“For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”
Well, the great day that we’ve all been waiting and preparing for is finally here. The Feast of Christmas. The Nativity of our Lord, the Birthday of Christ, commonly called Christmas Day, as the title in our Book of Common Prayer puts it. And I hope you’re not completely worn out from all the shopping, cooking, running around, and getting ready. I’ve already heard a couple of people say, “I can’t wait until Christmas is over.”
It’s truly a shame that people in our modern consumer-driven society feel this way, but it’s also completely understandable. For so many of us Christmas is a stressful time of year. I myself confess to getting stressed out at Christmas. In addition to the shopping and getting ready, there are church services to prepare for and sermons to write. And Christmas is also a time when new people visit our church, and every pastor wants to make a good impression on those folks in the hopes that they will come back and perhaps even become members. And that adds pressure and stress as well.
But let’s take some time this evening to strip all this aside, to lay down our stresses for just a moment, and focus on the real reason for the season. That reason is summed up in the words of the angel to the fearful shepherds that I quoted a minute ago. “For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”
These words are included in our Gospel reading for this First Mass of Christmas from the 2nd chapter of the Gospel of Luke.
Luke’s account of the birth of Christ begins with a seeming random event. An edict issued by Caesar Augustus to the entire Roman Empire (“all the world”) to be counted in a census. Our King James Version of the Bible refers to this census as a “taxing.” And that was in fact the reason for the census: so that all those dwelling in the Roman Empire could be taxed. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, was caught up in that census, and this is what brought him and his espoused wife, Mary, and the yet-unborn child (Jesus) to Bethlehem.
What we see here is God working through the “normal” events and course of of human history to bring about his own sovereign and divine purpose. That purpose was predicted by Micah, one of the prophets of the Old Testament: that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David. “But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah, too small to be among the clans of Judah, From you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times.”
Joseph and Mary were living in Nazareth, way up in northern region of Galilee, and Nazareth was where Jesus would have been “normally” born. But God had other plans for his birth. There were actually two towns named Bethlehem in ancient Israel, and the one where Jesus was born was called Bethlehem Judah, or Bethlehem Ephrathah, to distinguish it from the other city of the same name.
Bethlehem was the famous city of David. Rachel’s tomb was nearby, and David’s ancestors lived there. Bethlehem is 5 miles south of Jerusalem, and 60 miles south of Nazareth as the crow flies. That was a significant journey for Joseph and Mary to make in those days.
The word Bethlehem in Hebrew means “the house of bread (or food).” So Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah of God who taught that he was himself the bread of life, the living bread, the bread from heaven that gives eternal life to those who eat it, was born in the house of bread. Funny how God works, isn’t it?
“And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Jesus was born in a manger because there was no room for them in any hotel in town. The world had no room for Jesus and the Holy Family when he was born. And the world—that is, all the people who don’t know or haven’t accepted Jesus Christ—still doesn’t have room for him.
There is a parallel to this idea in St. John’s Gospel, where John says that Jesus “came unto his own and his own received him not.” In his wonderful little book on the Gospel Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict writes that this “points to the reversal of values found in the figure of Jesus Christ and his message. From the moment of his birth, he [Jesus] belongs outside the realm of what is important and powerful in worldly terms. Yet it is this unimportant and powerless child that proves to be the truly powerful one, the one on whom ultimately everything depends.”
And Benedict continues: “So one aspect of becoming a Christian is having to leave behind what everyone else thinks and wants, the prevailing standards, in order to enter the light of the truth of our being, and aided by that light to find the right path.” I would add that this lack of room for Jesus in Bethlehem points as well to the rejection of Jesus which he experienced throughout his earthly ministry, a rejection culminating in his crucifixion and death on the cross.
But for the true meaning and significance of this birth in the manger at Bethlehem, we must pause and listen to the words spoken (or more likely sung) by an angel. “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
We note, first, that this news is great (the Greek word is maga) joy. That joy is the keynote of the Christian Gospel and of the Christian life. And it’s a joy that no earthly joy can match.
Second, this news both is and also shall be. It is good news now to the Jewish shepherds, and it is good news that shall be (in the future) for all people (i.e., not just Jews).
Finally, in these words of the angel we have three highly significant facts about Jesus. He is Savior. He is Messiah (Christ). And he is Lord.
He is Savior because he’s the one sent by God to rescue, deliver, and set free us fallen human beings. His very name, Jesus, means “God saves.”
He is the Messiah because he’s the promised “anointed one” sent by God to rule over and lovingly care for God’s people. The Jews, God’s ancient chosen people, had been promised and expected this Messiah for hundreds of years. And now he has come.
And he is Lord because he is God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, and the lord of all who trust and believe in him.
Births remind us of new life and new beginnings. I wish you all a very Merry and blessed Christmas. And I invite you to begin a new life, a new beginning, this Christmas with Jesus as your Savior, your Messiah, and your Lord. For by making Jesus our Savior, Messiah, and Lord, we will indeed enter into those promised good tidings of great joy.