The story is told of a little boy at school who was set a project to investigate his family tree. So he came home, found Mum and said, ‘Mummy, how did I get here?’ Well, she didn’t want to go into the birds and the bees so she said, ‘The stork brought you.’ ‘Oh.’ he said. He then found Dad and said, ‘Daddy, how did you get here?’ And not wanting to go into the details, he also said, ‘The stork brought me.’ ‘Really?’ said little Johnny. And since granny happened to be staying, he went and asked her, as well: ‘Granny, how did you get here?’ And granny said, ‘The stork.’ So next day he went off to school and began writing his project: ‘There’s not now been a normal birth in our family for three generations.’
Well we come this morning in Luke to the birth of Jesus, where the stream of normal births in human history was interrupted by a unique one.
Now every birth is a wonder, isn’t it? I know that from gazing into a hospital cot myself earlier this year, as well as from seeing the toughest of male friends being melted by our tiny daughters. Every birth is a wonder. But as we look at this one, there’s unique cause for wonder. So before we go any further, let’s pray:
Father in heaven, we pray that through what to many of us is familiar, you would reveal yourself and your Son to us freshly, as we ponder the way he came into the world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
So would you turn in the Bibles to Luke 1. And let me remind you where we began this series. Look down to Luke chapter 1, vv1-4:
1Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3Therefore, 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, 4so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Now in God’s providence, Luke was writing for us. But in the first place, he was writing for Theophilus – most likely a high-up Roman citizen who’d come to faith but, v4, needed ‘to know the certainty’ of what he’d been taught – to know more of the facts about Jesus on which faith in Jesus stands. And so Luke also decided, v1, ‘to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us.’ And he doesn’t just say, ‘happened among us’ – although they certainly did happen – v2, ‘they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses.’ And knowing that Luke’s information comes from eyewitnesses like Mary, and has stood the test of being scrutinised for accuracy, should make us more certain in our faith.
But he doesn’t just say, ‘the things that have happened,’ but, v1, ‘that have been fulfilled.’ So he’s saying that things God promised in the Old Testament (OT) have been fulfilled in Jesus. And the central promise was that God would send his Christ or Messiah or King into a world rebelling against him, to restore his kingdom – ie, to bring about a new world in which everyone willingly submits to God as King – so that there’s no sin and none of sin’s consequences. So listen to how that promise was made, originally, to King David. This is 2 Samuel 7, where the Lord says to David:
12When 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... [And so far that sounds like it could be fulfilled by David’s merely human successors – like Solomon and the rest. But the Lord goes on:]… 16Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.' (2 Samuel 7.12, 16)
And that sounds too big for a merely human king to fulfil. Because the only way to guarantee that a kingdom will last forever is if its king lives forever. So, now turn over to Luke 1, vv31-33, to remind yourself what the angel announced to Mary:
31You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.
Because he won’t be another of those merely human kings. He’ll be God the Son become human, to die for our forgiveness and then rise again to be that king who does live forever.
One other piece of OT background we need is Micah chapter 5. 700 years before Jesus, through the prophet Micah, God added to that original promise to David. And what he added is that his Christ or Messiah or King would be born in David’s birthplace – Bethlehem. So listen to what the Lord says in Micah 5.2:
"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times. "
So, onto Luke 2, now, and I’ve got three ‘P’s to sum it up: prophecy, poverty and peace. So,
To help Theophilus, and us, be more certain in our faith, the first thing Luke does in chapter 2 is: show us a remarkable fulfilment of prophesy. Mary is miraculously pregnant and Joseph has taken her to be his wife – though they’ve not yet consummated the marriage. They’re living in Nazareth, miles from Bethlehem – three days’ journey away. And Mary is booked in to the maternity unit of the Nazareth General – and, humanly speaking, the chances of her child being born anywhere else are zero. But so that the Micah promise is fulfilled, the Lord moves the most powerful man on earth to have a census to sort out his tax system. Look at Luke 2.1-7:
1In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) [NB: secular sources tell us of a later census in AD 6, but Luke is speaking of a ‘first’ census, an earlier one, which almost certainly has to be dated in 4 BC.]
3And everyone went to his own town to register. 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. 5He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.
