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The Meaning of Christmas

Date: Dec. 3, 2017

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Luke 2:1-21

Key Verse: Luke 2:10

“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.’”

Welcome! It is the first Sunday of December and that means that 2017 is almost over. We have less than a month to the start of 2018. This year has gone by fast, but before we get ahead of ourselves we have to get through Christmas first and, in order to prepare ourselves, we are now in the season of Advent. For those of you who don’t know, Advent is a celebration of the anticipation of the arrival of Jesus. Advent occurs on the four Sundays before Christmas. This year, that means December 3, 10, 17, and 24. During these Sundays, we will have special Advent services going on the theme of aspects of Christmas. Today, I am going to talk about joy. Next week is God with us. We have incarnation for our big city-wide Christmas worship on the 17th. And, finally, on the Christmas Eve, we will be going over us with God, kind of flipping the God with us theme around. One of the wonderful things about Advent is that it is a celebration of Jesus’ first coming and an anticipation of his second coming. But before we get ahead of ourselves, we need to get into the first week of Advent. We are going to open this Advent season talking about joy. It is a wonderful first step to prepare our hearts for Jesus.

There is a song that calls Christmas the most wonderful time of the year. People all over the world look forward to Christmastime. Listen to all the Christmas songs. There are so many of them that are filled with joy. They are uplifting and fill your heart with light. I mean, it is awesome. Now, for some people Christmas isn’t a very happy time. They have loss and struggle in their lives and we can’t deny that, but joy is something that goes beyond happiness. Happiness is dependent on our situation. We are happy when things are going good, but a grumbling mess when things are less than optimal. Joy on the other hand is a state of your heart. It transcends our situations and is so powerful that it can overcome even our darkest of days. Our passage today is in many ways very bleak. It was a dark time in the world, but, in that darkness, a source of great joy for all people came into the world. Let’s move forward as we discover the meaning of Christmas.

Our passage, today, starts out in a pretty bleak way. “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.” (1-3) So, obviously, this is the time of Jesus’ birth more than 2000 years ago. As the passage says Caesar Augustus was in charge. Augustus was born Gaius Octavius and his maternal great-uncle was Julius Caesar. After Caesar was assassinated, Octavius was named as Caesar’s adopted son and heir. After a period of unrest, Octavius was able to consolidate his power and establish the Roman Empire in the year 27 BC and became the first Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus. For taxation purposes, Augustus had directed that a census be taken of the entire Roman Empire. Rome had conquered the entire Mediterranean region, including Judea. So, the Jews were under the strong rule of the Romans. This didn’t sit well with the Jews. They had a strong identity as the people of God, and, yet, they the people of God were not allowed to rule themselves. The Jews didn’t like the Romans much because the Romans deified Julius Caesar and Augustus called himself the Son of God. The Jews held that there is only one God and Caesar was not it. As Captain America said, “There's only one God, ma'am, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't dress like that.” The Jews felt horribly oppressed and this census was just another reminder that they were not in charge of their destiny.

For the census, everyone had to return to their hometowns to register. “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. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.” (4-5) So, here we have Joseph and Mary. They were two young people, pretty much married. They were living together and were essentially husband and wife, but they did not consummate their marriage and, yet, she was expecting a child. You see, Mary was approached by an angel and told that she would bear the Son of God. While she was a virgin, she would give birth to a son, Jesus. At this point in time, Mary was about to pop since she was full term, but this census happened and they had to travel to Bethlehem. Bethlehem and Nazareth are about eighty-five miles apart, if you go through Samaria. That is a long distance for a very pregnant woman, but such is the demand of Caesar. Doctors nowadays don’t want pregnant women to travel far in their last trimester, but because of Caesar’s decree, Mary had to go with Joseph nearly ninety miles by foot or by mule, and it took days to make the journey.

