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In the Christmas series, "Breaking News," Pastor Philip De Courcy examines the profound news delivered on the first Christmas - the birth of the Savior, Christ the Lord. This event marked the dawn of a rescue mission of unparalleled magnitude as God became man to bring salvation to humanity.
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Luke chapter two in verse eight, where upon that scene of the breaking of those glad and glorious tidings of the birth of the son of God. Now there was 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 shown 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 that is born to you this stay 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 cloth, 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 man.
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 tat 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. So reads God’s precious word this morning.
I like the story of the farmer who went into the bank and announced that he had got some bad news and he had got some good news. The bad news, well said the farmer, I can’t make my mortgage payments. The crop loan that I took out for these past 10 years, I won’t be able to pay that off either. And if that wasn’t bad enough, I want you to know that all that equipment that I bought, which came to about a hundred thousand dollars, that outstanding debt, I’m never going to get to that. So what I’m going to do is I’m going to give up the farm, I’m going to turn it over to you and you can salvage from it whatever you can. The banker had sat in stunned silence. Hearing all that bad news, he turned to the man. He said, well, what’s the good news? Which the farmer replied, I’m going to keep on banking with you in the new year.
This Christmas, I want to remind you that there’s some good news, better news than the farmer shared with the banker. And the good news is this, that God hasn’t given up on us.
That’s the message that comes to the shepherds from the angels. That through Jesus Christ, his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection, God was doing something that would set the stage for reconciliation between earth and heaven, man and God. Listen to what the angels say. God in the highest is intending peace on earth and goodwill toward man. Or to borrow Paul’s words. God was in Christ and all that Christ would do, reconciling the world to himself.
Amazingly, as we said in the last service and in the last sermon, God didn’t come to rub it in and there was much about us that offended God. There was great controversy between mankind and God, between earth and heaven, but Jesus Christ didn’t come to rub it in. He came to rub it out. God didn’t send his son to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.
That’s the great news. That’s the good news that should cause us great joy this Christmas and we started to look at this passage the last time we were together. And I noted last night that this passage is a third Christmas card and a third carol in the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel. And as we started to unpack this section of Luke’s gospel, three things became apparent. We uncovered one, what I call the angels. The angels. The narrative begins with a third appearance, most likely of the angel Gabriel, who announces that a savior had been born that day in the city of David who was Christ the Lord. Then Gabriel is joined by a heavenly host and they sing glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace and goodwill toward man. Ironically, it’s an army that announces peace. We noticed that the word host carries the idea of army. Ranks upon ranks, upon ranks of heavenly angels, heavenly beings announced that indeed heaven had invaded earth.
And what we said last night was that this was a job that was cut out for an angel. This was right in their wheelhouse because you see angels were messengers, ministers and minstrels. And one of the things that fascinated them was the whole thought of salvation. And we turned to an interesting verse in the Bible. In first Peter one verse 12 where it says concerning salvation, not which had been promised by the prophets of old that the angels loved to look into it. We saw that that was a strong term. They loved to look intently into the subject of salvation. It was something that they found fascinating. The whole truth of redemption riveted them. And we made an argument that that was because there were a number of angels who had fallen and who were reserved in chains and darkness to the day of judgment.
There was no redemption for fallen angels. They were beyond the peel of God’s salvation. You don’t think it intrigued those angels that hadn’t fallen to watch what God was going to do with a fallen world, with a prodigal planet. I think it marveled them that God would see of people, that God would give up heaven’s best, send his son to a world to bear the curse of our condemnation, that Christ would keep the law and yet die as one who had broken the law. They marveled that. It thrilled them. And we challenged ourselves last night, it must thrill us. If you and I are Christians this morning on this very day, Christmas day, we should be lost in wonder, love and praise that God would set his favor on us. You see, for angels, redemption was something that came to them by secondhand information. It was something outside of them and yet it thrilled them nonetheless. They sang God’s praises for what he was about to do for mankind in a way he had never done for angels.
