In today’s scripture, the angels tell the shepherds that through Christ, God’s peace will come to those “with whom God is pleased.” Who are the people with whom God is pleased and how can we be among them? This sermon explores that question and offers reasons why we can live our lives without fear.
Sermon Text: Luke 2:1-20
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
Back in 2013, I preached my first Advent sermon series using clips from famous holiday TV specials and Christmas-themed movies. One of these, you may recall, was A Charlie Brown Christmas. As closely as I watched that special for biblical insights and illustrations, I confess that I missed something really cool and really subtle. It happened the during the scene in which Linus tells Charlie Brown that he knows what Christmas is all about. Remember?
He walks on stage, walks up to the microphone, and recites the Christmas story from today’s scripture. After finishing his recitation, he turns to Charlie Brown and says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
But what I missed was this small detail: It happens when Linus gets to verse 10. He says, reciting it from the King James, “And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” When he says “fear not,” do you know what he does? He drops his security blanket! Linus drops his blanket!
Linus, as you may remember, can’t live without his blanket; he’s been teased about it throughout the special—not least by his big sister Lucy. And here, when he mentions not being afraid, he lets it go!
There’s a whole sermon there! How did I miss that?
So I want to spend these next several moments together talking about reasons—from today’s Christmas text—that we can take the angel’s words to heart and live without fear.
First, let’s focus on world events at the time. Caesar Augustus became emperor of Rome after his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, died. He united the countries around the Mediterranean into an empire. He declared that his father was a god, that his father could be worshiped as a god. Meanwhile, he let himself be revered as—get this—“Son of God,” as “savior,” and as one who brought peace to all the world. Does that ring a bell? Anyone who doesn’t think that the first Christmas doesn’t make a political statement isn’t paying attention! My point is, Augustus enjoyed an incredible amount of power, and as if to prove it, he calls for this census. The purpose of taking the census is for collecting taxes.
The census is the reason that Joseph and Mary, who at this point is probably eight months pregnant, have to travel for three days from their home in Nazareth, which is in the northern part of Israel, all the way down to Bethlehem. About 70 miles. Can you imagine how incredibly inconvenient and uncomfortable and potentially unsafe it is for a woman that far along in her pregnancy to have to do that?
But the most powerful man in the world can make people do things like that. So… that’s the reason that Mary and Joseph wound up in Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus… Right?
Not so fast. Because we look at Micah 5:2, which says,
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.
God foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, not Nazareth. Therefore God had to get Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Now, the easiest and most efficient way to do that would have been for the angel that talked to Joseph in a dream to go ahead and tell him to move with his wife to Bethlehem. But God had other plans. God instead moved the gears of an empire to get them there. Why did God do it that way? I don’t know. But as one pastor said, “God likes to show off.”
Here we have Caesar Augustus, the self-proclaimed “son of God,” the “savior,” the king who brought peace to the world—a man who from all outward appearances was in control of the world—was in fact doing the bidding of Almighty God.
Even if… even if… It wasn’t exactly clear that that’s what was happening at the time. I doubt Mary and Joseph were aware at the time, that God wanted them to travel to Bethlehem for a deeper reason than the fact that Augustus was making them. It became clear only in retrospect.
Brothers and sisters, God is always doing that. God always has deeper reasons for events happening the way they do—whether we’re aware of them or not. There may be a million deeper reasons for something happening, and we may know one or two of them—but God knows and God has a plan. And you can be certain that God’s plans include you. Remember Romans 8:28: “In all things God works for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
[Talk about the importance of hearing God’s Word. Mary and Joseph had heard nothing more from angels. No more supernatural encounters for months at this point. And they didn’t even see the angels that the shepherds saw!]
Finally, I want to focus our attention on verse 14. We read it last night and this morning from the English Standard Version, and as we did so, I wouldn’t blame you for wondering if it sounded a little off. These modern translations are for the birds, you might have thought. “Give me the good old-fashioned King James.” And I’m with you a lot of the time: oftentimes, the words just sound better in the King James. For example, when Linus recited the Christmas story in the Christmas special, he said that the shepherds were “sore afraid.” They weren’t “filled with fear” or “terrified.” They were “sore afraid.” That’s what the King James says. I’ve never heard the word “sore” used as an adverb before, but it just sounds right.
All that to say, sometimes the King James, like all translations, gets it wrong. And I’m afraid verse 14 is an example: What we are used to hearing are these words, sung by this army of angels that appear out of nowhere: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
And it sounds like the angels are announcing that because Christ has come in to the world, the world will be a more peaceful place—and whenever something really terrible and violent happens, especially around Christmastime, we think, “Oh… If Jesus and his followers are supposed to bring peace on earth, well… it seems like they failed.”
