It Happened One Night
Intro – Bull Run. First major battle of the Civil War. By evening, the Union Army was in full retreat back to DC and the South was sure it was over. One Georgian pronounced Manassas “one of the decisive battles in the world.” A Mobile, AL paper predicted the Union would “would never again advance beyond cannon shot of Washington.” As they watched the fleeing Union soldiers, no Confederate believed what they were seeing was the beginning of an army that would spell doom for them in the end. Appearances lie! Things are not what they look like.
Infinitely greater is the paradox of Luke 2:1-7. The most momentous event in human history to that moment, God becoming man, did not look very momentous. Nothing about the birth of Christ was as expected. You’d have thought God would enter gloriously -- clearly identified – no abiguity. He did no such thing. So here we have the great paradox of God’s greatness seen in “God’s humility.” His palace is a stable; His attendants, filthy animals; His cradle, a manger; His welcoming sign – “No room.” Absolutely nothing about this scene says, “God has arrived.” It would have seemed preposterous.
Yet, that is exactly what had happened. God had indeed arrived; heaven had come to earth; the Word had become flesh. And Luke shows us that in His utter humility, if you look very closely, is also exhibited His absolute supremacy. The world has depreciated this night in thousands of ways. John Lennon once proclaimed that his Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Maybe – but they sure didn’t have His staying power. Nor did they have His divine nature or redemptive mission or power to save. In this account we see God’s glory indelibly displayed in 4 ways.
I. God’s Providence (seems MIA – never is)
What in the world is providence? It is God’s governing all things to bring about His purposes. It is God working His will behind the scenes of everyday life. God’s providence is God in charge. For believers, it is God working unseen and undetected in my life just like He worked in the lives of Moses or Joshua or David or Paul. God’s providence often seems to be MIA (missing in action) – but it never is! It is one of God’s least understood characteristics. And this account dramatically illustrates God’s providence.
There is in this passage a serious unstated problem. Mary is about to deliver a baby -- the Jewish Messiah – but the problem is she is in the wrong place by 90 miles. What do we mean? 700 years earlier Micah issued this prophecy in 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.” Micah’s prophecy refers to Messiah – Mary’s baby. But she is in Nazareth and He is to be born in Bethlehem, 90 miles to the south. Mary is in the wrong place!
That’s exactly why this passage starts as it does. Lu 2:1, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 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.” Humanly speaking, the unthinkable is about to happen. God’s Word is about to be nullified by Mary’s wrong location. She needs to be in Bethlehem, not in Nazareth. A human dilemma. But God says, “Hey, no problem. I’ve got an emperor, a governor, and King Herod lined up to make this all work out.”
This is God’s providence in living color. Caesar thought he was god. What he was was God’s errand boy! Augustus was born Gais Octavius, the grand-nephew of Julius Caesar who later adopted him. When Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, Octavius shared power for a time with Mark Anthony who was married to his sister. But Anthony dumped the sister in favor of Cleopatra, and civil war ensued. Octavius defeated Anthony and Cleo at the Battle of Actium and became sole master of Rome from 27 BC until AD 14.
He was a great administrator and builder though his personal life was a shambles. When his wife Scribonia did not produce a son, he divorced her and married the Livia, the wife of a friend. Livia had a son, Tiberius whom he wanted as successor so he forced him to divorce the wife he loved in favor of his own daughter, Julia, famous for her profligate lifestyle. The marriage was a disaster for both. Nevertheless, Octavius was proud that he brought peace and order. “Dictator” or “King” was not good enough for him. He finagled the title Augustus – thus Caesar Augustus. He did not allow direct worship of himself for fear of backlash, but he encouraged the idea he was divine – built a temple in his honor. By the time of Christ, Augustus was master of all he surveyed. No one was greater than he in his eyes.
But in God’s eyes, he was strictly bush league. God took the most powerful man in the world – one of the most powerful ever – and gave him a bit part in God’s great drama. He prompted Caesar to mandate the census that took Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, thus protecting the integrity of God’s Word. Augustus was merely a pawn in bringing a far greater ruler into the world. Such is the providence of God. He used the most powerful man in the world to correctly place the most humble birth in the empire of the One who would one day become the King of kings. Think God has a sense of humor!?
Listen, make no mistake about it; God works providentially for those who are His. Matt 28:20, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Prov 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not unto your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths.” He will direct your paths toward your good and His glory. All the time.