But to us it’s not outside of us. To us, it’s not secondhand knowledge, it’s firsthand experience. For you and I that have come to know Jesus Christ as our own impersonal savior, high thrilling is the fact that God has loved us in the Lord Jesus Christ and rescued us, to borrow Paul’s words in Colossians one verse 13, rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and brought us in to the kingdom of his dear and lovely son. That’s an amazing thing.
Look, you and I no doubt have watched rescues on television. Someone plucked from the ocean after a ship has capsized, someone that’s been airlifted off a roof that’s part of a building that’s burning. And we have stood in amazement and we get goosebumps imagining what it must be like to be rescued like that. We’re happy for that person. We’re a witness to the rescue. But imagine the emotion. It’s higher, it’s deeper if you are the one on the winch that’s being rescued.
See the angels witness the rescue, but you and I are on the winch getting lifted to heaven itself. And if they marvel, how much should you and I marvel this Christmas? That’s the angels. Secondly, we’ve got the audience having considered the angels, I now want to consider the audience. The angel and the angels targeted audience was a group of shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night. That’s clearly what the text tells us. Hard by Bethlehem is the shepherd’s field. In fact, if you visit Israel, which I’ve done twice this year, you can visit the shepherd’s field outside Jerusalem, Hard by Bethlehem. It was a region that the young David guarded his father’s flock against the dual thread of lion and bear.
We read about that, don’t we, in one Samuel 16 verse one of Jesse of Bethlehem and how his youngest son was out in the field guarding his father’s flock. At the time of Jesus, these shepherds were taking turns at minding their sheep. The text tells us here they were keeping watch. I think that’s more literally night watches over their flocks. The text is in the plural, which suggests that there were a number of shepherds taking their turn and minding the sheep. This is the audience to whom the angels come. Interestingly, tradition tells us that the sheep that were raised in this area were intended for temple sacrifice. It’s not unlikely that the shepherds were protecting and pastoring flocks that were destined for temple worship. According to the Talmud and the Missioner, flocks were supposed to be kept in the wilderness. And according to rabbinic rules, any sheep found between Jerusalem and a spot near Bethlehem must be presumed to be a sacrificial victim.
In fact, my research tells me that in the first century alone, at the time of Jesus and beyond the time of Jesus, upwards of 250,000 sheep were slaughtered annually in Jerusalem, especially on the day of atonement. Now, keep that picture in mind because these shepherds were most likely responsible for delivering the unblemished lambs that would be used in the sacrifice on the day of atonement. High fitting that the news would come to them of the one who would be born who according to John the Baptist in John one verse 29, he would be the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. You see the audience. It’s a couple of things about this audience I want you to note. I want you to notice God’s grace to everyday people. As I look at the shepherds and read something of a shepherd’s life and I see God coming to them, God chooses them.
God doesn’t come to the priests, he doesn’t come to the Sadducees or the Pharisees, he doesn’t come to the kings of Israel. Some of the first people to learn of this magnanimous, momentous moment are shepherds. And as I think about that, I’m struck by God’s grace to everyday people. When you dig into the background of the text, you’re immediately struck by the unlikely nature of the audience to whom this momentous news is broken. They were by all accounts, ordinary and overlooked men. Shepherds were on the bottom rung of the social ladder in Israel. In general they were considered second class citizens. Now, hang on to that thought because this announcement, as I’ve said, was not made to kings, priests, but to lowly shepherds. My study this week has taught me that Jewish authorities prohibited shepherds from appearing as witnesses in court. Did you know that? Some Jewish writings in fact stated that no help was to be given to heathen or shepherds.
These were ordinary men and they were overlooked men. In fact, even if you go back into the Old Testament, whether there seems to be a more positive perspective on shepherds, nevertheless, we see in the story of David that keeping the sheep was delegated to the youngest in the family. First Psalm chapter 16 verse 11.
