The Christmas Story
It certainly was NOT a silent night, but it definitely WAS a holy night.
The Christmas story is very familiar to me. I grew up going to church services, attended a Bible college and have been preaching for over 25 years, so I have certainly had my fair chance to study and share about the Christmas story! Many years we have spent here at NCF just reading through the Christmas story together, like David did last year.
My goal when I approach a holiday like the advent of the Messiah is to make sure the original meaning and message of the holiday, which does NOT change, is clearly communicated. However, I still seek to learn new layers of the story and gain a deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the work of God. Hopefully, the end result is a richer understanding of the wonderful work of God.
This morning I hope we can experience this together.
Obviously, Jesus is the MAIN character of the Christmas story, right? But there are a LOT of other supporting characters in this story. What characters can you think of?
You can even track how people have thought about these characters in the songs and hymns we sing during the holiday season:
- Mary Did You Know? (which she did, by the way, God told her ;)
- Silent Night (which is certainly was NOT during a census and in a barn)
- Angels We Have Heard on High
- O’ Little Town of Bethlehem
Have you ever noticed how few songs there are that include Joseph? Poor guy! Can you name a Christmas song that includes Joseph?
This morning I want us to look at a few of these characters and we are going to do so through their interaction with the angels. The angels are actually a big part of the story. There are three major sections to the birth narrative, and they are all connected to angelic visits.
An angelic perspective
I guess we should start by defining angels.
What is an angel?
For most part in Scripture, angels are messengers, which is what the word means.
- HB: מַלְאָךְ – messenger, sent one (Malak - from which we get the name of the prophet Malachi)
- GK: ἄγγελος – angel, messenger, announce, proclaim
Our word “angel” is actually the transliteration of the Greek work “angelos’ into English. Though some times in the Bible angels appear as ministers tending to physical needs, they almost always serve as messengers.
When do they appear in the Bible?
Angels are mentioned a LOT in the Old Testament. The FIRST mention of an angel in the scriptures is found in Genesis 16 when an angel appears to Hagar in the wilderness when she was fleeing from Abraham and Sarah.
In the New Testament, the book of Revelation seems to have a lot of angelic activity as well. The New Testament uses the word angel 175, and 67 of those (more than 1/3) are in the book of he Revelation of John. That is more times that it appears in all four of the gospels combined.
In between the Old Testament and Revelations we have the gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
In the gospels – the good news – angels appear prior to the birth and at the birth of Jesus, both in person and in dreams. The next time we read about them is when a group of angels minister to Jesus during his 40 days in the wilderness being tempted by the Accuser… about 30 years later. Then, after about another 3 years, angels appear at the end of the earthly ministry of Jesus – one ministering to him in the garden just before the crucifixion and then a duo appearing to the women at the tomb after the resurrection.
In the bookends of the gospels (the birth and the resurrection), angels are the heralds or announcers of news – and good news at that!
Back to the Christmas story; the beginning of the good news...
There are 3 very specific, physical, encounters with angels that take place during the Christmas story. They take place over the course of about 15 months.
The first angelic encounter we have is between the angel Gabriel and the priest Zechariah.
Luke 1:5–25 NLT
5 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. 6 Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in God’s eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations. 7 They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and they were both very old.
8 One day Zechariah was serving God in the Temple, for his order was on duty that week. 9 As was the custom of the priests, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense. 10 While the incense was being burned, a great crowd stood outside, praying.
11 While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar. 12 Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. 13 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. 14 You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 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. 16 And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. 17 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.”
18 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.”
19 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! 20 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.”
21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah to come out of the sanctuary, wondering why he was taking so long. 22 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.
23 When Zechariah’s week of service in the Temple was over, he returned home. 24 Soon afterward his wife, Elizabeth, became pregnant and went into seclusion for five months. 25 “How kind the Lord is!” she exclaimed. “He has taken away my disgrace of having no children.”
This angelic encounter with Zechariah is a connection to the
Mosaic Covenant. It connects the priesthood and the Torah with the story of
Jesus, thus all the references to the law and connections to the priestly line
Imagine, being Zechariah. You are in the temple offering incense according to the law, and like you had done many times before, and suddenly there is an angel standing next to the altar in front of you! Whoa! What was his response?
