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An Accidental Christmas?

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The Gospel of Luke  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  24:49
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Mary and Joseph seem to be in Bethlehem just by an accident of circumstance - but in fact it is God's plan unfolding in front of our eyes; He places them carefully in just the right "spot" to reboot the line of David with the long-promised deliverer.

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Big idea: this is no accident; this is God’s plan unfolding
Main application: God is in control; his plan is to save; you’re a part of that
A Traditional Christmas
Introduce me
There are some pretty weird traditions associated with Christmas around the world.
My absolute favourite is the tió de nadal. Ever heard of it? Me neither until this week, if I’m honest. But this is a tió de nadal:
tio picture
Now here’s how the tradition works. And I am not making this up. I checked. I double checked. This really does seem to actually happen. In Catalunia in Spain no child would be without a tió de nadal at Christmas - and here’s why: these guys literally poop out your presents. Yep, if you ever wondered where Christmas presents come from, that’s the truth. Heard it here first.
From December 8th, Catalan children have to feed their tió each day with fruit peel and leftover food; each night they have to put a nice warm blanket on it. And then it starts to get really weird.
On Christmas eve, the family gather around the tió and sing some lovely traditional songs. Here’s one roughly translated for you:
poop log, Christmas log
don’t poop sardines - because they’re salty
poop nougat - because that’s better
I kid you not. Google away. And as they are singing these songs they have to beat the poor tio with sticks. And when the song is done they get to really whack it. And then it poops out their presents. Yep. And that’s where presents come from.
If they’re very spiritual, the kids can head into a different room, pray for more presents, wet their sticks and then come back and whack it really hard for the big ones.
Wow.
Like I said, some pretty weird traditions associated with Christmas around the world. Even the Christmas story itself comes out somewhat different in different countries’ traditions. Take Bulgaria, for example:
Tradition in Bulgaria is that Mary went into labour on December 20th and didn’t give birth until Christmas Eve - that’s some serious labour - and even after that, the birth of Jesus wasn't announced until Christmas Day.
I’m sure you’ve heard other, different traditions around the Christmas story. The truth is we’ve all got our own different visions of that first Christmas in our minds. What do you picture?
A tired Mary on that little donkey rounding the corner to a snowy Bethlehem? 17C and Sunny was the forecast when I looked on Friday!
All the inns of the town with a “no room” sign up, a difficult innkeeper turning Mary away, mid-contraction? In a culture where hospitality is a cardinal value.
Just in time, a cosy stable-come-delivery-room with bovine nurses in attendance?
Often it’s our traditions which shape our picture - but this morning we have the opportunity to go back to the primary sources, to consider one of the first accounts of the birth of Jesus. And I think it has some important things to teach us.
2:30 Transition
That last bible reading with our carols brought us right up to the birth of Jesus - but without much in the way of fanfare, and without most of the Christmas stories we’re familiar with.
Over the last year or so here at Hope City, we’ve been working our way through Luke’s Gospel - that is, Luke’s biography of Jesus, his telling of Jesus’ story. Each week we’ve been looking at another short section of it - there’s plenty more to go yet. But good news this week: we saved a few of the most Christmasy bits specially for this time of year - so if you’ve been with us recently, we’re going to jump back to the beginning of the story again for a few weeks. If you’ve not been with us before, don’t worry - it’s a fine place to dive in.
I’m going to read you a short section of Luke’s gospel that takes us up to that Christmas birth of Jesus - the words will be up on the screen too - and then we’ll take a few minutes to dig into it a little more. As I read, think about how well this relates to your picture of that first Christmas.
3:10 Reading
Luke 2:1-7
Luke 2:1–7 NIV
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
4:00 Unexpected focus
What did you notice as we read there?
no little donkey, little donkey, on a dusty road. Not in any of the gospels, actually.
no drummer boy with a pa-rupu-pum-pum.
no innkeeper yelling “no room”.
Just a baby born.
Not much on their long journey - 90 miles pregnant and in sandals gets just a few words. Not much on their struggle for accommodation. Not much on the setting for the birth. Not much on the actual birth - just a single word in the original language, “she gave birth”.
If you think of Luke, our gospel writer, as a sort of director, he’s making a very odd nativity movie here. “Lights! Camera! Taxation!” What we read spends much more more time on why they are in Bethlehem in the first place. He focuses our attention on the circumstances which are driving events - just think about the sheer number of words given to explaining how they come to be in Bethlehem compared to the events which happen there.
