Christmas Series: Nine Lessons and Carols: Nine Lessons and Carols – The Significance of Christ’s Birth

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on December 23, 2007

Luke 2:1-7

The Lord’s Day

December 23, 2007

Luke 2:1-7

Nine Lessons
and Carols

The Sixth

The Significance of Christ’s Birth”

Dr. J. Ligon
Duncan III

Amen. If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with
me to the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2. In the King’s College “Service of Nine
Lessons and Carols” the Sixth Lesson is introduced with the words, “Luke tells
us of the birth of Jesus.” In the King James translation there is no more famous
or elegant paragraph in the whole of the English language. As memorable openings
go, the words “And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree
from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed” is one of those
sentences–“When in the course of human events…” or “Fourscore and seven years
ago…” or “To be or not to be?”–where, when you hear the opening sentence
announced, you know what’s coming after it. And all sorts of things pile up in
your mind and heart as you begin to hear those words.

Now therein lies a danger, because the very
familiarity and elegance of the text can lull you to sleep. You can miss amazing
things that are there right under your nose, and even buried in your memory. So
to aid you in your devotion as you listen to the word of God this morning, I
want to ask you some questions: What do you think about when you think about the
Christmas story? What are the specific aspects of the Christmas story that
continue to attract your attention, grip your heart, and move you to wonder,
love, and praise? What do you learn or notice or love the most? Why? Perhaps
those are questions that you can reflect upon in the next couple of days.

But as we read Luke 2:1-7 this morning, I
especially want to draw your attention to four aspects of the story.
I want
you to notice in the first three verses how this narrative, this history of the
birth of Christ, draws attention to the timing of His birth. There’s great
significance in that timing. Then in verses 4-5, I want you to see how this
story — this narrative, this history — draws attention to the place of Jesus’
birth. And there is great significance in the place of Jesus’ birth. Third, I
want you to see how this story draws attention to the manner of Christ’s birth.
You see that especially in verses 6-7. He is born in a way that would surprise
you if you knew who He was but you didn’t know this story already. And then,
fourth, I want you to see how this history recorded for us in Luke 2:1-7 —
really, the whole of it — draws attention to the great gospel of grace itself.

Now let’s pray before we read God’s word.

Heavenly Father, thank You for this Your word. As
majestic and elegant as it is, protect us from over-familiarity with it, and
make us to behold with our eyes and to hear with our ears, and to ponder in our
hearts the great gospel truths of Your word, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

This is the word of 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 thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired,
and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

As we look at this great and beautiful and
familiar passage today, I want to draw your attention to three things in
particular. I want you to see how all four parts of this passage draw our
attention first to the supreme sovereignty of God, and what that means for you
I want you to see what this passage shows us about the surprising
service of God in our salvation. And then, I want you to see what we learn about
the great grace of God in His means of salvation, Jesus Christ.

I. The supreme sovereignty of
God in the coming of Jesus into the world.

First I want you to see what this passage shows us
about the supreme sovereignty of God, and that’s displayed for us both in what
the passage says about the timing of Jesus’ coming into this world, and the
place where He comes into this world.

One of the things that Luke is telling you in verses
1-5 especially is that God is sovereignly in all the details of the birth of
Christ. If you’re a faithful Hebrew believer and you hear that the Messiah is
coming into this world and He is going to be born to a virgin, according to the
prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, but that she’s married to a carpenter from Nazareth,
you’re nervous! And you’re nervous because you know that Micah 6:2 tells you
that the Messiah is not going to be born in Nazareth. He’s going to be born in
Bethlehem. And so you’re immediately nervous and you’re wondering, “Lord, how
are You going to get this family from Nazareth to Bethlehem?”

