Veiled in Flesh: The Nativity

Sermon by David Strain on December 24, 2017

Luke 2:1-7

Now let me invite you, if you would please, to take a copy of God's holy Word in your hands and to turn with me to Luke's gospel, chapter 2. If you're using one of our church Bibles, you'll find that on page 857; 857. Luke chapter 2, the first seven verses – the account of the Nativity, the birth of our Savior, the Lord Jesus. Once you have the Scriptures open before you, would you bow your heads with me as we pray together?


All around the passage before us, there is glory, there is extraordinary song, soaring, sublime, profound. And yet, in these seven verses, there is a simple accounting of history, a narrative; the plain facts repeated about a baby lying in a cattle trough in a stable in Bethlehem. As we turn now, O Lord, to this portion of the text of holy Scripture, we give thanks for the simple reality with which it rings so clearly. Here is good news for the real world. Help us to hear it with new ears today, for the joy of our hearts and the glory of Your name. Amen.


Luke chapter 2 at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:


“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 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, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 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.”


Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy and inerrant Word.


Two Kings

I want you to see that Luke chapter 2, or this portion of Luke chapter 2, is offering us a choice. It proposes two different visions of power, two different models of life, to regimes, under one of which we, all of us, must live. You notice the contrast that Luke draws between two kings in our passage. Don’t you? In verse 1, there’s the kingship of Caesar Augustus and then in verse 7, there is the kingship of Jesus who is the Christ. Caesar Augustus, when he speaks a royal decree, the whole world conforms to his purpose. “A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” He is the Emperor Octavian, called Caesar Augustus by the Roman senate. He is responsible for ushering in an era of extraordinary peace in the Roman Empire at the end of years of civil war and strife. And now the poet Virgil, about 40 BC, spoke about a day of coming peace when nature would be renewed and sin and guilt removed. And during the reign of Augustus, it began to be whispered around the empire that perhaps that new golden age had begun to dawn at last under the Caesar and his reign at Rome. An altar had been built, the Ara Pacis Augustae – the great altar of peace – to celebrate his reign and the peace that he ushered in. Some of the Greek cities of Asia Minor began to date their new year from the date of Augustus’ birth, September 23. At the city of Halicarnassus, one inscription to Augustus even calls him “the savior of the world.” He is the very embodiment of political power and might. The whole world bows before him and honors him. And then, at the other end of the passage by contrast in verse 7, we read about a baby. He isn’t even named yet. That has to wait until the twenty-first verse of this chapter. He doesn’t even receive a name. He’s simply Mary’s firstborn.


Now you may remember, if you’ve been with us in the month of December as we’ve worked through these weeks of Advent, the story of the annunciation when the angel, Gabriel, came to Mary to explain to her the significance of her pregnancy and the identity of the child she is carrying. And the angel certainly raised our expectations about this baby. He said that He “would be great” and 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." And of His kingdom, there would be no end. This child that is to be born of Mary will have a kingdom that far surpasses that of Caesar Augustus. And then we saw Mary's song, "The Magnificat," in verses 46 through 56 of chapter 1 where she raises our expectations even higher still. She says that her baby will usher in an age when the proud will be humbled and those of humble estate will be exalted. The hungry will be filled with good things and the rich sent away empty. The ancient promises made to father Abraham, millennia ago, will, at last, be fulfilled and a new era of Messianic fullness would dawn.


And so now at last, at the moment of His arrival upon the scene of human history, we look with some urgency and some expectation for any sign of His kingly dignity and royal majesty; some outward emblem of His true purpose and destiny. And what do we find? We find a peasant family with a nameless baby laid in a makeshift crib recently used as a feeding trough for cattle. It’s a stunning contrast, isn’t it? And it forces us to ask ourselves what we really want. That’s the dilemma that the Christmas story demands that we all face; actually, the dilemma that the Christian Gospel demands that we all face. What kind of king do you want? What kind of kingdom will you live in? To what do you really aspire? What kind of life will be yours? There’s the world’s model, the world’s ideal embodied by no one better than Caesar Augustus. It’s the American dream, isn’t it? He has power, wealth, riches, fame. He’s at the very pinnacle of human success and notoriety. Everything we might aspire to in terms of the world’s benefits; outward glory. Then, there’s the kingdom of God that comes into the world without displays of glory, without any expressions of power in a baby born in starkly humble surroundings as one of us.