What’s the point? I’m glad you asked. Here’s the point. Into this social context of snobbery and religious elitism steps the angel Gabriel and announces to despised shepherds of all people that that day born in the city of David, was a savior who was Christ the Lord. Amen. That’s beautiful. God’s grace visiting everyday people. Not the elite, not the leaders, not the rich, not the famous. The lowly, the overlooked, the despised. They’re the ones that hear the news. The good news of God’s grace was coming to all people, all kinds of people in all kinds of places.
In fact, Mary had almost prophesied this, hadn’t she, back in her Magnificat in chapter one. What do we read about God’s work, his mercy? We read this in verse 52. He has put down the mighty from their thrones and he has exalted the lowly. That’s God’s grace. Paul picks that theme up, doesn’t he? There’s not many in the early church who made the who’s who of the first century. There wasn’t many noble, there wasn’t many wealthy among the ranks of those early Christians, but it’s all on purpose. For you see your calling brethren that not many wise, according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble are called, but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things that are mighty, and the best things of the world and the things which are despised, God has chosen and the things which are not to bring the nothing, the things that are so that no flesh with glory in his presence.
That’s the wonderful thing about God’s grace. It’s sovereign and it’s surprising. The wonderful thing about grace is it’s undeserved, it’s unpredictable, it’s indiscriminate. You can’t tell who’s going to get it. That’s the whole point. It’s grace, it’s mercy. See, you don’t qualify for it. There’s a whole lot of things in life you and I can’t qualify for. There’s certain golf clubs we don’t qualify for. There’s certain Ivy League universities we don’t qualify for. We don’t match the standard. We don’t have what it takes to get into that place or do that thing. But that’s the amazing thing about grace. There are no qualifications. It’s so indiscriminate, it’s undeserved, it’s unreserved, it’s unreasonable. The only reason for grace is grace itself. Think about that and if you ever wanted an example of it, this motley crew of shepherds on a cold winter’s night taking shifts to watch the flock and where does the glory of God show up? Where is the grace of God put on display? There with them. I love that.
I’m so glad this Christmas to know that the grace of God is displayed in everyday people. If you go through the book of Luke, you’ll see that it stops at the house of Zacchaeus that we twisted Rascal who was always putting his hands in people’s pockets and feathering his own nest. He’s despised by the people. I’m not sure he had to climb the tree simply because he was small. I don’t think the people wanted him anywhere near and they were elbowing him out of the way. He was a night cast. And yet where he is hanging onto that branch of a tree, that limb of a tree and Jesus steps on him says, today Zacchaeus salvation visits your house. Can you imagine the conversation in the crowd?
Go to Luke chapter seven, Jesus in the house of a pharisee named Simon. Before anybody notices, a woman of the street slips in. You know what that means, don’t you? A woman of the night, a woman of the street. Put a plainly, a prostitute. And she comes in and she wipes Jesus’ feet with her tears and he shows grace to her and all the Pharisees judge her and they expect the Lord Jesus to condemn her, but he doesn’t because you see grace is indiscriminate. The Gospel’s not for good people, it’s for bad people. We’ve got it all messed up. And then in Luke’s gospel we see that God offers heaven to a thief at the end of his wasted life whose contributed nothing to human experience but heartache and horror. And he gets to go to heaven? Yeah, because that’s grace. That’s mercy. God’s favor is sovereign. God’s favor is surprising. Grace is like mercury, you can’t get your hands on it. A man is a Christian, not because he’s better. A woman’s not a Christian because she’s smarter or more attractive to God than the next guy or the next gal.
Man’s a Christian and a woman’s a Christian because of God’s sovereign surprising grace. For by grace are we saved. That not of ourselves. My friend, your very qualification for grace is that you’re unqualified for grace and don’t you let your sin bring you to a point of despair. Don’t let your broken life make you think that God couldn’t love you, that you couldn’t be a bright and a glorious Christian because when God, by his grace gets ahold of you, he can save you, he can clean you, he can change you. It’s a message that comes out of Luke’s gospel with the shepherds here. Just this month, I was reading in a book when I was in Dallas called The Handbook on Preaching by Warren Weir and he tells the story of William Booth walking in London with his son Bramwell. William Booth was the founder of the Salvation Army.
