I invite you this morning to turn with me once again to the gospel of Luke as we continue to study the Greatest Story Ever Told.
Over the last few weeks we have studied various aspects concerning the birth of Jesus Christ and each week we have lit a candle on our Advent Wreath to symbolize what we have studied.
Week 1 we studied the story of an elderly couple named Zacharias and Elizabeth who had just about given up hope. For years they had been praying for a child and yet Elizabeth was barren. But then God sent an angel to them to tell them that they would have a child whom they would name John. Perhaps you will remember that the name ‘Zacharias’ means “Jehovah remembers” and the name ‘John’ means “Jehovah is a gracious giver.” And thus we chose to let our first candle symbolize: HOPE. With God there is always hope.
Week 2 we studied the story of Joseph and Mary and how they responded to the news that Mary would have a baby. The candle we lit symbolized COMFORT, for although Mary and Joseph were full of questions as to why this would happen and how this could happen, God gave them comfort by letting them know that He was fully in control.
Today we light our third candle and I have chosen for it to symbolize FORGIVENESS. Today’s story about the shepherds is a story of God’s love and forgiveness.
Luke 2:1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. 2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) 3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) 5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
Joseph was not from Bethlehem. He was from a small village called Nazareth, which was a hundred miles north of Bethlehem. Why did Joseph travel to Bethlehem? There’s a couple of reasons:
1) The Romans Made Him Go to Bethlehem
Luke tells us that Caesar had demanded all the Jews be taxed. In order to register for this taxing, every Jew was required to return to the place of their origin and for Joseph that meant going to Bethlehem. Joseph was an ancestor of David and scripture teaches us that David was born in Bethlehem. I doubt that Joseph was very excited about making such a journey with a wife who was about to have a baby.
1) God Guided Him There
The Bible makes it very clear that it was God who caused Joseph to have to go to Bethlehem. Why did the Lord want Joseph to go to Bethlehem?
For one thing, as I just said, Bethlehem was the place where David was born. A common name for the Messiah was ‘the son of David.’ Hundreds of years before Jesus was born, the prophet Micah revealed that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
Secondly, the name Bethlehem means ‘house of bread.’ What better place for the bread of life to be born than in the house of bread? (see John 6:22-59)
And thirdly, Bethlehem was a small, insignificance village located about 5 miles outside of Jerusalem. As we continue in our study we will see why that is important.
Luke 2:6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
We often visualize Mary going into labor as she rode in on the donkey and Joseph frantically looking for a place for them to lodge. But actually scripture seems to indicate that they were there for a few days before the baby was born.
7 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.
We can only assume that Mary and Joseph were not able to find a place to lodge the whole time they were there. The Bible says that Jesus ‘came unto His own, and His own received Him not.’ (see John 1:12) Perhaps the ‘no room in the inn’ was prophetic of how most folks would feel towards Him after He was born. It’s hard to understand how people could have been so cold and heartless towards a woman who was about to have a baby, and yet that’s how much of the world treats Jesus today. It’s not enough that Jesus had to be born in a stable; more and more people will not tolerate a humble nativity set to be put on display.
But regardless of how the world may try to respond to the birth of Christ, history records that a special baby was born two thousand years ago. Considering the fact that Luke was a medical doctor writing a detailed account to present to a Roman official, most like what we read is exactly what happened. Here’s the big question – why did God have His Son come into the world through a stable? Consider what the Apostle Paul writes to us –
Philippians 2:6 Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. 7 Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. NLT
Consider for a moment what Paul is telling us:
1) Jesus is God
Gabriel told Mary that her son would be called the Son of God because He was conceived in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. When the angel said that He would be called ‘the Son of God’, that was more than a title; it was a description of who Jesus was. God was His Father.What does that mean when we say that God was the Father of Jesus?
In John 5 there is story of when Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath. Afterwards the Jewish leaders rebuked Him for doing this. To them, healing someone was a form of work and any type of work was forbidden on the Sabbath. When they asked Jesus why He had healed on the Sabbath, He told them that He did so because ‘His Father was always working.’ (see John 5:17) Now here’s the real important part.The Bible that when claimed that God was His Father, He was saying that He was equal with God. The Bible says –
“For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (John 5:18)
2) Yet Jesus Did Not Demand to be Glorified as God
Philippians 2:6 Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.
The phrase ‘cling to’ means to hold on to something for selfish gain. The NIV says – “…did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.”
3) Instead, He Willfully Laid Aside His Divine Privileges and Became a Humble Slave
Philippians 2:7 Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.
The best illustration of this is when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. The Bible says that He laid aside His outer garments, and then He took a towel and a basin and began to wash their feet. Jesus, who was their Master, did what a common slave would do.
That’s what it means for the Son of God to have clothed Himself in humanity. Jesus laid aside his kingly garments in order that He might clothe Himself with humanity.
