According to the angels in Luke 2, the gospel of Jesus Christ promises peace to those who receive God’s gift of eternal life through Christ. This Christmas Eve sermon explores reasons why we often fail to experience more of this peace right now.
Sermon Text: Luke 2:1-20
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
Talk about having a bad day at work, did you hear about Steve Harvey’s “bad day at work” last Saturday night hosting the Miss Universe pageant? Let me preface this by saying that as someone who makes a living, in part, by standing in front of people talking, I am nothing but sympathetic with Harvey, who is otherwise a very gifted speaker and entertainer. Mistakes happen. But oh my goodness…
In case you didn’t hear, after Harvey announced the second runner-up, Miss USA, it came down to the final two contestants—Miss Colombia and Miss Philippines. And the winner, he said, was Miss Colombia. So the music started playing, the crown was placed on her head, she walked around the stage, waving at the cheering crowd. Then, suddenly, after what seemed like at least two or three minutes, Harvey comes back out, and says he messed up. He read the wrong name… It turns out Miss Colombia was the first runner-up. The true winner, the true Miss Universe, was Miss Philippines.
For several moments, neither Miss Philippines nor Miss Colombia knew what to do, or how to react. Then someone very awkwardly took the crown off Miss Colombia’s head and placed it on the head of Miss Philippines.
Of course the internet immediately had fun with Harvey’s gaffe, as you can see from these memes that were posted. One tweet that I saw said, “Steve Harvey’s mistake notwithstanding, you’ve got to hand it to the Planet Earth. Whether it’s Miss Colombia or Miss Philippines, we just keep winning the Miss Universe pageant year after year.
The point is, Harvey’s mistake illustrates an important theme of Luke’s Christmas story in Luke chapter 2: Jesus Christ, and no one else or no other thing, is the true king of the universe—even though so many other pretenders want to wear that crown.
One of those “pretenders,” for example, is the man that Luke mentions in verse 1: Caesar Augustus. An inscription on a calendar from the year 8 B.C. says that when Augustus was born, the gods had sent into the world a savior, who would put an end to war and arrange all things—that he was greater than anyone who ever lived. That no one born after him had “any hope of surpassing what he has done.” Get this: the author then wrote, “the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good news—or, in Greek, evangelion, the word translated “gospel.”
So Augustus, Romans believed, was sent by the gods to be the savior of the world and his birth was the beginning of the good news. Inscriptions on Roman coins in Jesus’ day even referred to Augustus as “son of the gods.” And of course he was also hailed as “Lord.”
With all that in mind, can you hear how subversive, how revolutionary, how countercultural the angels’ message to the shepherds was? “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Oh, sure, it true that Augustus, as verse 1 says, had the power to move people 1,400 miles away, on the outer fringes of his empire—including women who are more than eight months pregnant—he had the power to move them from one city to another 80 miles away, like moving pieces on a chess board, but who’s really in charge here? Augustus has no idea that by calling for an empire-wide census that would require Joseph and Mary to move from Nazareth to Bethlehem, he’s actually doing Someone else’s bidding: he’s actually causing a prophecy in Micah to be fulfilled:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.
Luke is showing us that, as with the Miss Universe pageant controversy—except the stakes are infinitely higher—the wrong person is wearing the crown. There’s Someone else to whom all power and glory belong. Not with any man or woman, not with any organization or institution or political party, not with any event or circumstance, but with the God who was born into this world, Jesus Christ. He is the world’s true king. He’s the one who deserves the crown. He’s the one before whom—one day in God’s glorious future—“every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
I shared this story at the Christmas concert a couple of weeks ago, but it bears repeating: It was Christmastime almost 20 years ago when I saw a legendary rock singer-songwriter named Patti Smith in concert. Smith had given up the rock and roll lifestyle in the late-’70s in order to get married and raise a family, and she had only recently come out of retirement. This was her first concert in Atlanta in 20 years.
Since the concert was literally a few days before Christmas, she and her band were about to play that classic Elvis Christmas song, “Blue Christmas.” As she was introducing the song, she said: “You know, Elvis was once asked by a reporter what it felt like to the ‘The King.’ And he said, ‘Ma’am, there’s only one king, and his name is Jesus Christ, and he’s sitting on his throne in heaven.”
When she said this, something really strange happened: People started booing. They weren’t booing Elvis—they were booing the fact that she was talking about Jesus being king. As if to add fuel to the fire, she added: “You don’t believe Jesus is the king? Well, I do,” and the whole place erupted into booing and angry jeering. It felt like a riot might break out!
I don’t know why this surprised me. When you start talking about Jesus being king, well… it tends to upset people.
It upset King Herod, for example, when the wise men from the east followed the star to Jerusalem and came into town inquiring about this baby who was the newborn king. It upset him so much so that he sent his army to Bethlehem to slaughter any newborn males two years and younger—just to make sure that this child couldn’t be a threat to his kingdom.