This time of the year, they’re out on the street ringing their little bell, doing a good work founded by a man who loved the Lord Jesus Christ. It was all about the gospel for William Booth. And one day he’s walking in London with his son who’s 12, 13 years old and to his son’s utter surprise, I wonder what mom would’ve thought about it when Bramwell goes home and tells him, you know what, dad took me into a pub. Because that day walking around London with his son, 13 years of age, William Booth turns into a drinking den. And as they go in there, there’s all sorts of characters and vice is written all over their faces. The marks of their sinful life is plain to see. It’s written on their very physical form. And you know what, this broke me when I was reading it. Do you know what William Booth said to was son?
He said, son, look around you. These are our kind of people. What did he mean by that? He meant this is why the Salvation Army exists. These are the people for whom Jesus Christ came to save. Not the educated, not the smart, not the successful. They’re too proud to bow the knee. He came for the broken, the sinner, the unrighteous, the vile, the wicked. These are our kind of people, Bramwell. And I tell you this, they’re God’s kind of people too. God loves the sea of people like that. He came to those lowly shepherds.
Do you see the grace of God in everyday people and do you see the glory of God and everyday places? Time doesn’t allow me to develop this, but let me just throw the thought out. It’s not really amazing to whom the message came, but where it came. A field. In the midst of everyday life, God broke into the routine.
The glory of God invaded that field. When’s the last time the glory of God was seen? When it departed from the temple during the days of Ezekiel and it hadn’t been seen since. And then it reappears in a field outside Bethlehem, not far from Jerusalem in the region of Judea to ordinary overlooked men. I love that. What we have in the Christmas story is a wonderful intersection between the sacred and the secular reminding us that there is no wall, reminding us that all of life is sacred, that whatever we do, we can do it to the glory of God. Look at this word at the end of the section we’re looking at. Just look at verse 20.
Then the shepherds returned. Once they heard this message, they went, they saw the child, they saw his mother. They saw indeed that the angel’s testimony was true and trustworthy.
But you know what? They didn’t stay at the manger. They didn’t build a shrine. They didn’t erect a cathedral in Bethlehem. I was a amazed, I’d never really thought about this before, but then it struck me and the shepherds returned. To where? To the field, back to their humdrum life that would never be humdrum again because the glory of God had tinged every page of their experience. And I’d love to develop this, but I just think it’s worth thinking about that. You know what, before long we’ll go back to work, we’ll return, the season will be over and it’ll be back to the humdrum and everyday life. But you can’t go back the same person. They didn’t. They didn’t. And neither can you or I. They were now living for the one who was living among them. God with us changes everything, brings passion and purpose to life. I like what Martin Luther the reformer said. I tell you that no bishop on earth ever has had a finer group as those shepherds.
Let’s go to the last thought, the announcement. The announcement. At this point, I want to for a few moments actually look at the content of the announcement made by the angel and the angels. For 400 years there had been prophetic silence. No prophet had spoken, but now God was speaking through his son, Hebrews one verses one through three. And these shepherds heard unequal news that in the city of David Israel’s messiah had been born, Christ the Lord, and the world’s savior had been born because this is good news to all people. A savior has been born in the city of David. Earth was being invaded by heaven and man need not fear for God is acting in grace toward mankind.
Quickly, do you notice the timing of the savior’s birth? There’s a lot embedded in that single word day. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a savior who is Christ the Lord. Verse 11. This day was the high point of redemptive history. This was a day of prophetic fulfillment. Isaiah seven verse 14 tells us that a virgin would give birth. Isaiah nine verse six tells us, unto us, his son is given, unto us, a child is born. The scriptures had promised this and past history was now pouring into this moment, a moment prepared by God, a moment that prophets had been waiting for, a moment to which God was working for centuries upon centuries. What’s the point? Listen, this day was a God appointed day and a God arranged day.