Once they arrived in Bethlehem, things didn’t fare any better. “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” (6-7) When they were in Bethlehem, it came time for the baby to be born, but there was no place for Mary and Joseph to go. Many times, we’ve heard that there was no room for them in the inn, like they might have been turned away for lack of vacancy, but I was reading that it wasn’t a regular room they needed, but a bigger space so she could give birth and the inn just didn’t have that type of space. So, they went to the biggest space they could find, a stable. When the baby was born, it was in the lowest way possible, just like a farm animal. Then, they took the baby and placed it in a manger, which is a feeding trough. It’s like a dinner plate or dog bowl. The birth of a child is a joyous time, but this baby was born on the street, not at all a warm, welcoming environment. From a human perspective, it was all pretty miserable.

Then something unexpected happened. As it is mentioned in Monty Python, “And now, for something completely different”. “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” (8-9) The focus of the story shifts away from the pitiful family in the stable to the fields nearby, to a group of shepherds. Shepherds were not held in high regard. In many ways, they have been thought of bumbling, uneducated, country bumpkins. The truth is a little different. Shepherds at that time were not necessarily good people. They were thought to be liars and cheaters. They were filthy, smelly and could take you in a fight. They had an edge to them and they needed it. They weren’t just there to watch the sheep, there were there to defend them. They had to fend off thieves and predators. They were blue-collar workers with a foul mouth and dirt under their nails. They were sinners and even the very type of people that Jesus would eventually minister to. It was to these men that and angel appeared, and these big gruff men were terrified. They knew that they were not good people. They were probably even proud of it, but before the glory of God, they were afraid.

But they had nothing to fear. The angels had a message for them. “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’” (10-12) We are in the middle of the main point right now. These are some of the most famous verses in the entire thanks to a fifty-year-old cartoon “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. Every year, they play the cartoon on broadcast TV and every year, countless people hear the words of this passage uttered by Linus when asked about the meaning of Christmas. We’re going to play that for you right now. Linus is known as the character that always has a security blanket, but as he is speaking, when he says, “Fear not”, he drops the blanket. There is no need to be afraid. There was no need for the shepherds to be afraid. The angels were not there strike them down for their uncouth ways, but share with them good news that will cause great joy for all the people.

Hear those words, good news. It literally means gospel. They came to share the gospel. There was no good news and bad news; it was only good news and it was for all the people. No one would be left out, not even the smelly, coarse shepherds. For all the lying and sinning, the good news was for them too. That means it is for the addict, the homeless and the broken. The good news is for the liar, the cheater and the self-serving. The good news is for the stressed, the tired and the ones without hope. It is for you and for all people, and this good news would bring great joy. It wouldn’t just bring a little joy; it would bring great joy. This news is the reason why Christmas is the most joyous time of the year. For all the family gatherings and the need to purchase presents, for all the materialism and excess that can lead us to become jaded. There is good news that will cause great joy for all the people, and this good news is the meaning of Christmas.

That good news is a baby. “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (11) A Savior has come and that means hope. They were saved from the Roman oppression. They were saved from a dreary life. They were saved from being outcasts. They were saved from danger and toil. They were saved by the Messiah, God’s Anointed One, the Lord of all. We’ve all got our strife and hardships. We have finals and projects. We’ve got long commutes and uncertainty. We’ve got frustrations and headaches. Our bodies are failing and our lives are going nowhere, but we have a Savior. We have someone to save us from all these things, but more importantly, we have someone to save us from ourselves. Who has ever made a mistake? How many people have made that mistake more than once? Twice? You can’t seem to stop making the same mistakes? That is the sin and rebellion in us that rejects God. It causes us to do the wrong thing even when we want to do the right thing. And it is that sin that we are most saved from, especially its consequences. If you cut off your hand and don’t treat the wound, you will eventually bleed out. Sinning is the same with your soul. Sinning cuts your soul and if it is not treated, you will eventually spiritually bleed out and die. The only treatment, however, is the Savior that was born, the Messiah. He came to save us from that fate and give us peace, and that is something that should bring us great joy.