This census takes centre-stage: not just a counting exercise, you know, my empire’s bigger than your empire kind of thing - it’s about the money; the census is registering to pay tax.
Registration is in your hometown - so Joseph has to go the 90 or so miles from Nazareth where he’s living to Bethlehem where his family comes from way back when.
And then Luke explains to us that Mary’s going with him on this huge journey because they’re betrothed (explain).
So much attention to the circumstances driving things.
5:45 Victims of circumstance
Here’s what we have to ask ourselves: Is Luke, the author, our director, trying to make the point that Mary + Joseph are just victims, then?
Driven by the whims - and the finances - of a distant emperor; by his paper-pushers who don’t care what impact this decree has on others’ lives? Are they just the victims of the system?
Driven to a town that’s overflowing, forced to squeeze into whatever space they can find? Isolated and far from home at that critical moment when Mary would be longing for her own people? Nothing better than a manger available for their precious new child? Are they just victims of circumstances?
ever wondered why it’s so busy in Bethlehem? Here’s the best explanation I’ve read: Israel, you might know, was made up of twelve tribes originally, but ten are destroyed by the Assyrian empire. The surviving two, now filling much of the ancient land of the twelve tribes, and with a diaspora scattered through the wider world, all have to return to an ancestral homeland they’ve long outgrown. No wonder it’s busy!
Doesn’t it feel like they are tiny, insignificant cogs in some giant machine? You know, something massive pivots over here - this one begins to spin; it’s connected to these, and to motion works its way down and down until it reaches them; there’s nothing they can do but have their life turned upside down.
It certainly looks like Mary and Joseph are just victims of circumstances. And isn’t that something it’s all to easy to identify with? When’s the last time you felt fully in control of your life? Let’s be honest: have you ever really felt fully in control of your life?!
Doesn’t it more often seem we have just so little power, the tiniest and faintest influence over what’s happening - where wider events we have no control over at all seem to dictate virtually everything.
I mean, take brexit. How much control or influence do you feel like you have over what’s going to happen? How much control does anyone have over what’s happening?! Is there anyone at all in charge of this thing anymore?! It’s easy for all of us to throw our hands up in despair and feel we’re victims of circumstances.
And that’s our experience in the relatively prosperous and somewhat democratic West. Imagine how much more you must be feeling that if you’re in Yemen or the Congo today. Or in first century Judea for that matter.
Is there anyone in charge? Anyone actually in control? Anyone who’s not just a victim? Well, if anyone’s in charge in this story we’re looking at, surely it’s the Roman emperor Augustus. He’s getting his way, after all. His taxes are coming soon now this registration is up and running.
7:30 David’s line
But before we settle on that line of thinking, there is something else Luke highlights as he writes for us. Did you notice the emphasis on David as we read that passage? Bethlehem, the town of David. Joseph, from the house and line of David. Who’s this David guy that Luke’s reminding us of?
An ancient king of the Jewish people - a great warrior, famous for winning battles against giants and nations; a great God-follower, honoured for his dedication and devotion, known for his songs; a great ruler:
The high-point of the whole of Jewish history - defeating all the nation’s enemies, demanding tributes, building wonders, expanding their lands, honoured by every power around them.
But that was a thousand years ago, a thousand years before Jesus. And it’s been all downhill for those thousand years...
So why bring up this David? Just to reinforce that sense of victimhood, mourning the power that’s been lost? No:
Because David’s family has a key place in God’s promises.
One of our readings earlier, along with the carols, was from an ancient prophet called Isaiah, speaking hundreds of years after David died, speaking for God about a promised rescuer to come. Let me read a bit of that one again - It’s from Isaiah 9:6-7; as I read, look out for this David:
Isaiah 9:6–7 NIV
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.
In Isaiah chapter 11, just a little further on, it becomes even clearer this promised child comes from David’s family - Isaiah shows us that by naming David’s father, Jesse: Is 11:1-2, 10
Isaiah 11:1–2 NIV
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord
and then just a few verses down,
Isaiah 11:10 NIV
In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.
9:45 God’s plan
God’s plan, revealed through Isaiah, is that a child from David’s line would once more reign on David’s throne - and as the new and better David, he would build the greatest kingdom ever - it would be wonderful; filled with peace, justice and righteousness. And it would extend to all nations, all peoples.
