Scripture: Luke 2:1-20
As the title of tonight’s sermon indicates, it’s about peace… the peace that the angel describes in verse 14: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom [God] is pleased!” This sermon is about three ways in which we can experience peace at Christmastime.
And I want to begin by talking about one of my favorite movies from when I was a kid: Back to the Future. For some reason I was feeling nostalgic last week. I saw that Back to the Future was available on one of our streaming services. So I decided to watch it for the first time in 20 years or so. And my boys also wandered in and watched it with me. I’m happy to report that they liked it about as much as I did when I was their age.
In case you don’t know, the movie is about time travel. An eccentric scientist named Doc Brown has created a time machine out of a Delorean sports car. There’s a scene near the beginning of the movie, in which Doc Brown is describing the features of the time machine to his young protégé, Marty, played by Michael J. Fox. And Doc Brown shows him how it’s possible to enter any date in history, past or future, on this dashboard computer, and through the wonders of a piece of technology known as a “flux capacitor,” you can accelerate the Delorean to a speed of 88 miles per hour, and voila! You are instantly transported through time to the desired date.
At one point Doc Brown tells Marty, “You can go back in time and witness the birth of Christ.” At which point he types in the following date into the dashboard computer: “December 25, 0-0-0-0”
There are only two problems with this: First, we don’t know the date when Jesus was born. The ancient church chose to celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25, but it wasn’t because they knew for sure Jesus was born on that date. But even worse, there was no year zero. Our modern calendar goes from 1 B.C. to A.D. 1, from one to one, with no year zero in between!
Also, we know for sure that Jesus was actually born some time between the years 6 B.C. and 4 B.C.!
Regardless, let’s give Doc Brown some credit: He rightly understands that Christmas—the first Christmas—is one of the most important dates in the history of the world. Indeed, when this army of angels in verse 14 sings their song, “Glory to God in the highest,” they are saying, in effect, that of all the things God has done up to this point in history, sending his Son Jesus into the world is the moment of God’s greatest glory… a glory surpassed only by Christ’s atoning death on the cross and his resurrection about 33 years later!
But up to this point in history, Christmas is the most glorious event: God enters into our world as a flesh-and-blood human being.
To be sure, no one at the time of Luke chapter 2—aside from Mary and Joseph and these shepherds—had any idea just how glorious the events of Christmas actually were… at least while they were going on.
After all, if you want to talk about glory—at least from the world’s point of view—let’s talk about the man that Luke describes in verses 1 through 3. From the world’s perspective, Caesar Augustus was more glorious than any human being who ever lived. In fact, the same words with which the angel describes Jesus—“savior” and “lord,” the bringer of lasting “peace” into the world—those are precisely the words that many people used of Caesar Augustus. Indeed, according to Roman religion, the emperor’s adoptive father Julius Caesar was literally worshiped as a god, and archaeologists have found Roman coins and inscriptions that hail Augustus as the “son of a god.”
I mean, look how powerful Caesar is! He has the power, for instance, to move at least hundreds of thousands of his subjects around his empire like chess pieces across a chess board, all for the sake of an empire-wide census. In fact, he has the power to move a man named Joseph and his—what?—eight-months-pregnant fiancée Mary about 90 miles south from their hometown of Nazareth to Bethlehem… just by giving the word!
That’s power… or so everyone thinks.
What Caesar doesn’t know, of course—and what Mary and Joseph probably also don’t know at this point—is that Caesar isn’t doing anything special. He’s doing nothing that God hasn’t put in his mind to do! Caesar, the most powerful man in the world, is doing the bidding of a God that he doesn’t even know or believe in. Caesar has no idea that by calling for this census and moving Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem he’s actually playing a necessary role in fulfilling what the prophet Micah said would happen 750 years earlier:
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.1
Micah prophesied, in other words, that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, David’s hometown.
Uh-oh! The fact that the Messiah was in the womb of a young woman currently living ninety miles north of Bethlehem—and this young woman was way too far along in her pregnancy to be going on a long trip… this fact would appear to put God’s promises in jeopardy, would it not?
Only if we forget how powerful God is!
We say, “This is a big problem.” God says, “This is no problem at all!”
Just as it was no problem for God to move the heavens and the earth at just the right time, and in just the right way, to get the magi, or the Wise Men, to travel seven hundred miles or so west, from the Persian Gulf to Bethlehem, so that they could worship the newborn king.
This is no problem for God!
Despite all appearances, contrary to the way things in the world appear to us mortals who can’t see things from God’s perspective, everything is working out precisely according to God’s plan.
