The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached December 24, 2020*
Christmas is a revelation of the heart of God. At Christmas we enjoy many things: time together as a family, traditions, good food, wonderful music, the nostalgia of shared memories. I, for one, love getting to see the electric joy beaming on my children’s faces as they unwrap presents. It is a wonderful, wonderful season. But, all of those good gifts are the leaves and branches that shoot forth from the trunk and roots of the tree of Christmas celebration: the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. And with the arrival of Jesus Christ, we are given a profound disclosure of the God’s heart for weak people like me, like you.
You can tell a great deal by what someone is willing to be inconvenienced for. You can see a parent’s love for their child by their willingness to sit on metal bleachers in the dead of winter to watch a football game. You can see a church member’s love for one another when they carve out time in their hectic schedule to share a meal. But you can tell even more about someone by seeing what they are willing to suffer for. A parent’s love glimmers at that pee-wee football game, but it shines forth when a parent lays down their life so their child may live.
And at Christmas we see a disclosure of what matters most to God as we see what He is willing to be inconvenienced for, what He is willing to suffer for. What do we see matters most to God? The proclamation of the angels in Luke 2 reveal this: His glory being seen in our joy being spread. This is what God is willing to suffer for, be humiliated for. Glory, joy, suffering.
Let’s briefly consider these three elements in the Christmas story.
After the angel of the Lord explains what is going to happen, suddenly an entire heavenly host of angels appears, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14). This is what Christmas is about: God wants the world to see His beauty, His power, His goodness. And, as we considered a number of weeks ago in our first Advent sermon, sometimes God fixes the situation in such a dire, troubling way that when He comes in salvation, He looks all the more glorious. But what is His glory displayed in most? As the heavenly host praise God and ascribe glory to Him, their next breath is spent on declaring “Peace on earth.” Which brings us to the second major element: joy.
The angel of the Lord explains, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people,” Luke 2:10. The “good news” (gospel) of Christianity is a message of joy! God’s glory is not see in the display of His esoteric wisdom, or arcane philosophies. God doesn’t make the centerpiece of His praises abstract platitudes or systems of morality. It isn’t even in the display of raw power or vindictive judgment on enemies. God’s glory is seen in its proclamation of joy to all the peoples. The gospel is an announcement of great joy. This is what brings our God “glory in the highest.” How does this come? It comes through what our God is willing to suffer.
It is astonishing to ponder how far our God was willing to stoop to come down to us. I wonder if you remember the criticism George W. Bush received during Hurricane Katrina. The President had been away on a month long vacation at his ranch in Texas when Katrina hit. Deliberately trying to avoid the news, Bush was not made aware of the disaster for several days. When he realized the magnitude of how severe it was, he ended his vacation and decided to go back to Washington, but on his way back Air-Force One flew over New Orleans. Famously, a photographer snapped a picture of the President peering through the window of his private jet to look upon the havoc and destruction that lay below. The picture, many critics said, was a symbol of the President’s posture towards to plight of the victims: detached, distant, indifferent. I am not intending to make any evaluation of how our President handled that crisis, but it is a fitting analogy for how many people feel God relates to their problems. A distant onlooker peering over the rim of creation on us and our problems.
But Christmas is a direct refutation of that. God has come down! He has entered into this world, waded into the muck, and has identified Himself with us. But consider how low God was willing to go to identify with us in our most humble of estates, in our most weak and fragile form.
– Jesus could have come down as a full-grown man, but He didn’t. He came as a baby. A weak, helpless, crying baby. I have a one year old at home right now and am constantly struck by the idea that, once, Jesus was this small, this helpless, this dependent.
– Jesus could have been born in a large city of importance, like Jerusalem, but He wasn’t. He was born out in the country in the small town of Bethlehem.
– Jesus could have been born into a family of wealth or power. But He was born into poverty, to poor parents.
– Jesus could have been born in a palace, or at least a comfortable, safe room. But He wasn’t. He was born in a lowly manger, where animals live.
Even the announcement of Jesus’ birth is shocking. The arrival of the birth of the Messiah is, quite literally, the most important proclamation in the world. Jesus has come, God has taken on flesh, and now the opportunity for salvation has come, the New Creation is arriving and a heavenly host of angelic emissaries are here to praise God and announce this climactic moment of historical significance to….a few shepherds? Why not send these angels to kings, princes, dignitaries, why not go to the Biblical scholars of the day, to the important, to the “people who matter”? Why reveal this truth to just a handful of blue-collar nobodies out in the middle of nowhere?
Because this is the way of the Messiah, the Word made Flesh. His ministry, His life, His work is not to be characterized by the usual patterns that the world tell us matters. Jesus has not come to win victory for His people through the regular means victory is achieved. No, the joy that He is laboring for to display the glory of God is not a joy that comes from the well-worn path of man-made joy, and man-centered glory. Jesus has come, Christmas has happened, so that Good Friday would occur, so that Easter could happen.
The “good news of great joy” that is for “all the peoples” is that this infant will grow, living a spectacularly law-abiding life, but will one day die a horrific, sin-atoning death so that our sins could be forgiven. As Joseph was told, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins,” Matt 1:21.
So, as you celebrate Christmas this year remember:
1. Jesus has come so that our eternal joy would be secured through the forgiveness of our sins. This is the greatest gift.
2. Consider the humility of our God. Reflect on the depths to which God has gone, the humiliation He has endured to secure your salvation. Let that drive you to actively imitate this humility. Be wary of overlooking something that seems “beneath you.” What are the “mangers” and “shepherds” in your life? Where are you tempted to discredit God’s work because something is too small, too mundane, and too feeble? As J.I. Packer reminds us: “Our God is a God for the weak. Weakness is the way.”
In closing, reflect on these words from the song “Lower Still” from My Epic.
Look, he’s covered in dirt
The blood of his mother has mixed with the Earth
and she’s just a child who’s throbbing in pain
from the terror of birth by the light of a cave
now they’ve laid that small baby
where creatures come eat
like a meal for the swine who have no clue that he
is still holding together the world that they see
they don’t know just how low he has to go
Look now he’s kneeling he’s washin’ their feet
though they’re all filthy fishermen, traitors and theives
now he’s pouring his heart out and they’re fallin’ asleep
but he has to go lower still
there is greater love to show
hands to the plow
further down now
blood must flow
all these steps are personal
all his shame is ransom
oh do you see, do you see just how low, he has come
do you see it now?
no one takes from him
what he freely gives away
beat in his face
tear the skin off his back
Lower still, lower still
strip off his clothes
make him crawl through the streets
Lower still, lower still
hang him like meat
on a criminal’s tree
Lower still, lower still
bury his corpse in the Earth
like a seed, like a seed, like a seed
Lower still, lower still
Lower still, lower still…
The Earth explodes
she cannot hold him!
And all therein is placed beneath Him
and death itself no longer reigns
it cannot keep the ones he gave himself to save
and as the universe shatters the darkness disolves
he alone will be honored
we will bathe in his splendor
as all heads bow lower still
all heads bow lower still