I absolutely love Christmas! I know some of you are rolling your eyes because I’m a pastor and I’m supposed to love Christmas. Well, I don’t love Christmas because I’m a pastor and I have to, I love Christmas because of The Gift. Try and think back to Christmas when you were a kid. For some of you, that was just last Christmas or just a few Christmases ago. However, for some of us, that was a long time ago. But I can still vaguely remember the anticipation of desperately hoped-for Christmas gifts and the realized joy of tearing through the wrapping paper to finally get to those gifts. When I became a parent, I experienced watching the anticipation of desperately hoped-for Christmas gifts in the eyes of my children and their unrestrained joy of tearing through the wrapping paper to get to those gifts. When I was a kid, the true meaning of Christmas was certainly not lost even though it wasn’t emphasized as much as it probably should have been. However, as I’ve gotten older, the meaning of Christmas has taken on greater significance.
If you recall, last Christmas I announced that I had been sick for more than a year which served to shift my focus away from the things of this world that so easily distracted me and onto the people in my life who had always been so very important to me—all of you who so faithfully followed my lessons over the years, a few close friends and family members, and especially my wife and daughters who had endured so much to that point because of my illness. Unfortunately, this past year has been filled with more and varied health complications and setbacks that served to perpetuate the unrelenting daily pain and exhaustion associated with the illness. I’ll be honest with you, there have been times when I’ve wanted to give up. However, God has used the struggles of this year not so much to shift my focus away from all the things He brought into focus at the end of last year but to highlight the one thing that matters most—Him. In the months leading up to this Christmas season and especially during this Christmas season, I am keenly focused on not just God generally, but on God, as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. This Christmas I feel almost like that little kid again who anticipated those hoped-for gifts under the tree. Except for this Christmas, I’m not looking forward to just any gift; I’m filled with excitement and anticipation to celebrate The Gift.
4So 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. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. 8And there were shepherds 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. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” 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, 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.
We tend to forget about a few very important events that began more than a year before our Subject Text. Luke tells us in chapter one that an angel visited a man named Zechariah and told him that his wife, Elizabeth, would become pregnant and give birth to a son who was destined to be God’s servant in the same way that the beloved Old Testament prophet Elijah served God—specifically, to turn the people’s hearts back to God. Elizabeth would eventually give birth to John the Baptist who would, indeed, preach repentance of sins to clear the path for relationship with God. That path for a reconciled relationship with God led straight to Jesus who John introduced to the people. And it was John who baptized Jesus at the inauguration of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
Six months after an angel visited Zechariah with divine news, an angel visited a young virgin girl named Mary with news that she would become pregnant and give birth to a son. But not just any son mind you, Mary would give birth to the Son of the Most High. Let that sink in for just a moment. We take so many things about the Bible for granted because we know them so well and they’ve become so familiar that they’ve lost some of their intended wonder and gravity. The angel didn’t just tell Mary that Jesus was going to be a king, the angel was telling her that Jesus would be THE King; the long-awaited Messiah. We jump to that conclusion right away because we know the entire story of Jesus. But Mary didn’t know that! Mary had to put the pieces of the angel’s proclamation together. Let me give you the key parts of the angel’s pronouncement that Mary was left to piece together:
Jesus’ name is derived from the Hebrew name Joshua and means “the Lord saves,” and
Ø Jesus would be called “Son of the Most High,” and
Ø Jesus would be the final King to sit on the “throne of his father David,” and
Ø Jesus would be Israel’s (and the world’s) eternal King “forever,” and
Ø Jesus would establish a kingdom that “will never end.”
Believers read all these things in Luke 1:31-33 in the context of the rest of the gospel of Jesus Christ and already know that He is the Savior of the world. But Mary didn’t have the context. She was a young, Jewish teenage girl who lived in the context of the Old Testament expectation of the Messiah. Imagine being a devout Jew whose country was occupied and ruled by Rome, a Gentile nation. Then suddenly an angel appears to tell you that you will give birth to Israel’s Messiah. Mary’s head had to be spinning. As unbelievable as all that news must have been, at what point do you suppose it dawned on her that she was a virgin AND she wasn’t married? For many people in our culture, being a virgin, even as a teenager, means there’s something wrong with you and becoming pregnant outside of marriage is no big deal. But in Mary’s culture, being a virgin until after marriage was non-negotiable. In fact, being sexually active outside of the marriage covenant meant, at best becoming an outcast, and at worst, being put to death. The angel told Mary that the Holy Spirit would miraculously plant the seed of God within her when she wondered how an unmarried virgin could become pregnant. No big deal, right? Well put yourself in Mary’s shoes and play that through your mind and then tell me how you would explain that to your parents. You know, something like this: “Mom, Dad, I have some exciting news! An angel visited me and told me that I would become pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit and give birth to the Savior of the world! Isn’t that exciting?” Don’t kid yourself, Mary was in trouble, and I’m pretty sure she knew it. However, God knew exactly the challenges that Mary would face in her community, so He convinced her future husband, Joseph, not to refuse taking Mary as his wife even though she was pregnant and he wasn’t the father. Joseph’s humility to be obedient to God even though he knew what people would think of him for marrying a girl who was pregnant with someone else’s child, set the stage for the Old Testament fulfillment that prophesied the ancestral lineage and the geographical birthplace for the divine Messiah. More importantly, it is here in our Subject Text that we are introduced to The Gift.
