Grace For The Journey
Today is Christmas Day . . . Merry Christmas! I want to pause with our study on “Encounters With Christ” in order at a passage about the birth of Jesus Christ. Luke chapter two begins by telling us how God directed Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and, with stark simplicity Luke tells us that Mary brought forth her firstborn Son, wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a manger, or a feed trough, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Verses 8-14 tell us happens next . . . “Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’”
One of the fantastic things about studying the Bible is that there is no end to the new and fresh insights that God grants us as we read His Word. We can take any passage of Scripture and, no matter how familiar, God will often bless us with an application that we had not previously enjoyed.
In our passage today, I was struck by the first words from the mouth of the angel of the Lord to these shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks by night. The very first thing this angel says is, “Fear not.” It is the same phrase used by the angel of the Lord in chapter 1, back when the angel appeared to Zacharias in the temple, first thing out of the angel’s mouth, “Fear not” (1:13) And then again, when the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, the first thing the angel said was, “Fear not.” (1:30). Here we have it again in chapter 2, verse 10, “Fear not.”
The fact that Luke brings this out in his story suggests at least that the typical response to encountering something supernatural is to respond in fear. And while we usually think of fear as a bad thing, there is a kind of fear that is very good. In the Old Testament, for example, we read over 30 references to a healthy kind of fear, namely “the fear of God.” But this kind of fear is best understood in terms of reverence, worship, love, and awe. Solomon wrote, for example, in Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” or in Proverbs 10:27, “The fear of the Lord adds length to life.”
But closely connected to this fear is another kind of fear, a fear usually associated with worry and anxiety over the future or a worry over a host of imagined possibilities, a kind of fear that often paralyzes us in its grip.
I love Christmas movies. I love, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story.” The latter is about a kid named Ralphie who wants an official Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Those of you who have seen this movie, do you remember the scene where a boy named Flick is pressured to stick his tongue to the cold flagpole in the school yard? Another kid named Schwartz pressures Flick to do it. Schwartz warns that if he does it his tongue will stick to the pole. Flick says it won’t and the dare is on. Poor Flick! He just could not withstand the dares of Schwartz, the bratty little kid who went from “Double Dog Dare” to “Triple Dog Dare.” When you watch that scene you can just feel for Flick. When Schwartz “Triple Dog Dares” Flick into sticking his tongue to the flagpole, Flick’s mouth opens and his eyes get big and you can just tell his heart is beating faster. His spine stiffens, he wipes his brow, he shakes his head. He is full of fear! And there are so many fears running through his mind . . . fear of not being able to get out of this, fear of losing friends, fear of saving face . . . and fear of his tongue sticking to that pole! He finally does what his conscience warns him is wrong and he gets his wet tongue stuck to that dry, cold pole.
We can all relate to deep-seated, feelings of fear. Fear takes on many forms and hits us in many ways. Perhaps the greatest of our fears is simply the fear of the unknown. We like security, predictability, safety, peace, and comfort. We want to be reassured that these things will not be upset.
It is understandable, then, why the angel of the Lord goes on to say to the startled shepherds, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.” That is, “You need not be frightened by my appearance. I have not appeared to paralyze you with worry and anxiety, quite the contrary I am bringing you some really Good News. You will not understand it all at once, but in time, you will. I am bringing you Good News in the form of a person. I am bringing you the news about the Lord Jesus Christ, a Savior to all people.” And so, these shepherds move from fear to faith. And in their moving from fear to faith, we are encouraged to know that we too may not live paralyzed in anxiety and worry, but we too may move from fear to faith.
Let’s study these verses and then at the end of our study we will look at some practical applications that arise from this Christmas passage.
I. Christmas Is About Wonder – Verses 8-14.
We must never lose the wonder of Christmas! We should read this passage with the greatest sanctified imagination possible. This is a wonderful story. It does not require all the special effects of a blockbuster film. It is a powerful passage about a birth announcement. Did you send out birth announcements when your baby was born? Look at the birth announcement of Christ in verses 8-9, “Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid.” Angels in the Bible are not like these precious little figurines we buy in card shops. They are masculine in gender, they are usually huge in appearance, and when they appeared they usually scared the living daylights out of people! You have this angel appearing and the brilliant white light of the glory of the Lord shining all over the place and so these tough old shepherds are shaking in their sandals.
Verses 10-14 state, “Then the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’” In verse 14 we have the first Christmas carol ever sung. We go from one angel in verse 9 to a whole multitude of the heavenly host in verse 13. I do not know how many angels, but I suppose hundreds, if not thousands. And they are all singing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” Talk about a heavenly choir!
That last phrase does not refer to a political peace or the absence of war. That is not the peace the angels are proclaiming.
The angels are proclaiming a peace
With God among those who know Him.
This is a peace with God made possible
Through the work of this Savior who has come.
The angels are proclaiming a peace with God.
And when you have peace with God,
You will know the peace of God.
Because of sin, we are separated from God. We are at war with God. We do not have peace with God (Ephesians 2:14-18). We are alienated from God because our sin, our original sin with which we are born, and the sin we do willingly and consciously. If we die in this state, we remain separated from God. But if our sins have been forgiven through our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, then we are at peace with God. This is precisely what the Apostle Paul has in mind when he refers to the doctrine of justification, the doctrine of being declared righteous by God through faith in Christ. Paul writes in Romans 5:1, “Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is the peace the angels proclaim in their wondrous announcement of the birth of Christ.