On September 25, 1949, Billy Graham came to Los Angeles for a 3-week crusade. He was an unknown 30-year-old southern evangelist. But he left 8 weeks later (5 more than planned) with a worldwide reputation that he never lost. Newspaper coverage had a lot to do with that. William Randolph Hearst came in disguise, liked what he saw and instructed his papers – “Puff Graham.” The next night reporters were everywhere, covering every angle. The crowds swelled and soon included Hollywood stars, sports celebrities and others giving their lives to Christ. His ministry was set on fire. Graham never met Hearst. But he did hear about the cryptic message and said, “I should have thanked him.”
So, did William Randolph Hearst make Billy Graham? Of course not. He was God’s providential means of giving Billy visibility and status he never would otherwise have achieved. But in doing so, he was just God’s errand boy. Just like Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, when in 606 BC, new to his throne and fresh off a great victory in Egypt, he stopped by Israel on his way home almost as an afterthought and took them captive. Little did he know that he was fulfilling multiple prophecies issued over the past 100 years through Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel. He was just carving another notch on his gun. But God saw it differently. He said in Jeremiah 25:6, “Now I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant.” Nebuchadnezzar may have been big in Babylon, and king of the known world, but to God he was a bit player. Hearst was king of the publishing world, but in the end he was God’s lackey. Caesar Augustus ruled as few ever have, envisioning his own divinity – but in the end, he was nothing more than God’s flunkey whose greatest act was to order a census.
God’s providence seems at times to be MIA, but it never is. James was imprisoned and killed in the early days of the church; Peter was imprisoned and released to a full life of ministry. Why didn’t God release James? God’s providence. It doesn’t guarantee physical safety – just that nothing can touch us that He does not allow for His own greater purposes. Beloved, this is the only way to live. And God’s providence is just as active now as ever. We have seen people in our own church experience incredible healing among loved ones, provision of much needed physical resources – miracles every bit as providential as those experienced when George Mueller used to pray food onto the tables of his orphanages. Other times God has chosen to allow chronic pain, ongoing financial problems or to take a loved one home. But it is all God’s providential care. And it never fails. Make no mistake, we are right where He wants us for His greater purposes.
II. God’s Timing (seems late – never is)
As founding members of the “Now” generation, we hate delay. We must learn, God’s timing is impeccable. Look. God got Mary to Bethlehem. He used common, everyday, providential miracles. The Romans did not require people to leave home for their 14-year census. But the Jews required people to return to their ancestral home. King Herod used Jewish precedent, not Roman. Little did he know, he was God’s puppet. Further, Joseph had to go to Bethlehem, but Mary came as well. Why? Perhaps to escape the wagging tongues in Nazareth. Perhaps Joseph did not want to miss this birth. O think they were aware of Micah’s prophecy. Whatever the reason she came.
Then we read Lu 2:6, “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” This is superb. Caesar issues an edict. Herod implements per Jewish custom requiring Joseph to Bethlehem. Quirinius, the governor orders it precisely when Mary is due, and Mary determines to make the trip – all seeming coincidences that converge so that magically, during the days they were there – the time came. And Mary was exactly in the right place at the right time. The time came. God is always on time – never early, never late – always on time. However it may look, He is always right on schedule. There are no coincidences – only God working His will through imperfect people. We serve an awesome God who never misses schedule? Isa 55: 9) “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” I find that God seldom does anything as we would. His creativity glorifies His great name, and time after time He is shown to be wiser than we. His timing is never off. We just fail to see it.
Turn to Gen 37. Jacob has sent his favorite son, 17-year-old Joseph to find and report on his 10 older brothers who are pasturing Jacob’s flocks some distance from home. Now, notice Gen 37:15-16, “And a man found him wandering in the fields. And the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said. “Tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” Well, the man knew the boys and told Joseph where to find them which Joseph did, only to be sold into slavery in Egypt. But here’s the question. Why did God bother to mention that part about Joseph wandering around in the fields? What is that all about? Beloved, that is a lesson in God’s providence and timing. Our activities may seem meaningless to us. But if we are living for God – seeking His will in our lives, they are never meaningless. Joseph didn’t really waste time there in the fields. Think about it. Had he found his brothers immediately, he would have been too early for the Midianite merchants going through to Egypt. He actually would have been killed by his brother. He would never have made it to Egypt to eventually be the instrument God used to save a lot of people’s lives from famine, including his brother Judah through whom was the line of Christ. God never wastes time; His timing is always right. He was on time in Joseph and Mary’s lives and He will right on time in our lives too. Never a misstep.
