The Lord's Day Morning
December 18, 2005
“Lying in a Manger”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke, chapter two. As you do so, I want to ask you a question: What do you think about when you think about the Christmas story? When you hear it read, as we do every year at the Christmas Eve Service, what are the things that you think about? What do you learn? What do you notice? What do you love the most (in particular) about the Christmas story? Think about that as we read God's word.
Before we do, let's pray.
Lord God, this is Your word. It is true. If there is any shadow of a doubt in our hearts about that, we pray that by Your Spirit You would make it clear to us that this is not fantasy, this is reality. But this truth is not only true, it is important; it is significant; it matters. If there is any shadow of a doubt about that, we pray that by Your Spirit You would take hold of our hearts and You would by that same Spirit work that truth deep into our hearts so that we see in every aspect of our life, in every fiber of our being, that the word is more important than food. Open our eyes, then, O God, today, to behold truth that matters displayed in Your word. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is the word of God:
“Now it came about in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all were proceeding to register for the census, everyone to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register, along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. And it came about that while they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her first-born son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
So, what do you think when you think about the Christmas story? What do you learn? What do you notice? What do you love the most? I think there are a lot of good answers to that question.
One of the things that strikes me often when I hear this story is the sovereignty of God. Only God could have pulled this off! One of the things is the providence of God: how His care for every detail is writ large over this whole story. One of the things is the striking way which God works His plan of redemption. One of the things that proves to me that no man invented this story is that no man would have ever have thought of this being the way to introduce the redemption of the world into this place. And one of the things that strikes me is the humility of God in the gift of His Son. Well, this passage that we've just read gives us a beautiful window into all these truths.
I want to direct your attention to four things in particular as we study this passage: First, the timing of Christ's birth; and then, the place of Christ's birth; and then, the manner of Christ's birth; and finally, God's gift of His Son in Christ's birth; because I believe that if we look at each of those four things, we're going to learn important truth about God's sovereignty and God's providence, and God's humility in the gospel.
I. God's sovereignty — the timing of Christ's birth.
Let's look at these four things, then, together, first in verses 1-3 which describe for us in detail the timing of Christ's birth. And in those verses we see something of God's sovereignty:
“Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”
Notice how Luke is interested in anchoring your understanding of the birth of Jesus the Messiah in the context of the concrete facts of history. For Luke this is no myth, this is no symbolic fable, this is no parable. The account of the coming of Jesus into this world is not just a mythic poem from which we are to derive life significance about our existence in this world. It is a concrete historical reality. Luke wants us to understand that Jesus’ coming into this world is a space/time reality. It's more real than the chairs you are sitting in, and so he gives you the historical context. He wants you to know exactly when it happened: It happened when Caesar Augustus called for a census in all of the Roman occupied world.
In those days, you see, Caesars called for censuses for at least two reasons: first, for tax purposes. They wanted to have a list of you so they could tax you. Nothing changes! And then, they wanted a list of you for military purposes. They wanted a list of the men in their kingdoms so that they could draft you. Nothing changes! But Luke doesn't just tell you that a census was taken that was involved in getting Jesus’ family to Bethlehem where He would eventually be born, he tells you who called for that census and who administered the census.
Now if you don't remember your Roman history from your classics courses in high school or in college, let me just give you a little hint: Caesar Augustus had a grand-uncle whose name was Julius Caesar. Right! That Julius Caesar! So Luke is telling you exactly who called this census and exactly who administered it — it was Quirinius. Now, this is not something that Luke fabricated. We have the name of Quirinius on records from this time. He was the Roman provincial ruler of Syria. So Luke is telling you the exact timing of Christ's birth, but it's all the more significant because this is the last time that you would expect the Messiah of Israel to come into the world.
Let's face it, friends, Israel had fallen upon hard times. From the height of the power of the nation of Israel — surely it was in the days of David and Solomon — when that kingdom extended far and wide, when the people of God were united, when David had rest on all sides from all his enemies, and then Solomon would build the grand and glorious temple in Jerusalem. But after that things went downhill for Israel. First the kingdoms were divided in the days of Rehoboam and Jeroboam into Northern Kingdom and Southern Kingdom, and the Northern Kingdom went after false gods and committed idolatry against the Lord God of Israel. Then, in judgment, the Northern Kingdom disappeared in the eighth century, and a century or so later the Southern Kingdom disappeared under the judgment of God and the last descendant of David was sent away into captivity into Babylon. And then when the exiles came back, the kingdom never was the same, was it? Oh, for a brief time in the Maccabean period there were Jews involved in ruling Jews, but it was never again that great Davidic kingdom. And now Israel was a petty client state of Rome, ruled by a descendent of Esau! Can you imagine it? And right then God determines to send the Messiah of Israel into the world. Only a sovereign God could have done that.
