The People Who GOT Christmas
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The People Who Got Christmas
Matthew 2:1-12 and Luke 2:8-20
Christmas is a unique time. It is filled with customs we celebrate, but don’t often know where the tradition came from. Did you know . . .
X-mas is not merely another abbreviation. X is the Greek letter chi, the initial of the Greek name for Christ.
Christmas trees have their origins in the ancient celebrations of the Romans. They decorated their temples with greenery, trees and candles.
Roman soldiers conquering the British Isles found Druids who worshiped mistletoe and Saxons who used holly and ivy in religious ceremonies. All those things found their way into Christmas customs.
“Silent Night” was written in a single day in a small Austrian village because the church organ broke down. It was sung that very night at a midnight service with a guitar for accompaniment.
Most likely, the first person to have lighted a Christmas tree may have been Martin Luther, father of the Reformation. He introduced the practice of putting candles on trees to celebrate Christmas.
Santa Claus originated from a fourth-century Christian bishop named Saint Nicholas. Little is known about the real Nicholas, but in the Middle Ages, when it became popular to venerate saints, legends about Nicholas began to flourish. One said he had given three bags of gold to the daughters of a poor man so that the girls would not have to earn their own dowries through prostitution. Another claimed he had miraculously restored three little boys to life after they had been cut up for bacon. Thus Nicholas became known as a giver of gifts and the patron saint of children.
There is so much hype and hysteria during this time of the year that many miss the utter simplicity of the birth of Jesus. So much myth and fantasy has been imposed upon this holiday that people are numb to the real miracle of Christmas. Yet what is true for so many today was also true for people 2,000 years ago when God became a man. Even those who were physically there didn’t get the greatest miracle ever to occur.
The innkeeper didn’t get Christmas because he was preoccupied with making money. King Herod didn’t get Christmas because of jealous fear–he wanted to be the captain of his own soul and not follow another. The religious leaders didn’t get Christmas because they were so involved in external religion they had no interest in a real relationship with God. The Roman Empire didn’t get Christmas because they were following the false gods of pleasure, power, and self-indulgence. The city of Nazareth didn’t get Christmas because of familiarity. The people were so close to Christ growing up there that they missed who He really was. Like many occasional church-goers, they were so familiar they missed the truth of eternal life.
But that is only half the story. Not everyone didn’t get that first Christmas. There were some who actually did get Christmas. It touched their lives and forever changed them. Who were they? Two different groups of people: the shepherds to whom the angels appeared while they were tending their sheep in the fields around Bethlehem, and the wise men who saw the Messiah’s star and came to worship Him. They got Christmas.
If you look back on this Christmas 2009 as a hassle, you are glad when it is over, then you didn’t get it either. But if you respond like these two groups, then this Christmas will bring joy inexpressible and change your entire life. You see, contained in Christmas is the greatest gift any person can receive. But to discover this special present, you must have the same kind of experience they had. In order not to lose what God has for you this Christmas, each of us must imitate the shepherds and the wise men. With some help from Boice, MacArthur, Spurgeon and Mueller, let’s ask: what do they have to say to us in 2009? Let’s look at both of these groups by contrasting them, then comparing them.
#1 The Contrast
It is hard to imagine a greater contrast than the one between those two groups of people. The first and most obvious contrast is that one group was low and the other was high on the social scale of the first century.
First They were socially different
The shepherds were low. They were looked down upon as being among the worst element of society. They were despised and mistrusted. Shepherds were thought to be crafty and dishonest. In fact, they were famous for their ability to make-off with things that did not belong to them. First-century shoplifters, their reputation was so bad they were not even allowed to bear testimony in a court of law. It was assumed that they would lie. In fact, in most people’s minds, shepherds were like gypsies, vagrants, and con-men all rolled into one. They were the used car salesmen of their day. They were loved as much as lawyers are today.
What about the wise men? Quite obviously, they were at the other end of the scale. They were men of influence. You noticed when they came to Jerusalem looking for the One who had been born King of the Jews. They had no trouble gaining admission to Herod’s palace, or even obtaining an audience with the king himself, yet the shepherds would not even have been allowed in Herod’s outer courtyard. The wise men were like today’s foreign ambassadors. The differences between these two groups were very much like the Prince and the Pauper. A second contrast concerns the financial status of the two groups of people.
Second They were financially different
The contrast is between the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich. The shepherds had nothing. Oh, they had their work, and that was better than being a beggar. But as far as work was concerned, nothing paid less. A manual laborer did much better than those who were entrusted with sheep. When the shepherds came to Bethlehem to see what had come to pass, they quickly went to “spread the word” concerning the child (Luke 2:17); but they did not give gifts. They had none to offer. They were very much like the homeless of our day, not knowing where their next meal might come from.
On the other hand, the wise men were obviously men of substance. They had money enough to take a long journey from the East to Jerusalem, as well as having the time and leisure to do it. Moreover, when they arrived, they presented the child and His family with expensive gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh. The wise men were the honest millionaires of their day. They had no worries about finances. They had no needs. They were not coming to Jesus because they were destitute or desperate. They were not coming to get something but to give. Another point of wide contrast is education.
