The Christmas Story
Last week, Mike mentioned that today’s message would be a more traditional “Christmas” message, so to speak.
I think it will be, in some ways, and maybe not so much in other ways, but then again I think it all depends on how you define “traditional.”
We are going to be taking a break from Isaiah this week. We’ve been looking at Isaiah for several weeks now, and we’ve already covered a bunch of the major themes and prophecies that tie into Jesus and therefore the Advent of Jesus, what we call the “Christmas story.”
So we’re not going to be reading anything from Isaiah this morning. Instead, we will be reading entirely from the New Testament.
This morning, I really wanted to read through all the major events of the Christmas story, so the bulk of our reading will be in the book of Luke. If you want to follow along, that will be the place to start. But I will also be mixing in the few additional details from Matthew, so I’ll let you know when I’m switching over from Luke to Matthew.
We’re going to be reading quite a bit today! It’s going to be less exposition than usual, and more just reading, more of a story time. I will be interjecting some of my thoughts and comments throughout, but hopefully they will be brief enough as to not disrupt the flow of the story too much. We could go down many, many long tangential roads in this story, and they are good roads, many of which we have been down in years past, but I wanted to stick to the main road today and cover enough ground that Mike can make fun of me later
With all that said, let’s dive into story time! I hope you enjoy listening to God’s word as much as I did reading and studying it in preparation.
Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples. Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write an accurate account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught.
Luke is methodical, and research driven. He is going to craft a brilliantly told story, with a dynamic and compelling narrative, but with a meticulous attention to historical accuracy.
Luke cares about accuracy and detail. He is a doctor, a physician, and a historian. That takes a certain kind of person. He’s pragmatic, and facts are important to him. He’s not a “head in the clouds” or fanciful, whimsical type of person.
With that in mind, pay attention to how many times Luke confidently asserts details in the story that we would consider “unlikely,” “shocking,” or even “impossible.”
When Herod was king of Judea, there was a Jewish priest named Zechariah. He was a member of the priestly order of Abijah, and his wife, Elizabeth, was also from the priestly line of Aaron. Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in God’s eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations. They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and they were both very old.
One day Zechariah was serving God in the Temple, for his order was on duty that week. As was the custom of the priests, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense. While the incense was being burned, a great crowd stood outside, praying.
While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar. Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John. You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.”
Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.” Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.”
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah to come out of the sanctuary, wondering why he was taking so long. When he finally did come out, he couldn’t speak to them. Then they realized from his gestures and his silence that he must have seen a vision in the sanctuary.
When Zechariah’s week of service in the Temple was over, he returned home. Soon afterward his wife, Elizabeth, became pregnant and went into seclusion for five months. “How kind the Lord is!” she exclaimed. “He has taken away my disgrace of having no children.”
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David.
What a masterful transition from Elizabeth to Mary! In one sentence, Luke informs us that six months have passed, carries over this charater we've already met, a heavenly being named Gabriel, a messenger of Yahweh, introduces a new setting: the village of Galilee, and introduces a new human character, Mary. And by calling her a virgin, in their cultural context that also implies that she’s a young woman, a teenager.
In the next sentence, he gives us a loaded backstory: this young woman is engaged to Joseph, and this guy is a descendant of King David. That’s a very positive thing; marrying into the line of David is something to be desired!
Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!”
Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean.
Great choice of words!
“Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”
Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”
The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. For the word of God will never fail.”
Only now does Luke reveal the connection between Elizabeth and Mary! Ah! The two seemingly unrelated scenes suddenly collide!
Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her.
What an incredible response, to say the utter least!
Some Christian traditions have become overly infatuated with Mary, and that’s not healthy. But I think many of us Baptists, and those from similar backgrounds, could stand to appreciate and respect her a little bit more.
A few days later Mary hurried to the hill country of Judea, to the town where Zechariah lived. She entered the house and greeted Elizabeth.
The story has come full circle!
This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.
