READ : Luke 2:1-16
This is the season when, once again, people will be talking about “the real meaning of Christmas.” I’d like to show you what that is by telling you the real story of Christmas.
The Gospel of Luke, chapter 2:
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.) And everyone went to his own town to register.
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. 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 room for them in the inn.
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. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those
on whom his favor rests.”
When 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.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.
Luke 2:1-16, NIV
We’re caught up right now in the bustle and rush of what’s known as “the Christmas season.” Christmas is one of the things western civilization has contributed to modern world culture. I read a news story about how popular Christmas is in Japan. Christianity claims the allegiance of only 1% of the Japanese people, and yet the Christmas season there is huge, a multi-billion dollar commercial activity. Decorations are put up, gifts are purchased and exchanged, Christmas music is played. On Christmas Eve, the story said, many Japanese will eat Kentucky Fried Chicken, thinking it’s a “traditional” western holiday feast – and because they also think the Colonel looks a little bit like Santa Claus or Father Christmas. Amazing!
But for many people in the West also Christmas is only an exercise in commerce. The real story of Christmas is about buying and selling and getting. It doesn’t have anything to do with religion, really, except the religion of materialism, the worship of money and things.
“But wait a minute,” someone cries, “that’s not true! Don’t be so cynical. That’s not the real meaning of Christmas.” Well then, what is? “Well, it’s . . . it’s `Peace on earth, goodwill to all’; you just read it.” Christmas, they suggest, is the season that appeals to the better side of our nature, the time when we turn to family and friends, when we try to remember to be kind to the less fortunate. It’s Scrooge learning how to be a better person, to be more generous and loving toward his fellow man. The real meaning of Christmas is feelings of peace and goodwill toward others – that must be it! It’s not about commercialism and sales, it’s about love and family and peace on earth and being nice to those around us. Isn’t it?
THE REAL STORY
Appealing as such things undoubtedly are, the Bible doesn’t really talk about them when it tells us the story of Christmas. It starts with the headlines of the day: “A decree went out from Caesar Augustus.” Caesar was just then at the height of his power and glory. He decided that he needed to update the tax rolls throughout the empire – it was one way of raising revenues to deal with that perennial governmental problem, the budget deficit – so he set the bureaucratic machinery in motion for a census. Who could have imagined that all this complex effort aimed at enriching mighty Rome was being superintended by God for the purpose of bringing Mary to Bethlehem for the birth of her baby? And of all the millions of souls numbered in the great Caesar’s census, surely none was as insignificant as this poor Jewish baby. Augustus in the imperial purple in Rome and Jesus wrapped in pieces of cloth in a manger – they are worlds apart, and yet today Augustus is only a name in a history book while Jesus lives and reigns, not just in the hearts of his people by the hundreds of millions, but on the sovereign throne of the universe as well.
The real story of Christmas wasn’t the one that would have made the headline news. Just imagine if there had been television back then! All the cameras and reporters would have flocked to Rome and camped on the steps of the palace. And every time anyone stirred within, the lights would come on and the tape would roll. And there would have been news conferences and special reports and analyses by political and financial experts – and they would all have missed the story. Somebody’s always taking a census, raising taxes, fighting a war, overthrowing a government. Those are the things journalists and historians write about. But they’re not the key events in world history. The real story is what God is doing in the world in the lives of ordinary people. The big news of Christmas is about God becoming a human being, coming in person, taking our nature upon himself, entering our time and space, and yet not ceasing to be God. This is the miracle we Christians call the incarnation. That’s what all the singing and celebrating have been about these past two thousand years.
When Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, they discovered there was no place for them to stay, so they found what shelter they could in a cattle stall, and there is where Mary’s son was born. When he came into the world to save us, the high king of heaven arrived not in a palace, but a barn. Almost no one realized it, no one knew. Centuries later Christian devotion honored the spot where tradition said Jesus was born by building a church over it, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. There is a sort of crypt or cave beneath the church where you can go and see the place where Mary is supposed to have laid her baby. A British journalist named Malcolm Muggeridge once visited there, and later wrote about his impressions of the place. He talked about how ridiculous these shrines seemed to him, filled with commercialism and tawdry trappings. And he was thinking to himself how silly it was to believe that anything special could have happened there. But then, he said,
As those thoughts passed through my mind, I began to notice the demeanor of the visitors coming into the crypt . . . most were obviously standard twentieth-century pursuers of happiness for whom the Church of the Nativity was just an item in a sightseeing tour . . . None the less, as I observed, each face as it came into view was in some degree transfigured. . . . This, they all seemed to be saying, was where it happened; here he came into the world! here we shall find him! The boredom, the idle curiosity, the vagrant thinking all disappeared. Once more in that place glory shone around, and angel voices proclaimed: Unto you is born this day a Savior, which is Christ the Lord!
The real story of Christmas is still being repeated today, every time someone meets the Lord Jesus.
THE REAL MEANING
And the real meaning of Christmas can be learned from the angel’s words to the shepherds of Bethlehem. “Don’t be afraid,” the angel said. “I am bringing you good news.” And so it was, news so good that all the hosts of heaven appeared suddenly in the night skies of Bethlehem, making them blaze with light and ring with praise. “Glory to God in the highest!” The first Christmas carol was a doxology, a song of praise to the most high God, and it was sung by the only creatures in the universe – besides Joseph and Mary – who really knew what was going on. Witnessing the awesome miracle of Christmas, the angels’ first impulse was to praise the Lord of heaven and earth. Praise is natural in angels, though not in humans; that’s one difference between having a God-centered and a self-centered outlook. Our inherent tendency is always to think of ourselves first. What does it mean to me, we ask; what’s in this for me? When Christ was born, the angels thought first about what it meant to God. What’s in it for him? Glory!
The incarnation was glorifying to God because it was such a dramatic revelation of his nature, his character, his capability. If you know God, the more you know of him, the greater will be your sense of wonder and your desire and capacity to praise him. Think of what the act of God becoming human for us says about him. It reveals his wisdom; who else could have thought of such a plan to redeem his lost creatures? It reveals his power; who else could ever have done such a thing? How could the infinite and eternal God take upon himself a genuine human nature without losing his deity? How can he be perfectly and fully and at the same time, both God and man? We can only marvel at such omnipotence. But most of all, the incarnation reveals God’s love. Think of why he did it all! He came because he loves us, because he wants to save us. He came to show us himself; in Jesus Christ we can see the face of God. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory” (John 1:14, rsv). And he came to rescue and redeem and restore us to himself. “He came to his own . . . and to as many as received him, who believed in his name, to them he gave power to become the children of God” (John 1:11-12, rsv). “Glory to God in the highest!”
“And peace on earth.” The second part of the angels’ Christmas song. It’s not the familiar “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.” That’s a well-known translation, but it doesn’t quite get the message right. The angels were not singing about ordinary peace, the kind of peace we struggle for and find elusive in so many places, the goodwill we try to muster toward our fellow inhabitants of this rather dilapidated globe. No, that sort of peace is never going to come on its own. Sin, greed, selfishness, pride are all so deeply ingrained in human nature that a sentimental feeling of kindliness toward our neighbor is not likely to come.
The only way to peace on earth is by finding peace with God through Jesus Christ. Horizontal peace (among sinful humans) comes as a result of vertical peace (between sinful humans and the holy God). This vertical peace is what the angels were singing about, and modern translations render their song: “On earth peace to [those] on whom his favor rests.” It’s an announcement of God’s determination that he will be gracious to all who are united to his son Jesus through faith. Jesus is God’s beloved Son, the one with whom he is well-pleased. For us to know God’s full favor, we must be joined to Christ, on whom God’s favor fully rests (cf. Luke 3:22).
So if you want to know the real meaning of Christmas, you can see it here. It’s all about God: his initiative, his glory, his love, his favor. The only part for us to play in the real story of Christmas is that of the shepherds. We must hear the news, we must believe it, we must go and see the Christ, and worship him. Glory to God in the highest! Alleluia!