“Good News of Great Joy”
December 16, 2018
The good news of a humble savior calls us to faith.
I. The stable shows us the humility of a saving God (Luke 2:1-7)
II. The angels show us the joy of the good news (Luke 2:8-14)
III. The shepherds show us how to receive good news (Luke 2:15-20)
We really don’t know much about the setting of Jesus’ birth. We know it was in Bethlehem. We know there was no room in the inn, the lodging place, and we know the baby was laid in a manger, an eating trough for animals. I saw this week an assertion that because the guest room in whatever relative’s home they stayed at in Bethlehem was too small for a home birth, Mary had to labor in the main living area, which was also where the animals were fed. Possible.
But I don’t think all the animals in Palestine were fed in the house. So let’s assume a shed or cave. Andrew Peterson, in the song “Labor of Love,” described it this way: “It was not a silent night. There was blood on the ground. You could hear a woman cry in the alleyways that night on the streets of David's town. And the stable was not clean. And the cobblestones were cold. And little Mary full of grace with the tears upon her face had no mother's hand to hold.” The stable was not clean. Imagine a run down shed, the worst part of the house, cold rock and rough wood. The stench of an animal stall never really cleaned. Smelly dung, dirty straw, bits of feed decayed to slime. Scurrying mice and rats. But it’s better than is exposing your pregnant wife to the weather.
It’s that kind of messy poverty that Jesus came to, that kind of messy humility that he was willing to bear. As we study the most familiar verses in the Christmas story, I want to look at the stable in its humility, the angels in their joy and the shepherds in their faith and call us to respond to the good news as they did.
We begin with Bethlehem. The setting shows us the humility of a saving God. Luke 2:1-7 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4And 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, 5to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7And 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.
Caesar Augustus was Octavian, the first true emperor of Rome, who took the title Augustus, foremost, in 27 BC. and ruled over a mostly peaceful empire until 14 AD. We know that God prepared the world for the coming of Jesus, starting with the spread of Greek culture in Alexander the Great’s conquests. The Greek language became the common language of all nations.
Then Rome came, ruling with an iron hand through her legions, and linking her holdings with fine roads and sturdy ships, with taxation, law and government never before been seen in the Western world. All this was God’s preparation, but also man’s self-exaltation. Augustus Caesar was the first to be hailed as a god. He represents the height of human pride and power, unparalled since the tower of Babel. Luke’s account contrasts the earthly power of Caesar and the lowly birth of one who was incomparably greater and more powerful.
The Roman bureaucracy would register people prior to taxing them. There were many registrations of Roman citizens during Octavian’s rule. Roman subjects, like the Jews, were also counted and taxed, but mostly by local governors. One such registration happened in 6 AD, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. This is too late for Jesus’ birth. Either Quirinius administered an earlier census, or the one Luke is talking about was the one before he was governor. The Greek word prote can mean “first,” but also "former" or "prior." So verse 2 may read “This census was before Quirinius was governor"
It was customary to return to one's original home for such a census, as Joseph does here. He goes from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea. It’s about 80 miles, and not easy. It might be a four-day journey if everything went well, but if Mary was very far along it would have been grueling for her. It’s not out of the question that she rode a colt or a donkey, but Luke doesn’t say.
Nazareth was an unknown town, but Bethlehem, though small, was well known. It was the city of David, his birthplace. It was the burial place of the patriarch Jacob’s wife Rachel. It had been the home of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz, whose son Obed was David’s grandfather. When the promises of a king from David’s line became prominent in prophecy, it was Bethlehem that was to be the birthplace. Micah 5: “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.” Verse 4: “He shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. 5And he shall be their peace.”
So Bethlehem was the city of David and the city of promise. In Matthew 2 when the wise men come to Herod he asks his advisors where the King of the Jews was to be born, and they answer easily. “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet.” Still, it was a tiny little hill country town, about as far from the power and prestige of Rome or even of Jerusalem as you could get. And even in that town Mary and Joseph were not welcomed with honor. Nobody rolled out the red carpet for this descendant of David and his pregnant wife.
I alluded earlier to the wide range of usage of the word ‘inn’ or ‘lodging place.’ Walter Liefeld says “The word usually translated "inn" may mean a room (for example the "guest room" used for the Last Supper), a billet for soldiers, or any lodging.” Another Greek word, used in the parable of the Good Samaritan has negative associations, uncomfortable and dangerous places.
That’s not the picture Luke paints, but it’s undeniable that when Mary's time came, the only available place for the family was one usually occupied by animals. The manger is an animal feeding trough. It may have been a cave, a stable, or part of a house. Even today in many places farm animals and their fodder are often in the lower part of the family dwelling. So even if it’s not as bad as it could be, Luke is showing a contrast between the kingly rights of the Messiah in his own "city of David" and the ordinary, humble circumstances of his birth. Even as a baby Jesus laid his head not in a crib but a feeding place for animals.
