Kevin delivered the following sermon from Luke2:1-20 at Morningside Baptist Church in Douglas, GA, where he serves as Senior Pastor.
What do you think of the Nativity? Many storytellers have painted an idyllic scene with Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus crowned with radiant halos. They’re wearing clean clothes and a peaceful look on their faces. Shepherds and Magi bowing in homage to the newborn King laying in a freshly strawed manger. Make no mistake, it was a glorious event, but I think the poets and writers may have romanticized it a little.
What do you think the first Christmas was like? Much like the rest of His life, Jesus’ birth was marked with humility. In the story of Christmas, Jesus humbled himself to be Emmanuel or God with us. As we noticed in the part one of this sermon series, the majestic Light of the world descended into the darkness of the human experience. An unknown writer captures the essence of Christ’s descent in a brief story of a wise and good king. He writes,
Long ago, there ruled in Persia a wise and good king. He loved his people. He wanted to know how they lived. He wanted to know about their hardships. Often he dressed in the clothes of a working man or a beggar and went to the homes of the poor. No one whom he visited thought that he was their ruler. One time, he visited a very poor man who lived in a cellar. He ate the coarse food the poor man ate. He spoke cheerful, kind words to him. Then he left. Later, he visited the poor man again and disclosed his identity by saying, “I am your king!” The king thought the man would surely ask for some gift or favor, but he didn’t. Instead, he said, “You left your palace and your glory to visit me in this dark, dreary place. You ate the course food I ate. You brought gladness to my heart! To others, you have given your rich gifts. To me you have given yourself!” The King of glory, the Lord Jesus Christ, gave himself to you and me. The Bible calls Him “the unspeakable gift!”1
Although the Christmas story is full of glory and majesty, let us not forget the humility displayed in its narrative.
In the previous sermon, we saw the deity of Christ on display, and now, I want to highlight the humanity of Christ. We will look at the Christmas story under three headings: the Christmas story has a humble setting, a humble plot, and a humble cast of characters. With each of these areas, we will look at how Jesus, God in the flesh, related to us as humans.
The Christmas Story Has a Humble Setting
In verses 1-3, Luke describes the humble setting into which Christ was born. He writes, “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” (2:1-3). Jesus was born in occupied territory. At the time of his birth, Rome was ruling the land of Israel through its client-king Herod.2 Herod depended on Rome for political, economic, and military support. Under the rule of Caesar Augustus, the ancient world benefited from the Pax Romana (or Roman Peace). However, this peace was purchased through military conquest. Military campaigns cost money, so taxes and tribute were needed. Therefore, regular censuses were conducted to calculate taxation. The irony of Jesus, the Undefeated Conqueror, being born in occupied territory is striking.
In verse four, another aspect of the humble setting of the Christmas story is the out-of-the-way towns.The Bible states, “Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David,” (2:4). There are two small towns mentioned, Nazareth and Bethlehem. Let’s look at each of them.
First, we see Joseph and Mary leaving Nazareth toward Bethlehem. Nazareth rested north of Jerusalem. It was a small community with probably less than 500 residents. John captures the sentiments of the day when he records Nathaniel’s comment. He writes, “Nathanael said to him, ‘Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see’” (John 1:46). Being a small town with no major cities close by, Nazareth was viewed as a “Podunk” town. To be called a Nazarene was like being called “backwoods” or a “hick.” However, this is where Jesus was raised and identifies himself with this little town with a questionable reputation.
Next, Luke gives us the young couple’s destination, Bethlehem (House of bread). According to the route taken, Bethlehem was 70-90 miles south of Nazareth. It was approximately five miles southwest of Jerusalem. Micah mentions the humbleness of this village. He writes, “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” (Micah 5:2).
Why should this humble setting be important to us? When Jesus humbled Himself and became flesh, He came to be God with us. Every person has experienced oppression of some form, so Jesus was born under an oppressive government. A large percentage of the earth’s population is in little forgotten neighborhoods and out-of-the-way towns. Jesus came to identify with us.
The Christmas Story has a Humble Plot
In this passage, Luke reveals the story’s humble plot. I want to highlight three key points in the narrative. They are the traveling couple, the birth of Jesus, and the angels’ message to the shepherds.
First, the young couple from out-of-the-way towns are traveling, because their oppressive government needs more money. Oh yeah, and the girl is pregnant! There is nothing like traveling 70-90 miles under hard conditions when you’re nine months with child. Tradition has taught us that Mary rode on a donkey, but there is no evidence in the Bible for this assumption, and as we’ll see later, Joseph and Mary were of humble means. So, it’s entirely possible, she walked this on foot!
