Faithlife Sermons

Jesus: Extraordinary Savior, Ordinary Birth



I grew up immersed in Southern Baptist life. The Sunday School Board (now Holman), the Foreign Mission Board (now the IMB), Annie Armstrong and Lottie Moon - these were names and entities that imprinted on my memory from an early age, long before I knew what any of them were.
Lottie Moon, in particular, was one I didn’t understand. I knew it was an offering. I knew it always came around just before Christmas. I knew it had something to do with missions. Before I learned who Lottie Moon was, I remember as a child asking the question, What is a Lottie Moon? Is it some kind of annual lunar event? What is it? Some of you might be in the same boat.
Well, we’re going to learn a little bit about Lottie Moon as we go through the sermon, but for now we can say that she was born in 1840 in Virginia. But as for the Christmas offering, the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering helps support our IMB missionaries. The IMB, just so you know, is the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. This offering enables our missionaries to stay on the field and keep doing the missions work God has called them to do, rather than having to come home and raise money.
And this offering has been in place since 1888. For 132 years, Southern Baptists in the US have dug down deep this time of year and contributed millions upon millions of dollars to the cause of international missions.
The very fact that Lottie Moon’s name is synonymous with international missions testifies to her work and her legacy. In addition to organizing the offering, she spent her life on the field. Despite opposition of every kind, Lottie Moon helped organize a church in China that within two decades had become the center, the beating heart, of Christian witness in all of China.
Despite this, Lottie Moon often experienced seasons of life where she felt as if God were not at work through her. For all her success, she felt overlooked, broken-hearted, and experienced suffering. In other words, she was human. And she must have had frequent moments where she wondered if God was at work in and through her at all. And yet, this ordinary woman with ordinary problems who opened up her life to an extraordinary God, and was used mightily by her.
God is at work in and through us even as we live frustrated, broken-hearted lives of suffering. What’s even more amazing is that God is at work not despite our hardship, but precisely in and through that frustration and heartbreak and suffering - and it is those things that He will use to accomplish His purposes. The point is, God is at work when every indicator seems to say that He isn’t. An extraordinary Savior is at work in and through ordinary people and ordinary circumstances. And that is exactly the message of this Christmas passage we’re looking at this morning.

#1: The extraordinary Savior born into ordinary history (v. 1-3)

First we see that the extraordinary Savior was born into ordinary historical events. Jesus was born in Bethlehem. And it has a rich biblical history. Ruth and Naomi settled there, and Ruth and Boaz married and raised a family there. The book of Ruth ends by pointing forward to David. It tells us that the son born to Ruth and Boaz, whose name was Obed - he would be King David’s grandfather.
And so we come to find out later that king David was from Bethlehem. Before David was called by God to be the shepherd-king of Israel, David was a shepherd of actual sheep in Bethlehem.
Despite this rich history, however, it has to be admitted that Bethlehem was an unusual place for the King of the ages to be born. It was basically a backwater Jerusalem suburb, about six miles south. Even as recently as 100 years ago, it had only 10,000 inhabitants. In the years leading up to Jesus’ birth, it was more a village than a city or even a town.
And yet for Bethlehem to be such a humble place, it is the place God sovereignly chose, not Jerusalem, as the place where His promised Messiah would be born. The OT prophets promised this would be the case:

“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,

Too little to be among the clans of Judah,

From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.

His goings forth are from long ago,

From the days of eternity.”

So Jesus was born in an ordinary, humble town, not in the power centers of Jewish or Roman culture. It was like being born in rural Cleveland County instead of Washington, DC or New York City.
But God also used ordinary historical circumstances to get Him there. This account of the birth of Jesus opens up like this, verses 1-3: “Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city.”
Caesar Augustus - what do we know about him? Well, his given name was Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. There’s a picture for you on the screen. There had been a civil war in Rome around the time when Rome became an empire rather than a Republic, and it was Caesar August who had emerged as the ruler. The Roman Senate gave him the title Augustus in 27 BC and it became something like a proper name.
And Caesar Augustus, well, he wants to conduct a census. We’re in the middle of a census right now. It wasn’t much different then. They conducted censuses to make sure they had a record of everyone who lived in the Roman Empire and a record of everyone’s possessions and family members and all of that. And they did that for two reasons: 1) so they could know who to tax and how much, and 2) so they could draft men into the military service in there was a need for it.
Now there had been other censuses in the past and there would be more in the future. That’s why Luke adds verse 2: “This,” Luke writes, “was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Now this is an odd detail. Why does Luke include it? Why do we need to know that there had been other censuses under Quirinius who governed the province of Syria where Judea and Jerusalem were, and that this census was the first one under his leadership? Well, Luke wants to make sure his readers understand precisely which census was the one that took place in the days before the Savior’s birth. Luke is interested in historical precision.
Why is Luke is interested in such historical precision? We have to admit that he is. The other gospel writers are too, but Luke more than any of them wants to show that Jesus’ birth and life and death didn’t take place in a vacuum. They took place on this earth, in a particular location, at a particular time, under particular historical circumstances that can be verified outside the Bible. For example, read with me Luke 3:1-2. Just before Luke tells us about the ministry of John the Baptist, he wants us to understand exactly when and where John the Baptist began his ministry. So he writes this, and notice all the historical details.