Galatians four, verse four says that in the fullness of time God sent forth his son.
That’s a sermon in itself. The word in the fullness talks about that which has come to full bloom, something that’s ripe, something that’s ready. God had waited decades upon decades, centuries upon centuries, millennium upon millennium. He had promised as far back in Genesis three 15 that someone would be born through the seat of a woman who would destroy Satan himself. And now it has happened in the fullness of time. This day, all of history was pouring into this moment. I’d love to develop it, but time doesn’t allow me. We could speak of the universality of the Greek language which allowed for the gospel to be spread. We could speak about the vacuum and emptiness of life because of ritualistic Judaism or empty paganism, and people were hungry for something real. Jesus Christ would fill that vacuum.
We could talk about the Pax Romano and how the Roman Empire had brought a resemblance of peace. There was easy travel for the most part. All allowing for the gospel to spread. I like the story of the lady who was sitting at a community wide banquet between a rabbi and a Protestant minister, and she said, I feel like a page between the old and the New Testament. To which the rabbi replied, lady, that’s usually a blank page. Well, he’s wrong. It wasn’t a blank page. God was busy at work preparing the world for that day. His son would be born. I don’t know about you, but I like that thought because Christmas and New Year bump up against each other. And I’ll guarantee you, if you are already thinking about it or you will soon be thinking about 2012 and what it holds for you. Are you bullish or bearish? Are you positive or negative? Are you hopeful or despairing? The future is not what it used to be, most people think today. Well, is it not good to know that we can trust our future to God? The God who marshals history, the God who in his providence and sovereignty governs time.
Ecclesiastes three verse one. There’s an appointed time for everything under the sun, a time to be born. If that’s true for you and me, how much more for the Lord Jesus? In the fullness of time God sent forth his son, born of a woman under the law, that he might indeed endure the curse of the law to redeem us. And according to Psalm 31, verse 15, our time’s in God’s hands.
Time is in God’s hand and times are in God’s hands. Relax about the future. Don’t worry about tomorrow. It will only come to you through the hand of a sovereign God. History is his story. Life is not a runaway train. I’ve got two movies in my video collection in my DVD library. Love both of them. HBO did a series of movies on the life of Churchill, the Gathering Storm and Into the Storm. I watched Into the Storm the other night. Again, it’s the time of Churchill in the war years. And you might know this, but it’s still a great scene in the movie. It’s part of Churchill’s story. Britain’s on the edge, all of Europe has fallen like tan pins and he’s begging for America to join the war, but they have no cause. Well, not until that infamous day when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. And in the movie Churchill takes the call and he’s told that America has indeed been attacked mercilessly by the Japanese.
Then the one hand, he’s sad, but he can hardly control his glee because he knows that means that the giant has been awakened and America will soon join the war. And he has this phrase, I love it. Write it down. He turns to his aid and he says, tonight I will sleep the sleep of the saved and the thankful. Because America was for them now. My friend, Christmas God is with us. God is for us. Can you not sleep the sleep of the saved knowing that your times are in God’s hands? Last thought and everybody said, amen. It’s Christmas day, but is this not good?
Come on. Is this not good? All right, good, good. I hope you meant that and you’re not just blowing smoke.
Here’s the last thought. The tidings of the savior’s birth. The timing, the tidings. And we’re back to this phrase we’ve mentioned again and again and again. Unto you is born this day a savior who is Christ the Lord? The gospel, the good news of Christmas is wrapped up in those titles. Savior speaks of being a deliverer. Christ speaks of the anointed one, which probably points to the fact that there is an acknowledgement here that he is the anointed, appointed Messiah. He is the one the prophets have spoken of. He has come and he’s not a mere man. It’s the anointed one who is Christ the Lord. Speaking of his deity and his authority. The Savior is none other than Christ the Lord. But the thing I want to finish with is that thought. At Christmas, God sent a savior, a savior.
