The Lord's Day Morning
December 23, 2007
Nine Lessons and Carols
The Sixth Lesson
The Significance of Christ's Birth”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2. In the King's College “Service of Nine Lessons and Carols” the Sixth Lesson is introduced with the words, “Luke tells us of the birth of Jesus.” In the King James translation there is no more famous or elegant paragraph in the whole of the English language. As memorable openings go, the words “And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed” is one of those sentences–“When in the course of human events…” or “Fourscore and seven years ago…” or “To be or not to be?”–where, when you hear the opening sentence announced, you know what's coming after it. And all sorts of things pile up in your mind and heart as you begin to hear those words.
Now therein lies a danger, because the very familiarity and elegance of the text can lull you to sleep. You can miss amazing things that are there right under your nose, and even buried in your memory. So to aid you in your devotion as you listen to the word of God this morning, I want to ask you some questions: What do you think about when you think about the Christmas story? What are the specific aspects of the Christmas story that continue to attract your attention, grip your heart, and move you to wonder, love, and praise? What do you learn or notice or love the most? Why? Perhaps those are questions that you can reflect upon in the next couple of days.
But as we read Luke 2:1-7 this morning, I especially want to draw your attention to four aspects of the story. I want you to notice in the first three verses how this narrative, this history of the birth of Christ, draws attention to the timing of His birth. There's great significance in that timing. Then in verses 4-5, I want you to see how this story — this narrative, this history — draws attention to the place of Jesus’ birth. And there is great significance in the place of Jesus’ birth. Third, I want you to see how this story draws attention to the manner of Christ's birth. You see that especially in verses 6-7. He is born in a way that would surprise you if you knew who He was but you didn't know this story already. And then, fourth, I want you to see how this history recorded for us in Luke 2:1-7 — really, the whole of it — draws attention to the great gospel of grace itself.
Now let's pray before we read God's word.
Heavenly Father, thank You for this Your word. As majestic and elegant as it is, protect us from over-familiarity with it, and make us to behold with our eyes and to hear with our ears, and to ponder in our hearts the great gospel truths of Your word, for we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is the word of God:
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place 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.
As we look at this great and beautiful and familiar passage today, I want to draw your attention to three things in particular. I want you to see how all four parts of this passage draw our attention first to the supreme sovereignty of God, and what that means for you today. I want you to see what this passage shows us about the surprising service of God in our salvation. And then, I want you to see what we learn about the great grace of God in His means of salvation, Jesus Christ.
I. The supreme sovereignty of God in the coming of Jesus into the world.
First I want you to see what this passage shows us about the supreme sovereignty of God, and that's displayed for us both in what the passage says about the timing of Jesus’ coming into this world, and the place where He comes into this world.
One of the things that Luke is telling you in verses 1-5 especially is that God is sovereignly in all the details of the birth of Christ. If you’re a faithful Hebrew believer and you hear that the Messiah is coming into this world and He is going to be born to a virgin, according to the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, but that she's married to a carpenter from Nazareth, you’re nervous! And you’re nervous because you know that Micah 6:2 tells you that the Messiah is not going to be born in Nazareth. He's going to be born in Bethlehem. And so you’re immediately nervous and you’re wondering, “Lord, how are You going to get this family from Nazareth to Bethlehem?”
Not to worry! God will simply use the most powerful person in the world and the most powerful kingdom in the world as His pawn to do His will. And so Caesar Augustus — Julius Caesar was his great-uncle, just to give you some point of reference — Caesar Augustus is going to call for a registration, and that registration would be used in the Roman Empire to provide a census that would allow the empire to recruit military “volunteers” for service and to provide taxes for the administrative support of the empire. And so Caesar Augustus appoints a time for a registration, and Quirinius (who is the governor of Syria, the area which is controlling what was once upon a time Israel) put into place this registration, and Joseph has to make his way from Nazareth to his home town because he's of the lineage of David and he's got to go back to home territory to register for this census which has been appointed by the Roman emperor.
Now as far as the Roman emperor knows, he is doing exactly what he wants to do; he's doing his own bidding…and he knows nothing about this kingdom which the Lord God is about to set up through this baby who is about to be born. And yet God, Luke is telling us, is in both the timing and the place. He's in all the details of the birth of Christ. Christ is born in the fullness of time, the Apostle Paul says in Galatians 4:4, 5. At exactly the time of God's appointment, He comes into this world.
Now you wouldn't have guessed this could be the time. You know, you might have guessed, well, the time of David — that would have been a good time. Or maybe even right after the Babylonians had come and thrown down the kingdom of Judah, six centuries before. Maybe that would have been a good time for the Messiah to come into the world. But Jesus instead comes into the world at the very lowest ebb of the history of Israel. For six centuries, Israel had either been in exile or had been a petty client-state to a pagan occupying power. And if you had been a believer then, you might have been wondering for six centuries what God was waiting for. He had promised the Messiah; where was He? The prophets in the seventh and sixth centuries prophesied of the coming of this Messiah, but for year after year, decade after decade, century after century, the people of God waited…and no Messiah. But now, in the fullness of time, God sends His Son into the world. Luke is just telling you that this is God's purpose working itself out in precisely the time that He would work.