Jesus came in humility and to poverty. But he could have been born in Caesar’s palace and it still would have been the greatest descent into humility of all history. For the God of the universe to step into human flesh was true humility. To leave behind the glory and power and praise that had been his from eternity past was true humility. The obscure town, the stable, the manger, are just pictures of what was going on spiritually. As Paul says in Philippians, Jesus, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!”
The humility God the Son showed in the incarnation was about becoming human, choosing to descend from eternal glory to a dark world of fallen, sinful, broken and treacherous rebels. He came while we were still sinners. He encountered the sinfulness and rebellion of people at every turn, from the tragic death of Bethlehem’s babies to his own tragic unwarranted death on the cross. He came from the realm of light and brought light into the dominion of darkness and men loved the darkness rather than light. Yet even when he was despised and rejected, still he bore our sins in his body on the cross. This is the humility of the incarnation. Jesus became “God with us,” and us did not deserve it.
The first twist I want to propose today is that this same humility is shown by God every time a person is saved. The Holy Spirit shows that same humility every time he comes to take up residence in a fallen sinful creature of dust. He is, in the life of every believer, “God with us,” and he lives in the smelly stable of our souls. Us doesn’t deserve him. Now it’s true we are made new when he comes, that anyone who is in Christ is a new creation.
But that judicial reality is not fully lived out this side of heaven. The Holy Spirit in utter humility moves into the most dismal fixer-upper any TV show ever featured. He takes the role of a servant to clean us up and produce his fruit.
We can also see ourselves in the visit of the angels and the response of the shepherds. Luke 2:8-14 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
Shepherds, keeping their flocks, near Bethlehem. No surprise. David the shepherd kept his father’s flocks near Bethlehem. But the sheep being in the field rather than in the fold may say something about the date. The traditional December date of Christmas may not have been set by some Roman holiday, as is often alleged, but by a calculation about Elizabeth and Mary’s pregnancies. If Zechariah followed the priestly schedule laid out in Scripture, Elizabeth probably got pregnant in September. She was in her sixth month when Mary conceived. That would be March, which puts Jesus’ birth in December.
Yet for a couple of reasons September is also a good candidate. For one, we are not sure when Zechariah’s course of priests would have served. Second, it’s more likely the sheep were in the fields in September, when it wasn’t cold. Third, since Jesus’ death was tied to the spring Jewish festivals, especially Passover, it would make sense for his birth to be associated with the fall Jewish festivals. The Feast of Tabernacles, in late September, would fit, and might explain why there was no room in Bethlehem, as people came up to celebrate the feast.
But why were the shepherds chosen to receive this announcement? Maybe it’s because they work at night. If God were coming to Houston at night, he might well visit workers at the chemical plants, because they’re the ones out at night. Second, there is at least a verbal link to the many passages that show the Lord as our shepherd. “He shall stand and shepherd his flock,” as we just read.
But shepherds also represent the lowly, humble in Israel. Shepherds were despised. They were thought to be thieves, probably because of their nocturnal hours. Though they raised pure, sacrificial lambs, they were ceremonially unclean. And poor. Their jobs were menial even by the standards of the time.
But God, forever and always, is a God who cares for the lowly, the despised, and the poor. His birth was announced to these shepherds because he wanted to send his good news to the least of Israel and to the lowly and despised people of the world. Verse 9: “And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.” This is, at first, a single angel, possibly Gabriel, who had appeared to both Zechariah and Mary. But it was not just the angel that terrified them but the visible revelation of the glory of God, something neither Zechariah nor Mary had seen. So, as always, the angel has to reassure them by saying “don’t be afraid.”
“For behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Liefeld points out that “The angel's announcement includes several of the most frequently used words in Luke's Gospel.” This includes euangelizo, which is to bring good news. Gabriel already said that he’d been sent to Zechariah to bring good news of John’s birth. Here the good news is of Jesus himself. And it is good news, Gospel, for all people, high and low, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile. Luke uses the word ‘people’ 35 times, much more than Matthew or Mark, and he uses it 47 more times in Acts. The birth of Jesus is good news because it is evidence of God’s great love for all people.
Other key words here include “chara,” “joy” which occurs more often in Luke than Matthew and Mark combined. The word “semeron,” “this day” is used by Luke to indicate the dawning of a new age. In verse 11 the word “Savior” is unique to Luke. The other Gospels don’t use it. He also uses the word “Lord” which points to the deity of Jesus, and “Messiah” or Christ which points to fulfillment of God’s promises. Luke hears, in the angel’s word, a bold proclamation of the gospel at the very hour of Jesus' birth. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Verse 12: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” As we’ve already seen twice in Luke, God authenticates his message with a sign. Here it will be the unusual discovery of a baby, tightly wrapped as babies need to be, but lying in a feeding trough. When the angel said that the Savior was born, I doubt the shepherds pictured a baby lying in hay, in a manger in a smelly stable. Yet this was the sign they were told to look for, the concrete evidence that what the angel said was true.
