In today’s scripture, the angels announce good news to the shepherds, not good advice. In other words, it’s an announcement about something that God has done for us, rather than something we do ourselves. As I say in this sermon, this distinguishes Christianity from every other world religion. Apart from Christ’s atoning death and resurrection, we face a crisis in our lives that none of us is able to solve. The good news is that, like any gift under the Christmas tree, God has given this gift of forgiveness and eternal life for everyone. All we have to do is receive it.
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Sermon Text: Luke 2:1-20
A couple of days ago, my boys and I went to see the new Star Wars movie, Rogue One. It began the same way all the other Star Wars movies began—with a black screen and these words: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
In other words, no matter how much tinkering with computer-generated imagery that George Lucas and others have done to keep the movies looking as visually “realistic” as possible, these ten words may as well read, “Once upon a time…” They remind us from the beginning that, despite the fact that thousands of British people in a recent census claimed “Jedi” as their religion, the world of Star Wars is nothing more than a glorified fairy tale.
There’s nothing wrong with fairy tales, of course. But please note that the beginning of Luke’s Christmas story couldn’t be more realistic. True, it does take place long ago and far away—but not so long ago that we can’t date it and not so far away that we can’t pinpoint it on a map. No, it happened in “those days” during the reign of Caesar Augustus reigned—we know when that was—and when he issued a decree that the entire Roman Empire would be registered for a census. And not just any census—this was the first one, Luke tells us, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
Luke wants us to know, in other words, that the birth of Christ was a real and verifiable event in history.
Why does that matter? Because Luke is reporting news to us—this happened in this time and place, and you need to know about it. He’s not giving us advice. Think about it: Fables, fairy tales, and even science-fiction fantasies can impart valuable life lessons to us. They can give us good advice. Live your life like this, they say. But they can’t give us good news.
In his recent book about the first Christmas, pastor Tim Keller puts it like this:
Let’s say there is an invading army coming toward a town. What that town needs is military advisers; it needs advice. Someone should explain that the earthworks and trenches should go over there, the marksmen go up there, and the tanks must go down there.
However, if a great king has intercepted and defeated the invading army, what does the town need then? It doesn’t need military advisers; it needs messengers, and the Greek word for messengers is angelos, angels. The messengers do not say, “Here is what you have to do.” They say rather, “I bring you glad tidings of great joy.” In other words, “Stop fleeing! Stop building fortifications. Stop trying to save yourselves. The King has saved you.” Something has been done, and it changes everything.
Something has been done for you, and it changes everything. That’s what the angels are telling the shepherds in tonight’s scripture.
Every other world religion offers something much more like advice than news. Every other religion says, in so many words, “If you want salvation—however the religion defines it—if you want to go to heaven, if you want to reach nirvana, if you want to become enlightened, if you want God—or the gods—to be pleased with you, you must take this advice, you must follow these rules, you must obey these commands.” Do these things—and avoid doing these other things—and you’ll be saved.
And I’ll bet there are people in this congregation this evening who believe that going to heaven is a matter of what you do—or don’t do. It comes down to whether or not you’re a good person. This is by far the most popular religion in the world—no matter what name the religion has.
For example, Nicholas Kristoff, an op-ed columnist in the New York Times, is a practitioner of this religion. Just yesterday he interviewed pastor Tim Keller, whose book I quoted earlier. Keller is a theologically conservative, evangelical pastor in Manhattan. And Kristoff told him that while he greatly admired all the good work that Christians do around the world in the name of Christ, he doesn’t like the exclusivity of Christianity—that we preach that salvation comes only through faith in Christ. What about other religions? What about Gandhi, for example? Kristoff asked, “Is Gandhi in hell because he wasn’t a Christian?”
Keller wisely sidestepped that question—since it’s not our job to say who’s in hell and who isn’t—to go underneath Kristoff’s question: Gandhi was a really good person—his example of courage and self-sacrifice is hard to beat. So is Kristoff suggesting that we have to be as good as Gandhi in order to be saved? How many of us are that good? Or what about Mother Theresa? Do we have to be as good as her? Sell all our possessions and minister to the sick and dying on the streets of Calcutta? My point—and Keller’s point—is that if our personal goodness is what saves us—and we have to be really, really good, like Gandhi or Mother Theresa, that kind of religion would be more exclusive than Christianity. Because most of us cannot or will not be that good. I can’t. I am a moral failure in so many ways.
O.K., you might say, but do we really have to be that good to be saved? Is that what God expects?
No. You don’t have to be as good as Gandhi or Mother Theresa. Jesus says you have to be much, much better: “Be perfect,” he says in the Sermon on the Mount, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
How many of us are perfect?
In fact, Jesus was always saying things that made the “good people” of his day feel deeply insecure about their own goodness. For example, to a man who’s obeying nearly all ten of the Ten Commandments—probably a better man, objectively speaking, than any of us—Jesus says, “There’s one more thing you have to do in order to be saved: sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor.” How many of us are willing to do that? Then Jesus says things like, “If you get angry with someone, it’s as if you’ve committed murder.” Well, who hasn’t done that? Or if you’ve lusted after someone, you’ve committed adultery. Well, who hasn’t done that? Or if you curse someone out—or verbally abuse someone—or call someone a foolproof worse—you’re in danger of the fire of hell. Well, who hasn’t done that? We all drive in Atlanta traffic, right?