III. God’s love (seems limited – never is)
Lu 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.” The Lord of all Creation was laid in a simple, crude, manger, near where his mother had to deliver Him in the most primitive of conditions. This was no pageant stable with sweet-smelling hay, clean blankets and spotlights blaring down. This was as humiliating as it gets. And why is it all happening? Why? Because God love you! He love you and He love me. Remember that the next time you think God doesn’t care. It reminds us of Paul’s words in II Cor 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” We’ll spend eternity plumbing the depths of that verse. Next to the cross, the incarnation is the supreme demonstration of the love of God.
Does He love rich people and fine things and great palaces and luxury? Absolutely. But when He became man, He purposely bypassed all of that, coming to Mary and Joseph, the lowliest of parents, and being born in a stable. Accident of history? Of course, not. It all demonstrated His purpose -- “to seek and to save that which was lost.” He didn’t come for a privileged few. He came for everyone. No one is exempt from the love of God in Christ. Paul, in Eph 3:18-19, wants us “to know what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” Question – how do can we know that which surpasses knowledge? May I suggest that the manger is a perfect place to start looking! This is God taking human flesh. This is the birth of Immanuel – God with us. Born in the most humble circumstances to prove Himself truly, God with us.
Mary had just heard, “Greetings, highly favor One! The Lord is with you.” Now, that very same woman is hearing, “There is no room for you.” Those two don’t go together, but while the world refuses her, God is with her. Do you see it? The angels announced to the shepherds, “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of Most High”. The world said, “Put Him right over there where the oxen eat their straw.” And so to any circumstance He can say, “I came to be with you, even at your worst.” When the doc says, “We can’t do anything more,” He says, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” When a spouse says, “I just don’t love you anymore.” “I will never leave you or forsake you.” “Mom, I hate you and I never want to see you again.” “I will never leave you or forsake you.” “We regret to inform you that your son has made the ultimate sacrifice for a grateful country.” “I will never leave you or forsake you.” When God’s love seems limited, you must know – it never is. It is just beginning. Look at the manger.
IV. God’s reception (seems universal – it never is)
You would think that a God who became part of His own Creation to save it would be universally accepted. But look at those chilling words at the end of Lu 2:7, “there was no place for them in the inn.” That’s a preview. Just as God arranged the death of Christ, so God arranged the circumstances of the birth of Christ. The statement there was no room for them represents the world’s reception of Jesus Christ. Few find room for Him.
John says in 1:11, “He came unto His own and His own people received Him not.” People reject the idea of God becoming flesh and dying for them. It is too much, and so they relegate him to the role of a great prophet, accord Him status as a great teacher, admire His magnetic influence, but deny His deity and reject accountability. They find no room for Him in their hearts. You really don’t even have to make a conscious decision to turn him away. By our indecision or indifference, we are already, like the innkeeper, saying, “Sorry, no room. Too much me, no room for Thee.”
But hope is for those who accept Him: John 1:11-12, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Wouldn’t you like to become a child of God? You can – through Christ.
Kathy Troccoli has been for more than 30 years as an award-winning Gospel singer. But it was not always so. In her youth she rebelled. She began drinking and got into eating disorders. She says, "Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, ’We are as sick as our secrets.’ I was real sick." But Jesus came to her in the form of a nerd. She was partying with friends and singing at clubs at night. But she was working a summer job at a community pool. Her co-worker, Cindy was not cool. She was not tough or hard, but she began to tell Kathy about Jesus. Kathy mocked her, but deep down she admired her courage. She pestered Cindy with questions she thought unanswerable, but one day Cindy said to her, “You know, Jesus is Lord whether you accept Him or not. Your rejection does not diminish Him one little bit – but it diminishes you!” Over the next few days, that thought rocked Kathy’s world. She began to read the gospel of John, and she says, “When I got to the end, I knew I had to make a decision. If Jesus was who he said he was, I would have to respond. Everything would have to change. On August 5, 1988, it did. Everything changed.”
Has it changed for you? Have you moved from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light? Things are not always what they seem, but I can tell you that every event of your life, every providential act of God, the timing of every action has led to this moment of encounter with His indescribably love for you. But it is all useless unless you receive Him, recognize Him not just as Lord of all, but as Lord of you. Won’t you trade your sin for His righteousness this morning? He’s brought you here to give you one more opportunity to open your heart to Him – to make room for a Savior who is Christ the Lord. Don’t turn Him away. Let’s pray.