Now not every OT prophesy is as specific a prediction as Micah 5. But here’s a remarkable example of a tie-up between a very specific promise and its fulfilment – and a fulfilment which even the sceptical could hardly accuse Jesus of having rigged. So the Bible doesn’t just contain ,i>reliable facts. It contains remarkable tie-ups between promises and fulfilments. And that points to it being not just the words of men like Luke and Micah and the rest, but the Word of God, who directs history and can announce it in advance. And that too should make us more certain in our faith.
So, the promised King is conceived supernaturally and then born in the right place by the supernatural over-ruling of human affairs. And if that’s not enough to wonder at, the end of v7 certainly is. Which brings us to:
Look at v7 again:
and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger [ie, in a feeding trough in an animal shelter], because there was no room for them in the inn.
Which makes you wonder, ‘What kind of King is born in those circumstances?’ Well, firstly, a king with no ego. Philippians 2.6-7 says this:
6being in very nature God,
[he] did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And the circumstances of his birth bear that out. Here’s a King with absolutely no sinful, selfish ego at all, a King born not for what he could get out of us his subjects, but for what he could do for us on the cross. As Paul puts it elsewhere,
you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8.9)
So as we submit our lives to him we can trust that he has our best interests at heart like no-one else; that he’ll never use or misuse us; and that obeying him will never be at our expense. So we can trust a king like this.
But then the circumstances of his birth also show that he’s ,b>a king whose kingdom is not of this world, to quote what he’d one day say to Pontius Pilate. Later in Luke’s Gospel, it says, 9.57-58:,blockquote>57As they were walking along the road, a man said to [Jesus], "I will follow you wherever you go."
58Jesus replied, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."
Ie, even animals have a place on earth they can call home, a kennel or whatever – but not God the Son on earth. Why? Because he’s just passing through. Jesus said those words straight after teaching that he had to die on the cross and rise from the dead and that his kingdom would only come when he finally came again. ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ So he begins his life in a borrowed manger, he rides to his death in Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey, and his body for those three days before he rose again is laid in a borrowed tomb. ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ And that’s why we have hope. You see Caesar, up in v1, is the most powerful man on earth, the Barak Obama of his day. But he can’t bring about any lasting peace or make poverty history or wipe out disease or save the planet or do any of the other things we hope our rulers will do. Because Caesar can never eradicate sin. Whereas the Lord Jesus Christ will, when he comes again and raises from the dead those of us who’ve trusted in him, into sin-free bodies in a sin-free world. So we can hope in a king like this, too.
But then the circumstances of his birth also show that he’s a king who deals only with those who humble themselves. So he wasn’t born into the privilege of the high priest’s home in Jerusalem, or into the power of Herod’s palace. As Mary put it in chapter 1,
51…he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. (1.51-53)
So by being born this way he’s saying, ‘I’m a King who deals only with those who humble themselves.’ Now it’s possible for rulers to do that – eg, our own Queen, with her Christian faith – but it’s harder for them. And it’s also possible for the rich to humble themselves, but it’s also harder for them – or I should say for us, because in world-terms we are the rich, even the most hard-up of us. But Jesus deals only with those who humble themselves. Because to be a Christian is to say, as we did just now in the Lord’s prayer, ‘Hallowed be your name’ – ie, you be great and I’ll be small – and, ‘Your will be done’ – ie, you be Master and I’ll be servant.’
Mark Ashton, my last vicar, was converted through having an argument against everything he’d just heard in an evangelistic talk. And finally the speaker simply looked him in the eye and said, ‘Mark, you’re too proud to become a Christian.’ And Mark says that’s exactly the truth he needed to hear. And pride in our own goodness, or our own ability to run our lives, or our own ability to make ourselves secure in this life probably held many of us back from coming to Christ sooner; and it may be holding you back this morning. But this is a King who deals only with those who humble themselves.
And to make the point, he’s not only born among the humble, it’s then announced among the humble. Look on to vv8-9:
8And there were shepherds [regarded as one of the lowest-ranking jobs at that time] living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified [literally ‘feared with a great fear’].