Now look at verse 19: “But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” Pastor Chuck Swindoll says the following about this verse:
The Greek term translated “treasured” means “to preserve,” “to guard,” or “to keep watch.” The accompanying verb, rendered “pondering,” literally means “to bring together,” much like someone arranging the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. For Mary, the last nine months had included an angelic visit, a difficult announcement, the near collapse of her betrothal, and less-than-ideal circumstances for childbirth. She must have recalled Joseph’s anguish and his unflinching obedience to the will of God. She probably marveled at the timing of the census, the birth of God’s Son in a stable, and the worship of shepherds [and later, the worship of the magi]. Her memories formed a complex and curious puzzle that dared to be solved. For years to come, Mary would arrange and then rearrange everything she had experienced in order to make sense of it all.2
Mary is literally the world’s first Christian, and she’s a faithful role model for us all, but she’s no different from us in the sense that we can do the same with our lives: we can “ponder” the events of our lives and wonder how God has pieced them together to fulfill his plan for our lives. And we can be sure God is doing this because God is no less involved in our lives. God has a plan and purpose for our lives every bit as much as he had for Mary!
Listen: I began by talking about the movie Back to the Future. The main theme of the movie is that it’s up to Marty and Doc Brown to “fix” the events of history so that everything works out just the way it should. And if they don’t do this, that, and the other thing in exactly the right order, and at exactly the right time, then their lives, and the lives of people they love, will be ruined.
And we often feel that way, don’t we?
For instance, when I think of things I worry about, things that frustrate me, things that cause me to lose my temper, things that cause me to feel sorry for myself, it’s so often because I perceive that “things aren’t going my way.” But my fears, my frustrations, my anger, and my self-pity come from the misplaced confidence that I know how to run the universe better than God—and that it’s all up to me to make sure everything works out perfectly. How about you?
Gosh, how do you think Mary and Joseph felt, when they realized that they would have to travel those ninety miles while Mary was so far along in her pregnancy? Surely they were at least tempted to think that God had forgotten about them! The idea that this was part of God’s plan for them from the beginning of time surely didn’t cross their minds!
To say the least, brothers and sisters, if God in his sovereign purposes is powerful enough to make his plan for Mary and Joseph work out, in order to fulfill his promises, don’t you think… 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”3… the promise that “my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus”4… the promise that his “grace is sufficient for you, for [God’s] power is made perfect in weakness”5… the promise that “when I am weak, then I am strong”6… the promise that in Christ we can learn “in whatever situation… to be content,” for we “can do all things through Christ who strengthens [us]”7… the promise that “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!”8… the promise that even when our heavenly Father disciplines us, he always only does so for our good9… the promise that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love if we believe in Jesus!10
If any scripture proves that God really does know how to run the universe and our lives within it—and he really doesn’t need our help to do so—surely it’s tonight’s scripture!
So this is my first point: the first way we can experience peace at Christmastime is to remind ourselves of something Joseph and Mary learned: Despite the way things appear sometimes, God is in control of our world, and God is working out his plan for our lives, even through surprising and often difficult circumstances.
Now let’s move on to the second way we experience peace at Christmastime…
Remember that episode in the gospels involving the four friends who bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus.11 They’re carrying him on a mat. They’ve heard about Jesus—perhaps they’ve seen him in action. They know that he has the power to heal people—physically; that he has to the power to make the lame walk, the blind see, and the deaf hear. And their friend can’t walk; he’s disabled. And they know that if they can only get their friend to Jesus, Jesus will heal him.
And they go to a lot of trouble to do so! When they arrive at the house where Jesus is teaching and preaching, the house is overflowing with people. It’s so crowded they can’t maneuver their paralyzed friend to Jesus.
Instead they climb on the roof and literally break a hole in the thatched roof, just above where Jesus is standing, and they lower their friend on his mat down through the roof… to Jesus.
And what does Jesus do? He says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
“Now hold on, Jesus!” these four friends were probably thinking, “Do you think that we went to all this trouble so that you could merely ‘forgive his sins’? Forgiving his sins is no big deal! That’s easy! We want you to do the hard thing… We want you to make him walk again! Performing that physical miracle is what seems especially difficult!”
But Jesus knows what they’re thinking… And he ends up healing the man physically, but it’s only to prove that he has the authority to heal the man spiritually, by forgiving his sins.