And not only does He send the Messiah in the world at that time, at the very lowest point of Israel's power, but He uses the most powerful nation in the world to do His bidding. ‘I will have the Caesar to call for a census. I will have his provincial ruler to administer the census. This will position the family into which I have chosen the Messiah to be born into the right place at the right time, so that my purposes are accomplished.’
You see, what you learn in verses 1-3 about the timing of Christ's birth is that God is sovereign. It is a display of His sovereignty, and, my friends, that truth is not only true, but it is a practical truth. It is a truth we still need to understand today. You see, it is the truth that our times are in God's hands, even if our times don't look like it. You know, who in Israel would have said ‘This is our time!’ on the eve of the birth of the Messiah? Oh, you could see somebody in Israel in the reign of David or Solomon saying, ‘This is our time! God's side is winning! The kingdom is advancing!’ but who in Israel would have said ‘This is our day! We’re the national champions this year’ — nobody would have thought that.
But God was sovereign over their times, and in His time He sent His Son into the world; and, my friends, we need to understand that ourselves. Our times are in His hands, and He knows best and we must trust Him. He rules and overrules in our lives. He knows just when to send relief.
You remember that wonderful saying that we repeated not many weeks ago from Ronnie Crudup, that great saying of the African-American Christians? “He may not come when you want Him, but He's always on time.” Our God is sovereign in our lives.
I love what J.C. Ryle says about this passage:
“Let us ever rest our souls on the thought that our times are in God's hands. He knows the best season for sending help to His church and new light to the world. Let us beware of giving way to over-anxiety about the course of events around us, as if we knew better than the King of Kings when relief should come.”
That's why the hymn writer, Lloyd, could say:
“My times are in Thy hands;
My God, I wish them there.
My life, my friends, my soul I leave
Entirely to Thy care.”
Have you learned that trust of God? Have your legs been kicked out from under you this year? Maybe there are some in our midst who lost much, or everything, in those great storms that came ashore just a few months ago. Do you believe that your times are in God's hands? Christian, they are, because He's got the whole world in His hands. Didn't He prove it at Christmas? Even the Roman emperor is His tool to do His bidding. That's the first thing we see here, isn't it? God's sovereignty!
II. God's providence — the place of Christ's birth.
But there's something else, and you’ll see it in verses 4 and 5. It's not just the timing of Christ's birth that shows the kingship, the rule of God; it's the place of Christ's birth. Here we see, don't we, God's providence?
“Joseph went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register, along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child.”
Joseph was a humble laborer in Nazareth. How's the Bethlehem prophecy going to be fulfilled? Even Herod's religious leaders understood that the Messiah was going to be born in Bethlehem. How was God going to get Joseph, this humble laborer from Nazareth, in the right place at the right time for the birth of the Messiah, so that Micah's prophecy in Micah 6:2 could be fulfilled? ‘Well, I’ll just have the most powerful king on the earth call for a census, and I’ll have his provincial ruler administer it. And Joseph, who is a descendent of David, will then have to go to Bethlehem, and at that time the child will be delivered.’
You see, the point is that all the circumstances surrounding the birth of the Messiah are firmly in the hand of God's providence. He's guiding, He's leading, He's planning, He's fulfilling all of His decree; and this, too, reminds us, friends, that all the circumstances of our lives are in His hands.
Do you trust Him? Anna Waring sings,
“Father, I know that all my life
Is portioned out for me.
All the changes that are sure to come
I do not fear to see,
But I ask Thee for a present mind
Intent on pleasing Thee.”
How can you live with a present mind in the midst of this changing world where the foundations are being shaken and the world is changing around you? Because you believe in the providence of God: that all the circumstances of life are in the hand of a good and kind and wise heavenly Father who has not only His glory but Your best interests in mind. And, my friends, if you attempt to form your belief about how the world is from your circumstances, you will never ever deduct that truth from your circumstances. You must come to your circumstances with that truth already learned from the lips of God, or you will never know anything like peace or confidence in this world.
And so that truth is not only important for the holy family, it is important for us. God's providence seen in even the place of Christ's birth reminds us that all the circumstances of our lives are in His hands. We must trust Him just as much today as Mary and Joseph had to do in the infancy of Jesus. The true believer need not worry about circumstances, because God designs all of them.
III. God's humility — the manner of Christ's birth.
But thirdly, we see something here of the manner of Christ's birth in verses 6 and 7. Isn't it surprising?
“While they were there the days were completed for her to give birth, and She gave birth to her first-born son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger….”
Now, that doesn't make sense, does it? Just last week in Matthew didn't we read these words from the angel Gabriel to Mary: “Hail, highly favored one. The Lord is with you”?
“There was no room for them in the inn.” Those two things don't go together! Didn't we read last week in Matthew, “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High”? Those two phrases don't go together in one sentence! If you handed that into your English teacher, you’d be flunked!
