Christmas Joy. Luke 2:10-11

I want to share with you briefly on Joy and Christmas-time. Joy is certainly central to the message the angel spoke to the Shepherds in the Christmas story.  Luke 2:10  says, “And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.’”

Christmas is a time of joy, right? Time off work; enjoying family; giving gifts; special meals; special events with friends; sentimental associations from childhood and a time to set aside one’s problems for a while. All we need to do is hear the Christmas music and  see the decorations to be joyful and happy.

Yet, as you know, for some, Christmas can be a time of real sadness. If many have time off work, some don’t have a job or are working several jobs with no time off. If many enjoy family, some have family brokenness or even no family. If many give and receive gifts, some don’t have the money to do this. If many have special meals, some can’t afford this either. If many go to special events with friends, some don’t have friends to go out with. If many have sentimental remembrances, some didn’t have a good childhood and so it can bring back bad memories. If many are able to set aside their problems – some are reminded of specific tragedies that have happened at this time of year, or losses from the past year.

So for one or more of these reasons, simply to hear the music and to see the decorations brings sadness or even depression. You can’t seem to enter in and be happy, and it makes you sadder when you see others experiencing joy, when you can’t.

So does this mean that we shouldn’t talk about Christmas joy since we might make someone feel worse? No. We simply need to remember again why we have joy at Christmas. And we learn this from the angel who spoke to the Shepherds in Luke 2:11 – “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Notice, the angel said nothing about time off work; family; gift giving; meals; special events with friends; sentimental associations from childhood; or a special time to set aside problems for a while. This is the cultural part of Christmas; the human traditions that have accumulated around our celebration of Christmas.

Think of Mary and Joseph. They were obeying an imperial edict to be registered in a census. I’m sure they weren’t excited about having to do this at the very time when Mary was due to give birth. I don’t think it was fun to have to put Jesus in an animal feed-trough because there wasn’t enough room for them in a home or an inn. They certainly weren’t enjoying what we associate with celebrating Christmas.

Think of the Shepherds as well. They took a brief break from their work to go see the baby and then went back. They had none of the trappings of our cultural traditions.

The angel said we can have joy because of something else. We have to keep vs. 10 and 11 together. v. 10 speaks of “good news of a great joy.” v. 11 tells us why – “for unto you is born . . . a Savior”

Our Messiah and Lord has come someone who can save us. Someone who can help us in our difficulties, provide for our needs, and give us the promise of a better future. And this is what gives us both hope and joy.

This is a message precisely for those who are sad and who don’t have what they want at this time of year. And it’s for all of us who have problems. You don’t need a savior if you have nothing to be saved from, right?

The true meaning of Christmas can give us all joy precisely because we do have problems, pain and brokenness.

Jesus is the savior. He has come. And he can help us. And this is what we celebrate. So let’s celebrate with vigor and great joy! A joy that cannot be taken away no matter what our circumstances are.

How to respond to Jesus’ birth: The wise men. Matthew 2:1-11

As we celebrate advent this year we are looking at right and wrong responses to the birth of Jesus.

Wrong responses have to do with how we can get off track and distracted by other things, like getting caught up in consumerism – buying things, just to buy things. Because of the commercialization of Christmas, we now buy and give gifts that others don’t need and receive the same from them.

We can also be distracted by  cultural Christmas – various events, time with family and friends, giving gifts, meals. Or by being so stressed out from the busyness of the season   that we never quite get to celebrating the birth of Jesus. These are or can be wrong responses to the birth of Jesus.

Last time we looked at some right responses from the example of the shepherds in Luke 2. And today we look at some right responses from the example of the wise men.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 2:1-11. Please listen as I read this familiar story which takes place after the birth of Jesus.

2:1Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.

5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 6‘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.'” 7Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”

9After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

By way of introduction let me share –

A few notes on this story

 It’s an interesting story, and it raises some questions. 1. Who are these “wise men”? They were most likely from Babylon or Persia. They would have been court figures, perhaps from a priestly class, who practiced a mixture of astronomy and astrology. They were considered to be very learned.