From Jesus’ perspective, you see, forgiving the man’s sins is a much bigger deal—indeed, as I’ll explain in a moment, a much more difficult, much more consequential, much more impressive thing for Jesus to do—than merely performing a physical miracle. Jesus is God in the flesh—physical miracles, as I’ve said, are not hard for God! He can move stars and planets and move the hearts and minds of powerful emperors with ease…
But to forgive sins, to give someone eternal life, to make someone a child of God, to heal someone spiritually… this thing that we take so lightly, that we often take for granted… this is the thing that, from Jesus’ perspective, is incredibly hard.
Was it not hard when Jesus—God in the flesh, God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity… was it not hard when he sweated drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed for his Father, if possible, to take away this cup of God’s wrath that he would soon have to drink down to the dregs?
Was it not hard when he endured the beating, the mocking, the crown of thorns thrust on his head, the nails driven through his hands and feet? Was it not hard when Jesus experienced the God-forsaken death, the suffering, the separation from his Father, the hell, that we deserved to suffer on the cross? Was it not hard when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
This is what forgiveness of our sins cost God. God paid for forgiveness with the blood of his Son Jesus. Which is to say, because God is a Trinity, God himself paid for it with his own blood on the cross. That’s the only way forgiveness was possible—that God could somehow become one of us; live the life of perfect obedience to the Father that we were unable to live; die the death that we deserved to die; and suffer the hell that we deserved to suffer. In our place. Because God loved us that much.
That’s hard! Yet that’s what God did for us out of love!
God purchased our forgiveness with the shedding of his own blood, which is the only way forgiveness is possible.
And how does God have blood to shed in the first place? How does God have a body that can bear the punishment for our sin? How does God become a perfect substitute for us human beings? How does God die in order save us? How does God conquer death for us in resurrection?
By becoming human.
And that is the meaning of Christmas. That is what we are celebrating this evening.
And maybe some of you are thinking, “Pastor Brent, you’ve mostly talked about Jesus dying on the cross. That’s the wrong holiday! This is Christmas, not Good Friday… and not Easter Sunday.”
But friends, if you’re thinking that, you don’t understand: the true meaning of Christmas is Good Friday and Easter Sunday…
So this is the second way that we experience “peace” at Christmastime: The Bible says that our sins had made us enemies of God.12 But now through faith in Christ, and faith in what he accomplished to save us from our sins… now we can have peace. As the apostle Paul writes in Romans 5:1, “Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us.”13
And now I want to talk about the third way we can experience peace at Christmastime… And in order to do so, I want to use my dog Ringo as an object lesson. If you’re a member or regular attender of this church, you’ve heard me talk about my beloved English Springer Spaniel, Ringo. But I checked my sermon archive: I haven’t mentioned Ringo in a sermon since September! So I think it’s past time for me to talk about him again!
I’ve said this to some of you already this Advent season, but it’s almost worth having my kids living away from home at college… even though I miss them something awful… But it’s almost worth it because I’m not sure there’s anything in the world better than that feeling when they come home again, and we have them under the same roof again. I love it so much! That’s partly why Christmastime is so wonderful right now! All three of my kids are home!
But you know what? I think Ringo loves it just as much as Lisa and I! When my kids sit down on the couch, he jumps on the couch and puts his head in their laps. He is always right where they are. He wants to be with his three best friends all the time. In fact, one of our kids who’s normally away at college has a bedroom downstairs, where Ringo lives. And every morning Ringo lies down outside the door—leaning against the bedroom door… just waiting for his best friend to come out, so Ringo can be with him! He will whimper outside the door because he’s so anxious to see his best friend! And then when he gets to see his best friend—as Ralphie says in the movie The Christmas Story, “all is right with the world!” My dog is no longer restless, no longer anxious, no longer sad. It’s as if Ringo were made to be with his beloved best friend, and nothing satisfies him until his deepest wish comes true!
The Bible says Jesus is our best friend. Jesus himself says so.14 We are made to be with him. We are made to be in a personal relationship with him. We are incomplete apart from him…
Just like Ringo leaning against my child’s bedroom door and whimpering, we are restless until we can be with him.
And when we get to know him as our best friend, which we can all do when we believe in him, we find peace.
That’s all I want for you this Christmastime: That you would find and know and rediscover and enjoy and more deeply experience the peace that comes from Christmas… that comes from knowing for sure that God is in control and working his plan in your life… that comes from believing that God has done everything necessary in Christ to forgive your sins and make peace with you… and that comes from experiencing Jesus as your best friend in life.
So in response to this message, let’s do what we see the shepherds do in tonight’s scripture, in verses 15 and 16: In our hearts let’s go with haste in order to be with Jesus. In fact, that’s what we have an opportunity to do, in a sacramental way, when we come to the Lord’s Table for Holy Communion.