Unto You a Child is Born
A sermon on Luke 2:1-21 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 12/18/05
How do you respond to Christmas?
Not to our culture’s prevalent materialism: advertisements, crowded malls, TV specials, fake Santas;
Not to seasonal performances: The Nutcracker, A Christmas Carol, or even Messiah;
Not to seasonal religious activities, whether caroling or Christmas Eve services.
But how do you respond to Christmas itself: The story of the birth of Jesus?
Consider: How does a four-year-old respond to Christmas?
Seven years ago, when my youngest son Joel was four, a colleague asked me in early January how my Christmas had been. I responded, “Christmas with a four-year-old is always a delight.” Why is that the case? Most four-year-olds have only the vaguest memories of the previous Christmas, but they do remember it as something marvelous. So while they are excited by those memories, all about Christmas is nevertheless new and fresh and wonderful and magical and delightful.
While the four-year-old may be responding to the lights and the tinsel, the outward manifestations of the season, the challenge for most of us here today – adults, teens, and older children – is to recapture that wide-eyed response to the true story of Christmas. So as we go through this story in Luke chapter 2 - this all-too-familiar story for so many of us - put yourself in the place of someone who has never heard it before. Imagine yourself a traveler in Judea. You hear the story from a shepherd. All is new. All is fresh. The child is born. How do you respond?
Remember that centuries earlier, God had sent word through his prophets saying that He would raise up a descendant of David to the throne of Israel. This king would usher in an eternal kingdom of righteousness. The Jews have held on to that hope over all these years.
In chapter 1 of Luke, an angel announces to Zechariah that the long wait is over! He and his elderly, barren wife Elizabeth will have a baby, who will be the promised forerunner of the Messiah. The angel’s words come true; Elizabeth gives birth to John, and Zechariah praises God for His faithfulness (see sermon).
The same angel announces to Mary that she, a young virgin, will become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, and that her child will be the long-awaited Messiah. Mary submits to God’s inconvenient grace; she too praises God for His faithfulness to His people (see sermon).
This brings us to today’s text, Luke 2:1-21. We’ll consider this under three headings:
The first action recorded in this section is by the man who is, apparently, the most powerful in the world: Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. He commands that all those resident within the Roman Empire must be registered for taxation. Among the Jews, the land was allocated according to ancestral clans. Whenever the Jews conducted a census, they required those being counted to return to the land of their forefathers. So the Romans apparently agree to follow Jewish customs for registration in Judea, probably in an attempt to gain wider compliance. So every Jew returns to the land of his ancestors to register.
Remember that chapter 1 records that Joseph and Mary were living at this time in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. We noted that Nazareth was out in the sticks, an unimportant place. Indeed, Nazareth is never even mentioned in the Old Testament.
Joseph hears of Caesar’s decree; he must travel to Bethlehem to register. Mary, several months pregnant, apparently doesn’t want Joseph to be away from her when the child is born. Not knowing how long he will have to be gone, she accompanies him to Bethlehem.
Understand: Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem only because of the command of Caesar Augustus. Had the emperor not issued his decree, Jesus would have been born in Nazareth.
Why did they go? Why did Mary have to undergo a journey of several days while pregnant? This seems like another of the many inconveniences that Mary had to face.
Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem because God had said through His prophet Micah that the Messiah would be born there:
2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. 3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. 4 And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. 5 And he shall be their peace. Micah 5:2-5
Don’t pass over this incident. Marvel at the sovereignty of God. God uses Caesar Augustus to get Mary to Bethlehem. Augustus had his own reasons for calling for a tax registration. He did what he thought would secure his own reign and build up his power. He thought the only reason for this action was to accomplish his purposes. Augustus had no idea that the most important effect of his decree concerned the newborn king who far surpassed him in power and might.
As Proverbs 21:1 says:
The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.
And God turned the heart of Caesar Augustus, in order that Mary might end up in Bethlehem.
The second action we’ll consider is found in verses 6 and 7:
And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 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. Luke 2:6-7
Unlike in most popular accounts, Luke does not say that Mary gave birth the night she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem. But sometime after they arrived, she gave birth.
