The Lord's Day Morning
January 25, 2009
“The Messiah Is Born”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke 2. We’ll be looking at verses 1-7 as we continue our way through Luke's great Gospel. He's speaking to his friend — perhaps someone that he is introducing the gospel to, perhaps a young Christian, we don't know exactly — but he's Theophilus, as you will remember from the first four verses of the book. And in effect, especially in these first two chapters, he's saying, ‘What a time we live in, Theophilus. In our own time, ancient prophecies are being fulfilled. They've come to pass, and now even the greatest empire on earth has become subservient to the ends of God.’
And two things strike me in particular in these verses that we’ll read today; one, the way they display God's sovereignty in providence, the most amazing way God's control of everything is on display in these verses. The other is the way these verses reveal the character of God. They show us something of His heart and of the way that He chooses to go in order to save His people.
And in particular, I want to direct your attention to four things as we read through the passage. I want you to be on the lookout for what we learn about the timing of Christ's birth, the place of Christ's birth, the manner of Christ's birth, and the irony of it all. All four of those things — the timing, the place, the manner of Christ's birth, and the irony of it all — because I believe in this passage we learn a lot about God from the timing and the place and the manner of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. We learn a lot about the gospel from these circumstances, and we learn a lot about the Christian life. So before we give attention to God's word in Luke 2, let's look to Him in prayer and ask for His help and blessing.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. It is powerful and effective, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It can pierce down into the very depths of our being and separate things that normally couldn't even be separated. You've given it to us to guide us — a lamp to our feet, a light to our way. You've given it to us to equip us for every good work. You've given it to us so that we would be mature, and You have given it to us so that we might know the way of salvation, which is through faith in Jesus Christ. So, by Your Spirit today as we hear Your word, even as we just listen to Your word, by Your Spirit open our ears and our hearts that we might behold things filled with wonder. For we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is God's word:
“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 manager, 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 all our hearts.
Have you ever had one of those moments in life where you ask yourself, “Why now? Why is this happening now? I'm trying to serve You, Lord. I'm trying to do the best I can do. Why is this happening now? The timing just doesn't make sense to me.’
Or, have you ever found yourself at a place in life where you thought to yourself, ‘Lord, I don't want to be here! I want to be someplace else. I don't want to be here; I want to be there! Why do You have me here? I don't want to be here! I want to be somewhere else. Where You have me doesn't make sense to me. I'm not happy. I'm lonely. I even feel hopeless. I don't want to be here. I want to be somewhere else. Why am I here?’
Or, maybe you've asked the question, ‘Why is this happening at all? I don't understand these circumstances. These circumstances don't make sense to me. They don't bear out the things that You've been telling me in Your word that You want me to believe. You want me to believe that You’re never going to leave me or forsake me, You’re always going to be there for me. But right now I don't see anything good in my circumstances, and I don't see anything good that can come out of these circumstances. I don't understand what You’re doing. I don't understand why this is happening. I don't understand what it's for. What are these circumstances all about?’
Ever been there? Ever asked those kinds of questions?
Well, God's waiting for you in Luke 2:1-7. I want you to see four things as we walk through this passage together.
I. The timing of the Lord Jesus’ birth.
The first is the timing of the Lord Jesus’ birth. You know, if we had been faithful Jewish people at the time of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, and had we been thinking about our nation and our national heritage, it would not have been in our time the highpoint in our nation's history. You know, a thousand years before Jesus was born, Israel was the greatest kingdom in the Mediterranean world on that end of the land. David was reigning; Solomon would follow his reign; they had peace on all sides from their enemies; emissaries were coming to them from Africa and from the Far East; the king's wisdom was sought throughout the world.
That is not the way it is around the time of the birth of Christ. Not only has Israel suffered the division of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms; not only have the Assyrians taken over the Northern Kingdom; not only has exile occurred even for the members of the Southern Kingdom, but there's no kingdom of Israel left at all. Israel is a petty client state of a pagan Roman oppressor. If you and I were faithful Jewish people living in the land of Canaan, in the land of Israel, in the land of Palestine at the time of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, we would be thinking, ‘Look, You have pagans ruling over us, for crying out loud! These people are not even theists! They’re polytheists! They don't even understand that there's one true God. They’re immoral; they’re unspiritual pagans that are ruling over us.’
And it's fascinating to me that Luke delights in telling Theophilus and all those early Christians that were hearing the gospel, ‘Guess how God displays His sovereignty in the birth of the Messiah? He has the Roman emperor (the most powerful person in the world) and his regional representative, Quirinius the governor of Syria…He has them to do His bidding. You may feel like pawns in the hands of the awesome power of the Roman Empire and its incredibly efficient administration, but in fact Caesar Augustus [whose grand-uncle was Julius Caesar, just to place that in the flow of chronology…you remember Julius Caesar. We’re force-fed that in Shakespeare class in high school or college. This is Julius Caesar's grand-nephew, Caesar Augustus]… Just in case you feel like you’re a pawn in the hands of Caesar, understand that Caesar is just God's pawn to do His bidding. Our times are in His hands. He is sovereign, and He will use the most powerful empire on earth to do His bidding, because He rules over all.’
