It happens almost every year just after Christmas and New Years are over. I have what some people have labeled the post Holiday crash. When the hectic pace of the holidays gives way to silence, I crash. And truth be told the Christmas season is always hectic.
There are so many different thing vying for my attention. There’s Christmas shopping, and holiday cards to send, and family to contact, and trips to plan, not to mention special church services. The cacophony of noise at Christmas can be deafening.
It’s not just noisy for those who are busy this season. There are those who hear the noise of grief. While others are singing carols, there are those whose attention is riveted on their grief. So today, as we continue our series of Christmas messages, I want to explore the question, “What do we do with the noise of Christmas?” as we explore the sounds of Christmas.
1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register. 4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
Luke starts the story by telling about a Roman Census. It seems rather mundane. But I think we will discover as we read a little further that this census has special significance.
So Joseph and Mary who are engaged pack up to make the 70 mile trip. Now to us, 70 miles isn’t a lot. But that’s with modern transportation. Travel in Biblical times was much slower often done on foot. Now I know there are some who read this and picture Mary riding a donkey with Joseph holding a lead rope. I suppose that’s possible; the Bible doesn’t say. But no matter how you cut it, the journey would have taken about a week…and Oh, by the way… Mary is pregnant and she’s near her due date.
As you read the story with me, do you hear the shuffle of tired feet? Do you hear the clip clop of tiny hooves?
Do you hear what I hear? You see this Roman Census that led to Joseph and Mary’s travel to Bethlehem would mean that prophecy about the coming Messiah would be fulfilled in Jesus.
The Sounds of Christmas
I. The Voice of Prophecy Fulfilled.
Let me explain. Without this journey to Bethlehem, Jesus would have been born in Nazareth. That is not a problem unless you consider that long ago, prophets foretold that the Messiah (the Christ) would be born in Bethlehem.
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
This prophecy was given centuries earlier, but it is “on record” that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. In fact this is one of a dozen concerning the details of the Messiah’s birth that point to Jesus as the Christ. And without this trip, without Caesar’s desire to generate more taxes, Jesus would have been born in the wrong place. Jesus would have failed one of the tests of the Messiah.
I marvel at the fact that God used the mundane to perform the miraculous – to fulfill prophecy.
And does anyone else find it ironic that this prophecy was fulfilled through the actions of a pagan nation? God used Rome to fulfill his prophecy of the Messiah being born in Bethlehem. God can use the decisions and actions of those who are not under his control to fulfill his purposes.
In the birth narrative we read about Jesus, we can see that God is still guiding history for his purposes. God guides history, and nations, and people for his cause whether they are believes or not. God is still involved in the activity of the world. That’s sovereignty; that is God’s ultimate reign.
I hear people complain about the United States and how we need to get back to our Christian heritage. I don’t disagree. But we must not forget that God still uses even pagan nations to fulfill his plans. I’m not excusing our drift to paganism. I am saying that even if the United States goes completely secular, God is still on his throne. Even when things are uncomfortable, even when things are chaotic, God is still here working, guiding, leading, fulfilling his plans through us for his purposes.
Luke goes on in verse 6 to tell us that Mary and Joseph reach Bethlehem.
6 While they were there (in Bethlehem), the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she (Mary) gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
Have you noticed that when this story is read or when we present it, we pretty it up? We almost have to clean it up to make it presentable for children and church Christmas pageants. In the process, we present a nice, clean, chubby cheeked baby. We put a nice clean manger in the play. And we skip the messy details. We don’t pipe in the smell of livestock. We see the stable, and we completely miss a mother giving birth.
I’ll never forget being the delivery room with my wife. I got to witness the birth of all three of my daughters. The birth of a baby is something marvelous and miraculous for sure. But I quickly learned in that delivery room that the birth of a baby is anything but clean.
Needless to say, there was some groaning, and panting, and cries of anguish. All three of my children were born through blood, sweat, and tears. I think about this and I marvel. Why? Because the process of birth was cursed by sin when Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden.
16 To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children.”
I marvel that God chose to put himself through a sin cursed process. Jesus came as a baby. He was born like any other human baby. He had flesh. Jesus, the Son of God, the Lord of Heaven was born in blood, and sweat, and tears. When God put on flesh, he endured the curse of sin from the very beginning. He didn’t see any part of the experience as unnecessary including birth.
That shocks me because if you are like me, you don’t remember your own birth. Yet our Lord chose to go through it anyway. And I want to ask, “Do you hear what I hear?”
The Sounds of Christmas
II. The Human Condition Is Met with Intimacy
Intimacy is a closeness, it’s a deep familiarity; a connection.
