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The Strange Wrapping Paper of Sovereignty - Luke 2:1-7

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(Show 49ers Jacket) My most memorable Christmas came during my family’s most difficult time. 1996 was a year of turmoil for the Hale family. Our home burned down during June. The next few months were spent trying to figure out wrestling with insurance, bouncing to different living situations, and trying to figure out a solution for the long term. Everything that a ten year old boy loves was gone: baseball card collection, bicycle, Super Nintendo — even clothes. All of it was gone. And, we’re all just making it with what we have and with what others had given us.
That Christmas we were in the rental house that my parents had secured. And, we were all so excited about Christmas. Our family always got our big gifts on Christmas morning. But, I remember that year that my mom and dad came and got us out of bed while it was still Christmas Eve, and they told us that Christmas was starting early that year. And, we went down the stairs and into the living room, and it was just ocean of gifts. Some of them were replacements for important things like we had before — like a shotgun I had been given by my grandmother. Others were new things we’d always wanted — like a Steve Young jersey. I’ve never been able to get rid of this 49ers jacket because it always makes me think of that Christmas.

God’s Word

The greatest gifts often come in strange packaging, don’t they? Our most precious gifts often come through the most painful and difficult of circumstances. The very first Christmas was packaged very strangely. And, to really understand what’s happening in the text you have to understand the strange way the story is wrapped by Luke. His main point is the sovereignty of God to bring about the salvation of his people, and I want us to see The Strange Wrapping Paper of God’s Sovereignty: (headline) We’ll see this by seeing the story from three different perspectives.

Caesar did what he “wanted” to do.

Luke 2:1 “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.”
I want to talk about Caesar Augustus the least, but he’s an important layer to the wrapping of this story. He was biological nephew of Julius Caesar who was surprised to realize that he’d been adopted by his uncle and named his successor upon Julius’ death. He proved to be the most effective of any Roman leader and became the first true emperor of the Roman Empire — reigning over virtually all of the known world. This meant that:
He had real “power.”
Ceasar Augustus had the authority to make any decision that pleased him. He was the absolute ruler over absolutely everything. Every person was subjected to his plan for the world.
He had real “wealth.”
Caesar Augustus could have literally anything on earth he wanted. He had enough money to buy it and enough might to take it. That is, we need to understand that there was no plan of his that would fail because of lack of funding. He owned the bank. It was impossible for one of his plans to go unrealized.
He had real “freedom.”
Caesar Augustus could do whatever he wanted to do whenever he wanted to do it, and he was unaccountable for every decision he made. In fact, this is exactly what had frustrated the Jewish people so much. They were God’s chosen people, and yet this Gentile, Roman emperor determined exactly how they would live, what taxes they would pay, and how they could carry out their ways of living. God’s people — and with them God’s promises and plans — appeared subjected to the whims of a pagan emperor.
Caesar reminds us that there are so many decisions that are made for us. We don’t choose where or to whom we’re born. We don’t choose whether our children are born with autism or down syndrome. We don’t choose whether we’re born into affluence or poverty. It seems like there’s always someone else, someone greater — like Caesar or your abusive dad or maybe even a cruel god — that make the most important decisions regarding the quality of our lives. From Caesar’s perspective he was advancing the glory of his name and increasing the renown of his reign. But, this is just the first layer to be unwrapped. This story is far from finished.
The next layer of wrapping we need to tear through in order to see the real gift is that of Mary. Like us, a lot of decisions had been nade for Mary. So, where Caesar did whatever he wanted to do...

Mary did what she “knew” to do.

