A Very Unexpected Birth
When Prince George was born in 2013, he was welcomed by gun salutes in the capitals of Bermuda, the UK, New Zealand, and Canada; the bells of Westminster Abbey and many other churches were rung; and iconic landmarks in the Commonwealth realms were illuminated in various colors (mostly blue).
This kind of thing doesn’t just happen for royalty—when Beyoncé gave birth to twins back in June, she had magazines and websites all over the world celebrating their birth!
This is the way we all wished our babies could be celebrated when they’re born. After Jack was born I found myself wanting to show pictures of him to random strangers on the street. When he came out I lost it; I cried so much that it was infectious—I had the nurses in the maternity ward in tears. When we see royal babies born, and how the world celebrates, we see what we wish we could give our own children.
So try to imagine the most important royal birth in history, the son of the greatest king who ever lived—what would you imagine that celebration might look like? It would be huge, and decadent, and the entire country—quite possibly even the entire world—would want to get in on the celebration.
Now, what would it look like if the baby born were not the son of the king, but the Son of God? If the baby born were divine? What would that celebration be like?
We don’t have to wonder. That birth did take place. The Son of God was born, a little more than two thousand years ago. We have the account of his birth written in chapter 2 of the gospel of Luke. And as it turns out, the actual birth of the Son of God was far less opulent than anything we would have imagined—it was in fact far less opulent than the birth of most ordinary babies today.
1) The birth of Jesus…in a stable
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And 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. 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.
Caesar Augustus was the ruler of the Roman Empire at the time. “Augustus” means “holy” or “revered;” up to that time the title was reserved exclusively for the gods of Rome. An inscription at Halicarnassus called him “savior of the whole world.”
He decreed that “all the world” (viz., everywhere under Roman authority) should be registered—it was a way of showing the extent of Roman rule, to affirm Rome’s might.
Luke’s telling us this on purpose, for two reasons: 1) to explain why Joseph and Mary are traveling to Bethlehem from their hometown of Nazareth, and 2) again, to show this incredible contrast between the so-called “savior of the whole world” and how he affirms his authority, and the actual Savior of the world, and how he goes about making his appearance. The contrast could not be greater.
Joseph and Mary have had to make a long, hard journey, in the middle of winter, with Mary being pregnant to term. Maybe if they were lucky they were able to get an animal to ride on; otherwise, she was on foot. They arrive in the village of Bethlehem, completely exhausted, and there is not a single bed in the local inn—everyone had traveled here for the census, and there is no room left.
And as if it couldn’t get any worse, there Mary goes into labor. They presumably have to hurry to find a place for her to give birth. We have a hard time imagining how awful this was, because we have been spoiled—we’re used to hospitals and sterile operating tables and drugs! Very few women know what it is like to give birth without these things.
I have friends in Colorado who know a bit about this: she went into labor, they were in the car on the way to the hospital, and they got stuck in a blizzard. The dad had to deliver the baby right there in the car, with their other two little girls in the back “assisting.” Impressive stuff—but even that is a good sight better than what we see here, because they were in a car, on plush, cushioned seats, with blankets and bottled water.
Mary most likely gave birth on the ground, in the dirt. Luke doesn’t explicitly mention a stable, but it’s a logical assumption, because in v. 7 Luke says,
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.
Mangers were feeding troughs for animals. So it is very likely that she gave birth in a stable, on the dirt, surrounded by the smell of animals. And the first bed of the Son of God on this earth is a trough where cows and horses and sheep would have eaten their meals.
It is hard to imagine a less dignified beginning. But that was the point. I said something last week that I knew I’d be repeating today:
We have all disobeyed God; we have all sinned and rebelled against him. There is not one human being for whom this is not true. Because of this, if we wanted to be saved from God’s wrath, we needed God to come down to us and pull us up out of the mess we’d gotten ourselves in.
There is only one human being in all of history who did not need to be saved in this way, who did not need for God to come down to him, and that was this tiny baby. We needed God to come down and rescue us—and when it finally came time for him to do so, he did not merely come down to us, to pull us out of our weakness and frailty; he joined us in our frailty by becoming a weak, helpless infant.