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, 2 in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness

Now let’s read that again, and count with me how many times Luke mentions a historical time or person. In the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, the place previously occupied by Augustus. When Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, the place previously held by Quirinius. When Herod was tetrarch of Galilee. When Herod’s brother was tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis. When Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene. During the high priest of Annas and Caiaphas. How many historical references did you count? I counted six. Luke wants us to know that the events of John’s life and ministry took place during actual time and space. This is not “once upon a time”, it’s not a fairy tale or a legend or a myth. This is actual history.
And it’s the same here in chapter two. Luke wants us to see that when God sent His Son into the world, He didn’t create unique and special circumstances to bring it about. He used the census. He used the decree of a tyrant, who ordered every inhabitant of the Roman empire regardless of age or health or wealth to travel from where they live now, to where they were born, no matter how far, and disclose who they are, what they have, and who their family is. God works in and through history. This doesn’t mean, of course, that every historical event is God’s will. God worked in and through the Holocaust, but that didn’t mean He approved of the Holocaust. God worked in and through 9/11, but that doesn’t mean that God approved of that, and it doesn’t mean that God won’t hold the terrorists who perpetrated that attack accountable. But it does mean that God, in His infinite wisdom, working in ordinary ways, chooses to use those ordinary events to bring about His purposes, to advance His redemptive plan.
And because of that. His work is often overlooked. It can feel like He’s absent. Out of all the masses headed to their respective cities to register for this census, who but Mary really knew what God was up to? Joseph had some idea, too. But the point is this: This event, this birth of the Messiah, which had been in the works for thousands of years, and which would utterly turn the world upside down, this event was something God was content to bring about, initially, with no recognition whatsoever. It was a momentous, earth-shattering event, and yet it was all just so very ordinary in the way God brought it about. I like what one author wrote: “They appeared to be helpless pawns caught in the movements of secular history, but every move was under the hand of Almighty God” (Hughes, Preaching the Word, loc. cit.).
We expect God to part the waters, to write His plan in the clouds, to send angels to announce to us what He’s going to do. He did that from time to time, but it wasn’t and isn’t His normal way of operating. God operates in such a way that He is often overlooked. Pause and listen to me say that again and think about it: God operates in such a way that as He brings about His good plans for us, He is often overlooked..... PAUSE. Are you willing to be overlooked as you do good? Do you have the patience and the sense of self to simply be ordinary, and let God do extraordinary things through you? It’s something to think about.

#2: The King of the Ages born to humble parents (vv. 4-5)

