What’s the “reason for the season?” A simple Google search will prove quite revealing. While this might come as a surprise to many fundamentalist Christians who believe secular forces are waging a war on Christmas... A recent Pew study discovered the war is all but over!
While most American’s participate in Christmas festivities, the reality is that a majority of people believe Christmas has very little to do with the birth of Christ! Though 90% of American’s celebrate Christmas, only 50% regard it as a religious holiday.
This decline is even more stark when you look at it generationally... Of adults over 65: 66% see Christmas as a religious holiday, 60% will attend a religious service on Christmas or Christmas Eve, and 76% believe in the virgin birth. However of adults between 18-29: 39% see Christmas is a religious holiday (down 27%), 46% will attend a religious service on Christmas or Christmas Eve (down 14%), and 66% believe in the virgin birth (down 10%).
It’s interesting that the same Pew study also revealed the way church-goers and non-church-attenders celebrate Christmas is almost identical when you remove the religious elements. Roughly 86% in both of these groups will spend Christmas gathering with family and the same percentage will participate in Christmas by giving gifts. An identical share of each group (33%) will even pretend to get a visit from Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.
This morning I need to tell you that if the “reason for the season” is only the fun tales of old St. Nick, Rudolph, Elves, or Frosty the Snowman... If your time is only occupied decorating evergreen trees, hanging lights and garland, or strategically positioning mistletoe...
If your focus is only on consuming copious amounts of eggnog, gingerbread men, or over-frosted cookies... Listing to holiday jazz, watching a bad Tom Hanks movie, or wearing ugly sweaters... If your time is dominated by receiving gifts, giving gifts, or returning gifts... You will find yourself missing out on what’s truly significant about this day! You see there is a reason for the season and it centers upon the amazing nature of God’s grace!
Luke 2:1-7, “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into 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 wife, who was with child.
So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Luke begins the narrative by telling us a “decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Since Joseph was a descendant of David, he and Mary travel “from Galilee, out of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.”
The inconvenient timing of this decree and the subsequent journey for Mary and Joseph is obvious. Luke tells us “Mary, Joseph’s betrothed wife, was with child.” Sadly, even a doctor’s note wasn’t getting Mary out of this painstaking journey. Because of the decree poor Joseph had no choice but to load up his extremely pregnant wife and make the roughly 100 mile journey south from Nazareth, through the Judean wilderness, and up into Bethlehem.
And as naturally brutal as this two week journey would have been, upon arriving, things quickly move from bad to worse. Luke indicates Bethlehem was so overcrowded they were forced to set up shop in a stable “because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Keep in mind a stable in this part of the world was not a wooden shed set upon a Thomas Kinkade-like, picturesque hillside. Instead, this stable was a cave hewn from a mountain used by shepherds to shelter their flocks. The stable smelled and was utterly unsanitary.
Luke then tells us “while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger.” I can see Joseph’s trepidation when his wife’s water unexpectedly breaks. Ready or not she’s going into labor and poor Joe is going to play doctor and nurse! Consider the details excluded by Luke in the simple phrase “she brought forth her firstborn Son!” Notice it says “she brought forth” - I’m of the opinion at the first sign of blood Joseph was useless.
One would have thought such a monumental event in the history of humanity such as the birth of God’s Son would have demanded more attention and fanfare by this historian Luke; and yet, instead elaborating on the details of the manger scene, he abruptly shifts the narrative in the most unexpected of directions...
Luke 2:8-14, “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, ‘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!’”
It really is amazing to me that instead of allowing his readers the chance to soak up the incredible scene of the incarnation, Luke quickly transitions from the stable manger with baby Jesus to the tranquil solitude of a field full of shepherds watching over their flocks by night!
Sadly, because our 21st century church culture has so sterilized the real identity of these shepherds, we have a hard time understanding how truly bizarre this scene shift really is. 19th century scholar Alfred Edersheim wrote a book titled, “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah” in which he claimed, “The shepherds were outcasts because of their necessary isolation from religious ordinances and manner of life.”
The job of a shepherd included certain tasks that would make you ceremonially unclean and unable to offer an atonement for sins at the Temple. Because of this the shepherds were not the upstanding, model citizens we’ve made them out to be or those we want our sons to play in the Christmas nativity. If you were a shepherd your life had unraveled to the point you were relegated to the lowest rungs of society. Even God wanted nothing to do with you!
As such shepherds were commonly known to be drunkards and addicts. They were vagabonds, sexually perverse, pickpockets. These men were dropouts, bums, deviants, outcasts. Think of these shepherds as a biker-gang of “outlaws” strait out of the hit TV show “Sons of Anarchy.” No mother dreamed her son would one day grow up to be a shepherd!
You see it’s not only weird Luke prematurely leaves the glorious scene of the manger, but with these things in mind it really is strange he shifts the narrative to a group of shepherds, who by this hour of the night are likely sitting around a fire already half-passed tipsy!
I want you to imagine the shepherd’s reaction when out of the dark sky “an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them (or literally the brightness of God engulfed them).” Not only are these men immediately disoriented by the bright light and the angelic figure in front of them, but Luke says they’re “greatly afraid.” I imagine they were.