Not to worry! God will simply use the most powerful
person in the world and the most powerful kingdom in the world as His pawn to do
His will. And so Caesar Augustus — Julius Caesar was his great-uncle, just to
give you some point of reference — Caesar Augustus is going to call for a
registration, and that registration would be used in the Roman Empire to provide
a census that would allow the empire to recruit military “volunteers” for
service and to provide taxes for the administrative support of the empire. And
so Caesar Augustus appoints a time for a registration, and Quirinius (who is the
governor of Syria, the area which is controlling what was once upon a time
Israel) put into place this registration, and Joseph has to make his way from
Nazareth to his home town because he’s of the lineage of David and he’s got to
go back to home territory to register for this census which has been appointed
by the Roman emperor.

Now as far as the Roman emperor knows, he is doing
exactly what he wants to do; he’s doing his own bidding…and he knows nothing
about this kingdom which the Lord God is about to set up through this baby who
is about to be born. And yet God, Luke is telling us, is in both the timing and
the place. He’s in all the details of the birth of Christ. Christ is born in the
fullness of time, the Apostle Paul says in Galatians 4:4, 5. At exactly the time
of God’s appointment, He comes into this world.

Now you wouldn’t have guessed this could be
the time. You know, you might have guessed, well, the time of David — that would
have been a good time. Or maybe even right after the Babylonians had come and
thrown down the kingdom of Judah, six centuries before. Maybe that would have
been a good time for the Messiah to come into the world. But Jesus instead comes
into the world at the very lowest ebb of the history of Israel. For six
centuries, Israel had either been in exile or had been a petty client-state to a
pagan occupying power. And if you had been a believer then, you might have been
wondering for six centuries what God was waiting for. He had promised the
Messiah; where was He? The prophets in the seventh and sixth centuries
prophesied of the coming of this Messiah, but for year after year, decade after
decade, century after century, the people of God waited…and no Messiah. But now,
in the fullness of time, God sends His Son into the world. Luke is just telling
you that this is God’s purpose working itself out in precisely the time that He
would work.

That’s such an important lesson for us to learn,
because you see, God’s not only at work in the timing of the birth of Jesus
Christ; the Lord Jesus Christ says that God is concerned about every detail and
aspect of your life.
In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount, He’ll say that not
a hair can fall from your head apart from the will of your heavenly Father. He’s
that concerned about every aspect, about every circumstance, every detail of
your life, and He’s in the timing of your life even if you don’t sense it or
realize it. You know, it’s an irony that sometimes the very time that you need
to believe most that God is involved in the timing of your life is the time when
it’s hardest to believe that He’s involved in the timing of your life. And so
the very surprising nature of the timing of the coming of the Christ ought to
remind us to trust God with that. Our African-American Christian friends have a
wonderful saying about that. They say, “He may not come when you want Him, but
He’s always on time.” You may think He’s late, but He’s always on time. His
timing is perfect. Luke’s reminding you of that. Luke’s reminding you that He’s
involved in the details, even of the place of Jesus’ birth here. He’s displaying
His supreme sovereignty in getting Joseph and Mary from Nazareth in Galilee to
Bethlehem in Judea so that prophecy can be fulfilled, so that there are no
falling words in the promises and prophesies of God. And He does this again
through this decree made by the Roman emperor, who has no idea that he’s
fulfilling the will of God, but he is. And though the world would have looked at
his kingdom and said his decisions are the most important decisions in the
world, yet what was actually going on through his decree was something far more
important than him and his kingdom, his purposes. God’s purposes were far more
important that Caesar’s purposes, and Caesar was accomplishing the will of God
even though he didn’t know it.

Now what lesson are we to learn from the supreme
sovereignty of God displayed in the birth of Christ?
Well, simply this:
God’s watchcare over us is just as extensive and comprehensive as it was over
the birth of His own dear Son.