Now if those are the two models – two kings and two kingdoms and two realms, two ways of living – why in the world, you might think, would anyone choose the baby over Caesar Augustus, over the glory and the success and the power and the fame? “If these are the two ways to live, the two worlds on offer, I choose the Augustus model.” Well, not so fast. I want to walk through Luke’s presentation of the birth of Jesus and to draw out four themes that help us understand what kind of king the Lord Jesus really is to help us as we try to resolve the dilemma that the Christian Gospel places us on. Which king, before which king will we bow? Actually, the dilemma is a little starker than that. We aspire to be Caesar Augustus, but the Christian Gospel says that instead of seeking to be king, to be worshiped, to be glorious, to be mighty, to be successful, the Christian Gospel says you need to come to bend your knee and to worship and adore a different kind of king altogether.


Let’s think about the kind of king Jesus is. Four themes. Luke will show us first of all that Jesus is the sovereign King. That might seem like a tautology to you. How can you be a king and not be sovereign? But we’ll get into that in just a moment. He is first a sovereign king. Then, He is the promised king. Then thirdly, He is a representative king. And finally, He is a servant king. A sovereign, promised, representative, servant king.


Sovereign King

First of all, then, Jesus is our sovereign king. You may remember that in the opening five verses of the Gospel according to Luke, Luke chapter 1, Luke sets out his purpose in writing. He wants to provide an orderly account based on eyewitness testimony so that Theophilus, for whom he is writing this account, may “have certainty about the things that he has been taught concerning Jesus of Nazareth.” Luke is really anxious to provide history, not myth and fable; not something that is mere metaphor for some philosophical idea or a body of abstract ethics. No, Luke is concerned to help us understand, to help Theophilus know and us know that if Jesus Christ and the truth concerning Him is not historical fact, it is not worth believing at all. It is not true in any sense. And so you see that same concern in these opening verses. In verses 1 to 3, he is anxious to show us that Jesus was born when Caesar Augustus issued a decree that the world should be registered and the whole empire responds to that decree. And locally, Quirinius, governor of Syria, obeys the decree of Caesar and this one little family, like many others, have to make their way to their ancestral home to be registered in the census.


In other words, Luke wants us to see that you can plot the birth of Jesus on a historical timeline along with the rise and fall of the Caesars. Not the second census that Quirinius took up, but the first, he says. He wants to be specific to show us this is real, true truth; real history. That Jesus, whoever He is and whatever the significance of His coming, has to operate in the real world, the same world within which we all dwell. His kingship, such as it is, is a kingship for the real world and for our challenges day by day. And so the census goes out and Mary and Joseph, in obedience to the law, make their way to Bethlehem. And I want you to notice that it is a decree of a distant emperor that stands behind and compels their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Doubtless, Augustus spared nary a second thought for Palestine or the people under the reign and governor of Quirinius when he issued the decree. And yet, it is precisely because of the decree that Augustus issued that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. But if you know the Gospel accounts, you will know that in Matthew chapter 1, when the wise men, the Magi come following the star, they come to Jerusalem seeking the Christ child and Herod finds out about their quest and so he summons the scribes and the teachers and asks them, “Where does the Bible say Messiah will be born?” And they consult and they quote Micah chapter 5 to Herod. “And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah. For from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people, Israel.”


Now, do you see the point? The mighty emperor Augustus, with all the raw, political power at his disposal, who can order the peoples of the empire to be counted and send peasant families from their homes to fulfill his law, this great king is the unwitting servant of the promises and the purposes of Almighty God. His decree, do you see, serves the Lord Jesus. His great power is bent to accomplish Christ's coming in precisely the way that God promised that it would. It is bent to serve the mission of Jesus Christ. This tiny peasant baby, cradled in Mary's arms that night, the very picture and embodiment of weakness makes the greatest man in the world His agent and instrument. King Jesus is the real sovereign. He's the real king. His is true power. You see, He governs all things. The one born in the stable is the Lord of life Himself. And even Caesar must serve His agenda and accomplish His purpose.


And that means, of course, that for everyone who comes to bend the knee to King Jesus, there is extraordinary comfort and hope. In a chaotic, unpredictable, fearful world, when 2018 holds any number of unforeseeable fears, to know that you live in the grip and under the reign and rule of King Jesus, in whose kingdom God works all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose, to know that enables us to face the future not terrified but in faith and with hope and in confidence. Jesus is the sovereign king.


