This is maybe the most famous of all of the Christmas texts. There’s a lot you can see in it or find in it, but if you just ask the text a simple question … How should we respond to the birth of Jesus Christ? The Son of God is born into the world. Christmas. So what should we do about that? How should we respond? I think the text will give us three answers. They’re in each of the main paragraphs, but I’d like to work from the bottom to the top. The three things I think the text tells us we should do are hear well, make peace, and fear not.
1. Hear well
Look at the last part of the passage. It’s actually the least famous part of the passage, yet in it you see Luke is talking about hearing. We’re told in verse 20, the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and now they saw. The angels told them something, and they went and saw it was all exactly the way they had been told. So they heard something.
We’re told in verse 17, “When they had seen him [Jesus], they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” They heard a message, then they went and saw, and it says they spread the word. The word word there is the Greek word rhema, which means message. They spread the message. Then the people were amazed and believed.
So we have stages. The angels speak to the shepherds, and then the shepherds speak to everybody else. There’s one other person, which is verse 19. It’s Mary, who has not only heard it from the shepherds, but we actually know from chapter 1 she has also heard from the angel. What’s all this about? Luke is telling us something about the importance of hearing well and how we can hear the message, the Word of God.
One of the ongoing issues in my marriage is how well I really listen. Many, many times something will happen to me that surprises me, and my wife Kathy will say, “Why is that surprising you? I’ve been telling you about this. I’ve been talking to you about this. I’ve been warning you about this. Didn’t you listen?” The answer usually is, “Yes and no. Yes, I heard it. Yes, I remember saying, ‘Okay.’ Yes, I remember acknowledging it. But did I really pay attention? Did I really understand? Did I think out the implications? No.”
What Luke is telling us about is how easy it would be to hear and not hear. How do we hear the message of God, the Word of God, and how should we respond? Mary, by the way, is being held up as a model. There are two lessons in this little paragraph. They’re very easy to miss. First, don’t miss the ordinariness of how the Word of God comes to most people. The Word of God comes to most of us in a very ordinary way.
Notice the shepherds got an angel, but everybody else just got a shepherd. The shepherds got an angel. The angel shows up and speaks. If any of you have ever seen an angel, remember, it was really not any trouble to pay attention. When angels appear and you fall to the ground and feel the searing brilliance of their glory, it’s very hard to do anything else but notice you have an angel talking to you.
It’s very easy to pay attention to angels, right? (It’s New York, so at least three or four of you have seen angels. New York is very diverse, and there’s a little bit of everything in New York.) When an angel comes and speaks to you, there’s no problem paying attention. There’s no problem understanding. There’s no problem listening and hearing. But even though the shepherds got an angel, everybody else just gets a shepherd.
Shepherds, as many of you know from coming to Christmas services, were not scholars. They weren’t magistrates. They weren’t even soldiers. They were just ordinary people. They’re the ones who come and give us the word. What does this remind me of? I’ll tell you what it reminds me of. In the Bible, we see the authors of the Bible. We see Moses, Isaiah, Peter, and Paul. We see the people who wrote the Bible, and these are people who had revelations. Some of them did see angels. They saw visions. It was very easy for them to pay attention.
So they got visions, they got revelations, they got the spectacular, but the rest of us just get a book, which, by the way, is extremely easy to not pay much attention to. It’s hard. It’s difficult. How many people have said, “January 1, I’m going to start reading through the Bible”? So many of those New Year’s resolutions die a death at Leviticus 3. It’s very hard to pay attention. A lot of it doesn’t make sense. You have to ask questions. You have to pay attention. You have to go back.
That’s the point. Most of us get the Word of God in very ordinary ways, ways that would be very easy not to listen to, not to really attend to. Mary has heard from an angel in Luke 1, but in verses 18–19 we’re told, “… all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary [Mary is the model] treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
I love that Mary didn’t say, “Hey, I don’t have to listen to these shepherds. Shepherds! I had an angel come directly to me.” No, she not only has listened to the angel, but she listens to the shepherds too. And what does she do? She ponders and treasures in her heart. The word ponder is more of a cognitive word. It translates a Greek word that means to put in context, to connect.
It means to say, “How does this fit in with everything else I know? How does this make sense of the rest of my life? How does this connect to how I’m living now?” You’re connecting. You’re thinking out. You don’t just say, “Oh yeah, I know that.” You say, “Okay, well, what does that mean? What does it mean to everything else I know? What does it mean to the way I’m living?” Connecting. She’s pondering, which is a very, very intense mental discipline.
