Merry Christmas! God bless you all. I’m happy to see you all here today. What better way is there to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ than to gather with his family on the Lord’s Day?
But now it’s Christmas! Many of you have already received presents. I believe the children received presents from the church last week. My family had a tradition that we would always open one gift on Christmas Eve.
Now it’s Christmas. In our Scripture reading today, we learn about some of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. We will look more closely at the details of that story today, but first, I want to point out that we’re reading a story about two kings. It’s a contrast between two kings. We very briefly meet the emperor, Caesar Augustus. Then we meet a little baby, born in a manger. These are two very different stories. But as we look closer at these stories, we will learn something about ourselves, about God, and about the world God has created.
This week, I read an article from the Washington Post about humility. The headline read “Leaders are more powerful when they’re humble, new research shows.” The author was making the point that when we think of humility, we often think about humiliation or low self-worth or low self-esteem. When in reality, humility has more to do with having a more realistic sense of our own limitations.
According to the studies in the article, people who displayed arrogance were more likely to quickly skim over new information, even if it conflicted with their prior understanding, and they would insist they were right, even when given information that showed them to be wrong.
In contrast, people who displayed humility, took longer to read and analyze new information especially if it conflicted with prior understanding; they would take alternative perspectives into account when making decisions, and were gracious and flexible when alternative points of view proved better. The article maintained that humble leaders were more effective in growing and maintaining an organization than arrogant leaders.
That is important to keep in mind as we introduce ourselves to two important kings: Caesar Augustus and the Lord Jesus Christ.
First let’s look at what we know about Caesar Augustus. Caesar Augustus was born into a wealthy and influential family in Rome in 63 BC. His name was Gaius Octavius. He was also called Octavian. His great uncle was Julius Caesar. So he was born into wealth and influence. But his uncle, Caesar took an interest in him and eventually adopted him and named him as his sole heir.
Octavian came to power in Rome after a series of civil wars that resulted from the assassination of Julius Caesar. After Julius Caesar was killed, absolute Chaos broke out. There was the pro-Caesar faction and the pro-Senate faction. But when the wars started these factions splintered and realigned. Rome was more or less lawless. After these civil wars though, Octavian stepped in to reestablish order. Even though he could have, Octavian did not grasp at power right away. He gained power incrementally—piece by piece. Monarchy was still very unpopular in Rome. So unpopular, in fact, that it got Julius Caesar killed. So Octavian learned that lesson and built power gradually.
But gradually, he came to exercise almost total governmental power in Rome and in the Roman provinces. The evolution of his name reflects these changes. As soon as he was adopted by Caesar, his name became Gaius Julius Caesar Octavius. Soon after Caesar’s death, Octavian encouraged what became known as the imperial cult, by founding a temple dedicated to the deceased Julius Caesar. At this point he took on the name Son of God. Gaius Julius Caesar Divi Filius. A few years later, he took on a military title as a part of his name. Imperator Caesar Divi Filius. Then after winning his final civil war, the Roman Senate granted him the name and title of Augustus, meaning venerable or respected. Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus. Or Caesar Augustus for short.
The transformation was complete. Rome was under his total control.
Returning to our text, we see in verse 1, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.”
In those days. What happened in those days? At the time of our passage today, Augustus had been leading in Rome for nearly 40 years, and ruling as absolute emperor for about 20 years. After Augustus defeated other warring factions in Rome, he initiated what came to be known as the Pax Romana or Roman Peace. It was a period in history where because of Roman influence all the way from Italy extending to most of Europe, parts of the Middle East, and much of North Africa, there was relatively little war. It also meant that Rome invested in infrastructure all over the empire. Better roads. Better security. Great economic prosperity. Relatively peaceful.
Thinking biblically, though, people all over Israel were looking for something. It had been nearly four hundred years since God had spoken through the prophets. People were looking for a Messiah. They believed God’s promise that he would send them a savior. It’s clear in the bible that people were looking for the Messiah. Skip ahead to verse 26, and we read that a man named Simeon had been promised “by the holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” Simeon was watching for the Messiah. Skip again to verse 36. Anna a prophetess was waiting constantly in the temple (verse 38) speaking to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. In Matthew 2, we even find the Magi from the east—they weren’t even from Israel, but they were searching for the promised king.
Let me ask, are you searching for something? The people in Israel were looking for their messiah. They felt the weight of years of political occupation by other kingdoms like Assyria, Babylon, Media, Persia, now Rome. They longed to be free. They longed to see God’s promises fulfilled. What are you hoping for and searching for?
Some of you may be searching for fulfillment. That can show up in a number of ways. Maybe you’re looking for a better life, a better income, a better house, or better clothes. Some of you are trying to please people, maybe a parent or a significant other. None of those things are necessarily bad. God calls us to do our work as though we are working for him. God blesses good work. God even encourages us to enjoy our work, because it is a gift from him. God calls us to love our neighbors and honor our parents and care for our family members. These things we aspire to are not bad in themselves. Even governmental authority like Caesar exercised, is a gift from God to be used well and faithfully. But when we place our hopes on them—when their presence lifts us up and their absence brings us down, we have our priorities completely out of order. Jesus says in Matthew 6 “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. … For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” So Christian, let me encourage you if you’re searching for fulfillment in any of these things, they will let you down, but God won’t. God will provide exactly what you need, exactly what is good for you. And you can rest your hope in him and he will never let you down.