Promised King

But then secondly, notice that Jesus is also a promised King. We’ve alluded to this already haven’t we? Micah chapter 5 promised Jesus would be born in Bethlehem. Why Bethlehem, though? Luke says it is the city of David, and so Mary and Joseph make their way there because they are of the house and lineage of David. The repetition of David is a clue. In Scripture, however, the city of David does not usually refer to Bethlehem, but to Jerusalem. In 2 Samuel 5:9 when David captured Jerusalem that was then inhabited by the Jebusites, we are told that David lived in the stronghold and called it the city of David. Jerusalem was his capital. It is the city of David; the place of his rule. But Bethlehem is the city of David because it is also the place of his birth.


And Luke wants us to understand that with the coming of Jesus, we have not only David’s heir but his successor. He is David mark 2. The greater than David; great David's greater Son. And the prophets, that's how the prophets spoke of Him. Ezekiel, for example, writing about four hundred years after David died, promised that one day a new David would come. God said through the prophet, "I will set up over my people one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them. He shall feed them and be their shepherd." That's why Micah 5 says the Messiah will be born in the same place David was born. Here is a new king for Israel whom God had promised, promised David in fact, would sit upon his throne and rule over his kingdom forever. That was what the angel told Mary, wasn't it? That "God shall give him the throne of his father David, and of his kingdom, there shall be no end." God was keeping His promises. We've seen that theme over and again as we've walked through the Gospel accounts of Christ's first coming in this Advent season. God was keeping His promises.


There will be times, maybe there are times right now, that are sore and hard and dark. There will be seasons when sickness or sorrow or sin will obscure for you your confidence in the promises of God. "Will He keep His promises to me?" In those moments, you can look at Jesus Christ and find His answer. In Jesus Christ, God's response to your uncertain cries, "Can I really trust You, Lord?" is, "Yes, of course, you can trust Me. I have kept My promises in the coming of My Son, your Savior. He is a promised King. In Him, all My promises are Yes and Amen. I have kept My promises and I have sent a Savior for you in Jesus Christ." He is a sovereign king; a promised king.


Representative King

Then thirdly, He is a representative king. Augustus issues the decree and Jesus, along with His family presumably, were registered in Bethlehem after He was born. Just think about that for a moment. We’ve been told, haven’t we, that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of the Most High, the Son of God. He is Immanuel, God with us. King of kings and Lord of lords. Before Him one day all the rulers of the earth shall bow. God the Father shall make His enemies a footstool for His feet one day. Of His kingdom, there shall be no end and the knowledge of the Lord shall fill the earth as the waters cover the sea one day. And yet, here He is for now at least, just another name on the registrar's list. Probably not even the only name, "Jesus." Not an uncommon name in those days – Joshua, Yeshua. Doubtless, there would have been several “Jesuses” in Bethlehem when the register was made. So if you were doing some historical research and you went to the registrar’s office at the government headquarters where Quirinius presided and you get the register out and you scan your finger down, you get past the “I”s and before the “K”s and you get to all the “Jesuses” and then you’ll find one listing – “Jesus Ben Joseph, Born to Mary of Nazareth, of the house and lineage of David, in Bethlehem, while Quirinus was governor” – and you’d keep right on reading. Nothing there at all to mark Him out as unusual in any way.


He is born among us, you see, as one of us; as one of us. It’s a point Luke makes in different ways throughout the gospels, perhaps not strikingly later in chapter 3 at Jesus’ baptism. You remember what’s happening? John is preaching, John, Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, he’s preaching on the banks of the Jordan and the whole community is gripped by his preaching ministry – convicted of their sin and need to be reconciled to God. And they’re coming out in droves to be baptized by him in the Jordan River. There they are all in line, waiting their turn to enter the waters – the tax collector, the adulterer; next to them a rabbi, then a prostitute. There’s a man who’s well-known for his fits of rage, another known for his pride. And all of them, convicted of sin and longing to be right with God, and they’ve come out to John to be baptized. There’s a petty thief, a drunkard; there’s a liar, there’s Jesus, there’s a gossip, there’s a shady businessman. What is He doing there? Holy, harmless and undefiled, separate from sinners; the one who knew no sin. Why is He there with the guilty and the shameful and the unclean?


He’s there to fulfill all righteousness. He’s there, though He has no sin of His own, in solidarity with sinners like me, like you, to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Where we fail to obey, He will obey for us. Where we cannot pay the penalty our transgressions deserve, He will make full payment for us. Our representative; one of us. Not simply a king to rule over us, but a king who represents us to God, who knows what it is to deal with and bear our grief, carry the burden of condemnation. A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, He was. Here is one to whom you can go. Here is one to whom you can go who really knows, to whom you can entrust your life; one you can trust. A representative king.