The King of the Ages was born to humble parents. So this census is going on, and verse one told us that Augustus ordered everyone in “all the inhabited earth” to register in his own town. That’s what my translation has: “all the inhabited earth”. The NIV has “the entire Roman world”. The CSB has “the whole empire”. So why does the Greek literally say “all the world”? Well, it says that because the Roman Empire was so massive and encompassed so many countries and nations that the Roman Empire was practically synonymous with the known world. The other reason is that the emperor was so arrogant, and had such an inflated view of himself and his country, that he considered the Roman empire to be it - it was the world. It was his refusal to acknowledge that any place of any significance could possibly exist beyond the boundaries of his domain.
Well, part of this inhabited empire, the whole world, included a young peasant couple named Mary and Joseph. And so in verse 4 Luke writes, “Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.” “Joseph also”…underline that phrase. Joseph was the adoptive father of the Son of God become human flesh. He would be responsible for protecting, providing for, and raising the fully divine Son of God in His humanity. He would teach the Holy One of Israel who had become flesh how to respect himself and others, how to treat women, how to shave, perhaps? How to ride a camel? Joseph would teach Jesus a trade - father and son would work together in a dusty shed with tools and sawdust and dirt and sweat. Joseph would do all of this with God Himself, and yet not even that exempted Joseph from ordinary life. “Joseph also” - he, too, had to go register. He too was subject to the arbitrary decree of a power-hungry tyrant over 1,400 miles away.
Added to this was the hardship of making this journey with a very pregnant wife. R. Kent Hughes, in his commentary on Luke, write this:
It was a miserable journey. Mary was full-term, which forced a slow, rolling gait as she walked those eighty miles. Perhaps, if she was fortunate, she had borrowed an animal to carry her. But whatever their situation, she traveled in the dust and cold of winter, bearing the distressing knowledge that she might have her first baby far from home, from her mother, and from nearly everyone who cared about her.Being the adoptive father of Jesus did not exempt Joseph from the ordinariness of life. (Hughes, Preaching the Word, loc. cit.)
And yet there was something so not ordinary about this, too. Luke shows it to us without really calling attention to it. It’s so subtle we might miss what he’s saying. That same verse, again, says this. And now pay attention not so much to the first part but to the second part, which tells us where Joseph was going: “Joseph also went up from Galilee, from Nazareth, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David.” Way back in the OT, when David was king, God made a promise to David. God had singled David out. More than any other Israelite king either before or after him, David was the one whose life would point forward to the King, the true David, Jesus Himself, the Anointed One, the Messiah. The prophet Nathan made David this promise, speaking a message from the Lord:

12 When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be a father to him and he will be a son to Me; when he commits iniquity, I will correct him with the rod of men and the strokes of the sons of men, 15 but My lovingkindness shall not depart from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. 16 Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever.” ’ ”

When your days are completed, God promises David, I am going to raise up your offspring, your descendant, someone from your line. And that one from your line will sit on your throne not just for five or six decades, but forever. And through Him, through His holy and gracious reign as King, He will bring the blessing of salvation to the nations. And when Luke tells us that Joseph was of the house and family of David, this is what he’s pointing back to. This is anything but ordinary.
And yet Joseph and Mary were not just ordinary. They may have been thought ill of. You’ll notice the next verse: He went with Mary “in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child” (Luke 2:5 NASB). Mary was pregnant. But she and Joseph weren’t married. There had been no ceremony. There had been no wedding feast. You get where I’m going with this. There had been no consummation of the marriage, no sexual activity, but it sure didn’t seem that way. Mary was well along in her pregnancy when they arrived in Bethlehem. I think back to the book of Ruth, how when Naomi who was from Bethlehem arrived back in town with her daughter in law after being gone for so long, Naomi was the talk of the town - and maybe not in a good way. It’s human nature to gossip, and we can assume that the same thing happened here. “Is that Joseph? Yep, it sure is...Is that his wife? She’s pregnant! Did they ever actually get married? You don’t think.....?”