Joseph was in a TOUGH spot! Of course nobody, including him, would have believed Mary’s crazy story about how and why she was pregnant, and of her whole conversation with a divine being! So Joseph is faced with this moral dilemma of not wanting to stay with a sinful woman, but also not wanting to publicly humiliate her.
As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.
“Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’ ”
When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus.
So, Joseph remained engaged to Mary, which was JUST as legally binding as a marriage, the only difference was that the marriage was not yet consummated. But he remained completely, legally committed to her, and it says specifically that Joseph named him Jesus, which is an act of ownership, of Joseph legally and publicly saying “This is my son, and I take full responsibility for him.”
I think both Mary AND Joseph deserve a ton of respect for how they handled this whole situation.
At the sound of Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s child leaped within her, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth gave a glad cry and exclaimed to Mary, “God has blessed you above all women, and your child is blessed. Why am I so honored, that the mother of my Lord should visit me? When I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said.”
Mary responded, “Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed. For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me. He shows mercy from generation to generation to all who fear him. His mighty arm has done tremendous things! He has scattered the proud and haughty ones. He has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands. He has helped his servant Israel and remembered to be merciful. For he made this promise to our ancestors, to Abraham and his children forever.”
In Latin, this is referred to as The Magnificat. It’s a beautiful song of praise to Yahweh, and you could easily spend all day just pondering and appreciating and studying this little bit. If this story were a musical, this is the song you’d want to look up and listen to and learn the lyrics afterwards. But for now, we need to keep watching the movie, keep moving forward and find out what happens in the story.
Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months and then went back to her own home. When it was time for Elizabeth’s baby to be born, she gave birth to a son. And when her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had been very merciful to her, everyone rejoiced with her.
Remember, Elizabeth was about 6 months pregnant when Gabriel appeared to Mary. So 3 months later, Elizabeth is full term.
When the baby was eight days old, they all came for the circumcision ceremony. They wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father. But Elizabeth said, “No! His name is John!”
“What?” they exclaimed. “There is no one in all your family by that name.”
So they used gestures to ask the baby’s father what he wanted to name him. He motioned for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s surprise he wrote, “His name is John.”
They think Elizabeth is crazy! They think surely Zechariah, even though he became suddenly mute nine months ago, must have a better idea.
Instantly Zechariah could speak again, and he began praising God. Awe fell upon the whole neighborhood, and the news of what had happened spread throughout the Judean hills.
Everyone who heard about it reflected on these events and asked, “What will this child turn out to be?” For the hand of the Lord was surely upon him in a special way.
The events surrounding John’s birth were just as bizarre and unexpected to the people in that time period and culture as it sounds to us today. Just because it happened in “biblical times” doesn’t mean people actually expected “biblical things” to happen! Especially not after the 400 year period between the return from exile and the events of this story! There are no major acts of God recorded or great prophets who arose during that period. Keep that in mind as we read the next paragraph.
Then his father, Zechariah, was filled with the Holy Spirit and gave this prophecy:
“Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has visited and redeemed his people. He has sent us a mighty Savior from the royal line of his servant David, just as he promised through his holy prophets long ago. Now we will be saved from our enemies and from all who hate us. He has been merciful to our ancestors by remembering his sacred covenant— the covenant he swore with an oath to our ancestor Abraham. We have been rescued from our enemies so we can serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness for as long as we live. “And you, my little son, will be called the prophet of the Most High, because you will prepare the way for the Lord. You will tell his people how to find salvation through forgiveness of their sins. Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.”
Zechariah is prophesying about a prophet! Prophetception!
John grew up and became strong in spirit. And he lived in the wilderness until he began his public ministry to Israel.
At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.)
Another brilliant piece of storytelling. This detail transitions from the previous scene (“at that time...”) while providing a historical marker to place the next scene on the timeline, all using information that is crucial to the events which are about to unfold.
RE: Quirinius: Thanks, Luke! This may not mean much to us, but it is again characteristic of Luke’s dedication to historical detail.
