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The Birth of Peace

Date: Dec. 6, 2020

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Luke 2:1-21

Key Verse: Luke 2:14

Glory to God in the highest heaven,

    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.

Welcome to the second week of Advent. I would like to thank you for, again, tuning in to our live stream. We are firmly in December, which means that we are firmly in our Advent series, Tidings of Comfort & Joy. Last week, we heard that there was a child to be born that would be called the Prince of Peace. He would give everlasting peace, real peace, to us. It wouldn’t be a peace that is fleeting, but one that would transcend all the chaos and worry that abound in this world. Peace for within that comforts us and soothes our souls. The coming of this child would herald a new age and free us from the burdens that weighs us down. It would be a time of celebration and joy because the Mighty God has come. The main reason Christmas is supposed to be a time of peace, of joy and of giving is because Christmas is when we mark the arrival of our Savior. The long dark time is ending and a light shines in the world. That is something to celebrate about. It is something that should give us relief and peace, which leads us to today’s passage. Our passage today is very famous. It is the quintessential Christmas passage, the first part of Luke 2. It is the only direct passage about the birth of Jesus in the whole Bible. Sure, Matthew has the passage with the wise men, but that takes place a few years after the birth of Jesus. This is the only passage written about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. Which means that today, we will learn more about the peace that child brings and see the reaction to the first people who heard about his birth.

Our passage begins, “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.)” (1-2) Now, there is a lot of history in just these two verses. The first piece of history is Caesar Augustus. Augustus was the first Roman Emperor and the adopted son of Julius Caesar. He was born Gaius Octavius and when he became Emperor, the Roman senate bestowed upon him the name and title of Augustus. He thought himself an agent of the gods and, even a god himself. The Romans had conquered the entire Mediterranean region, including Judea. The Jews were particularly displeased with Roman rule. The Romans sought to assimilate the Jews into their own culture and beliefs, and they wanted the Jews to acknowledge Caesar’s divinity. This led to a lot of contention between the Romans and the Jews. This contention made Judea a difficult region to rule. Now, the passage talks about a census. It is tough to determine the specifics about this census. There is no explicit mention of it on record, but the Romans did perform a regular census every seven years or so for taxation purposes and military service. The Jews were exempt from military service, so the census in Judea would be only for taxation purposes.

The passage continues, “And everyone went to their own town to register.” (3) With this census, the people had to go to their ancestral homes to register. This would cause people to be going from place to place for the count. “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) Joseph, who would be the father of Jesus, was from the line of David, so he went back to Bethlehem, where David was from. It was about a three days journey to go from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea. Mary was going along with Joseph to Bethlehem. They were essentially married, but the passage says, “pledged to be married”. This means that they were legally married, contractual and all, but they weren’t fully married. There was no consummation of the marriage until after the baby was born. It is interesting to note that Mary wasn’t required to go to Bethlehem with Joseph. The women did not have to travel for the census, but Joseph did. However, she might have wanted to go along with him because she was very near to giving birth and she didn’t want to be alone. Back in Nazareth, because of their strange marital condition and a child out of wedlock, there may have been some controversy concerning the child she was carrying, and she wanted to be around her loving and understanding husband when the baby was born. Whatever the reason, Mary chose to go with Joseph on the three-day’s journey.

“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) While they were in Bethlehem, the baby was born, but it wasn’t some clean or magical place. There was no room available for them. They were probably turned away, not because of some disinterest in helping a pregnant woman, but because giving birth would require a room that was larger than was available. Bethlehem was a small town with maybe just one guest residence, which was too full to handle an expecting family. So, Mary gave birth in a place that had a manger, which would probably be a stable or a cave. A manger is an animal feeding trough, where livestock and horses would feed on hay. It is a very humble sight to have Mary’s baby in a place where animals eat. I’m a father of three and I was in the room for each of my kid’s births. As soon as each baby came out, the nurses and pediatricians worked to clean up the baby and made sure that everything was ok, along with measuring the baby’s length and weight. They were kept warm with a heating element and then swaddled up with a cloth. The delivery room in the hospital is a clean place with so many people working to take care of both the mother and the child. But here, in this passage, the delivery space is dirty and close to the outdoors, there might not even be a door or walls, and Mary had no one to help her but her husband. It was a solemn time.

