Summary: Christianity is sometimes dismissed because the package isn't attractive enough. That was the problem with the first Christmas as well.
I have a problem with Christmas. Not with the idea of celebrating Jesus’ birth of course. Nor with the idea of giving gifts to our loved ones. That’s good because it helps us remember that God gave us the greatest gift of all. It’s not even the temptation to eat more than I really need, though that is a problem.
No, I have a problem with presents. More particularly I have a problem deciding which present to open first. Should I choose the most interesting shape? Or should I choose the one with the glossy wrapping? Or should it be the one with the plain brown paper wrapping?
Of course you can see the problem can’t you? The quality of the wrapping may have no relationship to what’s inside. Without looking inside it’s almost impossible to see whether the package is worth opening.
That’s the mistake that so many people make when it comes to Christianity. The package doesn’t look particularly exciting so they never look at what’s inside.
But we shouldn’t be too surprised. After all exactly the same thing happened to Jesus when he began his public ministry. People asked how could this uneducated carpenter from Nazareth be worth listening to.
And you can imagine that the same might have been true when his birth was announced to the shepherds.
We just read one of the prophecies of Isaiah that refer to the coming King. Isaiah was perhaps the most loved book in the first century. Those who were looking forward to God’s salvation saw in it a great hope for their nation.
In fact when they unearthed the Dead sea scrolls last century they discovered a collection of old manuscripts dating back to just before the time of Jesus. And among all the scrolls the most complete of them was an entire copy of Isaiah.
Why was Isaiah so important to them? Well, their land was under occupation. They’d declined to the point where they’d become a fairly insignificant nation, yet their faith in God persisted. The prophecy of Isaiah told them that God had great plans for them. He was going to restore them to their former glory. In that passage we just heard read to us, God promises that they’ll never again be taken over by a foreign army - a promise that clearly he hadn’t yet fulfilled. And then they’re told to prepare the way for the people to return from exile; to look, because their salvation is coming. And the passage ends with the promise that they’ll be called “The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord.”
It’s no wonder, is it, that people loved to hear Isaiah read. Yet they’d been waiting for 700 years and nothing had happened. They were as far from salvation as they’d ever been. But they never gave up hope. We read at the end of Luke 2 of Simeon and Anna who are waiting faithfully in the Temple in Jerusalem for the day when God’s Messiah will appear there.
Yet it must have seemed like a forlorn hope mustn’t it? We human beings find it so hard to wait for God’s timing. But the fact is, it was God who sent this message by the lips of Isaiah. He’d made a promise and he always keeps his promises.
And so one night out on the hills outside Bethlehem a group of insignificant shepherds get the fright of their lives.
They’re sitting around the campfire having a quiet cup of tea, or whatever it is that shepherds drink around a campfire and suddenly there’s this guy standing in front of them surrounded by a bright light. These guys have never seen a light as bright as this. No halogen flood lights in those days!
So you can imagine their fright. But the angel quickly reassures them. Don’t be afraid I’m here to bring you good news.
Now I don’t know how much the shepherds would have known about the prophecy of Isaiah. They may not have picked up on what the angel told them straight away. But we should be able to work out the significance of the angel’s message fairly easily.
First it’s a message of joy for all people. But we’ll come back to that.
Second it’s a message about the Messiah whom Isaiah foretold would come. He’s been born in the city of David - that’s significant. And he’s the Messiah, the Lord. Messiah means the anointed one, the one who, like David was, has been anointed as king even before he receives the crown.
Isaiah had prophesied “See, your Salvation comes; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him." 12They shall be called, ‘The Holy People, The Redeemed of the LORD’”.
Now if the angels had been announcing a great military leader arriving to lead a rebellion against the Romans they would have been rejoicing. The package would have been worth looking at. But no, see what comes next. “you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” This is no military leader. No, it’s a helpless baby; a new-born; totally vulnerable. That’s an amazing picture isn’t it? The Lord, the creator of the universe who comes as a helpless baby. How could it be? What sort of salvation package comes looking like that - helpless and vulnerable?