Luke 1:12 - 12 Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him.
Overwhelmed with fear! The angel tells him not to be afraid, which I am sure calmed his fears right away (not!). Then, the angel gives Zechariah some good news - God has heard his prayers! They are going to have a baby! Something tells me this was a prayer prayed many years prior and long forgotten!
An angel announced to Abraham that he and Sarah would have a child in their old age, just like they announced to Zechariah and Elizabeth that they would have a child in their old age.
I love that the man who spent his life, and at this time was OLD so it was many years, studying the Torah and Prophets and serving in the temple was the FIRST person the angel appeared to in this narrative and the one who had the least faith.
What was the priests response? “How can I be sure this will happen?”
While this seems like an innocent question, it reveals a heart issue. There was a lack of faith that it could or would happen.
- Knowledge of God is not the same as trusting God.
- Serving God is not the same as trusting God.
You can have both knowledge and service and still lack faith in God at times. This was not a total lack of faith in God, or I doubt God would have chosen Zech and Lizzy to be the parents of John the immerser. But even those of us who have many years with God can still struggle trusting God at times and under certain circumstances.
Gabriel chastised Zechariah, and even punished him by making him mute until after John was born, but even that punishment was used by God. God did not give up on Zechariah because he struggled believing this message.
God does not give up on us when we struggle, either! He has chosen to partner with humans to do his work and he is a gracious and compassionate God who wants to teach us and help us to trust him and glorify him.
I guess a second side lesson is that you are never too old for God to use you for his kingdom!
The second appearance of the angels is to a young, teenage girl, Mary.
Luke 1:26–38 NLT
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, 27 to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. 28 Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!”
29 Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. 30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 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. 33 And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”
34 Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”
35 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. 36 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. 37 For the word of God will never fail.”
38 Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her.
The second person Gabriel shows up to was Mary. A young teenager who was engaged to be married. What an exciting time in life!
She was from the line of David, as was Joseph. The message
was that the Messiah has come to claim his throne and rule forever. This is the
connection of the Davidic Covenant with the birth of Jesus.
When the angel showed up, what was Mary’s response?
Luke 1:29 “29 But she was deeply troubled by this statement, wondering what kind of greeting this could be.”
This is the only person in the gospels that I can find that didn’t freak out when an angel talked to them! She was troubled or confused at the greeting the angel gave her.
Just like Gabriel told Zechariah he was going to have a son, Gabriel told Mary SHE was going to have a son! What great news! Except, she wasn’t married, yet. And she had not been with a man in that way, yet. So she asked a question:
“How can this happen?”
What makes this different than Zechariah’s response is, again, the heart. Mary was not asking IF it would happen, but HOW – there was a certain physical, earthly boundary that God would have to overcome. The angel assured her how it will happen and she believed and submitted to the will of God.
Though this message was even more difficult to believe than the message delivered to Zechariah, this young woman shows more faith than a seasoned priest.
God will use those that trust him. You are never too young to be used by God for his kingdom.
Mary is so excited that she hurries off to go meet Elizabeth - probably the only other person on earth that could comprehend what she was going through! End of chapter 1.
The final group the angels appear to is the shepherds. We do not know the name of the angel who was doing the talking, but this must have been amazing!
Luke 2:1–20 NLT
1 At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. 2 (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. 4 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. 5 He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.
6 And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. 7 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.
8 That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. 9 Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying
14 “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
15 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.”
16 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. 17 After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. 18 All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, 19 but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. 20 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.
We never learn the names of any of these guys. We just know their job - they were shepherds.
The message for the shepherds is that a savior was born and
it was to bring good news of great joy to ALL the people or all the nations.
This is our connection to the Abrahamic Covenant - that all people of the earth
would be blessed through a descendant of Abraham.
An angel appeared to the shepherds, and then a whole group of angels (the armies of heaven) appeared to them. This is the BIGGEST angelic display we have in the gospels, and it was to some sheep herders in the wilderness! Not in Jerusalem, not at the temple, not to royalty, but in the wilderness to shepherds.
What was their response?
Luke 2:9 - 9 Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified.