But how, when that first David had failed and faded away, could things turn out so differently a second time? Well, the same prophet, Isaiah shows us that:
The promised child would be different, a new and better David, because he would rightly be called Mighty God, Everlasting Father; how could you describe a human child like that?
He would rightly be called Immanuel - that’s Isaiah 7:14. Literally translated, Immanuel means “God with us”; how could you describe a human child like that?
How? You can’t. This is no ordinary human child; These names for him tell us that Jesus is God himself, fully divine, stepping into into our world in love.
One more name for you: He would rightly be called Jesus - literally translated, “the LORD saves”; In Matthew’s gospel, the angel announces this name to Joseph, explaining it is "because he will save his people from their sins.” God steps into our world with a mission: to save, to rescue us from our brokenness.
And yet, somehow, he would still come from David’s family - that’s what the prophecies tell us. So he had to be born to someone in David’s line: that’s Joseph. Luke has emphasised Joseph’s connection to David three times already - and he’ll spell out Joseph’s whole family history for us in chapter three, tracing it back to David and beyond.
11:15 You might worry whether Jesus could really share in Joseph’s line, since Jesus is only biologically related to Mary, not Joseph - surely that’s the point of the angel’s surprise announcement to Mary about having a baby. But notice that it’s Joseph’s genealogy, his family tree, that we’re given in both Matthew and Luke’s gospels; clearly the gospel writers understood Jesus to be legitimately a part of Joseph’s family even without that biological connection. Notice here the emphasis Luke puts on the fact that Joseph and Mary were already betrothed at Jesus’ birth; Joseph is taking the unborn Jesus into his family as his own son.
And actually it’s rather beautiful to think that Jesus is, in a way, adopted into David’s family. Because he’s not adopted to be rescued, as is normally the case, but adopted in order to rescue that family; to deliver what was promised to it. And through that promise, to deliver all who turn to Jesus.
The saviour had to come from David’s family - and of course it would then make sense that he should be born in Bethlehem - because that was David’s town.
PAUSE
This whole situation, the whole Bethlehem deal, might look like an accident - but it’s something far more significant, far more exciting. This is God’s plan unfolding right in front of our eyes. That - that is truly why Mary and Joseph are in Bethlehem.
12:45 Well that’s all very good and interesting. But so what? What does this have to do with you and me? What does this have to do with the here and now?
God is in control
God is still in control - even when it seems no-one is; even when life is chaotic; even when life doesn’t turn out the way we’d imagined
I doubt Mary and Joseph planned a visit like that to Bethlehem; I doubt either of them had ever imagined their life including something like that. Does anyone choose that sort of thing?
But it was all God’s plan unfolding; he was always in control
Your life - my life - so often seem accidental but they’re not
God as Director, most often behind the scenes
14:00 God is still in control - and His plan to save is still working its way out in our world
A thousand years downhill from David, imagine the Jewish people of Jesus’ day trying to hold on to God’s promises - but his plan was still working its way out in their world, about to break into the open
Two thousand years after Jesus, we need to trust his plan to save is still working its way out in our world. His promises to take a people for himself from every tribe and tongue; that his message would go to the ends of the earth; that he would build his church; all these promises and plans are still working their way out.
And that means...
15:00 His plan to save is working its way out right here and right now
It’s his plan that you’re here today
You’re meant to be here. This message is meant for you. God planned this.
So I have to ask you, are you ready to embrace this Jesus, the only one who can save his people from their sins? You can do that today. That might be why God has brought you here rather than Bethlehem! Perhaps he has placed you here today just so you hear this story of his plan to rescue. Perhaps he’s placed you here so you have the chance to respond.
Luke’s gospel giveaway.
16:30 And if you have embraced this Jesus, are you ready to trust God is still working out his great plan - even through the mess that our lives so often seem to be?
Imagine Mary, trying to hang on to God’s sure words through life’s mess.

You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

Imagine Joseph, trying to hang on to God’s sure words through life’s mess.

She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, t because he will save his people from their sins.”

Can you hang on to God’s sure words through life’s mess? His promises tell us where all this is going:
Revelation 21:3–5 NIV
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
Christians have this real hope. Can you hang on to it? Can you believe that our God is working out this great and wonderful truth in the midst of our broken and twisted world? Because he is.
18:30
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