Because the angel’s first words intend to temper their obvious fear, the scene is clearly hectic... “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.”
I wonder what the angel’s reaction was when he found out he was being sent to notify the world that Jesus had been born only to then discover when the curtain was pulled back that his audience was nothing more than a few drunk shepherds and a field full of sheep?
If I’d been that angel I would have been expecting to arrive at the Temple in Jerusalem (seat of religion), possibly the Colosseum in Rome (seat of power and politics), maybe even the Pantheon in Athens (seat of education and thought)… The one thing I can say I would not have expected was a group of “shepherds keeping watch over their flocks.”
Though shifting from the glory of the manger to a dark field full of shepherds is peculiar, in a twist it should have been expected. Consider how many shepherds God’s grace had already included in His story: Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, King David, etc. You see a dark field and a group of deviants presented the perfect illustration of the world and outlook of humanity.
The world had been darkened by sin and rebellion against God. Though the shepherds were the chief sinners of the day, the rest of mankind was equally lost! And it’s with this backdrop this angel breaks through this darkness with great news to these sinners that “there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Understand… Jesus came with the mission to shine a Light into the darkness. He came to save those who were lost, to redeem the sinner, to reach the outcast and downtrodden. Can you think of a better place to begin such a mission than a field full of shepherds? These men weren’t deserving of this good news. They hadn’t earned the rights to be first recipients. And they knew it! You see the angel appeared for one reason… God’s grace!
God chose to include these men in the story of Jesus right from the beginning. God intentionally invited them to come visit His new born Son… God wanted them, of all people, to be the welcoming committee. A night that began like every other night was radically interrupted by the revelation that God wanted them involved in the life of His Son.
The ramifications of this are truly incredible. You see if God would go out of His way to involve these shepherds in the life of Jesus... If He would invite the likes of these men to be apart of His Son’s glorious story, then there’s hope for you and I.
In many ways (whether by intention or accident) the many traditions of Christmas have become characterized by their unapologetic desire to claim the impossible as truth!
Old St. Nick possessing omniscient knowledge of who’s naughty and nice, and then custom tailoring rewards based upon this judgment is an impossible claim…
One diabetic fat man in a red suit flying through the air distributing all of these gifts in one night for the world’s seven billion residence is an impossible claim…
Not to be outdone, but mistletoe providing this supernatural force-field by which a women will automatically surrender all will-power and be magically compelled to kiss a man regardless of looks is an impossible claim. On a side note doesn’t mistletoe sound a lot like a Christmas roofy - like a present you might get from Bill Cosby or Clinton?
Though Christmas is full of these impossible claims, the one that takes the cake is the notion that 2000 years ago God came to earth as a baby boy! Let’s be honest… God taking on flesh, being born of a virgin, to a teenage mother, in a stable manger, who’d eventually grow up to be the Savior of all mankind is quite an outlandish assertion!
But, as He did with the shepherds and in contrast to the approach many take as it pertains to their children’s belief in Santa, God isn’t asking you to believe this claim with a blind faith. Rather, God simply invites you to undertake a quest, to embark on a journey, to authenticate the claim… He invites men and women (shepherds) to go and see for yourself!
Note the progression of the angel’s pronouncement: First, there was a statement of fact... “There is born to you this day.” This was a claim of absolute truth. The reality of the event was not debatable. It wasn’t up for discussion or to be questioned. The reality was sure - Jesus (the Savior, Christ the Lord) had been born that night in Bethlehem. It was truth regardless of perspective or opinion! It was a statement of fact.
Secondly, there was an invitation to authenticate... “This will be the sign to you.” It’s almost as though the angel is saying, “Though the birth of Jesus is a fact, you don’t have to take my word for it. I invite you to go look for yourself.” Then the angel goes one step further by challenging these shepherds to search for a particular “sign” (or a point of authentication) that would serve to validate the claim and dispel their natural skepticism.
Finally, there was a promise... “You will find a Babe.” The English phrase “you will find” is actually one Greek word that literally means “you will find out for yourself.” The angel promises that if these shepherds would accept the invitation to seek out proof for themselves, they would discover the claim of a Savior’s birth was indeed authentic.
This is what I love about God... As we see with these shepherds, God always presents truth (not as some cumbersome pill He forces people to swallow), but instead as something He invites people to search out and authenticate for themselves. The question really boils down to whether or not you’ll accept the challenge to go look and see.
Luke 2:15-20, “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 and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.
Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. 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. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.”
The angels disappear and the shepherds looked around at one another and reach a very simple conclusion... “What do we have loose? Let’s go see!” They responded to the invitation and ended up finding themselves included in the divine story of Christ’s birth!
Understand… After recognizing the significance of what had just taken place, these shepherds made a resolute determination to act upon God’s Word. A challenge had been issued by the angel (go and see) and they concluded a step of faith was reasonable.
If you’ll indulge me for just a second I have a theory about this story that answers two nagging questions I’ve always had about that first Christmas night. First, do you not find it odd that the shepherds are “out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night?”
