Sermon 12-24-19: “Good News of Great Joy”

December 27, 2019
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So the new Star Wars movie opened last week: “Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker.” My kids and I saw it last Friday. Not to spoil anything, but I was very surprised to learn that the heroine of the trilogy, Rey, was the granddaughter of Jar Jar Binks. I did not see that coming at all, did you?

I’m kidding, of course. I’m not going to spoil the new Star Wars by giving away the ending. But I hope you won’t mind if I spoil the beginning: because it begins the exact same way that the previous eight installments of the series began: a black screen with these words: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” This is, in other words, the filmmakers’ way of saying, “Once upon a time…” “Everything that you’re about to see—no matter how impressive the CGI and special effects—it’s all just make-believe.” Despite the fact that according to a recent census of Great Britain, a depressingly large number of respondents—at least thousands—claimed “Jedi” as their religious identification, the Star Wars universe is nothing more than a glorified fairy tale. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with fairy tales, but let’s please notice how drastically different the beginning of the Christmas story is. Luke tells us that the following events occurred in a specific time and place in history—when Caesar Augustus was emperor. But he was emperor for a long time—from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14. So Luke is more specific: This was Caesar’s first registration—you know, the one he did when Quirinius was governor of Syria

In other words, Luke wants us to know that the events of the Christmas story take place not long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, not even once upon a time—but in this real world, which we ourselves, though separated in time by two millennia, can still recognize—a world of statecraft and political intrigue, of wealth and poverty, of government bureaucracies and military superpowers. “Do they know it’s Christmastime?” that old song asks. Well—if “they” don’t know it now, they certainly didn’t know it then, either. A lot has changed in 2,000 years, but people haven’t changed so much—and that’s the problem… people… evil… sin… The problem is “out there”—sure. But it’s also in here [point to heart]. Indeed, it is in order to solve this problem, first of all, that God sent his Son Jesus into the world.

What did the angel tell Joseph when he came to him in a dream: “She [Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”[1] The very name Jesus means Yahweh [the God of Israel] Saves. And that’s what Jesus is going to do.

But first, we have to deal with a minor logistical problem… Because remember: this is the real world, and in the real world we have logistical problems; things often go wrong; things don’t work out the way we plan; things that get messy in a hurry… 

And here’s how it gets messy in today’s scripture: we’re reminded in Matthew’s gospel of an ancient messianic prophecy: 

And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for from you shall come a ruler

    who will shepherd my people Israel.[2]

The problem is that God has already told us in his Word that the Messiah is supposed to be born in the “city of David,” Bethlehem. And the mother and adoptive father of the Messiah, who don’t know about this prophecy from Micah 5:2 and weren’t planning on traveling down to Bethlehem this late in Mary’s pregnancy, are only about ninety miles north, in a town called Nazareth. And Mary was at this point eight months pregnant! She could have that baby at any moment!

So how do you get the Messiah’s very pregnant mother to move ninety miles in a very short amount of time when she’s eight months pregnant? 

It’s as if God said, “No problem… just watch me work! Watch me put it in the heart of the most powerful man in the world to call for an empire-wide census—and thereby move hundreds of thousands residents of the Roman Empire like so many chess pieces—so that one particular woman, Mary—eight months pregnant and hardly eager for a long journey—can get from Point A to Point B, so that she can give birth to the Messiah in Bethlehem, so that the promise that I made 750 years earlier will come true! Because I always keep my promises!” 

So we say, “Big problem.” God says, “No problem!”

I don’t know how else to describe it: it’s as if God is showing off here! Isn’t he?

To say the least, brothers and sisters, if God in his sovereign purposes can make that happen—can solve that giant problem—in order to fulfill his promises, don’t you think—I hope I’m not going out on a limb here—but don’t you think that he’s powerful enough to manage your life and solve your problems and fulfill all the promises that he’s made to you—for example, the promise that “in all things God is working for your good,” and “my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”[3] And “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me…” And “when I am weak, then I am strong.”[4] and “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content,” for “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”[5] And “our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever!”[6]

If any scripture proves that God really does know how to run the universe—and he really doesn’t need our help to do so—surely it is tonight’s scripture!