In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. So Caesar Augustus issued a decree. And then what happened? Verse 3: And all went to be registered, each to his own town. Caesar gave the decree, and the people packed up and went home to be counted. Caesar’s power—his authority was total in Rome.
But our passage also tells us about a second king. So let’s go back again to our text. What do we learn about Jesus Christ?
Look at verse 4. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David. To be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. We learn that Mary and Joseph were both descendants of David. This means that Jesus was born into a family who had a biblical claim to the throne of Israel. They were from the line of David. Israel had not had a king from David’s line since their exile into Babylon around 600 BC, or 600 years before Jesus. Herod was king at the time of Jesus’ birth, but he was a politician appointed by Rome. Mary and Joseph were from the line of David. Jesus has a legitimate family claim to the throne.
One thing we need to recognize from this is that God always keeps his promises. God promised David in 2Samuel 7 that God will give David an offspring and God’s steadfast love will never depart from him. God promised David that his house and kingdom will be established forever. And here we are 600 years since there has been a descendant of David ruling on the throne. But here, two descendants of David are traveling to Bethlehem and they’re about to have a child—a child so important that he was conceived by a miracle and was announced by Angels, and will very soon turn the whole world upside down. God always keeps his promise, but sometimes we see time passing and we wonder, How long, O Lord? How long will it take? Peter reminds us in 2Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” God keeps his promise when the time is right. Why? Because he is patient toward us, not wishing that any would perish, but that everyone would come to repentance.
What else do we notice? Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth, which suggests they were ordinary working-class people of modest means. Nazareth was a small town in the time of our passage. In John 1, when Jesus called Philip to be his disciple, Philip told Nathaniel about Jesus of Nazareth. This is the one “of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote,” he said. Nathaniel responded, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel knew about the town. It was a modest little town with modest people.
Very often we fall in love with things that are great. We want more. We want our lives to look like what we see on television. Have you ever noticed how TV shows set in New York often feature people who live in very large apartments and have a lot of free time on their hands? That’s very different from what most of us experience every day. We don’t usually aspire to have enough. We usually aspire to more or bigger or greater. Take time today to meditate on Jesus. He came from Nazareth. He was born into humble circumstances. Even more than that, he is holy God, and was born into a world that was broken by our sinfulness. He lived in such a way to show us that we should aspire to different things. When he teaches us to pray, he tells us to pray “give us this day our daily bread.” I like the way the New Living Translation puts it: Give us today the food we need. When he calls us to follow his pattern, he teaches us to lead, how?, Mark 10:42 “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus teaches us that the way to true greatness is through humility. The way to true leadership is through service. How do we know this? Because God himself came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for ours.
Take a look at verse 5. Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. This would have looked very bad for Mary and Joseph. They were still “betrothed,” meaning they were committed to each other but they had not yet consummated the marriage. And yet Mary was with child. A little ahead in chapter 3:23, it said many people thought Jesus was the son of Joseph. In chapter 1, we learn that Joseph would have divorced Mary quietly, preserving her life and preserving his reputation. But through the Angel, God assured Mary and Joseph that the child was from God—he was the Messiah and they were to raise him. This was not only a miracle, but the greatest miracle. God was coming to live with us.
Look at verse 6. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. So the time is close. The baby is on his way. Mary is about to give birth. They have to get to a room. But they can’t find one, because everyone in the empire is traveling back to their family homes to be registered for the census. That means all the rooms for rent are booked to capacity. The only place for Mary to give birth was a stable attached to one of these homes. So there in a stable, Mary gives birth to the king of the universe, wraps him in swaddling cloths, and lays him in a hay trough.
Talk about modest origins. If you thought it was enough that Jesus’s family was from Nazareth, it’s hard to top this: A stable and a manger. The passage doesn’t say anything about animals, but for what we know there could have been a donkey there observing.
In the very next scene, we read about the birth announcement. Shepherds in the field. An angel of the Lord appears to a group of shepherds. These were not powerful men. They were workers. They cared for and herded animals for a living. They spent time in the fields taking care of their flocks. Even more than that, shepherds were despised because of their work. I’m not sure why? Many of these animals were essential to the performance of Temple sacrifices. But their long hours, and time spent with the animals prevented them from keeping ceremonial cleanliness. They were often looked down on and thought to be unreliable. The angel doesn’t appear to the palace court in Jerusalem, or to the priests currently serving at the temple. The angel appears to a group of shepherds tending their sheep.
What is the content of the angel’s announcement? 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. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” Then more angels appeared and together they sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased."
