The passage in front of us today has often been referred to as the Christmas story. Many Christians over the years have made a tradition out of reading this story on Christmas Eve or Christmas day. It’s a beautiful story of the birth of Jesus. But let’s not forget that Jesus wasn’t born into an American cultural context.
Luke 2:1 – 20…
1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her fist born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shown around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary, treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told to them. 21 And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
1: THE CULTURAL CONTEXT OF THE BIRTH OF JESUS (VSS. 1 – 5)
Jesus was born into a cultural context that was hostile to God. The Roman Empire was no friend to God or to his people; it was an empire that was known for its oppression, cruelty and social injustice. And Luke explains that the leaders of this empire were calling for an empire-wide registration of every person. The common thought is that the empire wanted to tax its citizens but it needed to know whom its citizens were before it could get the job done.
Taxation isn’t necessarily wrong from a Biblical standpoint. There are more than enough passages in the Bible that speak to a form of government that helps to hold people accountable for making a contribution to a thriving and healthy society. But I can assure you, that Rome was not the poster child for a biblical form of government. History shows that Rome was an oppressive, cruel and unjust form of government that only existed to advance the power and the pleasure of its officials at the expense of its constituents. So Rome had no respect for God, no respect for God’s ways and no respect for God’s people.
But that didn’t stop God from working through a failed and corrupt form of government to bring about his purposes for salvation. Rome’s registration for taxation campaign only served to advance the cause of the kingdom of God because it forced Joseph and Mary to make a trip back to Joseph’s hometown so to speak. In Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem, the city of David, the stage was set for the fulfillment of the centuries old prophecies regarding the birthplace of the Messiah. The point of these first five verses is that the evil institutions and plans of this world do not hinder God’s plans for salvation.
2: THE CULTURE HAS NO ROOM FOR A SAVIOR (VSS. 6 – 7)
I can imagine the busyness of the town of Bethlehem during this season of registration for taxation. It wasn’t a festive time. There were no Christmas trees with decorations. There were no family reunions necessarily taking place. The stores on Main Street weren’t overloaded with customers looking for last minute gift options. According to most historical accounts it probably wasn’t even December. Nevertheless the little town of Bethlehem was so full of people coming into town to register for the impending taxation campaign by a ruthless government that there was no space in the local hotels for a pregnant couple.
So Jesus, the Creator of the universe, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Savior of mankind is born into a culture that has no room for a Savior. He should have received the welcome of a King but instead he was born into obscurity and humility. This is a foreshadowing of the cross that Jesus would bear for the penalty of our sin. On the cross Jesus would die alone and humiliated because humanity has no natural room for the Savior in her heart. But this doesn’t stop the angels from delivering a message and a song of salvation in the next few verses.
3: THE MESSAGE AND THE SONG OF THE ANGELS (VSS. 8 – 14)
Even though the culture has no room for Christ, Luke explains that angels from Heaven bring a message of good news and a song of praise to the shepherds in the fields. We oftentimes romanticize the picture of the shepherds in this story. But the reality is that the shepherds were cultural outcasts. They were historically viewed as a slight step above the lepers; regarded as thieves and street thugs and homeless wanderers.
You would expect the announcement of the birth of Christ to be made in the royal courts of the rich and the powerful. And though the message of the gospel is for everyone from every social-economic background, the message was first preached in relative obscurity to a crowd of homeless wanderers who were considered to be social outcasts. And the message that the angels preached, the announcement that they gave, is as timeless and as true as the Savior it points to.
According to the angels, the gospel is good news of great joy that dispels our fears and gives us peace. Jesus the Savior, the Christ, the Messiah, the Lord was born into obscurity so that sinful outcasts could become sons and daughters of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. This gospel truth when it grabs a hold of a person it causes the sweetest of praises to come from within. For what appears to be the first time in all of history, the angelic hosts sing praises on earth about Jesus. Their song gets right to the heart of the message of the true gospel: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.”
We bring glory to God through our songs of praise because he has brought peace through Christ to those whom he has chosen for his good pleasure. Can you imagine that God would choose an outcast like you to be the object of his pleasure? How does your heart respond to what you just heard? What kind of comfort does this give you? What kind of peace does this create? What kind of action does this call for? What kind of response does this elicit?
4: THE RESPONSE OF THE PEOPLE (VSS. 15 – 21)
In these verses, Luke describes the responses of the people in the text to the announcement of the gospel of the birth of Jesus. The shepherds move quickly to run to Jesus and they can’t help but proclaim the good news to anyone who will listen. The people who hear the preaching of the shepherds are surprised and excited to hear the good news. Mary treasures the message in her heart. She makes room for the message of the gospel. She makes room for her son the Savior. She doesn’t let a moment slip by that she doesn’t think about deeply.
For the shepherds, this wasn’t just another awesome experience to consume. They left the manger glorifying and praising God continually for all that they had seen and heard. And at the end of eight days, Joseph and Mary acted obediently to the previous word of the Lord regarding the name of their son as they followed the instructions of the Scriptures for circumcision.
So the summary response of this text is: the shepherds run to Jesus, the shepherds proclaim the gospel, people who witness all of this are in awe, Mary thinks deeply, the shepherds continue praising and Joseph and Mary are obedient to the Lord. All of this happens because unto us “is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
I want to end by saying that I absolutely love the Christmas season. I love all of the traditional trappings that our culture has attached to this holiday (like lights, trees, gift giving, food and family gatherings) but even more than that I love the real reason for this season. I love Jesus and I love the opportunity this season provides for slowing down and soaking in this story of the Savior who came to this sin-soaked earth to ransom sons and daughters into the family.
For all of the beauty of this season I also think this season tends to reveal some of our deepest frustrations. What frustrates you? I’ve found myself frustrated over the presence of broken families, mental illness, poverty, physical limitations, worldwide conflict, homelessness, natural disaster and political unrest. There are a lot of things to be frustrated about in this life.
But frustration isn’t necessarily wrong. Frustration can be a catalyst for change. Frustration can reveal what you long for. Frustration can remind you that this life is temporary. Frustration can also lead you to the foot of the cross, to the doorway of an empty tomb to set your hope on Heaven. Frustration can put you in the place of the shepherds and the people of Israel and Mary and Joseph as they heard the sweet words of the gospel that says that unto us “is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
There’s a sweet release of praise that happens when you realize that Jesus came into this frustrated world as a humble baby in a manger with no fanfare on purpose so that he could live and die and be resurrected and leave us with a promise of his return so that outcasts like you and I could be called sons and daughters of God with the hope of Heaven for all of eternity. Now that’s a reason to celebrate!