4So 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.
Think about the prophetic significance of what happens in vv. 4-5. Approximately 700 years before the events of our Subject Text, God revealed through the prophet Micah: “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 of Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times (Micah 5:2).” The Messiah was prophesied to come from the line of David and was going to be born in Bethlehem. And then without any warning, world events that don’t appear to be related in any way whatsoever to biblical events begin to unfold precisely the way they were predicted hundreds of years before. If we read past this quickly, we miss exactly what these events mean in the grand scheme of our faith. Unbelievers disparage the faith of Christians as believing in myths and fairytales because we can’t present concrete evidence that Jesus is divine and must, at some point, take it on faith that Jesus is who He says He is and did what He said He did concerning our salvation. And that is true to a large extent. However, that doesn’t mean the Christian faith isn’t based on concrete historical evidence that supports that faith. All the characters in our Subject Text are real historical figures that are represented in both biblical and extra-biblical texts. All the biblical characters that wrote about the Messiah hundreds and even thousands of years before our Subject Text were also figures represented in both biblical and extra-biblical text.
Did you know that there are more than 300 prophesies about the Messiah going all the way back to the first chapters of Genesis? We have a handful of them in the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel. Do you want to know the probability of Jesus being the fulfillment of all those prophecies? Well just to give you an idea of how certain you can be that Jesus is the Messiah, the probability of Jesus fulfilling just eight of the Old Testament prophecies would be 1 x 1028. Maybe that doesn’t paint the picture clearly enough for you. Here’s what the probability figure looks like: 1 in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000! That’s the fulfillment of just eight prophecies, and two of them are right here in our Subject Text! Yes, it still requires faith to believe that Jesus is who He says He is and did what He said He did but it doesn’t take blind faith. Verses 4-5 demonstrate to us that God was always in complete control of all the events of history even though He appeared to be uninvolved for hundreds of years. “From the universal, we now move to the particular. To this point, it would appear that Augustus is sovereign over the whole world; he issues a decree and the whole populace travels here and there in order to participate in the Empire’s tax burden. Now, however, we learn not only how the census related to the unfolding of the angel’s words, but also that a still higher purpose is at work than that of the emperor…this is the first time in the Lukan account of Jesus’ birth that Joseph does anything, though even here he is introduced to us primarily in his relationship with Mary and his inherited status as a Davidide. Both the description of his journey as a ‘going up’ and the designation of his destination as ‘the city of David’ invite the reader to speculate that he is traveling to Jerusalem. Luke upsets such expectations by identifying Joseph’s destination and identifying the city of David as Bethlehem. In this narrative aside, Luke intrudes briefly to render explicit that Joseph is fulfilling the Scriptures and, thus, fulfilling God’s own purpose…As often in biblical narrative, then, we find here a conjunction of intentions. On one level, Joseph’s journey is the consequence of the almighty decree of Augustus. On another, even the universal rule of Augustus is conceived as subordinate to another purpose, the aim of God. One may call this ironic, as if Rome is made unwittingly to serve a still greater Sovereign. But it is also prophetic, for it reveals the provisional nature of even Roman rule.”