The word treasure has more to do with the emotions, more to do with the heart. To treasure literally means to keep something alive, like to keep a fire alive by feeding it, or to keep a little kitten alive by nurturing it. It’s a word that actually means to relish, to savor, to keep something alive. We’re told she doesn’t just ponder the Word of God and the message of God and know it cognitively. She fans the flame in her heart. She takes it all the way down in until she relishes it, until she experiences it, until it means everything to her, until she senses the reality on her heart.
The treasuring is not so much a technique as it is an attitude, a spirit. Do not underestimate your ability to hear and not hear the Word of God. Remember the parable of the sowers? Jesus talks about the fact that the seed is the Word of God, and it falls on some soil and there’s no germination at all, and in some soil it comes up but then burns away with the sun, and some gets choked by weeds. What’s all that about? The fact that most people’s hearts hear but don’t hear.
Of course, some people just don’t believe it, but a lot of people say, “Oh, I believe it,” yet they don’t treasure it. They don’t ponder it. It doesn’t come in. It doesn’t change their lives. Do you want to be like the crowd that just marvels, or do you want to be like Mary? Or put it another way. I’m glad you’re here, and you should hear the Word of God preached and taught. It’s the job of those of us who are up here to develop a skill over the years, and that skill is to be interesting.
It’s our job to be compelling and interesting and persuasive and to make presentations that hold your attention. But can you hold your own attention with the Word of God? Can you interest yourself? Can you sit down and treasure and ponder and bring the truth of the Bible into your heart, screwing it down until it catches fire in your mind, your will, and your emotions? That’s what Luke is suggesting. That’s what he’s calling you to do. Hear well.
2. Make peace
That comes from the middle part, where it says, “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying …” Every time you read this in a modern translation, surely it grates a little bit on you, because this is what the angels say: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” A lot of you say, “Wait a minute. I thought I remember somewhere …” Yeah, because every Christmas carol says, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” That’s the traditional older King James rendering.
But there’s almost a universal consensus on the part of scholars that the King James Bible at that point was basing its translation on a Greek text that wasn’t the most accurate, wasn’t really true to the original, and that, actually, it doesn’t say, “Peace on earth, good will toward all people.” It’s saying, “Peace on earth toward those people on whom God’s will and favor and grace rests.”
Now at first sight, it looks like the older way meant Christmas is good news for everybody, and the more accurate approach is that Christmas is just good news for Christians, that the only people who get the peace are people who grasp God’s grace. The reality, though, especially in light of verse 10, where it says, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” The reality is somewhere in the middle.
First of all, Luke comes and says, “When you grasp God’s grace, one of the great benefits … What it means to become a Christian, to grasp God’s grace, is you now have peace with God.” One of the most counterintuitive and radical and important themes of the New Testament, which you especially can read in chapters 5–8 of Romans where Paul lays it out, is that before we become Christians, we’re at war with God. See, most of us do not believe that. In fact, almost nobody believes that.
Many people say, “I disbelieve in God,” or maybe, “I’m not passionate about God,” or maybe, “I’m indifferent to God,” but almost none of us say, “I’m angry at God. I hate God.” Yet Paul says in Romans 8, “The natural heart is enmity toward God. The natural heart hates God. You all hate God. Until you see that you’re mad at God and hostile to God and angry at God, you don’t really understand yourself yet. You don’t understand one of the great mainsprings of your life.”
That’s a radical statement. Paul goes like this: Here’s the irreligious person. The irreligious person is overtly asserting his or her independence against God. An irreligious person is overtly saying, “I want to live the way I want to live.” The religious person, according to Paul, covertly asserts his or her independence against God.
The religious person says, “I’m going to obey the Bible. I’m going to follow the Ten Commandments. I’m going to pray, and I’m going to come to church, and I’m going to do everything. Now God has to bless me. He has to answer my prayers. He has to give me a good life.” What’s going on?
You are trying to control God. You’re trying to show that you don’t trust him, basically. You’re asserting your independence. What Paul is trying to say is no matter who you are, whether you believe it or not, you are hostile to God. You can’t stand the idea that he is really in charge, and you are deeply committed to the idea that only if you are in charge of your life will you be happy.
Paul says the mark of a real Christian and not just a religious person is a real Christian comes to see that hostility and comes to realize, “Oh, not only have I done bad things, but even the good things I’ve done have been done for the wrong motives, to assert my independence from God. Therefore,” the Christian says, “I need to be saved by grace, because even my good things were done for bad reasons. I need to be saved by grace.”