Isaiah had prophesied more than 600 years earlier,
Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. And the government shall be upon his shoulders. Isaiah 9:6
Now the child is here. The long-awaited Messiah. The Conquering King.
Yet this magnificent birth takes place in a far from magnificent setting. Jesus is born within the prophesied city, yes, but not in a palace, not even in a house. Traditionally, Mary gives birth surrounded by animals – “the friendly beasts,” according to one song. But while animals may have been present, we don’t know that. All we know is what Luke tells us here: There was no room for them in the normal place travelers would stay, so the couple stayed elsewhere. Either there was an animal’s feeding trough - a manger - where they stayed, or, needing a resting place for the child, Joseph found an unused manger and carried it to where they stayed.
So a young girl, a virgin, gives birth to a tiny, crying baby and puts him in a feeding trough. Meanwhile, the emperor gave commands, armies marched, politicians connived. They all thought that they were very important men of action. They all thought the world revolved around them, that the future depended on their actions. But the most important event that day – indeed, the most important event to that point in all of history – took place when that young girl gave birth. The Messiah is born!
God has planned this event since before the beginning of time. And so now He proclaims it, telling others the significance of what just happened. He sends a large number of angelic messengers to announce the birth of the long-awaited Messiah.
· He could have sent them to Caesar Augustus, but He doesn’t;
· He could have sent them to King Herod, but He chose not to;
· He could have sent them to the High Priest or chief priests, but He ignored them.
Instead, God chooses to send His messengers to a group of poor shepherds herding their flocks in the middle of the night.
Do you remember how the prophecy we quoted from Isaiah 9 begins?
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Isaiah 9:2
What will be true figuratively with the coming of the Messiah is fulfilled literally. Picture the scene: How many of you have spent the night in a place where you could see no electric lights, not even far away on the horizon - not even a faint glow of a distant city? When I was twenty, I spent eight months teaching high school in a rural area of Kenya, where there was no electricity. From the school – built on top of a hill – we could see five lights on the horizon, five locations we could name that had electricity. That was it. Otherwise, the only lights were candles, white gas pressure lamps, and kerosene lanterns. Nights with no moon were pitch black.
Just so for the shepherds. No electricity. No lights. Not even white gas pressure lamps! All is completely dark. The shepherds have gathered their sheep and goats close around a fire, and they keep their ears alert to the sound of a possible predator or thief. But they hear almost nothing. Of course, there is no sound of cars. No sound of trains. Perhaps a dog barks in the distance. A low murmur of conversation among the shepherds. Otherwise, silence.
Flash! A bright light - the glory of God shines on them! An angel, of blazing brightness, mighty in strength, overwhelming in power, appears before them. Pupils dilated by the darkness, they are blinded by the light, and hardly can see anything.
In the midst of their surprise and fright, the angel speaks:
Fear not! For behold, I proclaim to you a good and great joy that will be for all the people. (Luke 2:10, own translation.)
Why is this news so good, so joyous?
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord. (Luke 2:11)
Question: Why did he say, “unto you”? He could have just said, “For a Savior, Christ, the Lord is born this day.” But he says, ‘Unto you!”
He uses those words because they describe why the news is so joyous! The child is born unto you! Unto all the people! The child is born:
But to you! To all the people, young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick, strong and weak. The prophecy had said, “unto us a child is born.” So the angel says, “This child is born unto you! Truly, a good and great joy.
This is the day, the long-awaited day, the day when there would be no more delay. The child is born. The Messiah is come.
But who is this child? How does the angel describe Him? With three words: Savior. Christ (or Messiah). Lord.
Note that normal Jewish teaching at this time did not consider the coming Messiah to be divine. He was clearly to be a descendant of David. He would be great and mighty, restoring the kingdom to Israel. He indeed was to be a Savior, for he would save the nation from her enemies. But most Jews thought this salvation would be from their political enemies, their oppressors. Remember, even Zechariah seems to emphasize this expectation in Luke 1:71:
that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
From our perspective, we can look back at his words and realize that “those who hate us” include spiritual as well as human enemies, Satan as well as Augustus. But most likely Zechariah himself was thinking primarily about human enemies.