The Bible states, “Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth” (2:4-6). This was no ordinary couple, engagement, or pregnancy.
Can you imagine this scenario? A young girl, around fourteen years of age, who is engaged to a man, and says she is pregnant by God. You may not buy it, right? Many in Mary’s day didn’t buy it either. The rumors shrouded the first Christmas in “seeming” scandal.
However, some Jews may not have been so dubious, because they were looking for the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Isaiah writes, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). Mary was delivering the Son, that would soon deliver her!
Second, Jesus’ birth was steeped in humility. The Bibles states, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was not room for them in the inn” (2:7). Jesus, the King of glory was wrapped in common rags. Before coming to earth, He was clothed in radiant glory. Angels bowed and sang the praises of His might, but now He is a lowly babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. The God, who is a consuming fire, now needs the warmth of the blankets and his mother’s bosom.
She laid the rag-wrapped Lord of glory in a manger, a food trough. I can imagine the young Joseph scampering around as Mary lay in travail, trying to find a suitable crib for Jesus, and only finding a manger. Can you imagine laying your newborn in a feeding trough soiled with animal saliva? Yet, this is how God ordained His Son to come into the world. He was born in a stable.
When we hear “there was no room in the inn,” we often think of an overwhelmed hotel, but it was more than likely a residential home. In Jesus’ day, homes often had an extra room for traveling guests, and with Bethlehem being so close to Jerusalem, this was likely because of the many festivals (and not to forget the censuses). Some have proposed that this is “there was no suitable place for that” or giving childbirth in this home. Regardless, Jesus was born in what we would consider the owner’s barn. (More than likely, it was a cave, natural or carved.)
Finally, we come to the angels appearing to the shepherds. Can you imagine staring at the silent night sky and then suddenly the heavens erupt with light and sound? The Bible states,
And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” (2:8-14).
Can you image the shock? Only if you could be a fly on a sheep’s eye and be able to see this sight. The mentioning of the shepherds brings me to my next topic.
The Christmas Story has a Humble Cast of Characters
First, we’ve already mentioned Mary and Joseph, but I want to circle back to them now. I want to point out that Mary and Joseph were of humble means. They were poor. We know this by reading the passage following our text. The Bible states,
And when eight days had passed, before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” (2:21-24).
Turtledoves or pigeons were the Levitical offering the poorest people offered to God. The King of kings and Lord of lords would have lived in low-income housing!
Second, it’s important to understand the shepherds were the outcasts of society. Imagine the smell of a person who sleeps with sheep in the field with no showers. However, it was these people on the fringe of society that heard the gospel message from the lips of angels. It wasn’t royalty; it was the unwanted that heard it first!
We’ve seen the humble setting, plot, and characters of the first Christmas. I’m convinced it wasn’t like the idyllic nativity paintings, but real; in the muck and the mire, real life, because He came to be God with us!
Charles Swindoll gives a great illustration about the night Christ was born. When he compares it to the year 1809. He writes,
Take the year 1809. The international scene was tumultuous. Napoleon was sweeping through Austria; blood was flowing freely. Nobody then cared about babies. But the world was overlooking some terribly significant births.
For example, William Gladstone was born that year. He was destined to become one of England’s finest statesman. That same year, Alfred Tennyson was born to an obscure minister and his wife. The child would one day greatly affect the literary world in a marked manner. On the American continent, Oliver Wendell Holmes was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And not far away in Boston, Edgar Allan Poe began his eventful, albeit tragic, life. It was also in that same year that a physician named Darwin and his wife named their child Charles Robert. And that same year produced the cries of a newborn infant in a rugged log cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky. The baby’s name? Abraham Lincoln.
If there had been news broadcasts at that time, I’m certain these words would have been heard: “The destiny of the world is being shaped on an Austrian battlefield today.” But history was actually being shaped in the cradles of England and America. Similarly, everyone thought taxation was the big news–when Jesus was born. But a young Jewish woman cradled the biggest news of all: the birth of the Savior.3
Jesus, God in flesh, came to this earth to be with us. He experienced the human condition. All the pains, hurts, and trials we face, He overcame them. He humbled Himself to be Emmanuel.
The Gospel in Luke 2:1-20
The gospel message is easy to find in this passage. The angels declared it to the shepherds in 2:10-14. However, I would like to turn your attention to another passage that explains the humility of Jesus we’ve discussed in this passage. Paul writes,
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)
You will confess Him as Lord, eventually. I pray it is in this life.
2Barry J Beitzel and Kristopher A Lyle, eds, Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels, Lexham Geographic Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).