So as we go along there is one question that will need to ring in our minds, over and over again: What kind of a God is this, who would not only save us, but who would save us IN THIS PARTICULAR WAY?
2) The birth announcement…in a field
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 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. And the angel said to them, “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.” 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 among those with whom he is pleased!”
So the Messiah, the Savior of the whole world, the Son of God, has been born…and nobody even knows it. This is so wrong, on so many levels! How many people knew about the birth of Beyoncé’s twins? You’d think that when God’s own Son is born, he would want people to know about it, right?
Right! God does make an announcement! He does tell people about his Son’s birth! But again, when he does, he doesn’t do it like you’d expect. He doesn’t go to Caesar’s palace; he doesn’t go to the religious authorities in Jerusalem.
He goes to a field outside of Bethlehem.
There is a group of shepherds out there, watching their flocks.
Being a shepherd was one of those jobs that automatically knocked you down several pegs on the social ladder. Shepherds were those guys no one wanted to be seen with, no one wanted to talk to, and certainly no one wanted to be. And yet, it is to them that God sends his messenger—an angel, shining with the very glory of God. He appears in front of them (which was an incredible shock; the shepherds are petrified), and he says (v. 10),
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
These shepherds, despite being pretty low on the social ladder, would have known who “Christ” is—“Christ” is the title for the Messiah, the Savior God had promised his people. So this is monumental news.
As if that weren’t enough, immediately afterward, a whole multitude of angels appear before them, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
This is the ultimate birth announcement—it means that through this child, God will be glorified, and this child will inaugurate peace for the whole earth. This is the best news in history, the news all humanity had waited for!
But this news came in a very strange way—God doesn’t tell it to important people, to influential people, to powerful people. He goes to the very last people you would ever expect.
So again—What kind of a God is this, who would announce the greatest event in human history, the birth of his Son, to a group of men most people wouldn’t be caught in public with?
3) The first visitors…a group of shepherds
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.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
So the shepherds don’t wait around. They leave their sheep and they take off running to Bethlehem, to see this baby that has been born. Now, if I were them, I probably would have expected to see huge crowds around the place where the baby was. After all, they were only shepherds—no way the angel would have only come to them! Surely this announcement was made to everyone, and they only saw it because they happened to be in the right place at the right time.
But no. When they arrive, they are the only ones there. The streets are quiet. No one is in sight. So at that point they must have realized something: When God gave this news, he gave it to us, and only us.
The same thing goes for Mary and Joseph. They are there all alone, trying to recover after the ordeal of the delivery, trying to keep the baby warm. They hear footsteps running their way… And in walks a group of dirty shepherds, who say an angel appeared to them and told them to come here and see the newborn Savior.
How would that have made you feel, if you were in their shoes? to know that you all—poor, unassuming shepherds—were the only people to whom God announced the birth of his Son? I like to think I’d be honored (that I’d be intelligent enough to grasp it), but I think mostly I’d be confused. The question the shepherds must have been asking themselves, the question Mary and Joseph must have been asking themselves, is the same question we’ve been asking this whole time: when God came to announce the birth of his Son, why would he make this announcement to these people? What’s so special about them?
And the answer is, of course, nothing. Nothing was special about these shepherds. They were just ordinary people living their lives. But that is the very kind of people that Jesus came to save.
The angels said to the shepherds:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
In other words, the Savior’s peace comes to those who please God. And how is it that we please God?
How do we—ordinary folks—make God happy? How do we please him?
We have the answer to that question most explicitly given in the Bible in Hebrews 11:6:
And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
What is it that pleases God? FAITH! It is not riches; it is not power; it is not influence. Faith is what pleases God; he is pleased with those who believe in him. And he gives faith to his children no matter their social class, their background, their education, their job, their nationality...or their age. He is pleased with those who believe in him, and who come to him looking for the reward of eternal life.