So all acknowledged that the Messiah was to be a Savior. But the Old Testament uses the word “Savior” in another sense. Often, God Himself is called Savior, or the “God of my Salvation.” Psalm 27:1 is one example among many:
The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
The ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament renders the first phrase, “The Lord is my light and my Savior.” God Himself is seen as the ultimate Savior for the Israelites. He surely saves not only from earthly enemies, but also from spiritual enemies – indeed, from death itself.
So in the Old Testament, we find two strong themes: The Messiah is Savior. And God is Savior.
But the angel doesn’t only call the child “Savior” and “Messiah.” He also calls this child “Lord.” This word is not usually associated with prophecies concerning the Messiah. Yet the word “Lord” is commonly used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament in place of the Hebrew name for God, Yahweh. Remember that the Jews long ago quit saying the name Yahweh out of reverence. In public readings, they would substitute the word “Lord.” The Greek translators followed this practice (as have most English translators; LORD in all caps is used for Yahweh).
So this is very interesting. The Messiah is Savior. God is Savior. The Messiah is Lord. God is Lord. Is the angel then saying that the Messiah is God?
The answer is not completely clear, for “Lord” is used in the Old Testament not only of God but also of a king or a prominent individual. Sarah calls her husband Abraham, “My lord,” while those who addressed King David referred to him as “my lord.”
Nevertheless, the angel provides a strong hint: “This is the Messiah that you have expected, that you have hoped for – but He is greater than you ever imagined! This Messiah is Savior – He will save from a far greater enemy than the Romans. This Messiah is Lord – not just your earthly king, but Yahweh, God Himself. This child born unto you is God Almighty.”
Let’s now go back to the shepherds. These men are overwhelmed with fear and surprise at the angel’s appearance, astounded and confused by the angel’s words. They know they are at the center of a great event, but their heads are swimming at all that they have heard. Then the angel says something absolutely preposterous:
“This will be a sign for you. You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
That might have been the greatest surprise of the night! That these angels would appear to poor shepherds to announce the Messiah’s birth is quite surprising. But the long-awaited Messiah – wrapped up like a common poor infant, placed in a feeding-trough?
Mary had said of God that He has “exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:52) and He surely does that here by choosing a humble place for Jesus’ birth, and by speaking to these shepherds.
But as if to underline the statement that this is the greatest news the world has ever heard, to ensure that the shepherds understand that the baby’s location does not diminish His glory, numerous angels now suddenly appear, praising God:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!”
Indeed, God is bringing the highest glory, the deepest praise to Himself through the humble birth of His Son. And He promises peace among those with whom He is well pleased. This is not a general command “goodwill toward men” but God’s peace, peace with God, for those who are His people, for those who are His treasured possession, for those who are the True Israel.
Micah had said as much in the prophecy we read earlier: The Messiah
. . . shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, . . . 5 And he shall be their peace. Micah 5:4-5
This is the proclamation: The time is now. The child is born unto you! God’s peace is here! God’s glory shines forth! The Messiah, the Savior, the Lord is with you!
The first response to this good news is by the shepherds. They say, “We’ve got to get to Bethlehem, now! We’ve got to see what God has told us about!” So they go as fast as they can.
It must take a while – where are they to find a baby lying in a feeding trough? But in the end they succeed. In some nondescript place, they find Mary, and Joseph, and the infant Messiah. The shepherds excitedly tell Mary and Joseph all that happened, all the angel said.
Verse 20 closes the account of the shepherds:
And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. Luke 2:20
How do the shepherds respond?
Instead, the shepherds respond with joy. With faith. They give glory to God. They spread the news to others – not to make a buck, but to glorify God for His mighty, faithful work. Romans 15:13 applies to these shepherds:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.