When you say that and rest in what the Lord Jesus Christ has done and turn away from the way in which you were living, you’re making peace with God. It’s a peace treaty. The war is over. You’re at peace with God. That’s the reason Luke can say, “Grace and peace go together. Those who have grasped the grace of God, who have the grace of God, are people who have peace with God.”
But does that mean that’s all it’s saying? I don’t think so. First of all, it does talk about peace on earth, and also, in verse 10, it says it’s good news for everybody. Here’s what we have to remember. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says all of his disciples are peacemakers. “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
What are peacemakers? Peacemakers are, first of all, people who, because they finally learned to make peace with God by admitting their flaws, admitting what was wrong, by surrendering, by not standing on their dignity, by swallowing their pride … When that happens, do you know how that changes you?
It means when you go out in the world, you no longer have to stand on your dignity. You no longer have to save face. You can swallow your pride. You learn to do with everybody else. In other words, Christians are people who, first of all, make peace with God and then, second of all, go out and make peace with everybody else they can.
Christians should be fanning out into the world being peacemakers. We know how to admit we’re wrong. We know how to forgive. We know how to reconcile. By just doing that, injecting ourselves in every part of society, we become forgivers. We become repenters. We basically become agents of reconciliation and peacemaking between the races and classes, between members of a family, between neighbors and neighbors.
Christmas means, first of all, that on the basis of the grace of God, peace with God is available, and if you take peace with God, then you can go out and make peace with everybody else, and the world is better off for it. The world is better off, because not only does peace with God come to those who grasp God’s grace, but then peace goes into the world through people who grasp God’s grace. So make peace.
3. Fear not
Having just trashed the King James Bible, now I want it back, because the first part is so familiar, and I like it better when it says, “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.” They don’t write things like that anymore. “Sore afraid.”
By the way, that’s good. Why? Here it says they were terrified. Do you know what the Greek actually says? The Greek word literally says they were “megaphobic.” It uses the word phobeo, which is the Greek word for fear, and it uses the word mega, which is the Greek word for magnify. They were megaphobic. They were terrified. The old English way of putting it was, “They were sore afraid.”
The angel doesn’t ignore that. The angel comes and says, “Do not be afraid.” That’s what it says here, but you might remember in the old King James the angel says, “Fear not: for, behold …” By the way, the word behold (look, see) is in the original Greek text. Here it has been smoothed out to make it more colloquial, more familiar to us.
What I like (I want you to listen) is the angel says, “I know you live a life of terror, but you don’t have to be afraid anymore if you look at what I’m showing you.” “Fear not: for, behold …” Let’s break this down. First of all, let’s notice that when God shows up, people are terrified. Why? This reminds us of the garden of Eden.
If you’re reading the whole Bible, it’s kind of hard to get here and not remember the first time when God showed up in his glory and everybody was terrified. It was in the garden of Eden. Here’s what happened. Adam and Eve originally were put in Paradise, in the garden of Eden, and because they had a perfect relationship with God, there was no fear in their lives at all. I want you to consider this. If you had a perfect relationship with God, there would be no fear in your life at all.
What are the things we get afraid of? Well, we’re afraid of rejection or failure, aren’t we? But if you were just completely filled with God’s love, you wouldn’t care what people thought. You wouldn’t care how you looked. You would not be afraid at all. Here’s something else we’re afraid of. We’re afraid of the future. We’re afraid of circumstances. We’re afraid of bad things happening. We’re scared of that. But if you had a perfect relationship with God and you knew he was in control, you would trust him.
The reason you’re scared, the reason you’re worried, the reason you’re anxious, the reason you’re afraid, is you don’t trust him. If we had a perfect relationship with God, we wouldn’t be afraid of rejection or failure, we wouldn’t be afraid of the future or any circumstances, and we wouldn’t be afraid of death, because we would know his love and we would trust him and we would know, therefore, we’re going to be with him forever.
Of course, when Adam and Eve sinned, when they turned away from God, when they decided to be their own masters, to be in charge of their own lives … If you go back to Genesis 3, you’ll see, no matter what translation comes up, almost immediately they fear. You know why. What went into our hearts was the lie of the Serpent. Do you remember what the lie of the Serpent was, basically? Let me put it to you in a nutshell.