And it’s the fear of sinners who know, in the searchlight of God’s presence, that he knows everything; who know that what they can hide from their fellow-men they can’t hide from God; who know that what they can rationalise to themselves is utterly evil to him. It’s the fear that any human being in his or her right mind should feel before God – and that can only be removed by trusting in Christ. Which brings us to:
Look at vv10-12:
10But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord." 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
And the supreme thing that God is saying for all time through this passage is there in v10: however conscious you are of your sin and however fearful that it can’t be forgiven, ‘Do not be afraid... a Saviour has been born to you...’
I guess you’ve followed the talk in the news of so-called saviour siblings – of parents having another child with a view to it being a medical help to an existing child. And however much we sympathise with those parents, we surely revolt at the idea of saviour siblings, of children who one day wake up to the fact that they were brought into the world for their sibling’s sake, and that there’s now an obligation on them to give what needs to be given. Well, Jesus is the saviour sibling of the human race. But the difference between him and any merely human saviour sibling is that he chose to be born. He didn’t wake up one day on earth to an obligation he never wanted. As God the Son in heaven before his incarnation, he chose to be born to save us. That’s why v11 says,
Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you [literally, for you, for your sake]...
So you can read Luke’s Gospel from here to the end and at every stage you can say, ‘He did that for me.’ The manger, the poverty, the journey to Jerusalem, the rejection, the betrayal, the cross... ‘He did that for me.’ Well, look on to vv13-14:
13Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14"Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests."
Literally, ‘Peace to men of his good will.’ And that’s one of the most misquoted verses in the Bible. ‘It’s the season of good will,’ we’re told – by which people mean, ‘Let’s try to be nice to one another for a week for a change.’ But v14 says absolutely nothing about how we treat one another – that’s yet another secularisation, yet another ‘de-God-ing’, of the Christmas story by our culture. Verse 14 is about God’s good will to us, God making peace with us. As Paul says about the Lord Jesus in Colossians:
19God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things... by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1.19-20)
I’ve told before the story of how one Christmas my parents gave my brother and me the four volume Collins Junior Encyclopedia of Knowledge, and that at the time he and I were into the game where you booby-trap a door by balancing something on top of it and then lure your victim (for which read ‘your brother’), through the door. His best was to get me with a bucket of water; my best was to get him with the four volume Collins Junior Encyclopedia of Knowledge – it made me an instant believer in education. But the thing about that game is that once the books, or whatever, have fallen on the first person through the door, anyone else can follow in total safety.
Well, the baby in the manger grew up and in chapter 9, Luke says, v51:
As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.
Ie, for the cross: he set out to walk through the door of death ahead of us. and to have fall on him the judgement that should fall on us, so that we might be saved from it, forgiven. And if we’re trusting in Christ, we’re to believe that there is now no judgement waiting to fall on us – either for our past sins or even for our future sins. Because it fell on Christ, and having fallen on him who went first through the door of death, we can follow in total safety. That’s what v14 is celebrating: peace with God as a gift from him to anyone who’ll trust this Saviour. Conscience may make us fear God is holding our sins against us. And Satan will always make us fear that. But if you’re trusting in Christ, whatever your subjective feelings at any moment, the objective fact is that you are at peace with God.
So let me read the end of the passage, vv15-20:
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."
16So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child [ie, told Mary, Joseph and whoever else was assembled there what the angels had just told them], 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19But Mary [who at this point knew more than anyone else, probably] treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
‘Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.’ And I trust that this morning has enabled us to do the same. So let me end by reading a piece called Mary’s Song. Mary didn’t understand everything that night Jesus was born – the full reality of who he was and what he’d come to do. But if she had, these might have been her words as she cradled the baby Jesus Christ:
Blue homespun and the bend of my breast
keep warm this small hot naked star
fallen to my arms.
(Rest, you who had so far to come.)
Now nearness satisfies
the body of God sweetly. Quiet he lies
whose vigour hurled
a universe. He sleeps
whose eyelids have not closed before.
His breath (so slight it seems
no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps
to make a world.
Charmed by dove's voices, the whisper of straw,
hearing no music from his other spheres.
Breath, mouth, ears, eyes
he is curtailed
who overflowed all skies,
Older than eternity, now he
is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught that I might be free,
blind in my womb to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth
for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended
I must see him torn.
[Mary’s Song by Luci Shaw]
Let’s pray. And let’s have a moment to do so quietly, individually, having pondered these things in our hearts.