It is exactly what Mary said in her prayer (which we saw last week):
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
God brought Jesus into the world in the poorest of circumstances, announced the birth of Jesus to poor shepherds, and welcomed those shepherds to visit Jesus, to show that Jesus came for ANYONE WHO BELIEVES IN HIM, no matter how poor or weak or young or old they are.
EVERYONE is invited; and ANYONE can come.
In this text, God is calling us, brothers and sisters—little brothers and little sisters—to come to Jesus. If you don’t feel like God would want you, you’re wrong. If you don’t feel like God would accept you, you’re wrong. If you feel like you don’t know enough, you’re wrong. If you feel like you know too much, you’re wrong.
God calls us all to come to Jesus with faith, to believe that he is our Savior. And when we’re afraid God is too big to consider us, he calls us to remember that when he sent his Son, he didn’t send him as a great military leader, but as a helpless baby lying in a manger.
When we’re afraid he may not love us, he calls us to remember that the first people he invited to come to his Son was a group of poor, lonely shepherds no one else wanted.
Come to Jesus, put your trust in him, and he will welcome you with open arms, for this is what he has done since the very beginning.
We’re going to take communion now, and before we get into it I need to say something we don’t often say here. I need to say this because this is the first time we’ve ever had our children with us during communion; so the elders met this week and together we decided how we think we should approach this.
We often read out of 1 Corinthians 11 before taking communion. In v. 23-27, Paul explains what we’re doing when we take communion:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
So the bread represents the body of Christ and the juice represents his blood—these are symbols. They are not literally his body and blood, but ways of representing them and remembering them. And in the context of this passage, Paul shows us that communion is also a way of declaring to one another that we belong to the body of Christ. When I take the bread and the juice, I am saying to all of you, “I am one of you. I have faith in Christ. We both belong to the same body.”
Why am I saying all this?
I’m saying it because today, our children are here, and most of our children have not been baptized. So at a time like this the question will certainly be asked: “Should our kids take communion with us, or no?”
The Bible doesn't directly address the question of whether or not our children should take communion with us or not, and opinions differ on the subject. So I'm going to quickly address two different cases here (and you should know I am simply giving my opinion here—many solid Christians would disagree with me on this).
The first case is of children who are still very young, and who are unable to decide for themselves, in a conscious way, to accept or reject the gospel. When they are small, they follow their parents’ example. During this period of their lives, most of us consider our children to be a part of the body of Christ very naturally—we view them as our little brothers and sisters, our children, who are under our spiritual responsibility and whom we raise as little disciples of Christ.
We often say that children are the future of the church. I understand what they mean by that, but I have to disagree—our children are not the future of the church; they are the present of the church. Given the way Jesus welcomed little children (and actually chastised his disciples for trying to leave them out), I have a hard time imagining him telling our small children that they are not welcome at his table. Communion is not just a statement of faith; it is a means of grace. Through communion we understand Christ more fully and we trust him more completely. So my personal opinion is that small children should be welcome at the table just as we are.
The second case is of children who are a little older (that age will vary from child to child, so parents—you need to know your kids), and who are able to consciously decide to accept or reject the gospel. In that case, we'll want to treat them as any rational adult.
In either case, parents (and regardless of whether you agree with me or not), we’ll ask you to follow a simple rule of wisdom. Take an extra few seconds if necessary to talk to your kids, and most especially to ask yourselves the following questions:
• Do your children understand what Christ did for them, and do they trust in Christ for their salvation (even if their understanding of precisely what that means is limited)?
• Are they growing in obedience as a fruit of repentance? (Not, "Are they perfect?" cut rather, "Are they GROWING in obedience, and why?")
• Do they understand what it means to belong to the body of Christ (even if their understanding of that belonging remains limited)?
• Do you believe your small children are a part of the body of Christ (even if they will soon reach an age where they might reject the gospel)?
If you feel like the answers to these questions is “Yes”, then feel free to invite them to come along with you. But if you are uncomfortable with this, then explain to your kids what’s going on, and invite them to remain in their seats while you rise for communion.