Third They were educationally different
Shepherds were among the “people of the land,” which meant they were not educated enough to read the Jewish Scriptures. They would be like those who can’t read in our day–those who would be cut off from learning.
By contrast, the magi were famed for their knowledge. The wise men were noted for their knowledge of religious documents, medicine and astronomy. When the Messiah’s star appeared, they were the ones who saw it and discerned its meaning. They were the professors of their day. Had they lived today, they would be the scholars, with many PhD’s in several different fields of study. The fourth contrast was . . .
Fourth They were different in proximity
The shepherds were close to Bethlehem where Jesus was born. But the wise men came from a great distance. We do not know exactly how far the wise men traveled, since “from the east” is a very general description. But since Herod inquired of them exactly when the star had appeared and then later killed all the male children of Bethlehem from the age of two years down, it is probable that the star had appeared between one and two years before that time, and that the wise men had been on their journey for many long months. They came from the far reaches of the world, whereas the shepherds were as close to the birth as the hills around Bethlehem.
So, what does the contrast show us about Christmas? That the gift of Christ is for anyone who will have Him. Jesus is for you, whoever you may be. The special gift God gives is for all who will receive it. You may be unimportant in the eyes of most people, or very important–a mere cog in the machine, or a celebrity. You may be poor or rich. You may be ignorant or well-educated. You may be near Christ or far from Him. None of those things matters. Why? Because Jesus didn’t come to be the Savior of the rich or poor only, the wise or foolish only, the educated or ignorant only, or for those who are close, or for those who are far. He came to be the Savior of the people of this world, and that includes you. To all who receive Him He gave the right to become children of God. That is the good news of Christmas! Next let’s look at the comparison between these two groups.
#2 The comparison
Turn in your Bible to Luke 2:9. The shepherds and wise men were as different as they could possibly be. Yet in all the vital steps necessary to find Christmas, their experience was similar. In fact the truths that are similar to both groups actually become the steps to finding the gift God has for us. They show us how to find Christmas. If you desire God to change you, forgive you–follow the steps that are found in the example of these men. Their experiences contained four great similarities.
First They both received an announcement
The shepherds and the wise men each received an announcement of Christ’s birth. That was most spectacular in the case of the shepherds, for “the glory of the Lord shone around them” and an angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:9-12). The announcement was then expanded by the addition of a great company of angels who praised God, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (verses 13-14).
This was a fantastic visual and verbal announcement, but was the announcement to the magi any less magnificent from their perspective? We do not know for certain what the star of Bethlehem was. It’s been explained as a comet, a special configuration or overlapping of planets, even the appearance of God’s Shekinah glory, which may be the best explanation of all since the “star” guided the wise men and eventually brought them to the very house where Christ was. Whatever the case, the star was the kind of thing the wise men dealt with, and therefore was well-suited as their invitation.
These were tremendous announcements simply because there had been no Word from God for 400 years. God had been speaking through His prophets to mankind throughout history, but then after the last Old Testament book called Malachi, there was a long period of silence until God spoke again with these fantastic announcements. But God says the announcement we have received from Him is better than theirs. That’s right. Each of you has been given an announcement that is better than the shepherds or the wise men.
We have received our announcement through the Bible. The Scriptures are the very Words of God to us, proclaiming to us the Gift of Christmas. In fact, 2 Peter 1:19 tells us that the Bible is “a light shining in a dark place.” The written word is a better announcement. How do I know that? Because of what Peter says. The apostle Peter shares in 2 Peter 1 that he was an eyewitness of the heavenly glory of Jesus Christ. He was one of those who were with Jesus on the mountain when His human veil was lifted, and they saw Jesus for who He is. Plus they heard God say, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.” That experience of Peter (and of James and John who were with him) is very much like the experience of the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem, or of the magi as they studied the heavens.
Yet immediately after Peter shares of that incredible experience on the mountain top, he declares that the Scripture (the Bible) is even “more certain”, he says–it is more reliable than any experience. Then he concludes by saying, “You will do well to pay attention to the Bible, as to a light shining in a dark place.”
In spite of his experience, Peter valued the written Word of God above everything. Do you? This book tells us of what God intends for us. This book contains our only hope, our life, our purpose and God’s announcement to us. Have you read it? Do you trust it? Will you obey it? Second, the shepherds and the wise men each obeyed God’s summons.
Second Both were obedient to God’s summons
Have you ever received an important invitation–one that caused excitement and maybe dread all at the same time? Once I was invited to meet with the prime minister of Ireland. I dressed in my best green suit and shook his hand. That was the kind of invitation the shepherds and the wise men received, only theirs was to a far more significant encounter.