The group of people who lived in the wilderness and fought off ferocious animals to protect their flocks were terrified!
The angels shared a message about the birth of the Messiah and then gave a simple chorus about God being glorified and peace on earth.
The message was one of peace. It was not just for the affluent, but all people (even shepherds). It was not just for Jews, either, but for all people - Jew and Gentile, alive then or alive today.
2:13–14 The peace to be found on earth was not the Pax Romana (the “universal peace” of the Roman Empire) but peace with God through faith in Jesus Christ (Rm 5:1; see note at Lk 1:78–79). The people whom God favors are those who have found God’s undeserved favor, or grace, through Christ.[1
Luter, A. B. (2017). Luke. In E. A. Blum & T. Wax (Eds.), CSB Study Bible: Notes (p. 1606). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
How did they respond?
- They believed the report
- They went to find Jesus
- They told others about what God said
- They praised and glorified God.
Those who hear, believe, take action and live for the glory of God will experience the peace of God. This is an individual commitment and decision.
The good news of the birth of Jesus is that God has kept his promise and provided a king for his throne. Those that follow this king wholeheartedly will be welcomed as friends and live in peace with the king.
Though we put all of these stories back-to-back, there is quite some time that passes! Gabriel appears to Zechariah and Elizabeth gets pregnant, goes into isolation for 5 months. A month after she comes out of isolation, Gabriel appears to Mary and then Mary goes to visit Elizabeth. Nine months later, when John is about 6 months old, Jesus is born, and the angels appear to the shepherds. This is a 15-month span with 3 angelic occurrences.
So, we have these three invasions of angels. Each one seems to have a different message from the messenger:
- Zechariah - your prayer has been answered, you will have a son. (like Elijah)
- Mary - you are favored by God, you will have a son. (like David)
- Shepherds - God has had a son! (like the Most-high)
The encounters all seem very different from each other. However, they all have certain things in common, too. They all connect a covenant with the birth. [have fun exploring that more on our own!] They all involve angels crashing in on the everyday life of common people. Oh, and they are all about some of the least likely people: (why not the HIGH priest? Why a teenager and not someone older and more mature? Why shepherds and not princes? ).
There is one other common denominator that I want to focus in on this morning as we wrap up our time: BIRTH. Birth seems like a very significant concept in this section. It is about God, being the source of life, providing life through others, though those others are unlikely!
- An OLD couple
- A TEEN virgin
NEITHER of those is likely to be a source of new life. It is BECAUSE of this that God gets the glory! Though God is the author of all life, it seems that when life is generated in a less than normal or expected way, it ensures that even those who might naturally doubt can find reason to acknowledge God’s work and praise him.
SUCH is the new life that God would soon bring about through the life, death and resurrection of this same Messiah!
- The life of Jesus, being born as a human, and therefore God with us in the most vulnerable form imaginable, does not see normal.
- The death of the son of God, that he would be tried and accused or wrong and killed as a common criminal by the people he came to save does not make sense.
- The resurrection is something that had never happened like that before. It takes faith to believe it.
That those who will place their faith in Jesus, that he was God that he did die for us, will become the children of God and inherit the promise of life that was lost since the garden – through simple faith and not any activity or pedigree that we can earn it with – is equally bizarre.
NEW LIFE came through an unusual birth, an unusual death and an unusual method – simple faith.
THIS is the good news!
- Your ancestry does not matter.
- Your physical attributes, including age, do not matter.
- Your knowledge of the religion does not matter.
- Your education, vocation, wealth, geography do not matter.
Peace does not come because someone was born into a bloodline (Jew) or into a godly family (priest), but because an individual chooses to hear and respond to the call of God – to experience his mercy and compassion first hand by surrendering our will, accepting his forgiveness and living in obedience to him.
The Christmas message is the good news that God send Jesus into the world so that we could have peace with God and experience true joy.
The good news is for “all people” and it is reason for great joy – God has kept his promise and we can now be reconnected to God because of Jesus. There can be peace between us and God if we will believe and obey.
Jesus was born so that we could be re-born into his family. If you will trust him and follow him, you can experience the life, joy and peace that this advent brings.