Jesus didn’t come primarily as an educator or an example, he came as an emancipator, a deliverer, a liberator. The word savior or the word salvation carries the idea of deliverance. Christmas is a rescue mission at its heart. See, when we think of salvation, we always think about that maybe in terms of physical salvation. It pictures a mum swooping down to snatch a wandering child from the edge of a busy road. It’s the picture of a military extraction team sent to rescue a comrade behind enemy lines. It’s the picture of a fireman rushing into a building carrying out on his shoulder someone who would’ve become the fire’s victim. That’s the picture, a savior. And at this time of the year, we’re thankful for those physical saviors, very mindful of our soldiers and airmen and sailors. Men and women who have been our physical saviors for this past decade, since September 9-11.
But you know what? Jesus didn’t come simply to be a physical savior, he came to be a spiritual savior. Jesus Christ came the save you and me from a wasted life due to our sin. Matthew one, verse 21, you shall call his name Jesus, He will see of his people from their sins. From the power of it, from the penalty of it, someday from the very presence of it. He’s come to see of us from Satan’s destructive power. According to one John three, verse eight, he has come to destroy the works of the evil one. And he has come to see of us from God’s righteous wrath, which is the dual penalty of our sin. One Thessalonians one verse 10, he’ll deliver us from the wrath to come. That’s what Jesus Christ came to do. Is that true of you? Is that your experience this morning?
Is that your hope this morning? Is that your joy, your peace this morning that he’s forgiven your sin, that he has interrupted the work of the evil one in your life and he has protected you from a coming wrath that will come upon all the world? Your greatest problem this Christmas is you. Your greatest need this Christmas is him. Your greatest problem is your sin. Your greatest need is his salvation. You may have a lot of problems and you may be anticipating them getting worse in 2012. But my friend, your greatest problem is you, your greatest problem is your sin, your greatest problem is the oncoming wrath of God, which will be visited upon the unrepentant and unredeemed. That’s your greatest problem. That’s your greatest threat. And there’s a solution. There’s a savior. There’s salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ. Those who kept those sheep for the slaughter learned that the one born that day would be slaughtered for them on a hill called calvary.
I have a friend in Scotland, Craig Dyer. He pastored a church in Glasgow called the Harper Memorial Church. You want to know the story behind that name? It goes back to the night that the Titanic sank into the depths of the Atlantic Sea. There wasn’t enough lifeboats for everybody. And John Harper, a pastor from the UK was on board that boat with his daughter and his wife who perished that night. He was on his way to Moody Memorial Church to preach for DL Moody. According to the story that’s told later by the man who was involved in it, John Harper, in the midst of the ocean was going from one person to another saying, are you saved? Are you saved? And this particular man said to him, no, I’m not. And then the water carried John Harper away, but he later come back and challenged this one individual again. Are you saved, sir? Are you saved?
And there in the midst of the Atlantic Ocean, that man trusts the Lord Jesus Christ. And John Harper sinks beneath the ocean floor. Later on, that man will tell his story in a meeting in Canada and he entitles his story, I’m John Harper’s last convert. That’s why there’s a church in Glasgow called the Harper Memorial Baptist Church.
Are you saved? There’s all sorts of threats. Drowning is a threat, isn’t it? But it’s not half the threat that eternal damnation is apart from Jesus Christ. Are you saved? You can be. You must be. Today, put your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. Let’s pray.
Lord, we thank you for the time we have this morning to dig into the true meaning of Christmas. It is a season in the calendar, but it’s the experience of the Christian. Lord, we thank you for the day we came to know you as our own and personal savior. We thank you that we came to realize that God was with us in Christ, that we might be with him in heaven.
Thank you for the Lord Jesus Christ building a bridge between earth and heaven, through the wood of his crosses, death on behalf of sinners. Lord, may we cross that bridge. May we make him the only mediator between us and God this morning. Lord, it is a haunting question. It is a great question. Are you saved? For unto you was born this day in the city of David a savior who is Christ the Lord. For these things we ask and pray in his name. Amen.