When you think of Christmas, what comes to mind? The birth of Jesus, of course. You’re good Christian people – that’s the right answer! And, it’s a holiday. Maybe the biggest holiday in our culture? I think probably so.
Lots of build-up. Advertising and shopping – an obligation to buy things, and that colors almost everything about the holiday. There’s a lot of input from our culture to make us feel good about the holiday, and so much of it has an ulterior motive, right? The stories, the traditions, and okay, the gift-giving – it’s mostly good stuff. But I think we can agree that lost in the huge volume of Christmas stuff, the Good News of Jesus gets a little pushed to the side.
This morning, I’d like to celebrate the birthday of Jesus without the accessories. I think that if we listen to scripture “out-of-season, we might actually hear it a little differently; we might hear God a little more clearly.
Luke 2:8-20. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and 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 heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Does that story come to you a little differently in the summer? Maybe just a little more clearly. Here are some other things to know that might bring it home to you even more clearly….
First, God became human (incarnation). Stop and think about how amazing this is.
Last weekend, the kids in our VBS watched a skit that went like this: An outdoorsy character named Sam Spruce is on a mission to find a moose. He doesn’t really know much about mooses, or moosen, as he calls them. But he feels strongly that he must find a moose. He wonders, would this be easier if I became a moose?
You probably have heard a similar story like that goes like this:
A flock of birds gets lost in a snowstorm on Christmas Eve. They are in trouble. A farmer sees their problem and opens the door of his barn. He turns on the light and tries to coax them in, but nothing works. He can’t communicate. If there was only a way to show them to safety. But he is not a bird and can’t help. He thinks, “If I could only become a bird!” The church bells ring and he suddenly understands why God became a person.
The invisible, all-powerful God of the universe became a real, touchable person. God became as physical as the person sitting next to you.
This changes the game of life for you and me – for everyone. Christ comes to make God accessible, to open a pathway between God and us. The Paul has the best way of describing what this means:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)
How does God complete the connection? Through the cross. Our very real mistakes, imperfections, and short-comings died a very real death with the very real God who became a very real human. This is why he came: to save us.
Now let’s think about how we respond to God becoming human, and I’d like to focus on one word from the birth story about Jesus. I’d like to think about glory and what it means to glorify God.
Angels (messengers from God) come to the shepherds at night while they are out in the fields near Bethlehem. Here’s some stuff to know about that (I hope it doesn’t mess with your mental image of Christmas too much!)
The shepherds are the most common of common people. For centuries, they have been oppressed – in Jesus’ time and now. God comes to (and for) everyone, especially the weak and powerless – like us?
The shepherds are living in the fields with the sheep only during warmer weather. If you line that up with other details from scripture (i.e. the timing of John’s the Baptist’s birth), Jesus was most likely born in the late summer, maybe September.
So the weather was probably warm when an angel comes to them (scaring them half to death!) to give a specific description of how to find God in human form over in Bethlehem. After calming them down…
A crowd of angels come and begin to say, “‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’ (Luke 2:14)
Glory to God! That is how people respond when God shows up and does something astonishing, something amazing.
The angels can’t help themselves.
After the shepherds find Mary and Joseph and confirmed this news that they had received straight from God’s messengers, they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
Glory. In the Bible, this word means magnificence, importance, worthy of honor, brilliance. Giving God glory is the instinctive gut response to the presence of God and the amazing things God does. Glorifying God is an act of faith – the shepherds had a new relationship with God because they glorified God.
Just to be clear – we don’t give God the glory God already has. It is acknowledging God’s astonishing awesomeness. Has God ever done an incredibly good thing for you or someone you know? You knew that this was so out of the ordinary, that there was no way this was a coincidence, except that God was involved. How did you respond?
I imagine you gave heartfelt thanks to God. “Thank you, God, for who you are and that you are able to do this!” You were giving glory to God. This glory finds itself in places you might not expect and has a deeper meaning in scripture. Here’s where your connection with God becomes real.
Picture in your mind that night when Jesus sat with his disciples for a last meal, just before they went to the Garden of Gethsemane where he was captured. After that meal, Judas left the room.
When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. (John 13:31-32)
Judas is setting in motion a series of events that can’t be stopped. What happens now is inevitable. Jesus will be tried and crucified.
It may not fit with your concept of “glory,” but in that moment, God is doing a magnificent, awesome thing. In that moment, in Jesus, God has started the process of saving us.
When we believe in Christ, that our sins have died with him on the cross, and in his resurrection, God the Holy Spirit begins to live in each of us and all of us, changing us and giving us a unity we never had before. Look at this prayer of Paul:
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:5-6)
When we glorify God together, we’ve got unity! Together, God needs us to make difference in our world. God needs us to find ways to be light in a dark place.
The good things of faith aren’t meant to be the Christmas present we keep for ourselves. Jesus said…
‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
See how it works? God appears, we glorify God (arms up), God lives in us through faith, empowering us to do good works (arms out) that make other people want to glorify God (arms up). God needs us to do our part to change a hurting world. This is how God rolls, this is how God loves, and this is how God lives – in us. All because God cared enough to send Jesus.
Glory to God! Let’s glorify God with our final song!