Mary’s life has gotten really complicated really quickly. She doesn’t know how all of this is going to work out or what all of the answer are. So, she just does what she knows to do.
She’s a “faithful citizen.”
Luke 2:4-5 “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to 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, who was with child.”
There was a sect of Jews during Mary’s time called the Zealots. You’ll remember that one of Jesus’ disciples was called Simon the Zealot. And, they believed that they should undermine Rome at every turn, assassinate Roman soldiers and officials, and lead insurrections. In fact, they believed it was their Biblically warranted duty. Mary responds in the opposite way. She’s like most of us. She honors a dishonorable government that cares nothing for her. She just does what she’s supposed to do, even though it’s a tremendous inconvenience for her. She travels 90 miles uphill (almost 1000’ additional above sea level) on the back of a donkey at full-term just to pay her taxes. Can you imagine riding horseback to Chattanooga nine months pregnant? Men, can you imagine how many bathroom breaks there were along the way? But, Mary just does what she knows to do — be a good citizen.
It’s also important that you see that...
She’s a “good mother.”
Luke 2:6-7 “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 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.”
You know what happened after Jesus, the Son of God was born? His mom and dad took care of him. I thought about how it emphasized Jesus as Mary's 'firstborn son' because we all know how the firstborn are treated, don't we? When GK was born, we were so afraid that we were going to mess her up. We followed every baby rule like we were Pharisees trying to get into heaven. At the first sound of a cry, we would scoop her up and sing her songs and rock her in the chair. And then, there's baby number 2, and if baby number 2 is not crying, so what if she's sucking on a 2 week old cheese puff she found under the chair! Jesus was their firstborn son, and they didn't have much to offer him, but they offered what they could. They wrapped him up in tightly wound swaddling cloths that were the standard of the day. They wanted him to feel snuggled and safe. They found him a dry and soft place to lay.
But, it’s not how Mary would’ve pictured it, and it’s not how Mary would’ve wanted it. It was all she knew to do. From Caesar’s perspective, he was doing whatever he wanted to. From Mary’s perspective, she was just making it. She was just doing what she knew to do with information she had in light of the circumstances she was facing.
There’s a lot more that we don’t know than we do know. There’s a lot of decisions being made for us. Mary shows us what to do when your overwhelmed and disadvantaged and struggling. Just do what you know to do. Honor God with the limited knowledge you have, and trust him with the outcomes.
Now, we’re prepared to see the beauty of the gift. Caesar did what he wanted to do. Mary did all that she knew to do. But, the whole time...

God did what he “planned” to do.