But the truth is, all modern Bible translations reject the way the King James translates it. In fact, what the angels really say sounds like what the ESV, the NIV, the NRSV, and every other modern translation says: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
On earth peace among those with whom he is pleased. So the angels aren’t saying that everyone on earth is going to be blessed with peace because of Christmas. That’s what we want it to say—going back to last night’s sermon, that’s what people like Nicholas Kristoff want it to say. Because that’s inclusive of everyone, and that inclusiveness fits the spirit of the times. But this is exclusive. This scripture is saying that the blessings of peace that result from Christmas will be given only to a select few: those on whom God’s favor rests, or those with whom God is pleased.
I guess we better figure out who those people are and how we can be among them, right? In his wonderful little book on Christmas, the now-retired Pope, Pope Benedict XVI, writes the following:
Now, with regard to this question [meaning, “Who are these people with whom God is pleased?”] the New Testament itself provides an aid to understanding. In the account of Jesus’ baptism, Luke tells us that as Jesus was praying, the heavens opened and a voice came from heaven, saying: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased…” (3:22). The man “with whom [God] is pleased” is Jesus. And the reason for this is that Jesus lives completely oriented toward the Father, focused upon him and in communion of will with him. So men “with whom he is pleased” are those who share the attitude of the Son—those who are conformed to Christ.
Here’s the good news: If we have received Christ as Savior and Lord, God is “well pleased” with us, not because of who we are and what we’ve done, but who Christ is and what he’s done for us. As Paul says of himself in Philippians 3:9, he no longer has a “righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” John 1:12 says that to “all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”
So by believing in Christ, we receive Christ’s righteousness and, like Christ, we become children of God.
All that to say, if you know Christ as Savior and Lord, God is well-pleased with you in the same way he’s well-pleased with his Son Jesus. Do you believe it? Can you believe it? Christmas means, “[name], you are my beloved son/daughter, with whom I am well-pleased.” [Invite congregation to turn to their neighbor and say, “You are a beloved son or daughter of God.]
God’s not going to disinherit you. God’s not going to kick you out of the family. Your place in the family is secure.
Some of you probably struggle with this idea. And I think you struggle with it because you’ve confused Santa Claus with Jesus Christ. It’s understandable. This is the time of year, after all, when a very anti-Christmas, anti-Christian song plays on our radios round the clock. I’m talking, of course, about the song, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”: “He’s making a list/ He’s checking it twice/ He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.”
Nice children get toys, the song says. Naughty children get lumps of coal.
Think about it: According to this song, Santa isn’t the giver of gifts. He’s in the business of doling out rewards and punishments.
By contrast, when we talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the gift of forgiveness, grace, and salvation—the gift of becoming a beloved son or daughter of God through faith in Christ—good behavior and good works have nothing to do with it: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” This is all a completely free gift.
I admit we Methodists, of all people, often struggle with this idea. We get confused because we talk so much about what happens after salvation—that process called sanctification. As a pastor, I talk about it, too. But please, please, please… make no mistake: The gift of salvation—forgiveness of sin, eternal life, adoption as God’s children—is not conditioned by what we do after we’re saved.
Consider a Christmas gift: What if you forget to send a thank-you note right away? Or, when you do, the note is poorly written or insincere? Or what if you never send a note at all? Will the gift-giver come to your house and take the gift away? Of course not! If the gift-giver tried to take it away, then he or she was just proving it wasn’t a gift after all.
In fact, we have a name for those kinds of “gifts”: they’re called wages.
A wage is a payment for services rendered. If God paid us what we deserved to be paid, based on what we do, we wouldn’t be able to read this: because God would have wiped us off the face of the earth already.
No. The gift of salvation isn’t given because we deserve it. It’s completely free.
The gospel of Jesus Christ begins with this premise: Every single one of us is on the “naughty” list. We are, in other words, sinners. The question is, what are we going to do about it? Or maybe a better question is, “What is God going to do about it?”
Christmas tells the story of what God is going to do about it—or, as we look back on it today, what God has done about it.
What I’m saying is, one thing that keeps us afraid—afraid of God, even after we’ve received Christ and been adopted as his beloved children is guilt. We think to ourselves, “Well, sure, years ago, when I first believed in Christ, God forgave me and made me his child… But there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then… A lot of sin… A lot of disobedience. Well, guess what? God is outside of time. He knew when he first loved you and forgave you and adopted you as his child every sin that you would commit: and he loved, forgave, and adopted you as his child anyway!
My point is, if you are already a Christian, and you’ve already received the greatest Christmas gift imaginable—the gift of forgiveness and eternal life—maybe this morning you need to receive second greatest gift that God can give you: the gift of assurance. [See video for conclusion.]
1. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 122.
2. Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Image, 2012), 75.
3. This idea, along with some of the language, comes from “The Gift that Never Stops Giving,” mockingbird.com, Accessed 11 December 2015.
4. Ephesians 2:8-9