If you know anything about shepherding this is completely out of the norm - against protocol. A shepherd would never have his flocks grazing “in the fields” at night when it was dangerous and the sheep were so vulnerable.
A shepherd would graze during the day before returning to the safety of the stable when night descended. You have to ask… Why in the world were these shepherds and their flocks “in the fields” and not back at the stable where it was safe?
Beyond this… Have you ever found it peculiar that after determining they were going to find this “babe wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger” Luke simply says “they came with haste and found the Babe lying in a manger?” Though the angel provides them no other details or directions other than this one, it seems their quest to find the child wasn’t terribly difficult… “Haste” implies they likely knew exactly what stable this baby was in?
Could it be the reason the shepherds were even in the fields in the first place was because they had given their stable to a young, poor couple desperate to find shelter on account that the women was about to have a baby?
I believe these shepherds (as rough as they were) had demonstrated compassion towards Mary and Joseph earlier that night which explains why the angels appear to them first. In a sense the angels are letting them know Who it was they had actually cared for! “A baby in a manger? The Son of God?” The shepherds knew exactly where that baby was!
This is why I think this detail is important… God’s grace had been extended to these shepherds and they had been completely oblivious. Demonstrating kindness by allowing a young woman to use your barn to have a baby was one thing, but I have to assume if they had known who that baby was they wouldn’t have gone out into the fields that night.
How awesome that God’s grace sent the angels to make sure these men didn’t miss the moment. Why was there “no room in the inn?” Was this an oversight on God’s part or had this particular stable always been part of the plan? How ironic the angels weren’t sent to the innkeeper who’d turned Mary and Joseph away, but instead appeared to a group of shepherds who’d taken them in. While they’d been initially oblivious, God’s grace remained sufficient. They’ve now been brought them into the loop!
Luke continues... “Now when they had seen Him they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child.” The word he uses for “they had seen Him” communicates more than just “seeing.” The verse would be better translated “now when they perceived who He was.” These men urgently acted on faith. They entered the stable and not only saw Jesus, but recognized Him for who He really was! He was their Savior!
We know they believed because of the reaction that immediately came following this encounter. Luke tells us these shepherd leave the stable, entered Bethlehem, and proceeded to tell anyone who would listen what God had just revealed to them. In many ways the shepherds simply told their testimony. As a witness of these things, witnessing became a natural manifestation. The outlaws now became proclaimers of God’s grace.
Finally, we read that “they returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, as it was told them.” After an encounter with Jesus yield by God’s grace, Luke describes two reactions these shepherds had to the “things they had heard and seen.” They “glorified” God which described their attitude before the Lord before they proceeded to “praise” God which described their actions before the Lord.
After all of these things Luke says “they returned” to that dark field in Bethlehem. Though these men’s lives had been forever changed through an encounter with Jesus, their environment hadn’t changed one iota. While they returned to the same fields filled with the same dingy flocks, everything had changed. Note: God never saves us to remove us from the darkness. He saves us so that we might shine His Light into the darkness.
What really is the reason for the season? Friend, in addition to the fun our unique traditions attribute to this holiday, you should celebrate Christmas because it marks the day when God sent His Son (not to the religious, or the power-brokers, or the great intellectuals), but when He sent His Son to lowly shepherds - to you and I. Christmas is important because it reminds us of God’s grace and the glorious invitation it provides!
On Christmas you’re afforded an opportunity to remember and reflect on the incredible reality that the majesty of God was sent to enter the sad plight of humanity. The true reason for the season is that Jesus willingly set aside the majesty of heaven to come to earth, to enter your fray, to demonstrate God’s grace, and to invite you to be included in His majestic story!
And if you find yourself this morning feeling unworthy... If you feel like a failure… If like Buddy the Elf you see yourself as a cotton headed ninny muggins... If you’ve boughten the lie that whatever you’ve done or whatever you’re currently doing places you beyond the reach of God... Even if you’ve been oblivious to all the moments God has demonstrated his grace in the past… As illustrated in His dealings with these outlaws of Bethlehem take heart... Jesus came to earth specifically to involve Himself in the life of a person like you!
In Isaiah 9:6 we’re told of a glorious reality… “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given…” You see Christmas affords an incredible opportunity to celebrate the essence of God’s grace… Because “a Son was given” a path was paved for your salvation to be received! Like those Shepherd, you haven’t earned this gift. The truth is you surely don’t deserve this gift. But God gave His Son anyway.
Before Jesus could be laid in a Garden Tomb He had to first be laid in a stable manger. You see without that manger in Bethlehem there would have never been a cross on Calvary! The question I want you to consider this morning is rather simple: Why do you celebrate Christmas? Do you only celebrate the cultural traditions that dominate the American landscape (which are fun in their own right) or do you carve out time to celebrate and consider the deeper, more spiritual implications found in the birth of Christ?
This morning it isn’t an angel or a heavenly host speaking to you through whatever darkness your presently living in. It’s just me… An outlaw… Another shepherd changed by God’s grace simply relaying what I’ve heard and seen… Boldly declaring that “there was born to you in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Friend, why not “come and see?”
No Additional Links.