Servant King

Which brings me to the last thing I want you to see about the Lord Jesus – He is a sovereign king, a promised king, a representative king, and He is wonderfully, a servant king. A servant king. I wonder if you notice the descending order of importance, at least by the world’s measure, of the names that are listed in these opening seven verses of chapter 2. It begins, doesn’t it, at the very pinnacle of human achievement. Caesar Augustus, the Emperor Octavian, the greatest man in the world. Then down from there, there’s Quirinius, governor of Syria. And then quite a step down from there, there’s Joseph and Mary, his betrothed, of the house and lineage of David. And then all the way at verse 7 there is this baby, Mary’s firstborn, who does not yet even have a name. It is, you notice that descending trajectory. Luke makes a similar point he’s trying to make by that trajectory in other ways in this passage. Most notably, at the end of verse 7, when we are told that he was laid in a manger “because there was no place for them at the inn.” The emphasis here is on humility and poverty and weakness and apparent insignificance.


Just as an aside, you know we really do need to try and shake off the nativity play scenes of Mary and Joseph going from inn to inn and having door after door slammed in their face and the angry innkeeper. If your child was an angry innkeeper, I’m really sorry to debunk this myth, but it’s unlikely! The word that Luke uses here for an inn doesn’t really mean sort of a hotel. More likely, he has in mind a guest room, a large guest room, at one end of which guests would sleep and at the other end of which the animals would be kept, all under one roof. And Mary and Joseph are in the guest room. We don’t know how long they were in Bethlehem before the labor began, but there’s insufficient room at that end of the building and so they overflow into the other end to where the animals ordinarily are kept. But even with that little bit of debunking aside, the emphasis is still on the poverty and the humility and the weakness and the awful, ordinariness of the scene.


What’s the message? Here’s the Lord of life, the eternal Word, the second person of the blessed Trinity, made flesh, come among us, the great King long promised lying in a cattle trough, born in a stable. What’s the message? It’s Philippians chapter 2 verse 6. Although the Lord Jesus was in the form of God, He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but He emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in likeness of men. Being found in human form, He humbled Himself all the way down, all the way down, by becoming obedient, Paul says, to the point of death, even the death of a cross. In Luke 2:7, we are seeing the beginning of a ministry that will climax at Calvary, at the cross, where the Lord Jesus, unlike any other king, unlike the way the world today exercises power for self-promotion and self-protection, here is a King who pours Himself out in service of others, who comes, He says, “not to be served but to serve, and give His life a ransom for many.” “I am among you,” He told His disciples, “as one who serves.” He is the Lord’s servant, as Isaiah put it, in whom God delights and “upon whom the Lord has laid the iniquity of us all.” Jesus is a servant-King who pours His life out because “greater love has no one than this, that he lay his life down for his friends.” And so He lays His life down for His friends at the cross.


I wonder if you wouldn’t take another look at King Jesus. The world’s model may well have captured your heart, offering you success, calling you to aim at glory, material wealth, fame, prominence, social standing. But there is another way to live and another King before whom the Gospel calls you, invites you to bow, who can deal with what your heart really needs; not what the world lies to you to say that you need, but what your heart really needs – a clean conscience, reconciled to God, forgiveness in His sight, adopted into His family, Jesus Christ becoming our elder brother, and belonging in the people of God. Won’t you take another look at King Jesus and come bend your knee to Him that the true joy of Christmas for you this season might not merely be in the laughter and celebration of being together with loved ones, but it might be in coming to know the redeeming grace of God for you in His Son, who is His great gift to you, now and forever.


Let’s pray together.


Our Father, we confess to You that the world’s model often, often steals our loyalty and diverts our attention and claims our labor and activity and attention and effort. We want to be king and God. We want to be our own saviors. We want to be mighty and successful and adored. Yet, we have discovered, some of us, that the harder we pursuit it, the further from it we become; the more we run after it, the less of it we have and the emptier we are. Help us to see in the one who empties Himself, who humbles Himself, who comes as the very picture and epitome of weakness into the manger that night in Bethlehem, help us to find in Jesus the one who can fill our hearts at last – Your great gift for sinners like us. Would You bring us to bend our knees to King Jesus? For we ask it in His name, amen.

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