All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee.
He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child. And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.
Still not married!
A manger indicates that they were staying in the same quarters as the animals. Generally, this would have been the first floor of a home rather than a large, detached building like modern barns.
No lodging available: Given the previous details, you would expect them to have family to stay with in Bethlehem. But with so many people converging on their home towns, the more comfortable accommodations would be reserved for the older family members.
That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep.
Another scene shift, but to a simultaneous occurrence.
Remember, they are in Bethlehem because it was David’s hometown. Before he became king, this is exactly what David would have been doing, and in this same general region, if not those very fields. (Think Copenhagen or Croghan!)
Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them.
“Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”
Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger.
After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often.
How could you not! Again speaks to Mary’s character and nature, though.
The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them.
Eight days later, when the baby was circumcised, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel even before he was conceived. Then it was time for their purification offering, as required by the law of Moses after the birth of a child; so his parents took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. The law of the Lord says, “If a woman’s first child is a boy, he must be dedicated to the Lord.” So they offered the sacrifice required in the law of the Lord—“either a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Luke’s intentional, methodical storytelling is so cool! The inclusion of this paragraph in the story shows Joseph and Mary’s dedication to torah, but it also is an important transitioning link to the next two scenes.
Indicates they couldn’t afford the more costly sacrifice.
At that time there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon. He was righteous and devout and was eagerly waiting for the Messiah to come and rescue Israel. The Holy Spirit was upon him and had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. That day the Spirit led him to the Temple. So when Mary and Joseph came to present the baby Jesus to the Lord as the law required, Simeon was there.
Luke introduces yet another character into the story. A brief backstory is given without any immediate indication as to his relevance in this story.
This new character’s connection to the story is revealed!
He took the child in his arms and praised God, saying, “Sovereign Lord, now let your servant die in peace, as you have promised. I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people. He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel!” Jesus’ parents were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them, and he said to Mary, the baby’s mother, “This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, and many others to rise. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.”
Anna, a prophet, was also there in the Temple. She was the daughter of Phanuel from the tribe of Asher, and she was very old. Her husband died when they had been married only seven years. Then she lived as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the Temple but stayed there day and night, worshiping God with fasting and prayer. She came along just as Simeon was talking with Mary and Joseph, and she began praising God. She talked about the child to everyone who had been waiting expectantly for God to rescue Jerusalem.
Again, we’re introduced to a new character, by proximity to this latest setting of the Temple.
Luke uses this opportunity to point out yet another prophetic voice (the third so far) claiming Jesus to be the Messiah.
When Jesus’ parents had fulfilled all the requirements of the law of the Lord, they returned home to Nazareth in Galilee. There the child grew up healthy and strong. He was filled with wisdom, and God’s favor was on him.
That is where Luke’s story of Baby Jesus ends. The rest of the chapter picks up when Jesus was 12 years old, and chapter 3 goes into the beginning of his adult ministry.
But there is one more key element to the Christmas story that Luke didn’t cover. The first one was Joseph’s dream, so we read about that in Matthew. But Matthew includes one other detail we haven’t read yet; anyone know what it is?
The wise men!
Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod.
About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”
Notice that Matthew is not nearly as precise nor as concerned with exact timelines and historical details. “About that time” “from eastern lands” ... these phrases are not exactly helpful from a historical perspective.
Notice also that the number of wise men is NOT specified. Notice also that they are NOT called kings! In fact, the Greek word is where we get the word “Magi” which basically means “magician.” And that doesn’t mean a stage magician. We should be thinking of pagan sorcerers...astrologers from lands like Persia and Babylon. These are the types of men who would often serve in king’s courts, like we see in the book of Daniel as well as in Exodus. But it was a group of eastern, pagan, sorcerers, magicians, not Yahweh-worshiping kings, who sought out
Anyway, Matthew doesn’t give us a lot of details like names, numbers, and dates of certain things. However, notice how many times Matthew points out specific Old Testament prophecies that are fulfilled throughout the story. He already did it in Chapter 1, pointing out the fulfillment of Isaiah’s Immanuel prophecy, and he’s going to do it again in Chapter 2.