My friends, let me humbly suggest to you that many of us need to remember that right now in America. God reigns, and the most powerful man on earth is a pawn in the hands of the sovereign God. Do not fear. God reigns.
II. The place of Jesus’ birth — Bethlehem.
And then there's the place of Jesus’ birth — Bethlehem. You see it described in verses 4 and 5. You’re already thinking as a believer, ‘Okay, I know what Micah 6:2 says. Micah 6:2 says the Messiah is going to be born in Bethlehem. How is God going to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem so that the Messiah is born there?’
‘No problem! I've got a Roman emperor and I've got a governor of Syria that will do just fine. And I've probably got Jewish [at least ethnically if not religiously]…I've got Jewish administrators who will say, ‘The best way for us to do this thing is to get people to go to their hometowns. That's the best way to register them. [It wasn't done that way in the rest of the Empire, but it was done that way in Israel.] Let's get them to go to their hometowns.’’
And so Joseph and Mary are going to make their way all the way from Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem, so that prophecy is going to be fulfilled.
You know, you may be wondering, ‘Lord, why do You have me where You have me? I don't want to be here. I want to be someplace else, and I don't know how You’re going to get me from here to where I want to be.’ God had no problems getting Joseph and Mary from where they were to where they needed to be.
Now, where you may need to be may be right where you are, or it may be somewhere else. But you can be assured of this: God can get you where you need to be. It's no problem for Him. If He has to use a Roman emperor to do it, that will be just fine. God can get you where you need to be. He got Jesus where He needed to be. He got Joseph and Mary where they needed to be. It wasn't a problem for God. He could use the most powerful empire on earth to do it if He needed to do it, and He did. God is sovereign in all our ways, in all our times, and in all our places. All the circumstances of our lives are in His hands. We can trust Him. Don't you love the hymn “My Times Are in Your Hands; My God, I wish them there”? God is in control of everything — your time, your places.
III. The manner of Jesus’ birth.
But isn't the manner of Jesus’ birth startling in this passage? Look at verses 6 and 7. In it we have a window into the very heart of God. “While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. She gave birth to her firstborn son; she wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a…manger…because there was…no room for them in the inn.”
My friends, this description of the manner of Jesus’ birth, the context into which He was born, reminds us of the greatness of God's love to us in the gospel. We see a window into the heart and character of God, and especially we see something of His grace and His condescension to us in our Savior.
We have rebelled against Him. We have chosen a piece of fruit over Him. We have preferred to worship ourselves and our own dreams and our ambitions rather than Him. And in order to rescue us, the very people who have rejected Him, He prepares His Son to be born not in glory, but in humility; not in a palace of gold and silver, but in the feeding trough of unclean animals; not clothed in silk and beautiful baby garments, but wrapped up in cloths that have been stripped and wrapped around Him to keep Him warm in the manner of a peasant. In other words, in this passage we're seeing God humbling himself in the humbling of His Son for our sakes. It's a glorious picture of what God does for us in the gospel. Whatever it takes, He does. Whatever it costs, He pays. Wherever He has to go, He goes. Whatever He has to bear, He bears.
The Savior, you see, from the very moment of His birth begins to personally experience the humiliation that we experience because of our sin, but which He does not experience because of His sin (because He has no sin). He accepts this experience of humiliation because He is living for us in our place. So every calamity that His people experience because of sin, He experiences. And every disappointment that His people experience because of sin, He experiences. And every rejection that His people experience, He experiences. He accepts our deserved consequences for sin and lives in humiliation all His life so that He can then crown that humiliating life with a humiliating death because of the greatness of God's love for people who don't give a hoot about Him. That's the gospel. And we see it displayed here.
But don't we also see the character of God's humility? That's a striking phrase to use, but I think I'm right to say this passage displays the humility of God. He humbles himself in the humbling of His Son for our sakes, and so when He calls us to humility He is not calling us to do something which He himself has not already done himself, and which He is not prepared to do, or something that is inconsistent with His own character and His own glory. When He calls on you to be humble in the way that you relate to people who don't care about you, He can say, ‘You know, if you don't know how to do that, watch Me. Watch how I — the God who brought this world into being — will humble myself before the sinners who wish that I did not exist, because of My great love for them. Now, you think it's going to be hard for you to humble yourself before a person who has treated you unfairly? Well, then, watch Me.’ The Lord will never ever ask you to do something that He has not already done Himself, and that is a great encouragement in the living of the Christian life.
IV. The irony of it all.
There's one last and very glorious important thing that I want you to see in this passage. I want you to see the sheer irony of God's sovereignty displayed in the time and the place and especially in the manner of Jesus’ birth. It's not just the timing of the incarnation that's surprising. It's not just how God gets Mary and Joseph to the right place for the incarnation that's surprising. It's the very manner, the method, the context of the incarnation which is surprising. God's power is displayed in weakness.