In the chapter prior to this one, an angel foretold the birth of this child. This child was to be the Son of God and he was finally born. It was a momentous time but leading up to the birth, there is nothing. Even in this part of the passage, there is no mention of how special this child was. If you look closely at the passage, in the first seven verses, there is no mention about Jesus’ special circumstances. There is no mention of the angel or of God. There is just Mary being with child, she gives birth, wraps him in cloth and places him in a manger, and nothing more. It is humble and a bit sad. The baby that the angel foretold would be God’s own son, but up to this point, there is nothing to show how special the baby is. Both Mary and Joseph had heard from angels about the importance of this child, but when the baby was born, it was a silent night. There is no celebration or jubilee, nor any angel to congratulate them. There might have just been some farm animals. Looking at the first seven verses alone, there is nothing showing how momentous this event should be.

It may have been uneventful at the birth, but the Lord really was excited to have his Son to be born into the world and he sent a vanguard to announce his Son’s arrival. “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) A little way outside of Bethlehem God decided to announce the birth of his Son, the Savior of the world to some shepherds. Now, shepherds were the pariahs of society. Not only were they considered to be dirty and stinky, living outdoors among the sheep, but they were considered to be nefarious and untrustworthy. They were looked down upon and considered among the public sinners. In fact, shepherds were not allowed to give legal testimony because they were so untrustworthy. They were outcasts and not considered to be good people. And yet, the Lord sent angels to announce the birth of his Son to these shepherds.

Think about it. God chose the untrustworthy and those who were unable to legally give testimony to be the first witnesses to the arrival of his Son. They were to be the first to go out and share the good news to others. There is a possibility that they would not be believed, but, nonetheless, God chose them to bear witness and testify to what they will see. It also reminds me of who the first witnesses of the resurrected Jesus were. Women were the first to hear from angels that Jesus had risen from the dead, and Mary Magdalene was the first to see the risen Jesus. Like the shepherds, women were not allowed to give legal testimony, but the Lord loves to give the least of society the greatest opportunities.

When the angel appeared, the shepherds were terrified. This is a common reaction to angels in the Bible. They are messengers from God, and they shine with his glory. Being in the sight of such perfection can frighten imperfect beings, like people. We are all imperfect, but it is more than that. We are all sinners who have fallen away from God. We have all done things that are not pleasing to God. When God shows his glory through the angels, we are like small children who know that they did something wrong when mom or dad come into a room. We are scared and try to hide. It is a human tendency to be afraid of God because he is so good, and we have disobeyed him over and over. These shepherds were considered among the worst of society and an authority figure came to them. They must be in trouble, so they were afraid for their lives.

However, that was not the case, “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.’” (10) The angel first tells these shepherds to not be afraid. They want the shepherds to calm down and they address their immediate need, their fear. Then the angel announces that he comes to bring good news that will cause great joy for all the people. This wasn’t news for a select few, but for all the people. The news that the angel was bringing was for the outcasts as well as the nobles. It was for the righteous and the wicked. The news was for the Jew and the Gentile. The news was for everyone, including these lowly shepherds.

The angel continued, “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.” (11-12) In the nearby town, not far from where they were, the Savior was born. He is the Messiah, the Lord. This is amazing news. The Jews were waiting for the Messiah, God’s anointed, to come for nearly a millennium. Since the time of David himself, the people have been crying out for God’s perfect king to come. This was especially true during this time, during the Roman rule. By this time, there had been no new word from the Lord in over 400 years. They had no new direction from God, no messages of hope, but here were these angels telling these shepherd that the Messiah had come. He was born into the world and more than that, he was the Lord. The concept of the Messiah being the Lord was not one that was widely understood at the time, but at his birth, the angel announces that Jesus is the Messiah and the Lord and has the power and authority of both Messiah and Lord. One with the power and authority of God had been born and the sign of this birth was a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. The angel was specific on what they would find when they found the Messiah. Bethlehem was a small town, but there may have been more than one baby there, but there was only one baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. It seemed absurd, but that uniqueness is how the shepherds could identify him.

As if the message wasn’t enough, all heaven breaks loose. “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) As if one angel wasn’t enough, a heavenly host appeared with him. An army of angels appeared as a choir coming to praise God for what he has done. Never before in all creation, never before in all of time had anything been done like this. The Lord announced the birth of his Son with countless angels praising the coming of the Messiah. The birth itself may have been uneventful, but out in the fields, a heavenly choir of thousands of angels, a great company of the heavenly host had told the lowly shepherds about God’s plan. What they said was also very revealing. “Glory to God in the highest heaven.” This is obvious that they are praising God. All glory is due God for what he has done, which I will get to in a moment.