The Serpent said, “You need to be in charge of your own life. You need to call the shots. Don’t let anybody else, including God, be in charge of your life, because if anyone else is in charge of your life, you won’t be happy, especially if God is in charge. You must be your own master. You must be the captain of your soul. You must be the master of your own fate.”
That has gone down into every human heart, every single one of us, and it is one of the great mainsprings of our behavior, though we may not see it. It creates a base note of fear. It creates fear all over the place. We now are afraid of rejection and failure. Do you know why? Because we have to earn our self-worth. We have to earn people’s love.
If we’re not constantly getting affirmation and love from people, we just die. We’ve turned from God. We might even believe God loves us, but we’re so alienated from him it’s just an abstraction. As a result, we are slaves to what people think of us and slaves to our performance and we’re filled with fear. We’re driven by fear.
We are also afraid of the future, because now we’re masters. We cannot control history. We can’t control life. It’s one of the reasons why when great tragedies happen it freaks us all out, because we realize we are not in control. Bad things can happen all the time. We’re afraid of the future. We’re afraid of circumstances. We’re afraid of rejection, and we are afraid of death. Oh yes, we’re afraid of death.
No mater what people tell you, no matter what people say … “Oh, I’m not afraid of death. You go to nothing. You don’t know anything. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Oh yeah, you’re not afraid of losing everything you love, of losing love, of losing everyone, of losing the sun on your face? You are. We are afraid. We’re filled with fear. We’ve turned away. We’re sore afraid. Adam and Eve were sore afraid as soon as they turned from God.
Here’s what’s weird. When God actually comes to the garden of Eden, they’re even more afraid. Actually, everywhere in the Bible where God shows up and his glory is revealed, people are terrified. You know, in Steven Spielberg movies, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., whenever spacemen or ships show up, everybody goes, “Wow.” But whenever God shows up in his glory, nobody goes, “Gee, look at that.” They’re terrified. Why? Why is it that when we’re far from God we’re afraid and when we get close to God we’re even more afraid?
My best way to explain that would be with some illustrations. If you’re impersonating a policeman, you’re nervous, probably, but if a real policeman started coming to you, you’d really be freaked, because that would expose you. Or if you’re at a party or in some place and you’re posing as a rocket scientist, you’d be nervous, but if a real rocket scientist came into the room, you’d be petrified.
Or if you are really proud of being smart and you get into the presence of somebody infinitely smarter than you, or proud of being good-looking or proud of being talented and you get into the presence of somebody infinitely more talented than you, it’s devastating. All of those things are just little glimpses of what it is like.
We are our own masters, and we are unqualified for the job, and we know it. If you’re ever in a job and you are terribly unqualified for it, you’re just filled with fear all the time. We’ve taken a job, and that job is we are our own masters. Even those of us who say, “Well, I’m kind of religious,” or “I go to church,” we’re still the ones deciding what’s right or wrong for us. We’re still in charge. We’re still masters.
That’s the reason we’re afraid. Fear of failure, fear of the future, fear of death. But when God comes near, we’re terrified, because his beauty shows us our ugliness. His power shows us our impotence. His glory shows us our darkness, and we can’t take it. So our lives are filled with fear. We get near God, we’re even more afraid. We get far from God, we’re still afraid.
The angel says, “I have the solution.” Do you know what the solution is? Christmas. What he says is, “Fear not, for behold,” which means, “To the degree you behold the things I’m telling you, to the degree you see them, to that degree these fears will be undermined.” What are those things? “A Savior is born who is Christ the Lord.”
First of all, look at that. A Savior is born. If you want to get over your fear of rejection, over your fear of failure, if you want to be filled with his love, if you want to be completely forgiven, if you want to lay down the melancholy burden of self-justification, you rest in his salvation. You stop trying to save yourself, and that gets rid of that fear.
What about the other fears? How can we trust him with our lives? How can we trust him to obey him? How can we trust him that the things that are happening around us are for our good and that he knows what he’s doing? How do we get rid of that fear? The answer is that the baby born in the manger is the Lord.
The New Testament writers knew what they were doing when they used this word. This is the Greek word kurios, from which the word Caesar comes, by the way. Kaiser comes from the Greek word for lord. The reason it was so significant is that when the Jews … A century or two before Jesus came along, there were enough Jews who spoke Greek that they translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. It was called the Septuagint.