They were betrothed, but not married. Some translations have “engaged”. But it was nothing like our engagement. Betrothal meant you were actually legally married. The marriage had been arranged, both parties had given their consent, the bride price had been paid to the father. The only things that hadn’t been taken place yet were the wedding feast, the ceremony, and the consummation of the marriage. So we should be honest and say, Mary’s pregnancy seemed scandalous. It looked like sexual immorality.
Of course, Neither of those thing were true. But who would have believed them if they tried to explain it? You can imagine Mary trying to explain. “Well, Gabriel appeared to me and told me that I was giving birth to the Son of God and that he would be conceived in me without the normal biological process. I know I’m very pregnant, but I’m still a virgin.” You can imagine that at some point, Joseph and Mary just stopped trying to explain and instead chose to trust God. He had this, and ultimately they didn’t owe anyone an explanation. You can imagine the looks on people’s faces, though. You can hear the whispers. You can see the looks of disapproval and shock. You can also imagine that Mary and Joseph felt ashamed and overlooked. And yet God was powerfully present, and powerfully at work.
Lottie Moon, too, was overlooked. Her missions offering has been such a success over the decades that you wouldn’t think this was true. When Lottie Moon sailed from the Virginia shores to China in 1873, it was not that normal of a thing for women to be on the mission field, and when they were there, they weren’t taken seriously. Lottie Moon was highly educated, and she came from a line of women in her family who had proven themselves as successful doctors, leaders, executives, and even spies when it was virtually unheard of for women to do such things (ibid. p295).
Despite this, when Lottie Moon went to China, the Southern Baptist Convention Foreign Mission Board basically restricted them to ministering to other women and teaching kids in schools. Lottie Moon had her eyes set on greatness, though. She wanted to “go out among the millions”, in her own words (Tucker, p296). Instead, she was teaching a few Chinese girls in a small Chinese school for years. Her missions career was a career marked by frustration.
We might be right in gently challenging her assumption that teaching girls is a waste of time and energy. But we can understand her frustration. And all the more so given the fact that if women weren’t allowed to do the missionary work only men could do, where on earth were the men? Not in China. I love what she wrote about this, castigating the men for not being on the mission field. “It is odd”, she wrote, “that a million Baptists of the south can furnish only three men for all China. Odd that with five hundred preachers in the state of Virginia, we must rely on a Presbyterian to fill a Baptist pulpit [here]. I wonder how these things look in heaven. They certainly look very [strange] in China” (ibid.). In other words, the men who were saying Lottie Moon shouldn’t be in China, the men who were saying “men should be doing that work” - where were they? Not in China. D. L. Moody famously said “I like my way of doing evangelism better than I like your way of not doing it.” To paraphrase him, Lottie Moon was saying “I like my way of going to the mission field as a woman than your way of not going as a man.”
She wrote home in a missions magazine to her fellow Southern Baptists. The anger and resentment she rightfully felt was obvious in the words she chose. “Can we wonder at the sense of mortal weariness and disgust, the sense of wasted powers and the conviction that her life is a failure, that comes over a woman when, instead of the ever-broadening activities she had planned, she finds herself tied down to the petty work of teaching a few girls. What women want,” she wrote, “when they come to China, is free opportunity to do the largest possible work…What women have a right to demand is perfect equality” (ibid.). Lottie Moon’s career in missions was marked by frustration.
The point is this: When God chooses to use you for something, you might have to get used to being overlooked. Because it isn’t about us. And because God does things in ways that are often the opposite of what we expect and what others around us expect. The question is, Do you have the stamina to be overlooked as you remain faithful to what God has called you to do, trusting that He really is at work, even as people mistreat you, talk about you or, worse, act like you don’t exist? Listen to that again: Do you have the stamina to be overlooked as you remain faithful to what God has called you to do, trusting that He really is at work, even as people mistreat you, talk about you or, worse, act like you don’t exist? Lottie Moon was overlooked simply because she was a woman, but she knew God had called her to the work, and as she persevered, God gave her the stamina to be overlooked and to keep working anyway. He honored her commitment.

