Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 25, 2016
Luke 2:1-20 Commentary
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt once published some very intriguing data on what he calls “elevation,” which is the opposite of disgust. We all know that there are any number of things that disgust us or cause us to feel revulsion. When we witness hypocrisy, cruelty, betrayal, and the like, we recoil–there are even certain physical sensations we experience when feeling disgusted, such as a tightening in our chest, a clenching of our jaws, and perhaps even a flutter of indigestion in our stomachs.
Happily, however, witnessing acts of moral beauty also has an effect on us: it elevates us, moves us toward wanting to perform acts of morality ourselves. On one level, you might at first think that watching one stranger help out another stranger would not necessarily affect you much. For instance, on September 11, 2001, many of us watched the news and saw an image of a fireman from Brooklyn helping a bloodied Manhattan securities broker hobble down Wall Street after the attack. None of us who saw that had ever met either person and likely we never would. The injured person may even have been someone whose lifestyle on the glitzy end of New York City’s upper crust makes that person vastly different from us. So why would seeing one stranger helping out another stranger affect us? Yet Dr. Haidt has discovered that it most assuredly does. Here, too, there is a physical response that includes a feeling of warmth, a tingle down your spine, tears in your eyes, a lump in your throat. More importantly, seeing acts of great moral beauty elicits in us a desire to do likewise, to be that kind of person ourselves.
What’s more, this kind of elevation is contagious. It rubs off on others. If a story of courage is told well, it can elevate an entire auditorium of people. Indeed, the Christian community has known that for a long time, which is why testimonies to God’s grace have so long been a hallmark of believers. If someone can stand up and tell his or her own story of “I once was lost but now am found,” it moves us all.
The shepherds of Luke 2 may well be a good example of this kind of elevation. They had witnessed something of profound moral beauty and had heard a message of radiant hope. The events of that long ago night quite literally elevated the status of these otherwise despised and dirty men of the fields–two millennia later we still remember them with honor and are only too happy if our child gets to dress up as a shepherd for a Christmas program at school or church. But even at that time, the message of the angels and the things the shepherds saw in Bethlehem elevated their own hearts into a realm of hope and joy. They wanted to be different people in the wake of what they saw and heard, and they were. They became the first evangelists, the first witnesses to start telling the gospel story.
Luke tells us in verse 18 that everyone was amazed at “what the shepherds said.” Their sense of moral and spiritual elevation was contagious. It quickly began to spread, to wow and to startle a great many people. “What the shepherds said” did all that.
But have you ever wondered just what it was they said?
We’re not told.
Of course, on one level this is an easy blank to fill: what did the shepherds say? Well, everything we read in Luke 2 starting at verse 8: they told a tale of angels and of a message of peace and hope. They told a story about a baby in a manger, a baby who was right where the angels said he would be. They used words like “Savior” and “Christ.” Luke didn’t need to tell us what the shepherds said: it’s obvious. It’s the same thing we’ve been saying and repeating this whole Advent season, same as every year when Christmas approaches.
But this Christmas morning I want to suggest that the shepherds may have said some things we don’t always think about. To see what those other things may have been, we need to go back over a few of the verses we read a few minutes ago–verses that are so familiar to us, we can hardly even hear them anymore. But we need to hear them afresh.
In fact, there is just one line from the angel that, if we can hear it the right way, may well suffice to get at what I have in mind today. At one time or another, most of us have received a birth announcement in the mail or maybe have gotten a phone call about a friend or daughter who has just had a baby. In such cases, there is a small batch of standard phrases we use.
After our two children were born, my first phone call was to my parents. “It’s a girl!” I said the first time, “It’s a boy!” I said four years later. In the days before fathers were allowed in the delivery room, a nurse might come out and say, “You have a son!” Since our daughter was born on a Sunday morning about three hours before church was slated to begin, I didn’t make it to work that morning. Instead the vice-president of our Council stood up and announced, “Scott and Rosemary’s daughter was born this morning!”
But wouldn’t most of us be taken aback if someone put it this way: “Dad, this morning there was born to you a grandson!” Or what if some Sunday morning I announced that a young couple of our congregation had had a baby but said, “There has been born to us a new child at Calvin Church!” By now you can clearly see where I’m going with this: why did the angel say, “There has been born to you a Savior”? In the Greek of that verse the personal pronoun “you” is in the plural and is in the dative case. English doesn’t have a dative case, but many other languages do and if so, the dative is reserved for things that come directly to another party. So the dative would be used when I give a gift to you or if I pull you aside so that I can say something directly to you.
In any event, the dative is personal in the sense that something is being directed quite specifically your way. If you are celebrating the birthday of one of your children, perhaps another child will ask, “How come nobody is giving any presents to me!?” Your answer will likely be along the lines of “Because it’s not your birthday.” We direct gifts at specific individuals for specific reasons. Similarly, if someone interrupts a conversation you are having with another person by asking a question about something you just said, you may respond, “Right now I’m not talking to you so please don’t interrupt!”
The angel tells these lowly shepherds that a Savior had been born. But far from some generic birth announcement, this particular occasion is personalized: this Savior has been born to you, which could also be a way of saying that Jesus the Christ had been born for them. There is a very specific purpose behind this birth, one that will end up affecting these shepherds and untold numbers of others in a quite personal way. This Savior came to them and for them. They were involved in this person’s birth in a way far more dramatic than simply hearing the announcement. If you tell me that you and your wife had a baby the day before yesterday, I may well be delighted to hear it and will, in some small way, share your joy. But that is a quite different matter than having my whole life changed because this child who has been born is going to involve me personally.