In the Septuagint, the translators made a very important decision. Whenever you’re translating from one language to another, you have certain unique words, and you have to choose a word in the new language that signifies the meaning of the word in the old language, so you have to make a connection. Every place that Yahweh, the name of God that was revealed in the burning bush, the covenant name of God, the Creator, the transcendent One …
Every time the word Yahweh shows up in the Hebrew Scriptures, when they put it into Greek, they translated it Kurios, Lord. What this means is the baby born in a manger isn’t just a savior, isn’t just a sage. He is God himself. If God would come to earth and do this, you can trust him, and that should get rid of your fear.
To drive this home, let me tell you the story I like telling more than any other story this time of year. In 1961, when I was 11 years old, I remember very clearly the Russians put the first man in space, and he orbited the earth once. His name was Yuri Gagarin. Every American elementary school child knew his name. Nikita Khrushchev, who was the premier of the Soviet Union at the time, when he landed …
Of course they were bragging about this great accomplishment. It was a great accomplishment. One of the things Khrushchev said was, “When we went into space, there was no God. See? Another blow for atheism. We went to heaven, and nobody was home. There was no God up there.” In response to that statement, C.S. Lewis, who was still alive, wrote a little article called “The Seeing Eye.”
In that article, he basically said, “Now think about this. If there is a God who created us, you couldn’t find him by going up in space. God would not relate to human beings the way a man on the second floor relates to a man on the first.” See, a man on the second floor and a man on the first … How do they find each other? Well, the man on the first floor just goes up. There is the man on the second floor.
He says if there is a God who created us, he wouldn’t relate to us the way a man on the second floor would relate to a man on the first floor. He would relate to us the way Shakespeare relates to Hamlet. You see, Shakespeare is the author, the creator. He created Hamlet, and he created Hamlet’s entire world. Therefore, Hamlet and the characters in that world could only know about Shakespeare if Shakespeare writes some information into the play about himself.
See, Hamlet can’t find Shakespeare by going up into the rafters of the Globe Theatre. The only way he’s going to find anything out about Shakespeare is if Shakespeare writes something in. Therefore, Lewis says, the only way we’re going to know about God is not by going up into outer space, but if God has revealed himself.
One of the more interesting examples of what Lewis is talking about was a friend of his, Dorothy Sayers. Dorothy Sayers was one of the first women who ever graduated from Oxford. She was a writer of detective mystery fiction. She wasn’t a particularly attractive woman, by her own statement. Her most famous detective stories were the stories of the Lord Peter Wimsey. Peter Wimsey was a fictional character she created. He was an aristocrat and a detective, and he solved mysteries.
She wrote a whole series of short stories and novels. About halfway through the series, a new character emerges, a woman. Her name is Harriet Vane. Harriet was one of the first women who ever graduated from Oxford. She’s a writer of mystery fiction. She’s not particularly attractive. She and Peter fall in love and get married and solve mysteries together and live happily ever after.
What some Dorothy Sayers scholars think is that Dorothy Sayers looked into the world she had created and looked at the man she had created and fell in love with him and wrote herself in. He was lonely, and she solved his problem with herself and lived happily ever after. Some of you are out there saying, “Aw, isn’t that sweet.” But do you realize the claim of Christmas is infinitely more wonderful than that?
Christmas means God looked into the world he created and looked at us and saw the mess we were in, and he wrote himself into the real world. He came into the real world as Jesus Christ. He didn’t come just to embrace us but to die for us. That great God in that feed trough. That’s who the baby is. He lost his glory so that we unimportant people could have glory forever. He lost his peace so we could have infinite peace. He was kicked out. There was no room for him in the inn so we could dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Look at what he did for you. Won’t you trust somebody who did all that for you? Why can’t you trust him with your future? Why can’t you trust him with your life? If he did all that for you, you can trust him. So do you see what the angel is saying? “Do you want to stop all your fear? Behold! Look at Christmas. Look at what he did. To the degree you behold it, to the degree you grasp it, to the degree you treasure and ponder it in your heart, to that degree those fears will start to diminish. Fear not; behold.” Let’s pray.
Our Father, how we thank you that we can behold what your Son did for us, what you did through your Son, the great cost of what you did. If you did this, Lord, we can trust you. We can rest in your love, we can trust your sovereignty, and our fears start to ebb out. Lord, we are fearful people.
Even those of us who believe in you haven’t really pondered and treasured these things in our hearts until our fears are gone. We’re still to a great degree driven by our fears. Take them away by helping us, this Christmas in particular, to behold the Savior, Christ the Lord. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.