This visit to earth was not merely a visit of an alien people, but of the very God of the universe Himself. It was an invitation to the birth of Jesus, God’s unique Son. Can you imagine the shepherds or wise men refusing their invitation? Since the magi lived at a great distance from Jerusalem, and were alerted to the child’s birth only by the appearance of His star, they might have reasoned: “The star probably announces the birth of a Savior-King in Judea, but of course we could be mistaken. The trip to Jerusalem is a long one. Others will pay their respects, we don’t need to go. It would be a lot more convenient if we could just stay here.”
The shepherds, too, might have refused their invitation. They might have said: “We are not dressed for the occasion. We have nothing to bring. We are not worthy to face Him who is announced by angels.” They might even have asked, “But who will care for our sheep? Who will tend to the things for which we are responsible?” Big job!
Neither the wise men nor the shepherds did that. Instead of making excuses the shepherds said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about” (Luke 2:15). I wonder if you have been as obedient to God as those shepherds, who were so low on the social scale of their day, or the wise men, who were so removed from the happenings in Judea.
You know the story of Christmas. You even know the Gospel of Jesus’ death for sinners, for which Christmas was but a preparation. You know the invitation of Christ, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Have you responded to that invitation? Have you obeyed God’s summons? You do not get Christmas, nor will you ever get it until you submit to Christ, exchanging all that you are for all that He is. That leads to the third step in the shepherds’ and wise men’s common experience.
Third They both found the Savior
They found Jesus. After they had each received the announcement and obeyed God’s summons by going to Bethlehem, they found the Savior. This was the climax of their experience and the peak moment of their lives. They found that the words of the angel and the message of the star were not misleading. They discovered that God’s communications were not lies. God’s Son had been born. The Savior had come. He was there for all who would leave what they were doing and come to Him. That is no less true today. In our day, people talk as if it was hard to find Christ, or they act as if it were hard to find their way through the superstitions of religion to the truth about God.
What gross misunderstanding! What a lie! To talk like that is to suggest that God is lost and that it is up to us to find Him. God is not lost, nor is the truth lost. We are the ones who are lost, and the difficulties are in us and not in either God or His way of having a relationship with us.
Do not say that the truth cannot be found, or that it’s too hard to get. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no man shall come to the Father except through Me.” Jesus said, “I am the Truth” (John 14:6). Jesus is clearly presented in Scripture. If you’re to find Him, you must search the Scriptures.
As you do, pray like this: “God, I am not certain what the truth is concerning religious things. But I believe that if You exist and if Jesus Christ is truly Your Son and the Savior You have sent into the world, then You should be able to show this to me as I study the Bible. If Jesus is the Savior, I want to find Him. If I do find Him, I promise to be His follower and serve Him all my days.”
A pastor friend of mine met with a man who was really troubled by Christianity. He wanted to believe it was true, yet after investigating it, he concluded that there was nothing to it. So my friend challenged him to read the gospel of John, and to pray along the lines I have just suggested. The man agreed to do what was asked. A few weeks later they met again, and not only had he read John, but also Romans. He said he sensed God was speaking to him. Within days he had become a Christian. He testified, “I can’t understand now how I ever listened to anything else.”
If you are not yet a Christian, this can become your story, if you only turn to the account of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection with an honest mind. The story of the experience of the shepherds and wise men did not stop with their discovery. They had:
1) received an announcement
2) obeyed God’s call, and
3) found the Savior
But now, having found the Savior, they did a fourth thing in a common response to their discovery.
Fourth They worshiped Jesus
“And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshiped Him” (Matthew 2:11). “And the shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them” (Luke 2:20). Are you one of those who truly gets Christmas? Are you one who has given yourself to a life of following, loving, and worshipping Jesus?
You see, you only get Christmas when . . . you choose to follow Jesus . . . you let Jesus rescue you from the judgment to come . . . you believe that Jesus bled and died on the cross for your sins . . . Jesus becomes your most intimate friend, and recognized as the Creator you’ve rebelled against. You’ll only find Christmas when you worship Jesus.
#3 The conclusion
What is the conclusion? Have you found out Who Jesus Christ is? Have you discovered Who the Baby in the manger is? Some say He was just a good teacher, but good teachers don’t claim to be God. Some say He was merely a good example, but good examples don’t mingle with prostitutes and sinners. Some say He was a madman, but madmen don’t speak the way He spoke. Some say He was a crazed fanatic, but crazed fanatics don’t draw children to themselves or attract men of intellect like Paul or Luke to be their followers. Some say He was a religious phony, but phonies don’t rise from the dead. Some say He was only a phantom, but phantoms can’t give their flesh and blood to be crucified. Some say He was only a myth, but myths don’t set the calendar for history. Jesus has been called the ideal man, an example of love, the highest model of religion, the foremost pattern of virtue, the greatest of all men, and the finest teacher who ever lived. All of those descriptions capture elements of His character, but they all fall short of the full truth.
The apostle Thomas expressed it perfectly when he saw Jesus after the resurrection, and exclaimed, “My Lord and My God” (John 20:28). Will you get Christmas this year? You will when you call Jesus your Lord and your God.