“Today a Savior has been born to you.” Those last two words get swiftly repeated in the next verse when the shepherds are told, “And this will be a sign to you.” We all know what that sign was: a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. A “sign” is something that points to something else like an arrow showing you the way to a wedding reception or a party you are attending. If so, then to what did the sign of the baby in the manger point?
Typically we tend to think that the main thrust of this particular sign was to back up what the angels had said. In case the shepherds thought that maybe that whole angel thing had been a hallucination brought on by some bad wine or something, their actually finding this baby in a feed bunk would let them know for sure that the angels had been no dream. And certainly that is partly what this sign meant and partly why it was given.
But then again, look at verse 15: the shepherds say, “Let’s go to Bethlehem to see this thing that has happened which the angel of the Lord has told us about.” Notice how they put that? They didn’t say, “Let’s go to Bethlehem to see if this is really true” but said right up front that they believed it had indeed happened. Further, the reason they seem to have that confidence even without yet having laid eyes on the baby Jesus is because they already believed they had been visited not by a ghost and not by a dream but by “the angel of the Lord.” So they didn’t need a sign to prove they hadn’t been hallucinating.
So to what did this sign of a baby in a manger point? What truth did the shepherds see when they trotted over to the stable and found Mary, Joseph, and also that baby, who was lying in a manger? The truth they saw was that indeed, this Savior who is Christ the Lord had been born to and for them!
After all, suppose the scenario on that long ago night had been different. Suppose that those same shepherds had been drowsing on those same fabled hills keeping watch over their flocks by night, same as every evening. But then suppose that instead of an angel in the sky, what roused them from their sleep was a Roman centurion on a stallion shouting out through cupped hands, “Hear ye, hear ye! There has been born this day, in the city of Rome, a son to Caesar Augustus, and he shall be the heir apparent to the throne of the Empire.”
Now I’ll ask you to set aside for a moment the fact that a band of shepherds in Judea wouldn’t be able to trot over to Rome very easily. But suppose these musty-smelling keepers of mutton had said, “Let us go over to Rome to see this thing the centurion has made known to us.” If they showed up at Caesar’s grand palace in Rome, do you suppose they would have been let in? If they said, “We’ve come to take a gander at the emperor’s new son,” would the palace guards say, “Sure, come on in, the nursery is to the left”?
Of course not.
Yet Someone vastly more important than any earthly ruler was born, and the likes of grungy shepherds had no difficulty gaining access to this one whom the angels hailed as the Savior of the world. He really had been born to and for them. The sign the shepherds saw in that stable was this: the Savior and Christ of God had been born right on their level. The little guy was only a few hours old and he already smelled like a barn, same as the shepherds smelled most days. For this little Lord Jesus, as the children love to sing, there was “no crib for a bed,” but the shepherds could relate to that, too: they couldn’t remember the last time they’d slept in a real bed.
A sign is an arrow that points to something. The sign in the stable pointed to the truth that for the shepherds and everyone else like them in the world, past, present, and future, the birth of the Messiah was for them. Luke tells us that people were amazed at “what the shepherds said.” The story of the angels lighting up the night sky was part of what the shepherds said, and it properly amazed people. Probably the fact that the shepherds found in Bethlehem exactly what they had been told they would find was part of what the shepherds said, and it, too, properly amazed a few folks.
But the single most amazing thing the shepherds said is also the one thing we tend to forget about in our own focus on the glitter and brilliance of the angels: and that is that the Savior who is Christ the Lord was born to and for those shepherds. If the shepherds said, as likely they did, “This Savior came for us!” then that was a message so full of wonder, joy, and above all of holy hope as to burst the boundaries of everything we know or ever thought we knew.
And it’s because of that portion of what the shepherds said that I can declare on also this Christmas Day all these years later that this Savior was born to also you. A great many of the people in this room this morning I know on a first-name basis. But even if I can say your name at the door in a little while at the end of this service, that doesn’t mean I really know you. I can’t see the hidden pain or shame or guilt you may have dragged along with you into the sanctuary today or every week. Of course, there are some of you who are guests with us today whom I don’t know at all.
But that’s a small matter: because the Gospel according to Luke lets me declare that whoever you are, whatever you’ve done in the past and whatever greasy little sins you may commit before this week is out; however piously you’ve lived or however miserably you have failed in trying to live a Christian life; whether you come from a family that is economically prosperous or one that frets about getting the bills paid every month: whoever you are, hear again the angel’s clarion voice that there has been born into this world a Savior who is Christ the Lord. And above all hear that this Savior was born to you and for you.
We opened this sermon thinking about how our witness of an act of great moral beauty can change us, elevate us, make us aspire to be better persons ourselves. And we said that this can happen to us even if the thing we observe doesn’t involve us at all but involves only strangers. How much more elevated wouldn’t you feel if you not only witnessed a firefighter’s courage but were the one rescued by that courage?
In the history of the world, what act has ever been more beautiful than the birth of God’s only Son? The Son’s condescending to our human, earthly level–indeed, his willingness to come down to not just earth but to an impoverished corner of this earth at that–is a sacrifice of stunning power. But this central moment of Christmas is not something we observe from afar and it’s not something that involves strangers. As it was for the shepherds, so for all of us: this Savior involves us personally because he was born to you, to me, to everyone. Witnessing that yet again changes us fundamentally and forever.
As at least some of you know, a common complaint that is often lodged against contemporary Christian music is that it’s too individualistic with song lyrics that are all “me and Jesus” sentiments–songs that use the personal pronouns “I, me, my” at the expense of the corporate “we.” There is something to that critique, although were you to look at the index of hymns in the back of most any traditional hymnal, you might be startled to discover that the titles to nearly 25% of those hymns contain the first person pronouns “I, me, my!”
The truth is that to a certain extent there is no escaping the personal dimension to faith and salvation. