Picture this: I’m trying to make arrangements for two friends of mine, who don’t know each other, to meet up at a coffee shop in a small town somewhere in Alberta. I’m talking to one of them on the phone, and he asks me the all-important question: “How will I recognise this person I’m supposed to meet?” “That’s easy!” I reply. “Just go to Tim Horton’s and he’ll be there waiting to meet you. You’ll be able to pick him out immediately; he’ll be the one wearing a ball cap and driving a truck!”
All joking aside, have you ever noticed what a strange sign the angel gives to the shepherds in Luke’s Christmas story? The shepherds are standing on a hillside hiding their eyes from the extraordinary light streaming from this angel; in fact, when he first appeared they were so terrified that he had to reassure them not to be afraid. He tells them that the Saviour, the King of Israel, the Lord, has been born in the ancestral town of their ancient King David. No doubt the question on their minds is “How will we recognise him?” And so the angel gives them a sign: “You’ll find him wrapped up in baby clothes and lying in a feeding trough”.
What an extraordinarily ordinary sign! Apart from the little detail about the feeding trough, it might have applied to a dozen newborn babies that night in Bethlehem. Surely when the shepherds heard the news that the Messiah had been born, they were expecting a more impressive sign than this! Surely they were expecting the angel to say, “You’ll be able to recognise him because his family will be in the grandest room of the Bethlehem Hilton. A squad of temple guards will be keeping watch at the door, and you’ll need to give them a password to get in. When you get into the room you’ll notice immediately the splendid gifts sent by King Herod and the Emperor Augustus. Nothing you can give him will compare with that, and by the way, we seem to have gotten our wires crossed here – we weren’t meant to make this announcement to you at all, because you’re just ordinary shepherds!”
But of course that’s not how the story goes. There are extraordinary people in it, but they live and work in ordinary circumstances – or, to put it another way, the ordinary people in the story find themselves caught up in a series of extraordinary circumstances. Joseph is a descendant of King David, but there’s been no king from the royal line of David in Israel for centuries, and in fact Joseph earns his living as a journeyman carpenter in Nazareth, far away from Judea where David was born. But the powers-that-be decide that they need to update the taxation records for the area, and suddenly, at a very inconvenient time, Joseph and Mary find that they have to make the trip to Bethlehem, the ancestral home of Joseph’s family.
Luke doesn’t give us all the details that have passed into legend through Christmas carols and Sunday School plays. We don’t have the little donkey on which Mary made the trip. We don’t have the desperate search for a place to stay when they arrive in Bethlehem and find all the inns full. We don’t have the innkeeper as a villainous character who sees a pregnant woman on the verge of giving birth and consigns her to the stable out the back. We don’t have the ox and ass before him bowing, or the little drummer boy waking him up just when his Mom has managed to get him to sleep, and we certainly have no hint at all that ‘little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes’!
In fact, we might not even have the inn! One of the latest Bible translations, the TNIV, translates ‘there was no room for them at the inn’ as ‘there was no guest room available for them’. I did a bit of research on this and discovered that a lot of Bible scholars have been saying for years that the Greek word kataluma should be translated ‘guest room’. This changes things a bit in the story, doesn’t it? What probably happened was that Joseph had relatives in Bethlehem (after all, his family was from there), but when he and Mary arrived there was no room left in the guest room, because so many people were traveling back for the census. Family homes in those days had only two or three rooms, and at night one of them would have had the animals in it. The story probably simply means that the guest room was full, and so Mary and Joseph had to sleep in the room the animals used, and use the manger as a crib. This would also explain why, in Matthew’s version of the story, when the wise men arrived they found Joseph and Mary and the baby living in a house in Bethlehem.
So Luke doesn’t give us many of the traditional details; he tells the story very simply, with the bare minimum of detail. I quote from the TNIV:
‘While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them’ (vv.6-7).
It’s the angel, though, who interprets the story and tells us its true significance. He tells us four things about the story: it’s about good news; it’s about God’s plan to rescue the human race; it’s about the identity of our true King; and it’s a message of peace.
First, it’s a message of good news. The Christian message isn’t always seen as being a message of good news, is it? I expect that if I asked you to sum up the Christian message for me, many of you might answer by saying “Love thy neighbour” or “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or something similar. Not that there’s anything wrong with loving your neighbour or doing to others as you would have them do to you; far from it! It’s just that these things aren’t good news, are they? They’re good advice – and there’s a lot of difference between ‘good news’ and ‘good advice’.