Jesus’ point is that you can do everything right on the outside—follow all the rules, obey all the commandments—and it doesn’t count for anything… if your heart isn’t right. What matters is your heart, which no one except for God can see. And God knows we need spiritual heart transplants.
A pastor friend of mine from North Carolina posted the following on Facebook the other day: “I successfully refrained from commenting on a post by someone I don’t know on a subject I know little about. Please congratulate me.” If only we all had that kind of self-control! But my friend knows he doesn’t really deserve any congratulations. Because he knows that whether he posted his comment or not, it was what was in heart that mattered. To think it, as far as Jesus is concerned, is nearly as bad as writing it out!
The Bible says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way…” It says, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags…” It says, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” It says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” It says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Friends, if Nicholas Kristoff got what he wanted—and God judged us the basis of our own goodness, well… we would all be in serious trouble; we would all be excluded from heaven and eternal life; we would all be bound for hell. Because we are helpless sinners.
In fact, in the Old Testament, it’s dangerous for us sinners to get too close to the holy God—it can get people killed. When Moses asks God to show himself to Moses, God tells him that no one can see God’s face and live. Because Moses is a sinner who can’t get too close to a holy God! When Moses goes up on Mt. Sinai to get the Ten Commandments, the Israelites are told not to even touch the base of the mountain—otherwise they’ll get killed. Why? Because they’re sinners who can’t get too close to a holy God. When Uzzah is carrying the Ark of the Covenant on a carriage, and it starts to tip over, he steadies the Ark with his hand—and what happens? He drops dead on the spot. Why? Because he’s a sinner who’s gotten too close to a holy God. When Isaiah the prophet is in the Temple, and he has this miraculous vision of God, he says, “Woe is me! For I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!” Because he knows he’s a sinner, and he’s at least worried that he’s gotten too close to a holy God!
Even in the gospels, we see this: In Luke chapter 5 Peter and his fellow fishermen have been unable to catch anything all night. They haven’t begun following Jesus at this point, and they don’t know him very well. The next morning Jesus tells them where to cast their nets. And they do—and suddenly they catch so many fish their nets are breaking. And what does Peter do? Is he happy about it? No, he throws himself at Jesus’ feet and says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Why? Because he recognizes that when he’s in the presence of Christ, he’s in the presence of Almighty God. And it scares him because he’s never been this close to God before. He knows he’s a sinner, and he’s afraid he’s going to die!
I know it’s a movie and all—and I’m not saying it’s biblically accurate—but there is at least some truth to that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the Nazis open the Ark of the Covenant—and what happens? They all get zapped. Presumably by God or his angel. Because they are sinners—and they are messing around with a holy God!
When God gets close to human beings in the Bible it was always a terrifying experience.
Now think about Christmas: At Christmas, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and, later, the wise men get closer to God than anyone in the Old Testament was ever allowed to be: Because God became a baby. As one pastor said, “There is nothing like a baby. Even young children have their own agenda and can run from you. But the little babies can be picked up, hugged, kissed, and they’re open to it, they cling to you.” God himself clung to Mary. God himself clung to Joseph. God himself clung to these dirty, smelly shepherds, as they surely took turns holding him—holding God—in their arms. Can you imagine? God clung to each one of the wise men when they came to visit. I have at least a couple of teenagers at home who will only let me get so close to them—and show them only so much affection before they start resisting—but when they were babies, I could have hugged them forever and held them forever. They liked it!
Babies don’t discriminate between people. Babies don’t show love toward one person and not another based on the kind of person they are—how righteous they are, how much money they have, how beautiful they are, how powerful and influential they are, how well-educated they are.
By allowing himself to become a baby, what is God showing us?
He’s showing us that because of what he’s done in Christ, there is no longer anything that needs to stand in the way of our relationship with God.
Before there was—our sin. Our sin separated us from God, alienated us from God, made it impossible for us to get too close to God—because we deserved only God’s judgement, God’s wrath, and hell. But now, because of what God was doing through Christ, that was going to change.
How? The Bible says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” It says that on the cross, God “canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; [God] has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.” It says that “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”
In other words, the Bible is telling us that Christ lived the life of perfect obedience to the Father that we ourselves were unable to live, and he died the death that we deserved to die. And he suffered the hell that we deserved to suffer. It’s telling us that an exchange has taken place: Christ has taken our unrighteousness upon himself—and suffered and died for it. In our place. So that he could give us his righteousness as a gift.
Which means forgiveness and eternal life is ours as a free gift. Offered without any price.
Now… with all this in mind, I want you to hear—to really hear—as if for the first time in your life—the message that the angel delivered to these shepherds abiding in the fields: “Fear not, for behold, 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.”
1. Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas (New York: Viking, 21-2.
2. Isaiah 53:6; Isaiah 64:6; Psalm 130:3; Romans 3:10-12; Romans 3:23