There was a certain mystique in the Roman world about wise men from the east. And there were various stories of them coming to speak of a new king.

 2. What’s with the star? In v. 2 the wise men said, “we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” This seems straight forward enough, we have astrologers/ astronomers and then there’s a star. And there have been attempts to identify this star with various astronomical phenomena of the time.

But notice v. 9 – “the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.” This was no ordinary star. It actually led them just five miles south to Bethlehem and then it stayed right over one specific house.

The answer, I think, comes from an understanding that stars and angels are sometimes connected in Scripture. So it is best to say that the star was an angel leading the wise men.

 This star is scripturally connected to Numbers 24:17 which was seen as a Messianic prediction among many Jews. It says, “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel”

  • Balaam who predicted this was a Gentile prophet from the time of Moses (although he is seen as a false prophet in other places, here it says, “The Spirit of God came upon him.”)
  • The wise men, then, are his successors. Gentile magi acknowledging the fulfillment of this prophecy.

 3. What’s with the gifts? They gave of their treasures gold, frankincense and myrrh. The last two are both fragrant spices, or perfumes made from different kinds of resin. These are gifts appropriate for royalty; in this case the king of Israel.

Along these lines no one knows how many wise men there were. Just because three gifts are mentioned doesn’t mean there were three of them. Scripture is silent on this.  

4. When did the wise men actually come? The answer is a year or two after Jesus’ birth. This comes out in v. 7 – “Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared.” And then v. 16 – “Herod massacred the children – who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.”

To get more specific Jesus was born “in the days of Herod” (Matthew 2:1) and Herod died in 4 BC. So Jesus had to be born before 4 BC. So yes, our current calendars are wrong, that say Jesus was born in AD 1. And the whole BC AD system is off by several years.

Given the wise men came up to two years later, and Herod was still alive, this pushes the date back two years. Jesus was most likely born in 6 BC. So the wise men came between 5-4 BC, after Joseph and Mary had a house and were staying in it.

Now let’s look at –

The response of the wise men

 1. They sought Jesus out. v 1-2 – “Wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?’”

In the same way we need to seek out Jesus this advent season. In the midst of many distractions: busyness, cultural Christmas, the stress of making sure the Christmas dinner is just right, and everyone has just the right gift – we need to ask, “where is he?”

The message this morning is this – make sure you seek Jesus out this advent. The wise men went to great effort and it might take some effort on our part as well. Focus on Jesus; give him your attention. It is, after all his birthday.

2. They rejoiced. v. 10 – “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

As we think of Jesus’ birth this year we should rejoice exceedingly with great joy. I’m not talking about the joy we have when we see our family or experience familiar Christmas traditions.This is cultural Christmas. Now, this is all fine, but whether you have this or not the point of Christmas is not this.

The point of Christmas is to rejoice in the coming of Jesus, the fulfillment of God’s promises for our salvation and peace. Rejoice in him this Christmas season.

3. They honored Jesus. v. 2 – “we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” v. 11 – “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.”

 The word “worship” here can mean worship of God, or the honor one gives to a king or another important person. And it was customary to bow or kneel before a king. Here they are honoring Jesus as the king of Israel.

But for us, who know the fullness of Jesus’ identity we should honor Jesus with the worship due to the Son of God. We give to Jesus ourselves and all that we have. These are our gifts and we are to lay them before him.

We do this as we gather on Sunday mornings, in our own personal prayer times, and by how we live our lives, honoring him as our Lord and King – the promised Messiah.

How to respond to Jesus’ birth: The shepherds. Luke 2:8-20

We are in the season of Advent when we think about the coming of Jesus and his birth. And as Christians it is good to celebrate this and to honor him.

But as you know, there are many distractions that seek to take our attention away from him during this time. For instance “consumerism” – our culture’s tendency to focus on buying things at Christmas time, because buying more than we need makes us feel happy, at least for a little while.

There are other things that distract us from Jesus’ birth and focusing on honoring him:

  • There is the whole story and traditions connected to Santa Claus
  • Traditions of giving gifts, family meals, reunions, events with friends, etc.
  • And then there is the busyness of this season; so many things to do. It can be overwhelming.