It is something that cannot be taken away from us. No matter what happens, we have a Savior. It is the reason that our joy transcends our situation. No matter what is going on, we know that it will not last. We have greater things ahead of us and we have perspective. It is kind of like our Thanksgiving worship service. We have to give thanks for what we have in all circumstances. Wofai had a lot of things happen to him this semester. He showed up three weeks late for classes because of financial issues. He had to catch up, but it was very hard. It is easy for him to feel the stress and despair, but he was reminding of everything that he was thankful for and the things that stressed him out, didn’t do it as much. By giving thanks in a hard time, he found a bit of joy. The biggest thing that we have to give thanks for is Jesus. His birth marks the beginning of a new era in history, an era of hope where there is no hope, an era of joy in times hardship and sorrow. Joy is not dependent on our situation, but it does require us to make a choice to get out of the funk that we fall in because of our situations. My life is not stress free. My commute sucks and yesterday, the dog was being destructive and the kids were being horribly disobedient. It’s enough to drive you nuts sometimes, but the angel’s words remind me of the joy that Jesus brings. I could stress about everything that needs to get done or I can make a choice and have the joy that Christ brings in my heart by remembering the good news of his birth.

The shepherds did not have to take the angel’s message on blind faith. He gave them a sign: a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Then if one angel wasn’t enough, the heavenly host show up. “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’” (13-14) They were singing praise to God because the glory belongs to him. God’s salvation plan was coming into play and it would bring peace on earth. The nightmare of animosity that sin brings would be neutralized by the coming of the Messiah. And He shall reign forevermore.

It must have been an awesome sight that lit up the night sky and it inspired the shepherds to go searching for the baby in a manger. “When 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.’” (15) I don’t know how many stables there were in Bethlehem, it wasn’t a big city, but there had to be more than one. At any rate, the shepherds left their flocks and went in search for the baby in a manger and they found him. “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” (17-18) The couldn’t help but tell everyone what they heard and saw. It was the middle of the night and the shepherds had to tell everyone they could find. They were so joyful and everyone was amazed at what they were saying. Here were these smelly and uncouth shepherds. They were the rough and tumble types, but they were proclaiming the gospel to everyone. They didn’t care about the situation, they were so filled with joy that they just shared the good news with everyone they could find. They might have knocked on door and shouted in the streets, but everyone was amazed at their story and the good news they were bringing.

After that, the shepherds were glorifying and praising God for what they had seen and heard. These were men who would be considered the furthest away from God, but now they were praising God. I was probably the furthest away from God you could get. I was morally good, but so far from God. I was so full of myself that there was no room for God. I was broken inside but rejected God wholeheartedly. I blamed him for my brokenness and I despised him completely. I thought that he enjoyed taking my joy, but he actually wanted to give me the greatest source of joy, the only source of joy. Now, I am not perfect and I am struggling my way through this life, just like you are, but peace and joy are becoming more and more prevalent in my heart the more I remember the good news of Jesus and if you look at verse 21, you see the source of joy is named Jesus.

You might be one of those that doesn’t really like Christmas. It is either too commercial, gaudy or fake, or you have so hardship that you would like to forget, but Christmastime won’t let you. But, then, you may have missed the meaning. You might like Christmas, but easily get caught up in the songs and decorations. Then, you too might have missed the meaning. With all the Christmas trees, wreaths, lights, decorations and presents, the meaning of Christmas is still the good news that causes great joy for all the people. It is simple, we have joy because Jesus was born. He was accessible to all people. Even the biggest deplorable was able to know of the joy of Jesus. He is our savior.

Here within a manger lies
The One who made the starry skies
This baby born for sacrifice
Christ, the Messiah
Into our hopes, into our fears
The Savior of the world appears
The promise of eternal years
Christ, the Messiah
-He Shall Reign Forevermore by Chris Tomlin

In this time of Advent, let us remember the joy that comes from placing our hopes and fear in Jesus. The good news of great joy that will be for all the people. There is no stopping you from coming to Jesus. There is no stopping you from choosing to remember the joy that he brings as your Savior. It truly is the most wonderful time of the year.

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Daily Bread

Seek Righteousness, Seek Humility

Zephaniah 2:1-15

Key Verse: 2:3

  Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land,
    who do his just commands;
  seek righteousness; seek humility;
    perhaps you may be hidden
    on the day of the anger of the LORD.

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