When our house burned down, it certainly wasn’t our choice, and it certainly didn’t seem like God’s was being good to us. But, God used that chaotic, displaced season when our burned down to bring my family to a new church — Iron City. The church that I’ve pastored for the last ten years. (Hold up jacket.) What a strangely wrapped gift! God was crystal clear even if we weren’t. The clarity of God’s plan becomes just as clear in the chaos surrounding Jesus’ birth. His sovereign goodness is unwrapped at every turn.
Jesus is born “where” God planned.
Luke 2:4 “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David”
Mary and Joseph are from Nazareth in Galilee. That’s where their home was. That’s where Jesus’ nursery was prepared. That’s where they’d prefer to give birth. But, Caesar had compelled them to go to Bethlehem — unconcerned that she was pregnant with the Son of God — to register for taxes. So, Caesar did what he wanted to do (issue a census), and Mary did what she knew to do (obey and make the best of it). But, Caesar’s census and Mary’s obedience put them in just the right place to fulfill a 400 year old prophecy. Micah 5:2 “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 coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” Jesus didn’t manipulate the prophecies to fit himself. Caesar did what he wanted to do. Mary did what she knew to do. And, God was doing exactly what He planned to do.
Some of you are unsure why you are where you are. You never planned to live in Anniston or Oxford or Heflin. You never planned to work for the Depot or the car lot or Honda. It’s confusing, and it doesn’t feel like favor. God’s plan for you has not failed! Do what you know to do because you can trust that God is going to do what He has planned to do. His plan is better than yours.
Jesus is born “when” God planned.
Luke 2:1 “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.”
Luke 2:6 “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.”
“Time” comes up twice in these two verses, and both are packaged in a way to unveil the glorious sovereignty of God. First, consider how the timing worked out for Mary’s delivery. She rode a donkey 90 miles at full term. Only God could’ve kept that baby in her womb through that! But, this baby was to be born in Bethlehem, a premature birth wouldn’t do. And so, after such a long and arduous journey, maybe even because of it (many believe “time” here is an indication of a bit of a surprise), Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Caesar scheduled the census when he wanted to. Mary went when she had to. God’s Son was born when He was supposed to.
“Time” is also mentioned in reference to Caesar Augustus. “Time” in verse 6 and “days” in verse 1 are the same Greek words. The “time” of Caesar Augustus was no accident to be the time of Jesus’ birth. On one hand, Israel had become a tinder box. They were fed up with Roman occupation. Talk of a Messiah had been peaking for about 200 years, beginning really with the Maccabean revolt. They were ready. On the other hand, Caesar Augustus was such an effective ruler that he enabled what’s known as Pax Romana — 200 years of Roman peace where the entire known world could be traveled with very little resistance. You know, the perfect setting for the founding of a new global movement like Christianity. Caesar ruled as he pleased. Mary did as she knew. God was doing as He’d planned.
God’s timing isn’t on our schedule, but it’s never late. Jesus' birth proves that you can trust God's timing. Just do what you know to do, and trust that God will do exactly what He’s planned to do exactly WHEN He’s planned to do it.
Jesus is born to be “whom” God planned.
Luke 2:4 “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David
1000 years earlier, God had made a promise to David that He would establish his house as a dynasty that would rule forever. Both Caesar and Jesus’ parents are evidence that the promise is in real peril. Caesar is a Gentile that has the type of authority and power that God had promised to the “Son of David.” Its’ literally the opposite of what God said. And then, you have Joseph and Mary who are “of the house and lineage of David,” and they’re peasants paying taxes to the Gentiles. They have to lay their Son of royal heritage in a trough for donkeys. They’re evidence of how far the Davidic dynasty has fallen. The opposite of what God had said.
Yet, it was during a time of opposites that God fulfilled the very promise that He had made. It was true what Gabriel had told Mary: “Nothing will be impossible for God.” Does it feel like in your life that you’re experiencing the opposite of the goodness of God? Does it feel like the harder you try to honor God the more difficult your life becomes? Does it feel like every effort is futile? I want to remind you of a single fact: Your King was born into a world that didn’t even have a bed for him. He conquered his enemies by dying on a cross for them. Just do what you know to do, and trust in the plan of God. As opposite as it seems, the surprising death of a loved one, the loss of your job, the disability of your child doesn’t mean that God isn’t at work. They mean that He is.
Jesus is born to do “what” God planned.
Luke 2:7 “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.”
Perhaps, there’s no phrase more loaded with the glorious sovereignty of God than that of “firstborn son.” Of course, it seems innocuous enough. Jesus really is Mary’s “firstborn son.” But, the phrase is laced with Biblical significance. On one hand, Paul uses it Colossians 1:15 to say that Jesus is God. “Firstborn” doesn’t necessarily mean chronologically or in age. “Israel” is referred to as being God’s “firstborn”, not because they were the first nation, but because they were the preeminent nation in God’s eye. David is referred to as God’s “firstborn” son, not because he is the oldest son, but there’s no other Son like him. So, we see something here of a sneak peak into the preeminent Christ “by whom and through whom and for whom all things were made” being born into poverty in the form of a servant.
But, it doesn’t stop there. Do you remember how the Passover celebration started? A plague of judgement swept across Egypt and killed every firstborn son in the land — except for those whose door had been painted with the blood of lambs. The blood of those lambs indicated that the firstborns of those household were just as owed death as the rest of Egpyt’s, but they were spared by the blood of another. Well, the next time we read of a Passover celebration, Jesus will be gathered with his disciples for a last supper together, and He will says: “This is my body broken for you. This is my blood poured out for you.” God’s “firstborn son” was going to lay down his life for the atonement of his people.
Caesar did exactly what He wanted to do. Mary was doing all that she knew to do. But, God was doing exactly what He was planning to do. And, every attempt to stop him — even death on a cross — would serve only to further display the beauty of his plan.
One day, we’ll see what God sees. All of the strange wrapping paper of sovereignty will be removed so that we can see the plan of God. (Hold up jacket.) And, when that happens, we’ll see that our most precious gifts were wrapped in our most painful moments.
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