The angel says to the shepherds, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (v.10). Jews who knew the scriptures would immediately think of the book of Isaiah, where the prophet announces the good news that God is going to set his people free from captivity in a foreign land. Romans, on the other hand, used the word for the announcement of the birth of an heir to the throne: ‘Good news! A son has been born to Caesar Augustus!’ So when the shepherds hear the angel talking about good news, they immediately connect it with God’s activity: God’s about to work to set his people free, and he’s going to do it through the birth of a son and an heir.
It’s a message of good news, and secondly, it’s a message about God rescuing his people. The angel says, ‘To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour’ (v.11). That word ‘Saviour’ is almost always used in the Old Testament in a military sense – God ‘saves’ his people from their enemies. It’s the same idea we get in Zechariah’s song in Luke chapter one, where he talks about God’s promise ‘that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all that hate us’ (v.71). Later on in the song, though, Zechariah mentions a different sort of salvation; he says that his own son John the Baptist will go before the Lord to prepare his way, ‘to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins’ (v.77).
My friend Rob Heath has written a song in which the first line is ‘Our greatest battles we fight alone’. The greatest enemies we struggle with are internal – the sins and habits that chain us and stop us from being the people God wants us to be. Scripture teaches us that we can’t save ourselves from these enemies. Rather, Jesus came to bring us forgiveness, and to give us the gift of the Holy Spirit, so that we could be saved from our sins and transformed, gradually, day by day, into the sort of people who can change the world. That’s how God is rescuing his people and saving the world – one heart at a time.
It’s a message of good news, and it’s a message about God rescuing his people. Thirdly, it’s a message about the identity of our true King. ‘To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (v.11). Lovely words that we’ve sung every year in Christmas carols – ‘To you in David’s town this day is born of David’s line a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, and this shall be the sign’. But in Luke’s time, ‘Them’s fightin’ words’! The Greek words for ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord’ are soter and kyrios, and in the time of Jesus they were two of the official titles of the Roman emperor, who had absolute power to save or condemn, and who was the supreme lord of the known world. Don’t tell me Christianity is not political!
Today when we think of the most powerful people in the world, we think of politicians like the President of the United States – or we think of the CEOs of multinational corporations. It’s hard for us to believe that a child born in the little town of Bethlehem might in fact be more powerful. But today, the main reason we remember rulers like Herod and Caesar Augustus and Pontius Pilate is because of their association with Jesus. Absolute tyrants will not have the last word; the last word will go to Jesus, the true Saviour and Lord, our true King.
It’s a message of good news, a message about God rescuing his people, and a message about the identity of our true King. Finally, it’s a message about peace. In verse 14 we read that the angel choir sang this song: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours’.
Religious people are often accused of being the cause of some of the most vicious wars in history. Some years ago – long before 9/11 – I was planning a funeral and was consulting with the family members. Somehow this topic came up, and one of the men started talking about suicide bombers. “Their religion tells them that if they blow themselves up to kill unbelievers they’re going straight to paradise”, he said; “If we could just get rid of religion, the world would be a much more peaceful place”. That’s what John Lennon believed, of course: ‘Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too’.
I have a slight reservation about that argument, given the fact that two of the most vicious warmongers and mass murderers of the twentieth century – Stalin, and Pol Pot – were atheists. However, we can’t deny that there’s a dark streak in a lot of religions; in a lot of people, absolute conviction seems to morph easily into an absolute desire to wipe out those who disagree with them.
The only thing I can say is that this was not Jesus’ plan. Jesus taught his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who hated them. When Jesus was arrested and Peter tried to defend him with the sword, Jesus rebuked him, and later on at his trial he said to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews’ (John 18:36). Notice that he didn’t say, ‘My kingdom is not in this world’ – of course it’s in this world! No – he said it wasn’t from this world – in other words, it wasn’t a worldly sort of kingdom, built on greed and military power and violence. Rather, it’s a kingdom of justice and peace. That’s what Jesus had in mind when he got the whole thing going.
So the angel announces the good news that God has acted in Jesus to rescue his people from evil, sin, and death. Jesus is the true King of the universe, and his rule is not about violence and oppression but justice and peace.
Where does this all start? In the room where the animals sleep, in Joseph’s relatives’ house in Bethlehem. Not in Herod’s palace, not in the court of Caesar Augustus. Probably not in 24 Sussex Drive or the White House, but in your house and my house, as we welcome Jesus in, as we recognise him as Lord, and as we quietly ask his help to be his true followers. Not very dramatic, is it? It’s as quiet and undramatic as a baby being born in a small Judean town and being laid to sleep in a manger. But think of all that has come of that seemingly insignificant birth! And then imagine the things that can come in our lives and our world, if we allow Jesus to be born in us today, and if we commit ourselves to living as his followers in our daily lives.
And that’s the plan, you see! That’s how God is changing the world through Jesus – one heart at a time. May it be so, in your life and my life, today and every day. Amen.