6While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Travellers during the time of our Subject Text could usually cover about 20 miles a day if they were healthy and didn’t run into trouble along the way. Considering Mary was probably nine months or close to nine months pregnant at the time, it probably took them a week to make the journey. After traveling the 80 or so miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph finally arrive in the city according to vv. 6-7. Unfortunately, so did all the other people who originated from the town of Bethlehem or were passing through on their way to their own town of birth. It seems clear that neither Joseph nor Mary had any relatives or acquaintances in town because they sought public accommodations when they arrived. And to make matters worse, Mary went into labor. Imagine this scene now—the small city is overrun with countless visitors from who knows where in the Roman Empire. Private homes are filled with visitors (relatives and/or acquaintances) and public accommodations are filled with everyone else. Joseph and Mary are on the outside looking in with “no room at the inn,” and Mary was in a bad way. I’ve been through the birth of two children and I’ve tried to put myself in Joseph shoes. Let me try and explain, in one word, what I would be experiencing at that moment: Panic! The only thing left for Joseph to do was improvise. So he found and prepared a place for Mary in a stable. A stable! Joseph fixed up a place for her to give birth to the Savior of the world in a dirty barn among the animals. And it gets worse. The text says that after Mary gave birth, she wrapped Jesus in some cloth and “laid him in a manger.” Do you know what that is? You know that little manger scene you have in your children’s books or that cute little manger scene some of you have set up under your Christmas tree? Yeah, it’s nothing like that. A manger is a feeding trough for livestock; donkeys, horses, cows, pigs, etc. The stable was filthy, disgusting, and smelled of dirty animals and their waste. But this is where we find the Son of God, the Savior of the world, the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isa 9:6).” “The promised king came to his people but did not have enough power to secure a resting place for his birth. The descendants of David descended to a stable to find a place to lay the head of the King of kings. This is how God used earth’s lowest to bring salvation from heaven’s highest.”
8And there were shepherds 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. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
I love these verses. This year especially because I feel like they are speaking to me personally. I think it is telling that the angels announce the greatest news in all of history to those who were generally considered to be the lowest in the culture. This isn’t just any news. Verses 8-14 represent the Good News! You would think that this kind of world-changing news would be reserved first for the most influential people of their times; people who could leverage the Good News using their power and influence for the greatest possible good, but time and again we learn that God doesn’t work that way. Whether it’s a young, unmarried girl from a small town who becomes the mother of the Savior of the world, or the selection of a consortium of unlikely partners like a tax collector, fishermen, and even a former Pharisee to tell the world about that Savior, or whether it is the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ that started with His birth in a dirty manger in a small, backwoods town and ended with His death on the cross between two criminals atop a hill known as “the skull,” God doesn’t do things the way we would do them. In His wisdom, God knows best the people who will advance His plan of salvation for the world. God knows that the rich and famous; those who are happy, healthy, and comfortable can’t always appreciate important gifts. But the poor and the outcast; the forgotten and the marginalized; the sick and the lame; the lost and the lonely; the homeless and the destitute—these are the people for whom gifts are few and far between who can still appreciate the value of a priceless gift. So the angels visit a bunch of lowly shepherds out in the field watching their sheep and announce the coming of The Gift of Jesus Christ.
“Luke quickly shifts scenes from the king lying where animals eat to burly men protecting animals in their natural homes. Shepherding had changed from a family business in David’s time (1 Sam. 16:11) to a despised occupation. Many shepherds were accused of robbery and using land they had no rights to. Shepherding was also a lonely occupation, particularly at night, as a shepherd stood his watch, making sure sleeping sheep did not wake up and wander and that prowling predators did not attack and devour the sheep. Only God would visit those in such a low occupation and raise them to witness to his salvation…
“Shift the spotlight once more from earth’s lowly shepherds enduring a dark night to heaven’s most glorious messenger…As with Zechariah (1:12-13) and Mary (1:29-30), gazing at God’s glorious angel terrified the shepherds and brought quick reassurance: Do not be afraid. Gospel is coming, good news. Gospel elicits joy, not fear…Joy centers not in something you earn or possess. Joy comes from God’s gift, a tiny baby in a feed trough.”
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, 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.
Here is the perfect example of what I was trying to explain from the previous verses. In the previous verses, I said that God always seems to know who will advance His plan of salvation and here vv. 15-18 confirm that. Go back and read the previous verses and you’ll see that nowhere do the angels instruct them to drop everything and go to Bethlehem and see for themselves. This is the first illustration that these men understand the value of The Gift. The shepherds weren’t at home lounging around watching TV. They were at work! And work to shepherds meant more than earning a little money. For many of them, it was the difference between eating or starving for them and their families. I know for a fact that hits very close to home for many of you. It hits very close to home or me. You know that if you miss even a day of work, you won’t have enough money to pay your bills. Well, it is likely that these shepherds were not too different in that they couldn’t afford to leave their flocks for fear of losing any of them. Nevertheless, these verses tell us that when the angels left them, they “hurried” off to Bethlehem to see for themselves what the angels told them. Look, I don’t know for sure but I’m guessing they didn’t “hurry” off to Bethlehem because they were curious—they had too much to lose to simply satisfy a curiosity. No, I’m guessing they “hurried” off to Bethlehem because they and their ancestors had been anticipating The Gift of the Messiah for generations and now He was here and they knew what that meant for them and they weren’t going to miss out even if it might cost them a few lost sheep.