The host also sing about peace on earth to those on whom God’s favor rests. There is this offering of peace to humanity, but not to all of humanity, but on those who God favors. Now, this might sound a bit like favoritism, but it is not. Those who God favors are those who accept his gift of peace. The good news was for all people, but not all people would accept the good news. If you can’t accept the good news, then you can’t have peace. This peace is especially the peace between God and man. We are all sinners at war with God. All of our thoughts are about disobeying God. We are selfish and don’t want to even acknowledge God. We walked away from the Lord in our selfishness. We wanted to do our own thing and not listen to his wisdom. We stumbled, fell, and lost our way. Every thought and action, led us away from the light and into darkness, pain, and loneliness. Even with so much patience from God and trying to lead us back to him, we keep walking away. All of our problems, every single issue we have is because we have walked away from God. Our repeated disobedience has poisoned this world, like pollution destroys the environment. Our collective sins are the cause of all the evil in this world. We rail against God, not accepting that his direction is the best. We are all like those people who are vehemently against wearing a mask and social distancing, right now. Science has shown that those things are effective at slowing the spread of COVID-19, but some people don’t want to hear it and refuse to believe it. They rail against the thought like someone is trying to control them. We are all like that in our sins. When we sin, we declare war on God and his ways.

But…the good news…is…that God declared peace in this war that we are waging against him. This is the peace that the baby brings. God never wronged us, but he called the truce. He took the first step. Usually, when we get into a fight with someone, we want for them to take the first step in reconciling the relationship, because we think that they are wrong. But here, God is never wrong, we wronged him, but he took the first step to reconcile us with him. He brings the peace through his Son, who was born. God is not offering peace by forcing it upon us. He is not breaking us by his strength. He is reconciling us by giving us an opportunity to be forgiven through his Son. All the burden and guilt we feel from our sins can be lifted off of us. Every sin we committed led us on a slow march to death, but the birth of this baby signifies the path to everlasting life. A way was now opened to return to God and return to glory. This is what the heavenly host was praising God for. He made a way for his children to return.

When the host of angels left the shepherds, they immediately went to Bethlehem to find the baby. And there he was, just as the angel told them, with Mary and Joseph. There was no one at the baby’s birth, but not long after shepherds showed up, not to feed the sheep, but to see the thing the Lord had done. The Messiah was here on this earth. Peace was born and a new age was dawning. “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 shepherds told everyone they could about the child and everybody they heard were amazed. These shepherds were assumed to be dishonest and couldn’t testify about anything, but they were testifying about the coming of the Lord as a baby in a manger. It was too fantastical of a story to make up, and everyone was amazed by what the shepherds told them.

Then, they left and returned back to the fields. Meanwhile, Mary began to think about what had just happened and what the shepherds said. We don’t know exactly what this means, but it does lend itself to alluding to the fact that Mary didn’t fully understand what was going on. She might not have fully understood the importance of her firstborn and held on to the words the shepherds said. The shepherds, on the other hand, continued praising God for what they had seen and heard. They were filled with so much joy at the news of the Savior’s birth. The peace that the baby would bring should cause so much joy in our hearts that we are overflowing with praise to God, like the shepherds were.

And if there was any doubt of the identity of the baby, our passage concludes, “On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.” (21) It was customary, because, in part, of the mortality rate of the time, for the baby to be named, not immediately after birth, but at the time of circumcision seven days later. It was at this time, the baby was named Jesus, which is what the angel said his name would be before his conception. The baby is Jesus, which means, the Lord saves, which is how he gives us peace with God. It is Jesus who is God’s Son, born in a humble manger, born with the authority of the Lord, who would reconcile us with God.

We are living in a time of uncertainty and unrest. As a nation, we haven’t been this divided for a great many years. We prefer to fight over the smallest of details instead of finding common ground to work with. There is a pandemic raging, with little sign the disease will stop killing people. The economy is floundering, and the most vulnerable people are struggling to make ends meet, to feed themselves or have a place to live. Jimmy shared with us some verses during his Thanksgiving message from Philippians 4, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7) I love these verses, but they really show the peace that God gives because of Jesus. It guards our hearts and minds. The verses from Philippians do not say that our problems would be solved, but that peace will guard our hearts and minds. This is the peace between humanity and God. When we know that we are not at war with God, we can know that God is with us and he will see us through, especially all the way to heaven. No matter what may happen to us in this world, we always will have a way to God in heaven because of the baby that was born in Bethlehem, wrapped in cloths and placed in a manger.

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