King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”
I think we often focus on the fact that Herod was disturbed by this news, but overlook the fact that everyone in Jerusalem was also disturbed! This means that it became public news, thanks to the magicians, and there’s a sense that it immediately planted a seed of political and social unrest, given the tense cultural climate and Herod’s violent reputation.
“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:
‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are not least among the ruling cities of Judah, for a ruler will come from you who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’ ”
Micah 5:2 – prophecy!
Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”
After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
A lot of speculation and meaning has been read into these gifts. The one very obvious and uncontested significance of all three is of their value. They were all very expensive gifts. Especially for Joseph, a tradesman, and Mary, who came from humble means...these gifts were of extraordinary value.
When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.
After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,” the angel said. “Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
This isn’t Josephs first rodeo with dreamy angels at this point, so even though this is a MAJOR life-changing decision to make, Joseph didn’t hesitate to do whatever it took to protect his family.
That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother, and they stayed there until Herod’s death. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “I called my Son out of Egypt.”
There were some real costs involved, like there are still today, with moving your family to a different country for a period of time. They would have had the logistics of travel, and who knows how many hours of work Joseph had to miss, let alone needing clients and trade connections for his carpentry.
Funny though, that this major move happened right after a bunch of pagan sorcerers just handed them a load of cash! Of course, it was also the Magi’s fault they had to move in the first place...but you can see God was taking care of them.
Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance. Herod’s brutal action fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A cry was heard in Ramah— weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted, for they are dead.”
Yet another prophecy!
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. “Get up!” the angel said. “Take the child and his mother back to the land of Israel, because those who were trying to kill the child are dead.”
So Joseph got up and returned to the land of Israel with Jesus and his mother. But when he learned that the new ruler of Judea was Herod’s son Archelaus, he was afraid to go there. Then, after being warned in a dream, he left for the region of Galilee. So the family went and lived in a town called Nazareth. This fulfilled what the prophets had said: “He will be called a Nazarene.”
Yet another prophecy!
That wraps up the entirety of what the gospel writers have to say about Christmas. Between Luke & Matthew we get an incredible and surprising origin story for Immanuel...God with us, the Incarnation of Yahweh becoming human.
Of course, it’s a familiar story to most of us, but when it was first being experienced and told, it was an exceptionally unexpected chain of events, in the lives of all involved: Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the magicians, Herod. From his very conception, the life of Jesus was unprecedented and disruptive.
Jesus was disruptive, but not in the ways anyone expected.
He turned social orders upside down by exalting the humble and lowly, while himself, the creator and sustainer of the universe, becoming the most humble and vulnerable form of human there is: a newborn baby.
One final thought for this morning:
Overwhelmingly, the tone in Luke, as well as the prophecies in Matthew, is a tone of Joy. It’s the recognition, in the midst of surprise and confusion, of God’s merciful and steadfast love, his loyalty to his promises and his provision of salvation.
What we call the Christmas holiday is an invention that came much later, but the tradition of yearly celebrating that same joy is a beautiful one. It’s a joy that transcends circumstances.
Not every season of life, not every moment of every day is “enjoyable” or “fun” ... think about Mary and Joseph ... their relationship was scandalous, their oppressive government forced them to travel at the least convenient time, and their violent, murderous overlord was hunting down their newborn baby. That was Mary and Joseph’s first “Christmas” season! I’m sure they went through a whole mixed bag of emotions.
Each one of us goes through various seasons, sometimes all in one day! And it’s ok not to be “happy” about what is “happening” in every given moment...there is a time and a season for everything. BUT in EVERY season and every moment we have reason for joy...a joy that comes not from our circumstances, but from the hope and the blessing of knowing Jesus.