That's such an important lesson for us to learn, because you see, God's not only at work in the timing of the birth of Jesus Christ; the Lord Jesus Christ says that God is concerned about every detail and aspect of your life. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount, He’ll say that not a hair can fall from your head apart from the will of your heavenly Father. He's that concerned about every aspect, about every circumstance, every detail of your life, and He's in the timing of your life even if you don't sense it or realize it. You know, it's an irony that sometimes the very time that you need to believe most that God is involved in the timing of your life is the time when it's hardest to believe that He's involved in the timing of your life. And so the very surprising nature of the timing of the coming of the Christ ought to remind us to trust God with that. Our African-American Christian friends have a wonderful saying about that. They say, “He may not come when you want Him, but He's always on time.” You may think He's late, but He's always on time. His timing is perfect. Luke's reminding you of that. Luke's reminding you that He's involved in the details, even of the place of Jesus’ birth here. He's displaying His supreme sovereignty in getting Joseph and Mary from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea so that prophecy can be fulfilled, so that there are no falling words in the promises and prophesies of God. And He does this again through this decree made by the Roman emperor, who has no idea that he's fulfilling the will of God, but he is. And though the world would have looked at his kingdom and said his decisions are the most important decisions in the world, yet what was actually going on through his decree was something far more important than him and his kingdom, his purposes. God's purposes were far more important that Caesar's purposes, and Caesar was accomplishing the will of God even though he didn't know it.
Now what lesson are we to learn from the supreme sovereignty of God displayed in the birth of Christ? Well, simply this: God's watchcare over us is just as extensive and comprehensive as it was over the birth of His own dear Son.
He is attentive to every detail of our lives; all the circumstances of our lives are in His hands, and we can trust Him. But it's hard sometimes. There may be things, details in your life right now that are challenging you in terms of trusting the living God. Well, I've got some good news for you: all of the people of God — all of the people of God in all ages — could stand shoulder to shoulder with you and say, “We understand…same with us.” But not one of the people of God in all ages would ever tell you, “You know, I trusted God and He let me down.” No, they might wish that He would have done things a little bit differently while it was going on, but in the end they could stand and testify that the Lord has been faithful in every detail and aspect of their lives. He is trustworthy. And that's one of the things that Luke is reminding us in this passage here. The Lord Jesus and His family and all of the details and circumstances of the birth of Jesus Christ were in the loving hands and under the loving watchcare of the heavenly Father. And we, too, believers — friends, brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ — can trust the loving watchcare of the heavenly Father over every detail of life…every detail of life…even the ones that you just wish would go away.
II. God's providence — the place of Christ's birth.
Secondly, I want you to see the surprising service of God. You see it especially in verses
6-7, because the way that the Messiah comes into the world is not the way that you’re expecting.
What did we quote from, from Isaiah 9, as the Call to Worship this morning?
“For unto us a child is born; unto us a Son is given…”
What is this? It is the fulfillment of the promise to David in II Samuel that there will be a king on his throne forever. And Isaiah 9 is announcing the fulfillment of that promise that a son is going to be born: a son of David who is going to be called Son of God; who is going to reign on the throne of Israel:
“…And the government shall be upon His shoulders, and His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
And then we come to verses 6-7, and we read that He's wrapped in swaddling cloths, and He's laid to rest in His first bed, a feeding trough, because there's no room for Him in the inn. And you’re wondering, “What's going on, Lord? This doesn't go together. The government shall be upon his shoulders, and there's no room for Him in the inn?”
“Greetings, highly favored one, the Lord is with you!” the angel will say to Mary, but then this family finds itself in a cattle stall.
“He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest,” and yet they lay Him in a manger.
What's going on here? Something very, very important that Luke wants you to understand. Luke is recounting for you the low estate, the poverty and deprivation that was experienced by Jesus Christ, even His humiliation from the first seconds of His life, all as a part of His purchasing for you forgiveness and glory. Luke is revealing to you the manner, the way, the method of the loving purposes of God.
God is going to show you a matchless display of His grace in stooping to serve you for your salvation in sending His Son not into the world as a king acknowledged immediately by all, and living in a glorious, splendid palace, but being born in such a way that the little fictional drummer boy can say of Him in that song, “I am a poor boy, too.” And God doesn't want you to miss that, because what God is showing is just how far He’ll go to save His people; just how much He loves you, because He will give His Son, His only Son, and send Him into the world not to experience the acknowledgement that He deserved, not to immediately display the glory that was His, but to be underestimated and to be marginalized, and to experience deprivation for you. That's how far God is ready to go. That's how far He’ll stoop to serve you for your salvation. It's quite amazing. And if you’re looking for something to think about in the Christmas story, that's not a bad one to meditate upon in the next few days.
III. God's gospel — God's gift of His Son in the birth of Christ.
But there's one last thing that I want you to see, and that is the great grace of God's gospel revealed in this passage. Because in this passage we see something of God's strategy to save a multitude of men and women and boys and girls from every tribe, tongue, people and nation, out of this world, and His strategy is simply this: to send His Son in this world to live fully human and fully divine, and to die in our place. And I want to say that's the most surprising thing in the world, and it's absolutely different from everything else that every other world religion and philosophy says. Every other religion, every other religious option boils down to this: “It's a dangerous world out there, and God is a righteous God. Let me give you some good advice. Be good, and maybe you’ll be accepted.” You boil it all down, and every other religion and every other philosophy says that. Oh, the words are a little bit different here and there, but it all boils down to this: Be good, and maybe you can be accepted by God.
Do you realize how radical this story is that you've just read? The story is that for your salvation, what is it that you do? Absolutely nothing. God sends His Son into the world.
In every epic adventure of literature in every culture, what is celebrated? Some great quest that we perform. There is no great quest that we perform reported in Luke 2:1-7, there is only a great quest that God performs. In so many world religions, there are pilgrimages that must be performed in order for you to be right with that God. You must go to some special place in order to make yourself right with him. In Luke 2:1-7, there is no pilgrimage that is undertaken by you or me, but there is the greatest pilgrimage ever, the greatest chasm ever bridged, when God comes into this world in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, for your salvation.
You see, this is a story not about a quest or a pilgrimage, or a deed that you will do in order to make yourself right with God. This is a story about what God is doing to make you right with Him. The message is not “Be good and maybe you’ll be accepted by God.” The message is “Look at what God will do to cause you to be forgiven and to be pardoned, and to be accepted, and to be changed and transformed, and to enjoy fellowship with Him forever.” The story is about God's Son in the fullness of time being sent by the heavenly Father into this world. John sums it up, doesn't he?
“God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes on Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.”
It is not about what we will do to make ourselves right with God. It is about what God has done to declare us right with Him.
There's a book out that has been made into a movie. The book is called The Kite Runner. It is a story that is based out of the horrors of Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover of that country. It's a story about two boys growing up in Afghanistan in a shared household. One is rich, one is poor. One is the son of a businessman, one is his servant. But they are dear friends, Amir and Hassan. They play this game of kites where you try and cut down your opponent's kite — thus the name of the movie. But Amir, the rich boy who is friends with Hassan, the poor servant boy, betrays his friend Hassan, and subsequently Hassan falls victim to a wicked and devastating and life-changing crime against his person. Amir and his father have to flee the country as the Taliban comes to power, but Amir (here in the United States) is wracked by guilt over the betrayal of his friend, Hassan. Hassan is eventually killed by the Taliban. A family friend who knows of Amir's betrayal of Hassan calls him, and he says, “There is a way for you to be good again.” This is the tag-line for the whole movie. It's to be a movie of hope and of forgiveness, and of restoration. But because the movie and book are accurately based on Islam, there is no forgiveness and there is no restoration, because there is no way provided to be good again. The idea is that if Amir will come back and do some good deed, he can make himself good again and make up for the dramatic betrayal of his friend Hassan.
He discovers that Hassan has a son who is a captive to the Taliban, and who is being treated in unspeakable ways by them. And if he will go back to the country and rescue that son of Hassan, he can make right what he has done wrong in his past. And it's very clear that both for Amir and for Hassan's son, in the book and in the movie, that there is never any ‘being made good again.’ Why? Because there is nothing that you can do…nothing that you can do to make up for what you have done in the past. But the good news of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed in Luke 2:1-7 is this: There is a way for you to be good again. But you can't do it.
Jesus can. Jesus has. Jesus has come so that you can be accepted by God not because of you, not because of your deserving, not because of anything that you have done, are doing, or can do, but because of what He has done. The whole gospel story is about what God is doing for your salvation, not what God asks you to do so that you can be accepted with Him. And so even in this passage we see how radical, how completely unexpected is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a gospel which calls on you to renounce your own attempts to make yourself right with God and to trust in the way that God has provided for you to be right with Him, and that is in the person and the work of Jesus Christ. It would be a great tragedy this Christmas for us to enjoy the gifts of family and friends, united in fellowship again for perhaps the one time in the year that we enjoy that, and yet fail to appreciate the greatest gift of all: the gift in the Lord Jesus Christ, the story that Luke has set before us today.
Let us pray.
Our heavenly Father, we thank You for Your great grace to us in the gospel of Your dear Son, and we ask that we would receive and trust on Him alone for our salvation, as He is offered in the gospel. We pray this prayer in Jesus' name. Amen.
Let's take our hymnals out and turn to No. 207, and sing Good Christian Men, Rejoice!
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, both now and forevermore. Amen.