I know I keep doing this but think back again to Christmases when you were a kid. What was one of the things you did in the days following Christmas, especially when you went back to school? You and your friends sat around and told each other what you got for Christmas. When you received something truly amazing, you were instantly in awe by your friends and you couldn’t wait to tell everyone who would listen about the awesome gifts you received for Christmas. Well, these shepherds are essentially doing the same thing. After they were introduced to The Gift, they immediately went out told everyone about Jesus. These shepherds often get lost in the shadows of Jesus’ selected Apostles, Paul, and the other disciples but these are really some of the first evangelists who spread the Good News of Jesus Christ long before Jesus’ formal earthly ministry began. Can you see God’s wisdom in announcing the advent of Jesus to a bunch of shepherds? Think about it, what are the chances some wealthy aristocrat or religious leader would have left the warmth and comfort of their home to “hurry” off to Bethlehem to see for themselves? I’ll grant you that there may have been a few but then how many would have run off and announced that news to the shepherds out in the fields? Let’s not kid ourselves—it’s unlikely that even the few who may have “hurried” off to Bethlehem would have taken the time to intentionally reach out to the lowest in their culture with the Good News of the Messiah’s birth.
“In a real sense, the story of Jesus is our story, told to us and for us just as if we had been among the angels on that night near Bethlehem. What the angels announced to the shepherds that night is announced on behalf of all humanity. Their journey to see these things should be every person’s journey to see what God is up to in Jesus. When people see that everything happened according to what God had told the shepherds, they and we should sense that God does what he says. Their sense of amazement should be matched by our own. The best way we show our amazement is with the response of a grateful, faithful walk that has ample donations of praise…
“The response of the shepherds and Mary involves both praise and obedience. Mary’s obedience extends to her naming of the child. When God spoke, Mary listened. The testimony to her obedience is short, but telling. Similarly, the announcement of the sign leads the shepherds not only to follow where God has led them, but also to share what God has shown them when they arrive to see God’s word come to pass. So also we should follow where God leads and with grace testify to his direction in our lives.”
I have to tell you that my level of anticipation and excitement for Christmas has risen exponentially while preparing this lesson. I so appreciate that God’s angels announced the coming Messiah to the lowly and despised shepherds first. Being especially sick while preparing this final lesson of 2017 has infused in me with an added sense that God has come to me personally to remind me that soon I will experience the joy of celebrating The Gift. I know how hard life has been for some of you this year. You too are struggling with serious health issues, you lost a child or someone you loved deeply, you just can’t make ends meet financially, you lost your job and can’t find a new one, you’re stuck in a job that is killing you slowly every day, your marriage has come to an end, or your child has rejected the faith and values he or she grew up with. You labor under a weight that you are certain will crush you. You are convinced that God either despises you, has rejected you, has forgotten you, or just doesn’t care about you. My heart breaks for you and I wish I could put my arms around you and tell you to hold on because a day of celebration is coming. The Gospel is coming! Good News is coming! The Gift is coming!
Maybe like you, the shepherds had no real reason to hope that that fateful night would be any different than any other night. They had no reason to hope that their lives would be any better the next day. They had heard the stories of the Messiah, but when life beats you down far enough and hard enough, hopeful stories tend to become wishful fairytales. But when the angels showed up that night to announce the coming of the King, a wishful fairytale; a distant and vague memory, became a tangible reality that changed their world. I am thankful that we celebrate the coming of the King every year because even though it may be difficult to be excited about the struggles in your life, Christmas is the opportunity for you and me to focus on what God has done in the world generally and what He has done in our lives specifically through Jesus Christ. My hope and prayer for you this Christmas season is that you can side-step all the obstacles that life has placed in your path and can anticipate with great excitement the coming of our great Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ—The Gift!
 Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke—The New International Commentary of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), pp. 126-127.
 Trent C. Butler, Luke—Holman New Testament Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), p. 29.
 Trent C. Butler, Luke—Holman New Testament Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), 29.
 Darrell L. Bock, Luke—The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 89.
(Audio version; Music--"Prince Of Heaven" and "Arrival" by: Hillsong Worship; Music Coordination by: Meagan Seredinski)