You know, just a few weeks ago we were reading the word of the angel to Mary, “Greetings, highly favored one! The Lord is with you.” If we had never read the story before, we would have been very surprised to learn that only a few sentences later after the words of the angel — “Greetings to you, highly favored one! The Lord is with you” — that that very same woman was going to hear “There is no room in the inn.” Those don't go together! “Greetings, highly favored one…” (Sorry, ma’am. We gave your room away, but there is a cattle stall out back.) We would not have guessed that when the angel said, “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest,” that it would be said of Him “…they laid Him in a feeding trough for cattle.” Those don't go together, do they? I mean, those circumstances seem to belie the power and comfort of God's words of blessing and promise and favor. “I'm with you…I'm with you,” the Lord says. “I’ll never leave you or forsake you.” (But there's no place for you to spend the night.) “He shall be called the Son of the Highest.” (Put Him right over there where the oxen eat their straw.)
I understand the uniqueness of this, of course, in redemptive history, my friends. But isn't this the way it is with believers in all generations? The Lord says to you, ‘I love you. I will never leave you or forsake you.’ (But you still hear the doctor say, “It's cancer.” Or worse, “It's cancer; I'm sorry; I can't do anything.”) “I’ll never leave you or forsake you,” the Lord says. (But some of you hear, “I just don't love you anymore.” Or, “I've found somebody else.”) “I’ll never leave you or forsake you.” (‘Dad, I'm pregnant.’) “I’ll never leave you or forsake you.” (‘Mom, I hate you and I never want to see you again.’) “I’ll never leave you or forsake you.” (‘Mrs. Jones, on behalf of a grateful country, I want to extend our deepest sympathies and appreciation, because your son has given the ultimate sacrifice for his people.’)
The circumstances seem to negate the blessing and the promise, don't they? And when those circumstances come, you want to say, ‘Lord, I wish I could just have an angel come to me and tell me that You love me and that You care for me, because if that would happen I'd believe. If that would happen, I'd believe. I wouldn't be here hanging on by my fingernails in these circumstances trying to figure out why is this happening to me. What is going on in my life?’
Well, my friends, an angel had come to Mary and to Joseph and had told them of the Lord's blessing, but they’re right here having to hang on by their fingernails in the circumstances into which they've been placed.
You know, there are a lot of you who think that your circumstances show that God's promises can't be true. Two thousand years before that thought ever entered into your head, God has already shown you believers who you wouldn't wish the circumstances of their lives on your worst enemy. And those circumstances did not belie the truth and the power of His promise. No, He was not going to display the power of His promise in the midst of delightful circumstances; He was going to display the power of His promises in the worst circumstances that you can imagine.
Some of you think that circumstances can ruin your life. Some of you think that your circumstances have already ruined your life. But circumstances can't ruin your life. The only thing that can ruin your life is the way that you respond to circumstances. Because in this passage God is saying to us there is no circumstance where My power cannot be displayed. There is no circumstance where My promises are trumped. So hear Me loud and clear: Trust Me. Believe Me.
And when “Why?” is bouncing around the insides of your skull, add to that “why?” this question: “Lord, how can I glorify You in this? I don't know what You’re doing. I don't know what You’re doing, but I know that You want me to know You more and that You want me to love You more, and that You want me to glorify You more. So in this, how can I glorify You? And, Lord, in this, whether I am the victim of a grievous wrong or whether I am the perpetrator of the grievous wrong, show me my sin. I know You want me to know my need more. I know You want me to know my dependence more. I know that You want me to know the necessity of the gospel more, and my need for mercy and grace more. So in the midst of the place that You have me now, this place that I don't want to be and that I don't understand, show me my sin.
And then, Lord God, don't stop there. Show me my Savior. Show me Your salvation. Show me the gospel of grace, where I am right now. I don't know what else You’re doing here. I don't know whether I’ll know what else You’re doing here a few years later. I don't know whether I won't know what You’re doing here until glory. But whether I do or not, show me yourself. Help me live for Your glory. Show me my sin, and show me the Savior.”
Aren't you glad that people who saw and heard angels have to do the same thing that you and I, who have not seen and heard angels, have to do? We have to believe God's word when all the circumstances don't make sense. And when we do, His power is always displayed in our weakness.
Lord, we don't know what to say. We shut our mouth before what You do in our lives and in the lives of those that we love the most. Sometimes we don't have a clue what You’re doing. We don't see its purpose; we don't see it's good; we don't see how it's going to be a blessing. We don't even like it. It hurts. Our hearts are crushed under the load of grievous circumstances, and every single one of us has our own private battle to fight. Sometimes we're sitting around people who know us, but they don't know the battle that we're fighting. But You do, and we need You so. And we're so thankful that even Mary and Joseph, even having heard the angels, sat right where we're sitting right now, and we have to do what they had to do: we have to trust You. So give us the grace to do it. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.
Now let's sing about this amazing, amazing condescension in the incarnation using No. 193, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.
Grace, mercy and peace to you, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus, the Messiah.