Some of these things are good, but what I want to say is that none of them are necessary to celebrate the birth of Jesus. In fact you don’t have to have even the best of these – giving gifts, family events and so forth to celebrate advent and the birth of Jesus. These are just a part of cultural Christmas; cultural and family traditions that have grown up around our focus on Jesus. And being distracted from focusing on Jesus by any of these is a wrong response to the birth of Jesus.

So to help us today, we look at some right responses, as we see these in the example of the shepherds in the Gospel of Luke.

Scripture Reading: Luke 2:8-20. Please listen as I read this very familiar story which takes place just after the birth of Jesus.

8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.

17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

By way of introduction, here are –

A few notes on this story

First of all, the angel announcement. It speaks of “good news,” “a Savior,” “the Lord” and “peace.” The language of this announcement is Roman imperial language.

  • The phrase, “good news” was used, among other things, to refer to the birth of a future emperor.
  • The titles “Savior” and “Lord” were used of Roman emperors.
  • And “peace” was a word used to describe the results of Rome’s power after crushing her enemies.

Here, however, the angels speak of the “good news” of Isaiah 61:1 – talking about the coming of the kingdom of God, and the Savior and Lord who is the Messiah, who will bring God’s peace to the world.

The message of the angel to the Shepherds was that the Messiah is born and that they will know this is true through a sign – a baby in a feeding trough (or manger); a strange sight.

Now we have a very idealistic view of shepherds today, in part because of this story. But it was a very humble profession. They were a part of the lower class. And they were often seen as suspicious characters.

But as we see here, God shares this good news with the lowly – not the leaders in Jerusalem. As Mary said earlier in Luke 1:52, “God has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.”

Remember also that David, the ancestor of the Messiah, was a shepherd.

  • Psalm 78:70-71 says, “He chose David his servant and took him from the sheepfolds; from following the nursing ewes he brought him to shepherd Jacob his people, Israel his inheritance.”
  • Micah 5:4 speaks of the Messiah, and says, “he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord.”

So here we have a gathering of shepherds around the Shepherd, the descendant of David.

Now let’s look at –

The shepherds’ response to Jesus’ birth

1. They sought Jesus out. In vs. 15-16 the shepherds said, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”

And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. They went to see what was going on; to see the baby Jesus

We also need to seek out Jesus this advent. In the midst of the consumerism (buying, buying, buying), Santa stories, family and cultural traditions and busyness, we need to seek Jesus out and focus on him and honor him and be in awe of him.

Make sure you seek Jesus out and thank him for coming to be with us and for the blessings he has given us.

After they saw Jesus and the sign (that confirmed it was all as the angels said)

2. They proclaimed the good news. 17-19 – “And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”

 And all who heard it wondered. Even Mary was amazed by what they said.

What they said is what the angels had told them, v. 10 – “good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.” And v. 11, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

We should also tell others the good news of Jesus as we sing hymns and worship in church, and as we are in family settings and as other opportunities arise. Having been in the presence of Jesus ourselves, we should share the amazing news that the Messiah is born, who is the Savior of the world.

Finally,

3. They glorified God. v. 20 – “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”

 They had quite an experience seeing angels, a sign from God and seeing Jesus in person. And this led them to glorify God.

We should respond to Jesus’ birth by glorifying God as well. Thanking God that Jesus has come and has brought us peace. Just as the angels had said before to the shepherds in v. 14, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

Releasing fear and moving forward in faith

(edited)

Anytime you are involved in the work of the Lord you can be overcome by fear.

  • Perhaps God speaks to us powerfully or calls us to do something special. This can make us afraid.
  • Perhaps God asks us to do something that is really hard or involves risks. This can make us fearful.
  • Or perhaps we are serving God and are going through trials and hard times. This can cause us to be afraid.

Fear isn’t good. It doesn’t help anything

  • When we are afraid we become reactive so that we make quick, impulsive decisions; we can’t think straight or hear God.
  • When we are afraid our mindset becomes distorted; we just see the problems around us.
  • When we are afraid we just want to retreat or give up.

In short, fear will keep us from doing what God wants us to do.