What a contrast! You have the holy family, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in a barn in Bethlehem, and in the surrounding fields you have a group of sheep herders. And right then, you see bright angels shining with the Glory of God, telling about the birth of Christ the Lord. The angels were making an announcement of a royal birth. Christ the Lord is a title that is both royal and divine. Caesar was called “the Lord.” In the Old Testament, God’s personal name is translated LORD. Christ is a word that means anointed one or messiah.
Why is it important that the announcement was made to shepherds? Here it is: the angel brought good news of great joy that will be for all the people. All the people. This is good news for shepherds. Good news for ordinary people who work for a living. Good news for people who were prevented by their professions or by diseases or disabilities from keeping the Temple ceremonies. Peter would summarize it this way in Acts 2: the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.
And sometimes, when we have wealth or power or leisure, it is very easy to forget about our need for God’s good news. The Pharisees and other religious leaders, as well as Herod and the other political leaders in Israel were so intent on holding on to their wealth and power that they weren’t interested in coming to worship Jesus. In the story of the ten lepers in Luke 17, Jesus heals ten people of leprosy, but only one comes back to Jesus to say thank you. The nine already had what they wanted. The one saw that what he really needed was to fall on his face and worship Jesus. Don’t let your relative comfort in life blind you to your need for Jesus Christ.
The shepherds immediately run into Bethlehem and find the stable where Mary and Joseph are caring for their new baby, and they tell them about the announcement from the angels. Verse 19 says Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. The shepherds then returned to work, but now they were worshiping and praising God for all of this.
To take in the significance of this event, hear these words from John 1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Listen to Exodus 40: Moses took the testimony and put it into the ark…And he brought the ark into the tabernacle and set up the veil of the screen, and screened the ark of the testimony, as the Lord had commanded… Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.
Back in Genesis 3:15, God cursed the devil by promising a savior: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
God’s promise that he made to his people down through history was being fulfilled right here. The savior that would crush the head of the serpent was laying in that hay trough. God the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
And the angels announced it to shepherds, and they worshiped in a stable, and Mary treasured it all up in her heart.
As a church, let’s learn from Mary here. Sometimes, I think Mary can be a casualty of the way we distinguish ourselves from Roman Catholics. Roman Catholics venerate Mary sometimes to the extent that it kind of crosses the line from veneration to worship. It is right, as evangelical Christians, that we carefully guard ourselves against giving worship to anything other than God. On the other hand, it would be a mistake for us to overreact and only think of Mary except for a week or two at Christmas. Because here, Mary is a very helpful example to us of the kind of worship—the kind of worshipful hearts—that we should present to God. Do you see what Mary does? Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. How many times do we do our daily bible reading or do we come to Friday fellowship, and we study a passage of scripture, but then the passage leaves our mind afterward? I’m guilty of this. But Mary was paying close attention to everything that was happening from the birth of her son and forward. She treasured it up and pondered it in her heart. This is how the Holy Spirit applies the scripture to our lives—when it sits in our minds, when we soak it up and let it work its way into us. Let us commit today to approach God’s word this way.
If you’re here today, and you’re not a Christian, I want you to know we’re glad you’re here. What you’ve learned today about the birth of Jesus Christ is one of the two most important events in the history of the world. Jesus Christ became human. God came to live with us. And he did it for a very particular purpose. The Bible teaches in Romans 3: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. We read a moment ago that God does not desire that anyone would die—that anyone would be condemned—but he desires that all should repent of their sins. And from the very start, God has been forgiving the sins of everyone who humbles themselves to repent of their sins and turn to follow God. That is why Jesus was born 2020 years ago—to justify repentant sinners, and to justify his forgiveness of sins. So let me invite you turn to him today. The experience of guilt or shame is universal, because the Bible teaches that sin is universal. You can be sure you have forgiveness today if you turn to Jesus for help. If you have questions or if you need help, please come speak to one of us today. We would love to think through this with you.
Comparing two kings.
Now, let’s take a moment to compare these two kings, shall we?
One was so meticulous about crafting his image that he was called himself the son of a god. The other was actually the son of the true God, but was humble enough to identify with his creation.
One speaks and people obey. The other speaks and the wind and waves obey.
One was a king who was born into wealth and power, then through politics and war, amassed more power for himself. The other was God, who had infinite power and wealth in heaven, but set it aside to be born in a stable and grow up in modest circumstances and learn a trade, and ultimately die on a cross then rise from the dead.
One, right now in 2016 is in the grave. The other is alive and reigning as king even now in heaven.
Now, of course there is much to be thankful for, even in the rule of an emperor like Caesar Augustus. His rule over the Roman Empire established the very peace and prosperity that allowed the churches to spread the gospel across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, and even as far as India in its first generations. Fair and faithful rulers are a blessing from God.
But if you look at Caesar Augustus and then you look at Jesus, the contrast couldn’t be greater. Caesar made a false claim to divinity, but his rule was very ordinary. Jesus, as it says in Philippians 2, even though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. 7 Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, 8 he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. 9 Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Date: 25 Dec 2016
Text: Luke 2.1-20
Title: A Story of Two Kings
Location: BCBC Combined Service