Only after the sign is given is the angel joined by a multitude of angels praising God and saying, verse 14, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” One angel was enough for almost every event in Scripture. One angel was enough for the visits to Mary and Zechariah, enough for most of Daniel’s visions, enough to rescue Peter from prison.
At times we see two angels: visiting Abraham, announcing the resurrection. Rarely, we see many: ministering to Jesus in his temptations, worshiping at God’s throne, and here, announcing the incarnation of the Son. They are, literally, a great multitude of the army of heaven. Multitude is a word used of a number beyond counting. And what angel was going to refuse the chance to go and celebrate the central event in the history of God’s creation? There they were, singing “Glory to God in the Highest.” The angels are not only praising the glorious God in the highest heaven, but they are also saying that this event, this incarnation brings glory to the one who is already glorious. In other words, God has again shown his glory, he has shown his true character through his willingness to humble himself for the sake of men.
“and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” Peace is one of the great gifts God has given us. In Jesus we find peace with God in the forgiveness of our sins and his gift of new life. In Jesus we find peace with each other, as he removes the dividing walls that separate us. And in Jesus we find peace within, a dependent resting on His power. This peace is for those ‘on whom his favor rests,’ that is, those who have received his grace by believing on His Son. As Elizabeth said to Mary ‘Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord said will be accomplished.’ We receive his peace when we believe what he has promised in Jesus, forgiveness of sins, newness of life, hope of eternity
So how does this angelic visit speak to us? Any number of ways! I mean, this is the gospel! Good news of great joy. A savior, the promised Messiah, the Lord, Son of God incarnate. Thus the obvious joy of the angels that humankind finally receive this good news. “I bring you good news of great joy. Unto you is born this day a savior.” The angels are thrilled that the plan of God has come to this culmination in Bethlehem. And the twist is that just as the angels rejoice when the shepherds receive this good news, so they rejoice when we receive the good news about Jesus. Later in Luke Jesus will tell teach about a lost coin, a lost sheep, and the rejoicing when they are found. When he explains the parables, he says “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Heaven rejoices in the fields of Bethlehem, and heaven rejoices when lost and fallen people turn to God for rescue in Jesus.
But we’re ahead of ourselves, because our last verses that show the response of the shepherds. Verses 15-20 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.
17And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
The shepherds respond wonderfully. Rather than sit back down and do their job, tending the sheep, while discussing and debating what had just happened, they believed. They had been given a sign, but even as they were deciding to check it out, they show their faith. “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing which the Lord has made known to us.” They acted in faith in response to God’s revelation. In the same way, we will inevitably have revelation before we believe. Maybe it’s the bare, powerful words of Scripture. Maybe it’s being taught in a family or a church. Maybe it’s someone caring about us as they share and live good news. Maybe it’s a chance encounter with someone overflowing with that same good news. In every case revelation calls for a response. For them it was “get up and go to Bethlehem.” For us the response may be to recognize sin as death and turn from it to Jesus. For some it may be trusting Jesus in a specific circumstance. Whatever the details, it always comes down to faith even at the beginning, and ultimately to a particular faith that Jesus is the Savior and an individual trust in his saving work.
These shepherds respond with haste. They don’t waste any time. And they find the situation and the sign exactly at the angel had revealed: “Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.” Then they tell everyone what happened to them, and become the first evangelists, good news tellers, of the Christian Era. As Gail looked at this, she wondered if this was the first outside confirmation of God’s plan since Mary and Joseph learned of it. They’d just been going along by faith and now they have the baby and God re-enters the scene to say “I’m doing what I promised. I’ve told the world this good news.” Mary, we’re told, treasured all these things up and pondered them in her heart. She kept a journal, inwardly, of the ways that God had shown himself faithfully at work. This is a second great practice. First you act in faith in response to revelation, then you ponder the good things God has done. His revelation to us is through Scripture and the Spirit, so, like Mary, don’t neglect to ponder his words.
Third, turn the revelation and the mediation into praise. Verse 20 “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” They praise him because the revelation was true and real in their lives. They’ve acted on God’s revelation, seen it’s truth, and to Him be the glory. In the same way for us we receive the good news in faith, ponder it’s glory and then rejoice in our Savior and our salvation.
So. In Jesus God humbled himself to come in humble circumstances: the obscure town, the smelly cave, the manger bed. God leaves the glory of heaven to be with the truly needy. He’d promised this in Isaiah. “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, but [I also dwell] with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” That’s the Bethlehem message. And it applies to our souls, which are smelly dirty stables, yet the most High God, the Holy Spirit comes to us.
The angels themselves rejoice at this good news, and they rejoice when lowly people like you and I, like shepherds, receive that good news of a savior. So receive the good news faith, as the shepherds did. Put your trust in Jesus and his rescue alone. Then meditate on his revelation and glorify his name.