That’s the shepherds’ response. What about Mary? Look at verse 21. Like all Jewish babies, Jesus is circumcised on the eighth day. As with Zechariah and Elizabeth, the angel gave the baby a name before he was born. Will Mary and Joseph give that name to the child? Or will they name him, “Joseph,” the name most would expect? They name him “Jesus.” They believe the angel’s words. Mary responds to all these events with quiet faith and obedience.
But there’s more to Mary’s response. Verses18 and 19 tell us of another category of people: Those who hear the shepherd’s story. Luke contrasts their reaction with Mary’s:
And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. Luke 2:18-19
Those who hear wonder at the news. The word translated “wonder” can imply surprise, or even being disturbed. Now, Mary does wonder about some events. We’ll see next week that Mary wonders over some of what old Simeon says to her. Later, she does become surprised and disturbed. But here she responds differently from most who hear the shepherds’ words.
These other listeners for the most part regard the shepherds’ report as an interesting tidbit of news: “Did you hear what old Joe said happened last night?” “Yes, and I heard from Sarah that . . .” The news sparked conversation. The nighttime incident made life interesting for a while. Each person wanted to be the first to let others know of this strange report. But then everyone had said all they could about it. The couple disappeared. Life went on. All that became a vague memory.
What do you remember about last year’s tsumami? Last year about this time, that concerned many in our country. We all talked about it at home, in the workplace, at church. But for most of us, the topic is now passé. The event had no real impact on our lives. Our hearts were not changed by it. Most of us did not gain a deeper understanding of God and his ways through it.
That’s the way most hearers responded to the shepherds’ story. Temporary excitement. An interesting topic of conversation. Nothing more.
Mary’s response was different. She took all this to heart, she “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” She didn’t lose them. She turned them over in her mind. She didn’t understand everything – indeed, more and more she is coming to see that her conception of the Messiah needs to grow. Her question really is, “What child is this who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping?”
And that’s your question right now: Who is this child?
Oh, how we need to respond in all three ways!
Friends: This is the joyous news, the great joy! Unto you has been born a Savior, the Messiah – the Lord!
Unto you a child is born! Unto you a son is given!
This child Himself will be your peace. This child will be your entryway to God. This child will die to pay the penalty for your sins, if you only believe in Him, if you only see Him for what He is: Your Savior, your Messiah, your Lord, your treasure. Unto you is born this day a Savior.
God orchestrated all events for centuries so that a Roman emperor would issue a command bringing an unknown young girl from Nazareth to Bethlehem. God enabled her to give birth in humble surroundings, yet sent His majestic army to proclaim the great joy.
God now has brought you here this morning to hear this proclamation of these most important truths. How will you respond?
Unto you a child is born. Glory to God in the Highest! Praise Him!
Let us pray:
Isaac Watts wrote the following poem to capture the spirit of this passage:
“Shepherds, rejoice! lift up your eyes
And send your fears away;
News from the region of the skies:
Salvation's born today!
Jesus, the God whom angels fear,
Comes down to dwell with you;
Today he makes his entrance here,
But not as monarchs do.
“No gold, nor purple swaddling bands,
Nor royal shining things;
A manger for his cradle stands,
And holds the King of kings.
Go, shepherds, where the Infant lies,
And see his humble throne;
With tears of joy in all your eyes,
Go, shepherds, kiss the Son.”
Thus Gabriel sang, and straight around
The heavenly armies throng;
They tune their harps to lofty sound
And thus conclude the song:
“Glory to God that reigns above,
Let peace surround the earth;
Mortals shall know their Maker's love
At their Redeemer's birth.”
Lord! and shall angels have their songs
And men no tunes to raise?
O may we lose these useless tongues
When they forget to praise!
'Glory to God that reigns above,
That pitied us forlorn!'
We join to sing our Maker's love,
For there's a Saviour born.
Lord God, our tongues are absolutely worthless unless they praise Your Name. Tune our hearts to sing Your praise, O God! Make us like these shepherds, like Mary. May we believe, and trust, and tell. Change our hearts, so that we will rejoice in Jesus our Treasure. In His Name, Amen.
This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 12/18/05.
Copyright © 2005, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.
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