Here is the wonder of Christmas. Christmas is about wonder. Secondly:
II. Christmas is about Witness – Verses 15-17.
The shepherds witness this supernatural nighttime celebration in the sky and then they go to witness the birthplace of this child. They go to see the baby.
Verses 15-16 state, “So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us. And they came with haste (the first “Christmas Rush” incidentally!) and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.” When they see the child, they then witness to others what they had seen. They share this good news about Jesus Christ.
Verse 17 says, “Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child.”
When we have encountered the Lord Jesus Christ,
We naturally want to tell others about Him.
They made “widely known the saying which was concerning this Child.” What was “the saying” they made widely known?” It was “the saying which was told them concerning this Child.” What was that? The answer is found in verses 10 and 11, “Fear not.”
Why? Because, “I bring you good tidings – or Good News – “of great joy which will be to all people.” In what way is this Good News? Verse 11, “For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Here is why this story is the greatest story ever told.
It is the greatest story ever told because it is
The story of the greatest news ever heard.
And what makes the news so great is that
It is news which repairs our broken condition.
Or, we might say it is the Good News
Which answers the bad news.
The bad news is that we are at war with God, alienated from God because of our sin. The bad news is that which makes the Good News good. It is a matter of perspective.
Maybe you heard about the young man at Christmastime who was writing home to his parents. It was his first semester away at college and he was writing to them just before the Christmas break, knowing he would be home for the break and, in anticipation of his soon being home with them, he wrote this letter:
“Dear Mom and Dad,
I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch with you, but a number of things have happened, and I wanted to let you know about them. First, my apartment burned to the ground and in seeking to rescue a few things from it, I broke my leg and ended up in the hospital.
While I was in the hospital, I met a wonderful girl. She and I were married on Saturday afternoon. My friends assure me that it shouldn’t be an inhibition in any way to the development of our relationship that she is 20 years older than I and does not speak the English language.
Everything you have just read is untrue so don’t worry. However, what is true is that I have failed my exams badly. And since I wanted you to be able to get this in some kind of perspective, I have written the letter as is.”
Perspective helps, doesn’t it?! We can only appreciate the Good News of the season when we fully appreciate the bad news of our sin.
We cannot fully appreciate
What it means to be forgiven
Until we know we stand
In need of forgiveness.
Christmas is about witness. It is about our coming to terms with God, “making our peace with God,” if you will and then urging others to do the same. Christmas is about telling others about Jesus.
It is about wonder . . . It is about witness . . . Thirdly . . .
III. Christmas is about Worship – Verses 18-20.
Verses 18 and 19 say, “And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
What a contrast there between those two verses! “All those who heard it” – The good News about Christ – “marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds.”
To marvel is a good thing, but it does not mean anything more than that they marveled. In other words, as the shepherds witnessed to others the Good News about Jesus, the Gospel, all those who heard it “marveled.” In essence, they said, “Wow, isn’t that wonderful?!” Well, . . . It is, wonderful. But understand that when many people hear the Good News of the Gospel, they only marvel. They come to a nice Christmas service at church and they marvel: “Wasn’t the music wonderful? Wasn’t the sermon delivered well? Weren’t the little children so cute?”
We can be moved,
But remain lost.
To be emotionally stirred only is not to be saved and forgiven of our sin. Verse 19 says that Mary, however, “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” There is on the part of Mary, an internalizing of the Good News. I do not mean to press this too much, but at the very least we see that Mary received subjectively what she had heard reported objectively. She heard the News, the Gospel, and she received these truths into her heart. This is true worship. And it is evidenced also in the shepherds. Verse 20 states, “Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.”
It is really quite remarkable!
These shepherds go from fear
At the beginning of the passage,
To faith at the end of the passage.
They move from fear to faith.
And what makes all the difference
Is an encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ.
An encounter with Christ can move us from fear to faith.
As I thought about this passage and I thought about our fears, it seemed to me that all of our fears can essentially be overcome by three main actions. Let me give these to you and I hope they help you.
How I Can Overcome My Fear:
- Know God (knowing God’s forgiveness removes the fear of His being angry)
- Trust God (trusting God means believing that He is guiding perfectly future events)
- Worship God (rather than turning inward, I am turning upward, loving God)
When the shepherds encountered Jesus, they moved from fear to faith and so can we. We preachers and teachers of the Bible often point out that the shepherds were among the lowest of persons on the social ladder.
- Their work rendered them ceremonially unclean for worship at the temple;
- They were usually people who were not thought of too highly in society.
- Their testimony was not permitted in court;
- They were sometimes considered shady characters.
It is so like God to announce the birth of Christ to these shepherds! God doesn’t communicate the Gospel today through angels, but He continues to rely on imperfect people, broken people, sometimes even shady people, shepherds like you and I. We too must tell the story, the greatest story ever told. We must witness to others the story of the Gospel.
Here is my Christmas challenge to you. Tell this story this week. It’s the greatest story every told. Let me challenge you to read the story to your children and to your grandchildren. Dads, lead your families. Get out the Bible and open to Luke 2 and read. Take about it sometime this week. It will only take a few minutes and it will serve to re-focus your family and yourself on the spiritual priorities of Christmas.
We’ve a story to tell to the nations,
that the Lord who reigneth above
Hath sent us his Son to save us,
and show us that God is love,
For the darkness shall turn to dawning,
and the dawning to noonday bright;
And Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth,
the kingdom of love and light.
This is Grace for your Journey …
Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!
Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”
Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”