For all who are feeling fear this morning, God is calling us to faith, which is the opposite of fear. It’s not that there aren’t things to be afraid of, it’s that we are called to trust ourselves into the hands of the one who can lead us through anyway.

And so we have to release our fear into God’s hands, so that we can hear God and what he wants us to do, so that once we have heard from God – we can move forward in faith.

This threefold pattern of releasing fear, hearing from God and acting in faith shows up in three examples from the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke. I want us to look at these, and the first one is –

The story of Zechariah: Luke 1:11-20

  • Something happened to him.  v. 11 says, “And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.” Gabriel, was his name (v. 19).
  • And this caused him to be afraid. v. 12 says, “And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.” Surely the presence of the angel could cause anyone to fear and maybe he even thought he was in trouble with God.

And what is the first word given to him from God? 1. “Do not be afraid” – v 13.  You can’t hear God or do what he wants when you are overwhelmed with fear. So step one is to set aside your fear.

What’s next? 2. He listened to what God had to say. Gabriel goes on to say that he and his wife Elizabeth will have a son, even though she has been unable to and they are older. And this son will play an important role in God’s plan; he will be a great prophet – John the Baptist.

And once the message is heard, 3. He was to act in faithNow, at this step, Zechariah doesn’t fully measure up. In v. 18 he asks several questions that reveal doubt in his heart. How can they have children? And because of this he is sentenced to not be able to speak until the baby is born.

And so here we have a warning that we should act in faith when God speaks to us, or at least with more faith than Zechariah demonstrates.

Next is –

The story of Mary: Luke 1:26-38

  • Something happened to her. v. 28 – Gabriel (the angel) greeted her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you.”
  • And this caused her to be afraid.  v. 29 – “She was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” There is an angel, and, given the greeting, it sounds like God is about to ask her to do something special. And so she is afraid.

What is God’s first word to her? 1. “Do not be afraid Mary” – v. 30.

What’s next? 2. She listened to what God had to say. Gabriel told her that she would have a son, even though she was a virgin. And that her child is the promised Messiah.

Once the message is heard, 3. She acted in faith.

Interestingly, in v. 34 she also asks questions, about a virgin birth. But these did not come from doubt. And her faith rings out loud and clear in v. 38 – “Behold I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

The final example is –

The story of the shepherds: Luke 2:8-20

  • Something happened to them. v. 9 says “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shown around them”
  • And this caused them to be afraid. v. 9 says, “And they were filled with fear.” What’s going on? What does God want from us?

And what is the first thing that the angels said to them? 1. “Fear not” – v. 10.

And then, 2. They listened to what God had to say. The messiah has been born and they are to go and see him; to be witnesses of this amazing event.

3. They acted in faith. 16 – “And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.”

What about us?

  • Well, sometimes things happen to us, hardships and trials.
  • And like in all these examples, our temptation is to be afraid.

But what do you think God’s first word to us is? 1. Do not be afraid. Don’t let fear and anxiety overwhelm us so that we can’t hear God, so that all we see are the problems, so that we just want to give up.

We must release our fear to God and choose to trust God, knowing that whatever happens he will take care of us. Yes, we don’t have all the answers, we don’t know the future and there might be a basis for fear and concern. But despite all this, we choose to trust and to put ourselves in a place to be able to hear from God and then move forward with whatever he says.

And 2. We need to listen to what God wants to say. This involves praying and listening to God. It involves seeking wisdom for what God wants to say to your situation. What does he want for you? What is the path forward?

3. Then we must move forward in faith. Move forward based on what you hear God saying, with trust and boldness.

Giving thanks in difficult times

We have just come through the holiday season of “thanksgiving” and so I would like for us to think about giving thanks to God this morning. And specifically, giving thanks when we are suffering. We all know various ones who are going through hard times and perhaps we ourselves are. My goal today is to encourage us to give thanks to God, even in our difficult times.

Too often, I believe, our thanksgiving is based on our circumstances and our feelings about those circumstances. And so, if things are good we are thankful; but if things are bad, we are quiet, or worse – we complain or curse. This ought not be so sisters and brothers. For –

Scripture teaches us to give thanks in all circumstances

As Paul the apostle says in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 – “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” And David said in Psalm 34:1 – “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.”