He is attentive to every detail of our lives; all the
circumstances of our lives are in His hands, and we can trust Him. But it’s hard
sometimes. There may be things, details in your life right now that are
challenging you in terms of trusting the living God. Well, I’ve got some good
news for you: all of the people of God — all of the people of God in all
ages — could stand shoulder to shoulder with you and say, “We understand…same
with us.” But not one of the people of God in all ages would ever tell you, “You
know, I trusted God and He let me down.” No, they might wish that He would have
done things a little bit differently while it was going on, but in the end they
could stand and testify that the Lord has been faithful in every detail and
aspect of their lives. He is trustworthy. And that’s one of the things that Luke
is reminding us in this passage here. The Lord Jesus and His family and all of
the details and circumstances of the birth of Jesus Christ were in the loving
hands and under the loving watchcare of the heavenly Father. And we, too,
believers — friends, brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ — can trust the loving
watchcare of the heavenly Father over every detail of life…every detail
of life…even the ones that you just wish would go away.

II. God’s providence — the
place of Christ’s birth.

Secondly, I want you to see the surprising
service of God. You see it especially in verses

6-7, because the way that the Messiah comes into the world
is not the way that you’re expecting.

What did we quote from, from Isaiah 9, as the Call to
Worship this morning?

“For unto us a child is born; unto
us a Son is given…”

What is this? It is the fulfillment of the promise to David
in II Samuel that there will be a king on his throne forever. And Isaiah 9 is
announcing the fulfillment of that promise that a son is going to be born: a son
of David who is going to be called Son of God; who is going to reign on the
throne of Israel:

“…And the government shall be upon His shoulders, and His name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

And then we come to verses 6-7, and we read that He’s
wrapped in swaddling cloths, and He’s laid to rest in His first bed, a feeding
trough, because there’s no room for Him in the inn. And you’re wondering,
“What’s going on, Lord? This doesn’t go together. The government shall be upon
his shoulders, and there’s no room for Him in the inn?”

“Greetings, highly favored one, the Lord is with
you!” the angel will say to Mary, but then this family finds itself in a cattle

“He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of
the Highest,” and yet they lay Him in a manger.

What’s going on here? Something very, very
important that Luke wants you to understand.
Luke is recounting for you the
low estate, the poverty and deprivation that was experienced by Jesus Christ,
even His humiliation from the first seconds of His life, all as a part of His
purchasing for you forgiveness and glory. Luke is revealing to you the manner,
the way, the method of the loving purposes of God.

God is going to show you a matchless display of His
grace in stooping to serve you for your salvation in sending His Son not into
the world as a king acknowledged immediately by all, and living in a glorious,
splendid palace, but being born in such a way that the little fictional drummer
boy can say of Him in that song, “I am a poor boy, too.” And God doesn’t
want you to miss that, because what God is showing is just how far He’ll go to
save His people; just how much He loves you, because He will give His Son, His
only Son, and send Him into the world not to experience the acknowledgement that
He deserved, not to immediately display the glory that was His, but to be
underestimated and to be marginalized, and to experience deprivation for you.
That’s how far God is ready to go. That’s how far He’ll stoop to serve you for
your salvation. It’s quite amazing. And if you’re looking for something to think
about in the Christmas story, that’s not a bad one to meditate upon in the next
few days.

III. God’s gospel — God’s gift
of His Son in the birth of Christ.

But there’s one last thing that I want you to see,
and that is the great grace of God’s gospel revealed in this passage.

Because in this passage we see something of God’s strategy to save a multitude
of men and women and boys and girls from every tribe, tongue, people and nation,
out of this world, and His strategy is simply this: to send His Son in this
world to live fully human and fully divine, and to die in our place. And I want
to say that’s the most surprising thing in the world, and it’s absolutely
different from everything else that every other world religion and philosophy
says. Every other religion, every other religious option boils down to this:
“It’s a dangerous world out there, and God is a righteous God. Let me give you
some good advice. Be good, and maybe you’ll be accepted.” You boil it all down,
and every other religion and every other philosophy says that. Oh, the words are
a little bit different here and there, but it all boils down to this: Be good,
and maybe you can be accepted by God.

Do you realize how radical this story is that
you’ve just read? The story is that for your salvation, what is it that you do?
Absolutely nothing. God sends His Son into the world.