Not to compare us to King Herod, but… are there ways in which we also don’t like the fact that Jesus is king. In which we, too, are threatened by the fact that Jesus is king? Because if Jesus is king, then, well… That means he gets to be in charge of our lives. That means he gets to tell us what to do through his Word. That means doing his will becomes our highest priority. That means seeking first his kingdom and his righteousness. That means seeking his glory, rather than seeking our own. I can’t help but think of John the Baptist’s words in John’s gospel, after his John’s disciples tell him that Jesus’ ministry is becoming more popular than John’s. John says of Christ, “He must become greater; I must become less.” That’s a general principle of Christian discipleship right there: When we examine our own lives, can we say that Christ is becoming greater and we—and our own self-centered egos—are becoming less?
I ask because unless we acknowledge through our words and actions that Jesus is the one who deserves to wear the crown, then we will never experience the blessing of this “good news of great joy,” which the angels sing about in verse 14: this blessing is the promise of peace “among those with whom he is pleased.”
Peace! Don’t we all need peace in our lives?
I read a profoundly good blog post recently by Veneetha Rendall. She writes for the Desiring God website. Randall contracted polio long after it was eradicated. It was misdiagnosed, and that led to painful childhood surgeries. Thirty years later, she lost an infant son due to a doctor’s mistake. And she said she spent years wondering why… why… why did God allow this to happen? Why did he allow her to suffer so much?
She demanded answers from God! But then she had an epiphany. She wrote,
While I thought that freedom would be found in answers, true freedom was actually found in surrender. I didn’t need to figure it out. It didn’t need to make sense to me. I didn’t need to understand the details. I just needed to trust God. Trust him because he is infinitely wiser, more loving, and more purposeful than I am.
He has a reason for my pain. Many reasons. Even when I am at a complete loss to name even one. John Piper says, “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.” We may see a few things God is doing, one or two ways he is redeeming our pain, but we will never see the full picture on earth.
I love that: “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.”
We are finite. God is infinite. Why should we always (or usually) expect to know the reasons that something—even some bad thing—is happening?
When I was a young child, I would often ask my mom why I couldn’t get what I wanted. In exasperation, she would often say, “Because I said so.” I tried my best not to play that particular hand when my own children were young. But I’m sympathetic with Mom. What she was really saying was, “You’re too immature to understand the reason. Regardless, you should trust that I know what’s best for you.”
Why should God’s reasons not be like that? The only difference is that our heavenly Father, unlike a human parent, is all-knowing and perfectly loving, and the difference between what God knows and what we humans know is infinitely greater than the difference between what human parents know and what children know.
Again, the answer is to trust that God knows what he’s doing! He’s wearing the crown, remember? Not us.
I’m sure Mary and Joseph could have wondered a thousand times over during this first Christmas why things were happening the way they were: Why were they forced to travel 80 miles—possibly by foot; there’s no mention of riding a donkey—80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. They could have wondered why there was no room at the inn. They could have wondered why Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a manger. But even before that, Joseph could have wondered why, at least for a little while, God let him live with the jealousy and anger that came from thinking that his fiancée had cheated on him. And Mary could have wondered why God allowed her to live with the rumors and innuendo about her conceiving a child out of wedlock. And then, after the events of his birth, they both could have wondered why God allowed Herod to go on his murderous spree and why they had to uproot their new family and relocate to Egypt—and start a life there.
They could have wondered why. Or they could have said, “I don’t know why, but I’m not wearing the crown. God is. And he’s proven time and time again in my life that he knows what he’s doing. So I’m going to trust him.”
It’s only when we can say that, that we can know true and lasting peace. It’s the kind of peace that Paul refers to when he says, in Philippians 4, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
I noticed something about this verse for the first time recently: The part about peace surpassing all understanding. Do you know what that means? It means a kind of peace that we have even when there doesn’t appear to be any rational reason for it—even when everything in our lives or in our world or in our logical minds is screaming at us, telling us that, far from having peace, we should have stress… and anxiety… and fear… and worry.
And why do we have these things? Because, like Miss Colombia, like Caesar Augustus, like Herod the Great, and like you and me at our worst, the wrong person—or the wrong thing—is wearing the crown. Or I should say that we’ve forgotten Who it is that deserves to wear the crown!
I bet there’s something or someone right now that is causing you stress, or anxiety, or worry, or fear… Are you letting that person or that thing wear a crown that they don’t deserve to wear? Look to the one, pray to the One, believe in the One who deserves to wear it. He’s in charge. He’s got this under control, I promise!
1. Andreas Köstenberger and Alexander Stewart, The First Days of Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 149-50.
2. Micah 5:2 ESV
3. Philippians 2:10-11 ESV
4. John 3:30 NIV