Now let’s turn our attention to the shepherds in verse 9: “And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.” Of course they’re filled with great fear. For the fifth time in four weeks of my Advent preaching, an angel is telling us human beings not to be afraid. They’re always telling us this because when we are in the presence of angels, we are very close to being in the presence of God—dangerously close. There are so many examples in scripture. I won’t list them all. But whenever one of us sinful human beings gets too close to our holy God, we become afraid for our lives.

Take, for example, the apostle Peter: in one of his earliest encounters with Jesus in the gospels. Peter has been fishing all night; he’s a professional fisherman. He’s been fishing all night, but he hasn’t caught anything. And now it’s morning time. Sun’s up. Jesus tells him to cast his net over there, and he’ll catch fish. And Peter probably thought, “Okay, boomer”—but despite his reservations he did so, and ended up catching more fish than he’d ever caught before! 

So… is Peter happy? After all, he caught so many fish his nets were literally bursting at the seams. But he’s not happy. He’s terrified for his life and falls at Jesus’ feet: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”[7]

Why? Because he recognizes that even though Jesus is a flesh-and-blood human being, he is also God. He’s standing in the presence of God. And Peter knows the Bible… And he knows himself to be a sinner… And he knows that sinful man cannot even look at God’s face and live.[8] And he knows that he will surely die if he gets too close to God in the flesh.

Do you know what Peter needed in that moment to alleviate his fears? He needed Christmas.

You see, it’s one thing to be terrified of God. But literally no one has ever been terrified of… a baby. Take this baby, for instance… Baby Yoda. This is, of course, the breakout character from the new Star Wars series, The Mandalorian, on the Disney Plus channel. Which reinforces the idea that all babies, even alien babies, are incredibly cute. 

“Baby Yoda”

But think about how we act around babies! We suddenly don’t have to be dignified and respectable. We don’t have to be cool. We make funny faces. We make funny sounds. And don’t give it a second thought!

See, the angel[1]  in tonight’s scripture invites these shepherds not merely to behold God from some some safe distance… No, the angel invites the shepherds literally to hold God, to cradle God, to snuggle God, to kiss God, to put God’s cheek against their own; to smile and coo and laugh and make funny faces… at God! To take God as a tiny, fragile, vulnerable baby boy into their arms and love him! No fear. Only joy! Only peace. All is calm. All is bright The shepherds were invited to do that! How can they be so close to God now? What does this mean? 

After all, who gets to be in a hospital room so soon after a baby is born? Only the closest, most intimate family members! So what does it say that these dirty, smelly, uncouth, and uncultured shepherds—of all people—were invited to be the first visitors after the birth of this child? How is that possible? What on earth has changed?

Everything!

The angels give us a clue to what has changed in verse 14: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” That’s what my translation says. In fact, every modern translation says something along these lines. The NIV reads, “peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Same difference.

But the angels are saying, “There are now people in this world with whom God is especially pleased”—or people “on whom God’s favor rests”—and these people, and only these people, have peace with God. There’s a rare Greek word underneath the English word that gets translated “pleased” or “favor.” The word is eudokia (yoo-dok-ee-a). It is not found often in ancient Greek literature. But there is one place it is found: In the gospel of Luke, chapter 3, verse 22: After Jesus is baptized and comes up out of the water, his Father’s voice from heaven says, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Underneath the words “well pleased” is the exact same Greek root!

So tonight’s scripture is saying—somehow, as hard as it is to believe—that there are now people who have peace with God, whom God loves exactly as much as he loves Jesus, cares about exactly as much as he cares about Jesus, looks upon exactly the same way he looks upon his beloved Son Jesus. 

In other words, the good news that the angel announces to the shepherds is that they are now God’s beloved sons and daughters; they’re part of God’s family.

And you can be, too!

It’s all made possible by what Jesus did for us through his life of perfect obedience to the Father that we were unable to live and his God-forsaken death on the cross, which we deserved to die. Jesus did it for us!

Around this time of year, everyone talks about the “true meaning” of Christmas—especially on Christmas TV specials and movies. But they always get it wrong. Because the true meaning of Christmas is Good Friday and Easter. Amen.


[1] Matthew 1:21

[2] Matthew 2:6 ESV

[3] Romans 8:28 ESV

[4] 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 ESV

[5] Philippians 4:11, 13 ESV

[6] 2 Corinthians 4:17 NLT

[7] Luke 5:8 ESV

[8] Exodus 33:20

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