read clues regarding their child’s identity
– but this goes beyond maternal observations of normal childhood development
As the shepherds leave, Mary retreats to this internal, quiet space

There is something primal about the portrait of the mother and child
– life begins here and the life of every human begins here
– and in some sense, the revelation of God’s love begins here too in the unconditional and nurturing love of the mother

I mentioned last week that as Helmut Thielicke traveled the outskirts of China he was deeply moved by oppressive scenes of Communism. Later, while reflecting on what he saw, it occurred to him that Communism would be undermined by women. He said:

The fact is that there are certain fundamental elements in human life that have a kind of indelible character and therefore cannot be eliminated. . . This fundamental order is stronger than any artificial order synthetically produced in an ideological laboratory. Therefore, in any battle between theory and life, life will always win, not only because it is stronger . . . but because a theory which is in contradiction to life is simply false.
It is not the great doers who will conquer it, but rather the preservers. The elemental things are guarded and preserved in the realm of mothers. What we saw on the [Chinese] junks, where the mothers were rocking their children, is more than a sentimental scene. It is perhaps a vision.”

Who can doubt that it was the faith of the babushkas that kept the fire of Christianity alive in Soviet Russia?

On the other side: shepherds – who exit the story “glorifying and praising God”
– exactly the same way that the angels had exited the story (vv. 13-14)

Do you remember what I said about the angels’ message, that it was witness and worship?
– now we see this echoed in the shepherds: witness (vv. 17-18) and worship (v. 20)
– people on earth are learning the language of heaven
– witness and worship define the external and internal expression of our life with God

CONC: Two words bring this story home to us

In fact, nothing we read in newspaper this week can touch our lives this directly
Those two words that connect us with Jesus’ birth are “for you” (v. 11)

I spent Friday night in the hospital with my dad
– he is temporarily limited by weakness and pain due to back surgery
– as I was tending to him in the middle of the night he said, “It’s terrible when you’re so helpless”
If you knew Dad you would know this is especially true for him
– he has always done things for himself
– I think he could tolerate the pain if he had his strength

What Dad is forced to deal with is his mortality–our bodies break down

The psalmist, reflecting on human frailty, said that no one can buy immortality

That he should live on eternally,
That he should not undergo decay
(Ps. 49:9)
Their inner thought is that their houses are forever
And their dwelling places to all generations . . .
But man in his pomp will not endure;
He is like the beasts that perish
(Ps. 49:11-12)

It is not pleasant to have this thrown in our face by circumstance
– but this human mortality is exactly what angels meant when they described “a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger”
We are promised a Savior, promised the Christ, promised the Lord
– but what we find is only a baby–small and helpless–and we wonder, “Can this really be what the angels were singing about?”
– what’s so special about this that heaven broke its silence?

Karl Rhaner answers that question when he says:

Only the experience of the heart allows one to truly grasp the faith message of Christmas: God has become human. We imagine this incarnation as if God were dressing up in costume, so that God remains in essence still God and we cannot be sure whether God is really where we are. . . When seeing the human side of God, we need to interpret it as God himself being present.

You won’t find this in Greek philosophy–God in human pain and weakness, God in the same world that we inhabit living as one of us, God discovering for himself the limits he has imposed on us–it is only in the manger that you will find this
– and that is why we have to go and see it for ourselves

Whatever dark night we are going into, we do not go alone
There is One who walks with us and knows the way
There is a light that shines in the night to guide us
There is a Savior who is here for us

And perhaps the best we can do for now, is to follow the example of Mary and retreat to this internal, quiet space where we store these things in our hearts and ponder them

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