But we sing about this all the time at Christmas, don't we? Turn back to the very last hymn that you just sang, 207. Look at how we sing about it. It's the very first stanza…it's the third line down:
“Earth and heaven before Him bow,
And He is in a manger now.”
You see, those things don't go together! This is the One of whom Paul says every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus the Messiah is the Lord God of the universe, to the glory of the heavenly Father. And He is laid for His birth, as His cradle, in the feeding trough of animals!
You understand this is not coincidence; this is not happenstance: this is the deliberate choice of God Almighty. You understand that the manner of Christ's birth displays God's humility. [I mean to say that. Let me say it again: It displays God's humility.]
You see, in the Christmas story we see not only God's sovereignty in His providence but we see God's humility, and it is displayed in the manner of Christ's birth. That birth is a window into the heart and character of God. Here we see the grace and condescension of our Savior. God humbles Himself in humbling His Son for our sakes, so when God calls you and me to humility He is not calling us to something which He has not been prepared to do Himself. In fact, He can say to you when He calls you to live in humility and self-denying humility towards one another, ‘Follow My example. Look at what I have done in abasing Myself for your eternal blessing, in giving My Son, the glorious King of heaven and earth, causing Him to be born into desolation for your sakes. Humble yourselves to one another.’
But, my friends, it's not just that the timing and place of the incarnation are surprising and significant, the very method of the incarnation displays God's power displayed in weakness. This account indicates the low estate and deprivation of Jesus Christ, but through this humiliation, through this deprivation, Jesus purchases us a title to glory.
You know, there was a sentimental little Christmas song written in the late 1950's. It became the second biggest hit of Bing Crosby, right after White Christmas — The Little Drummer Boy. It was written in 1958, and as I say, a very sentimental little song based on the idea of a little boy who was along with the wise men as they gave gifts to the King…and he didn't have a gift to give to the King. There's one little line in that song that is very, very substantive. He says to the little Baby, “I am a poor boy, too.”
Can you imagine that, my friends? God sent His Son into the world in such a way that a little boy very well could have said to His Son, “I am poor, too.” And He does this not simply for an example, you understand, but He does this that we might be saved from our sin and brought into the enjoyment of eternal riches with the everlasting Son and King, Jesus Christ.
IV. God's gospel — God's gift of His Son in Christ's birth.
And, my friends, we ought not only to be moved by that humility, and we ought to not only be inspired to live in humility towards one another and towards all men, but we ought to be moved in praise to God for the gospel of His dear Son. And that's where I want to go next and last, because in verse 7 aren't we reminded of God's gospel? As well as His sovereignty and His providence and His humility, aren't we reminded of God's gospel in His gift of His Son in Christ's birth?
“And she gave birth to her first-born son.” Yes, Jesus was Mary's first-born son, but every time we hear that phrase we ought to remember that before Jesus was Mary's first-born son He was the beloved only begotten Son of God, and Mary's birth of her first-born son was but the outworking of His sending His only begotten Son into this world to fulfill what John tells us in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world…” — the world that hated Him, the world that despised Him, the world that ignored Him, the world that rebelled against Him — that God so loved that world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes on Him will not deservedly perish, but have everlasting life. And the glory of that gospel is all the more brought into bold relief when we consider the reaction of the indifferent world (and even the hostile world) to the very gift of God.
Many of you have read that wretched review1 of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first of The Chronicles of Narnia movies, written by the very accomplished writer for the English newspaper The Guardian. She rages against the movie, especially against the picture of blood sacrifice in the death of Aslan. She says, “You know, blood sacrifice is that which is most hateful in religion.” And she says, “We didn't ask God to do that for us.”
You see, in this she indicates that she does not understand her position. She doesn't think she needs the Son of God, thank you very much. And that's what makes this gift of God so striking. He doesn't send His Son into a world that thinks that it needs Him, but it does. You see, this radical gift points to our radical need, and why in the world is God sending His only Son into the world into a feeding trough for animals!? What's the problem!? Surely the very radical-ness of that gift suggests that something is very much awry — and it is: we are. We are in radical need, and thus this radical gift, and that in and of itself lets us know that must be our only hope. We must be in some kind of fix for God to have to do that!
Ah, and that brings us back to our question again, doesn't it? Where is your hope? Because if it's anywhere else than on that Person who once lay in that feeding trough, you can best believe that your hope will disappoint. I want to suggest to you, my friends, that one of the biggest problems we face in this life is placing our hope on things that will not support it. And if God has sent His Son into this world to be a pauper, then it suggests to us that our hope had best be in Him, or our hope will be disappointed and unsupported.
My friends, if your hope is in Him–not just the Baby of that manger, but in the mighty Christ raised from the dead who will come again one day with power–if your hope is in Him, I can assure you that it will never be disappointed in this world or the one to come.
Our Lord and our God, our mouths are open and close to speechlessness before the radical gift of Your Son…. [Tape ends.]