And we have many –

Scriptural examples of giving thanks in hard times

Let’s look at three this morning. The first is Habakkuk in Habakkuk 3.

What are his circumstances? Well, God has brought judgment on the nation of Judah. The Babylonians have come and have wreaked havoc and destruction. And they have carried off the rest of the people into exile. God had sent them to judge Judah, but they had gone way beyond what was necessary.

As the prophet surveys all that has happened, amazingly, he still rejoices in the Lord. v 17-18 – “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.”

His rejoicing is definitely not based on his circumstances or his feelings.

Then we have the example of David in Psalm 57. 

What are his circumstances? His life is in danger. The superscription to the Psalm says that it is about when David fled and was hiding from king Saul in the cave.

Listen to his prayer in vs. 1-2 – “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by. I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me.”

vs. 4, 6 – poetically describe his trouble -“My soul is in the midst of lions; I lie down amid fiery beasts – the children of man, whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords. . .. They set a net for my steps; my soul was bowed down. They dug a pit in my way . . ..”

But even with his dire situation, he gives thanks to God. In both vs. 5, 11 he says, “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth!”

And finally we have the example of Paul in Philippians 1.

What are his circumstances? He is in jail for preaching the gospel. And even in jail some of his adversaries are trying to take advantage of his this to promote their influence at Paul’s expense.

But Paul rejoices. v. 18 – “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”

His rejoicing comes in spite of his circumstances and his feelings.

What about us this morning? Can we be like Paul, David and Habakkuk?  Let’s look at –

Why we can give thanks in all circumstances

We can give thanks 1. Because of who God is. Apart from anything that God does, God is worthy of praise. God is glorious and awesome. God’s character and power are beyond anything we know. And so we should praise him for who he is.

Psalm 106:1 praises God’s character, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!”

Whether things are good for us, or not – whatever our circumstances – God is still God, and is worthy of our praise.

We can give thanks 2. Because of what God has done. Even in times of trial, we can count our blessings and see what God has done.

James 1:17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father . . ..” We should give thanks for life and breath itself, for all the gifts that God has given us, for family – and on and on. Whatever good thing you are or have is from God.

And so despite whatever else may be going on, we can give thanks for God’s blessing to us.

We can give thanks 3. Because in God we have hope and a future. God allows us to go through hard times. Sometime really, really hard times. This is a fact. But whatever happens to us in this life, we have a hope for something better. This life is not all that there is. In fact, we are to live for the life that is to come, not this one.

In 1 Peter 1:6 Peter tells his readers that “now for a little while . . . you have been grieved by various trials.” Just before this he said, “in this you rejoice.” Why do they rejoice in their trials? It’s because of what he had just mentioned in vs. 4-5. They have “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven . . . a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

This hope puts things in perspective for us as Christians. Yes, we will go through difficult times. But we will be blessed in the world to come.

We can give thanks 4. Because God can use difficulties to bless us. God is able to bring good out of pain, suffering and tears. This doesn’t mean that God causes the pain, only that God is greater than whatever harm befalls us.

Paul makes this point in Romans 8:28. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God is able to work in and through all that happens to us to bring some good to us. God cares for us in this way in the midst of our difficulties.

We can give thanks 5. Because God gives us the strength to do so. As Jesus said, “the flesh is weak” and so when we suffer we easily give in to despair and want to give up. But as Jesus goes on to say, “the Spirit is willing” (Mark 14:38). The Spirit can strengthen us to give thanks in our difficult times.

In Habakkuk 3:19, after rejoicing in difficulties, the prophet says, “God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.” It is the Lord who enables us to rejoice in hard times.

So for all of these reasons –

We can give thanks this morning as a congregation

1. Because God is awesome

2. Because God has blessed this congregation is so many ways

3. Because in God we each have hope and a future no matter what we go through

4. Because God can use these hard times to work good in our lives

5. Because God gives us the strength to do so

May he strengthen us even this week.