If that’s true, then God can identify with the suffering that the world goes through because of the curse that afflicts us all. He knows the weakness of the flesh. He knows weariness; he knows hunger; he knows thirst; he knows joy; he knows sadness; he knows temptation. Christ experienced these things. In experiencing these things, we know that God understands these things. He went through them and is intimately aware of them.
Intimacy can not happen without shared experience.
Have you ever had someone try to empathize with you without really understanding? I remember a guy friend who was in the delivery room while his wife was giving birth. He was trying to be encouraging. At one point, as she was going through a hard contraction, he said, “Keep breathing, keep going honey … I know how you feel.” (pause)
I imagine almost every woman who has berthed a child just cringed. Why? Because you know that my friend did not have any real clue what his wife was going through. But you women do because you gave birth too.
I won’t tell my friend’s wife’s exact response. I don’t want to be crass from the pulpit. Needless to say the response was said in a delivery room full of nurses and doctors. And my friend’s wife gave him an interesting suggestion for how to simulate the pain through the application of the hospital room door.
We laugh. But if he was going to really understand, she wanted him to have shared experience. One cannot have real intimacy without shared experience.
In the birth process, Jesus endured every aspect of the human condition. In the noise that surrounds Christmas, we should remind our selves that Jesus shares our experience. Christmas reminds us that God is intimately aware of the human condition.
(Pause for transition)
In the account written in Luke, the scene then shifts.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.
Now shepherds would have been a lower class of society. Many people already know this. So God is announcing the birth of Jesus to the Lowly.
9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, (the chosen one, the king) the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.
The shepherds immediately headed into Bethlehem. They investigated what the Lord had said. And they discovered that the signs the angel gave to them were true.
17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.
I read this passage and I wonder why God chose to announce the birth of the King to shepherds? Was it because in part they were the lower class of society? Perhaps this is part of it. That contrast is striking to say the least…the birth of the most high announced to the lowly, the common. But I think there is something else taking place as well.
In the book of Revelation, Jesus is referred to as a lamb.
6 Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders.
Do we see that lamb that was slain sitting on the throne? It’s the picture of sacrifice and authority together.
May scholars have suggested that it was in the hills of Bethlehem that the lambs for temple sacrifices in Jerusalem were kept. These shepherds in the hills of Bethlehem tended God’s flocks. And then Jesus is born -- THE ultimate sacrificial lamb of God who would also be king!
The imagery of that first Christmas is rich as God points the shepherds to the lamb.
Christmas is God’s story. We have already seen today how the events of that night impact mankind. We have heard God say, “I still see you and I am working toward your redemption.”
Now when the shepherds hear the angels, what do they do? They investigate. And when the shepherds investigate and it to be true, how did they respond? They shared God’s story.
The Sounds of Christmas
III. The voice of excitement sharing a well studied truth.
Can I ask a question? What is it that excites you and me the most at Christmas? Is it the presents? Is it time spent with family? What stories do you share? What is it that stirs your soul? What is it that if it was missing, would make Christmas less than Christmas?
Can I suggest that Christmas is always Christmas when Christ is the center of the story?
In verses 19 and 20 I love the comparison of reactions between Mary and the shepherds.
19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
Verse 20 tells us about the shepherd’s reaction. We’ve already seen some of that in the previous verse. But look at Mary’s reaction in verse 19. She treasured the events and she pondered them in her heart.
She locked away those memories in a keep sake box. And she would frequently pull them out to study them, to ponder their significance.
I love the word ponder. It comes from a Latin phrase which is derived from a sailing term. It comes from the weight (or Ponderae) that would be dropped over the side of a boat to determine the depth of the ocean floor. It’s where we get the phrase, “To get to the bottom of something.”
Mary pondered the story. Other translations might say “meditated.” She was having a conversation with herself in her own mind. She asked herself over and over, “What does this mean?” She had to drop the weight to get to the bottom of it. She was plumbing the depths of God’s story in which she was included.
In the noise of the Christmas season, we hear …
The Sounds of Christmas
IV. The Silence of A Pondering Heart.
Let me ask a question. In the business of the season, how often do you and I stop to ponder the depths of the Christmas story? How often do we find a quiet place to meditate -- to have a conversation in our heads about the significance of it all? How often do we help our children study the depths of the story? How often do we meditate on God’s story ESPECIALLY at Christmas? How often do we silence our hearts to ponder?
The challenge I leave you with is this. Take time to listen to God’s voice this Christmas. Take time to hear how God loves you and me. Take time in silence to marvel how God guides history for his purpose. Take time in silence to marvel that God avoided nothing in order to have intimacy with you and me.
The song we chose today is, “Do you hear what I hear?” We should be reminded that we only hear clearly if we are truly listening.