#3: The exalted Christ born into lowly circumstances (vv. 6-7)

I’ve never had a baby myself, but I’m married to a woman who’s had two. And from where I sit, it would seem to me that having a baby is hard under any circumstances, but much, much harder under the circumstances Mary gave birth under.
What were those circumstances? Well, first of all, she was away from home. At home, her birth would have been surrounded by people she knew. Her mother, maybe her grandmother, extended family. She would’ve had multiple people to rely on, and not just during the birth itself, but during those last days of pregnancy and the first few days and weeks of being a mom. But as it was, it was just her and Joseph. And if Joseph is anything like I was, he didn’t have a clue what he was doing. Mary might’ve felt like she was on her own. One illustration of this is the fact that she wrapped the baby Jesus herself. Did you catch that? How many of you ladies in the room this morning gave birth to your baby and then wrapped the baby? Probably not. You were still recovering from birth. Mary wrapped Jesus herself.
But not only this. Not only was she deprived of support. Mary also gave birth in the last possible place she expected to. Most of our translations tell us Mary gave birth to Jesus and placed him in a manger. What was a manger? Probably a feeding trough. It’s not totally clear where it was, though. We’ve become accustomed to seeing Mary surrounded by farm animals in a barn. Maybe, maybe not. If you’ll notice verse seven very carefully, there’s no mention of a barn. The only mention of a location is the place where she wasn’t allowed to go, which was “the inn.” We don’t know with precision what kind of structure Mary gave birth in, but this we do know. The birth of Jesus Christ took place in the lowest of conditions. Left out in the cold, literally. Maybe not even a roof over her head. This was the equivalent of a homeless woman giving birth on the street - that’s not an exaggeration.
How is Mary feeling amidst all of this? The Bible doesn’t say. Of course, there was joy at the birth of her son. There was joy as the shepherds came and announced what the angels had told them. There was joy as she thought of what the angel Gabriel had told her. “He will be great,” Gabriel had promised, “and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 1:32-33 NASB). But was there some disappointment at the circumstances? Was there some sorrow for her son who was born in this way? Was there within her some sense that the way he was born foreshadowed in some way the way He would die for the sins of the world? After all, soon Simeon in the temple would warn Mary that while her child was destined for greatness, “a sword will pierce even your own soul” (Luke 2:35).
Lottie Moon also understood heartache. She had an offer of marriage from Crawford Toy, a Hebrew and OT professor at Southern Seminary. He promised her a life of missions together in Japan. Oh, she loved him, and she would have loved to go have gone to Japan. But Crawford Toy began to espouse some German ideas that said the Bible couldn’t be trusted, that it was filled with error, and she reluctantly refused his offer. So he went on to become a professor of OT at Harvard University. And Lottie? Broken-hearted, she was left, in her own words, to “plod along in the same old way” (ibid., p295).
Her missions career was also marked by suffering, and her life ended in a most unexpected way. Near the end of her life, the Boxer Uprising in China, an anti-Christian, anti-imperialist rebellion, devastated her and her work. Then they faced plague, smallpox epidemics, and a continuous lack of food. Pleading for funds from the United States, she found no help, and began to contribute out of her own savings that others might eat. Eventually, she was broke. As if this all were not enough, her sister had recently taken her own life in a serious bout of depression. Now Lottie Moon herself, in her 70s, broke, alone, seemingly a failure, lapsed into depression. She boarded a ship to come home, but became so depressed she stopped eating. She died on Christmas Eve, appropriately enough, in the year 1912, on board ship in the harbor of Kobe Japan. Starving, depressed, broken-hearted, Lottie Moon died on the other side of the world, alone. Not the ending of her life she imagined for herself. Not the ending we would have expected God would give her.
Where was he? Maybe Mary wondered the same. She couldn’t have wondered for long, though. She had just given birth to “her firstborn son,” verse 7 tells us. There was a rich Jewish tradition of the firstborn son. The firstborn son of every family was always consecrated to God. Whether that firstborn son would actually live for God was always uncertain. But with Mary’s firstborn son there could be no question. He was born precisely to do that very thing - to live for God, to live in constant, moment-by-moment submission to His Father, to walk with Him in a way that even the righteous men of Genesis like Adam and Enoch and Noah and Abraham would never achieve. Because Jesus’ obedience would lead Him straight to a cross, where He would die bearing the full weight of our sins, that we might have eternal life.
Lottie Moon, the moment she closed her eyes in death on that ship in Japan on Christmas Eve, 1912, opened her eyes in heaven, and then as with Mary, there could be no doubt that not only was God with her, He had been with her all along. It hadn’t all been for nothing. He had been working amid the frustration and being overlooked and the suffering and the heartbreak. And what is more, He used all of it to make her more like Jesus and to bring about the salvation of countless men and women in China and across the globe due to her legacy. And Mary came to know, too, that God had been with her. This was true even though more often than not it had seemed like He was nowhere to be found.

Conclusion & call for response

Here’s what I’ve been trying to say this whole sermon: Does God only work through what is flashy, fast, big, famous and important things and people? Not according to Luke 2. Mary and Joseph were nobodies in a nowhere town. Yet in Mary’s womb was the son of God.
Don’t miss this, church: God’s way of working is often slow, frequently invisible, very often mundane and ordinary, that without eyes to see it, we miss it.
What does it mean for your marriage that God often works in slow, invisible ways that are easy to miss? What does that mean for your parenting, your sanctification? I can’t answer those questions for you, but I can answer the question about what it means for our church. It means that God is present and active in our midst whether we have 40 people here or 140 people in a worship service, whether we have three people or 30 people at a prayer meeting. God is at work in our midst whether we’re seeing one visitor or 50 visitors a month. God is at work in our midst whenever we see the word being preached, whenever we hear God’s people worshiping in spirit and truth. God is at work whenever people in our congregation are growing in their faith or coming to faith for the first time. Those things are happening. Don’t miss it.
Isn’t it interesting, that the lady whose name now epitomizes foreign missions, the lady whose offering still mobilizes tens of thousands of Baptist churches to raise millions of dollars to keep thousands of Baptist IMB missionaries on the field, had many points during her missionary career where she found herself doing very ordinary things, often feeling like the action was somewhere else and that she wasn’t a part of it, frequently fearing that she was of no eternal good. Of course, from our vantage point, we know God used her in a way that has far surpassed anything she could ever have imagined. Let’s learn that lesson today: no matter how we feel now, one day God will show us that He has always been at work, even when that work was hard to see.
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