4) Jesus Did This So That He Might Die for Our Sins
Philippians 2:8 …he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
Jesus would have still been the Savior even if He hadn’t been born in a stable, yet He chose the stable as a symbol of how He was willing to save anyone who would come to Him. Jesus placed Himself at the very bottom of the list so that everyone would know that through Him they can find forgiveness.
Not only does the stable symbolize this, but so do the shepherds. The Bible says –
Luke 2:8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
I. The Angels Find the Shepherds
We have the tendency to romanticize a lot of the Christmas story. We make the stable nice and neat with all the animals carefully arranged. We place Mary and Joseph on bended knee around the manger filled with golden hay. We even make the shepherds look good.
Yet it was probably very different. The stable was not much more than a lean-to shack and the animals probably weren’t as quiet as congenial as we would like to think. What about the shepherds? Who were they?
Historians tell us that shepherds were probably the last people on earth you would want to visit you in the maternity ward. They were dirty, poorly educated, and crude. Shepherds were uncouth.Though many of them were responsible to care for the sheep that would eventually be sacrificed in the temple, shepherds were not allowed to come near the temple. To put it in more modern terms, many churches wouldn’t allow shepherds to come through their door. Certainly many Christians wouldn’t be eager to scoot over and offer these smelly men a seat. And yet, these were the ones to whom God sent His angels.
Luke 2:10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
A. The Angel’s Presence
Most people in the Bible were pretty overwhelmed whenever they saw an angel. The phrase ‘sore afraid’ means that they were terrified. Perhaps you will remember how John tried to fall down and worship an angel before he was told that he shouldn’t.
The Bible says that this angel was clothed in the glory of God. Some say that he was glowed with the Shekinah Glory. Take a moment and try to visualize all this scene. Here were common shepherds, huddled around a campfire in the dark of the night, and suddenly a glowing angel stands before them.
B. The Angel’s Patience
Luke 2:10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
As I was studying over this, I suddenly realized how important it was that the angel told the shepherds that they would find the Savior lying in a manger. How much more approachable could God make Himself?
C. The Angel’s Praise
Luke 2:13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
The Bible doesn’t say how many angels showed up, but many believe that the sky was filled with them. Hundreds, perhaps thousands or even millions of angels praising God for His glory and His grace. I don’t see how anyone could read this story and not receive a blessing. Truly it is the greatest story ever told.
II. The Shepherds Find Jesus
Luke 2:15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
A. God’s Desire is for All Men to be Saved
I believe that God made the shepherds a part of the story in order to help us understand that it is His desire for all men to be saved; regardless of who they are, or where they are from, or even what they have done.
Jesus said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” (see John 3:16-17)
B. But Each Individual Must Make a Personal Decision to Receive God’s Love and Forgiveness
Luke 2:15 … the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
One of the amazing details of Christ’s birth is the number of people who were made aware of it, yet failed to believe. Matthew’s gospel tells us some wise men who had traveled from the east, came to Jerusalem, searching for the new born king. Immediately the priests were able to tell them that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and yet there is no indication that any of these priests ever took the time to go and see for themselves. It’s only five miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. That’s not as far as from here to the Minute Market. Can you imagine being that close to God and yet not willing to take the time to go and see Him for yourself? And yet, too often many of us are too busy to have much time for God.
Why would the shepherds go and not the priests? No doubt much of it has to do with the issue of pride and self-sufficiency. Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into heaven. (see Matthew 19:24) It’s not a rich man’s wealth that keeps him out of heaven; it’s his pride and self-sufficiency.
People who don’t think that they need God will never come to God. But these poor lowly shepherds, who didn’t have anything and who didn’t know enough to not believe, said, “Let us go immediately to Bethlehem and see for ourselves what the angels have told us.”
Luke 2:16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
They literally ran to Bethlehem to see the baby. Every time I read this I have to think, “But who took care of the sheep while they were gone?”
III. All of Mankind Can Find Forgiveness
Luke 2:16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.
How much the shepherds actually knew about Bible prophecy and the birth of a Savior is unclear. But apparently their experience that night made a huge impact upon them.
A. They Told Everyone Who Would Listen
Luke 2:18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
From that point on, they told the story of the angels and the baby to everyone that would listen.Not only were these shepherds the first to see the baby Jesus, they were the first evangelists to tell others about His birth.
B. They Never Stopped Praising God
Luke 2:20And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.
What were they told? They were told that a Savior had been born for them. Maybe I’m pushing it but I expect to see the shepherds and the wise men in heaven, but not a lot of the Jewish priests.
Why is this the greatest story that has ever been told? We could say that it is great because of all of its golden nuggets and details. Even after all I have taught over the last three weeks, I’ve only scratched the surface.
But I also believe that it is the greatest story ever told because it is a story of God’s amazing love. The Christmas story tells us that rather than leaving us in our sin, God sent us His Son to be our Savior; rather than leaving us to grope in darkness, God sent us light; rather than leaving us without hope, God gave us the promise of eternal life; and rather than leaving us to bear the guilt of our sin, God has sent us a way to be cleansed and forgiven. My friend, if that’s not the greatest story ever told, I don’t know what is.