In every epic adventure of literature in every
culture, what is celebrated? Some great quest that we perform. There is no great
quest that we perform reported in Luke 2:1-7, there is only a great quest that
God performs. In so many world religions, there are pilgrimages that must be
performed in order for you to be right with that God. You must go to some
special place in order to make yourself right with him. In Luke 2:1-7, there is
no pilgrimage that is undertaken by you or me, but there is the greatest
pilgrimage ever, the greatest chasm ever bridged, when God comes into this world
in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, for your salvation.

You see, this is a story not about a quest or a
pilgrimage, or a deed that you will do in order to make yourself right with God.
This is a story about what God is doing to make you right with Him.
message is not “Be good and maybe you’ll be accepted by God.” The message is
“Look at what God will do to cause you to be forgiven and to be pardoned, and to
be accepted, and to be changed and transformed, and to enjoy fellowship with Him
forever.” The story is about God’s Son in the fullness of time being sent by the
heavenly Father into this world. John sums it up, doesn’t he?

“God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever
believes on Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.”

It is not about what we will do to make ourselves right
with God. It is about what God has done to declare us right with Him.

There’s a book out that has been made into a movie.
The book is called The Kite Runner. It is a story that is based out of
the horrors of Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover of that country. It’s a
story about two boys growing up in Afghanistan in a shared household. One is
rich, one is poor. One is the son of a businessman, one is his servant. But they
are dear friends, Amir and Hassan. They play this game of kites where you try
and cut down your opponent’s kite — thus the name of the movie. But Amir, the
rich boy who is friends with Hassan, the poor servant boy, betrays his friend
Hassan, and subsequently Hassan falls victim to a wicked and devastating and
life-changing crime against his person. Amir and his father have to flee the
country as the Taliban comes to power, but Amir (here in the United States) is
wracked by guilt over the betrayal of his friend, Hassan. Hassan is eventually
killed by the Taliban. A family friend who knows of Amir’s betrayal of Hassan
calls him, and he says, “There is a way for you to be good again.” This is the
tag-line for the whole movie. It’s to be a movie of hope and of forgiveness, and
of restoration. But because the movie and book are accurately based on Islam,
there is no forgiveness and there is no restoration, because there is no way
provided to be good again. The idea is that if Amir will come back and do some
good deed, he can make himself good again and make up for the dramatic betrayal
of his friend Hassan.

He discovers that Hassan has a son who is a captive
to the Taliban, and who is being treated in unspeakable ways by them. And if he
will go back to the country and rescue that son of Hassan, he can make right
what he has done wrong in his past. And it’s very clear that both for Amir and
for Hassan’s son, in the book and in the movie, that there is never any ‘being
made good again.’ Why? Because there is nothing that you can do…nothing
that you can do to make up for what you have done in the past. But the
good news of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed in Luke 2:1-7 is
this: There is a way for you to be good again. But you can’t do it.

Jesus can. Jesus has. Jesus has come so that you can
be accepted by God not because of you, not because of your deserving, not
because of anything that you have done, are doing, or can do, but because of
what He has done. The whole gospel story is about what God is doing for your
salvation, not what God asks you to do so that you can be accepted with Him. And
so even in this passage we see how radical, how completely unexpected is the
gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a gospel which calls on you to renounce
your own attempts to make yourself right with God and to trust in the way that
God has provided for you to be right with Him, and that is in the person and the
work of Jesus Christ. It would be a great tragedy this Christmas for us to enjoy
the gifts of family and friends, united in fellowship again for perhaps the one
time in the year that we enjoy that, and yet fail to appreciate the greatest
gift of all: the gift in the Lord Jesus Christ, the story that Luke has set
before us today.

Let us pray.

Our heavenly Father, we thank You for Your great
grace to us in the gospel of Your dear Son, and we ask that we would receive and
trust on Him alone for our salvation, as He is offered in the gospel. We pray
this prayer in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Let’s take our hymnals out and turn to No. 207, and
sing Good Christian Men, Rejoice!


Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our
Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, both now and forevermore. Amen.

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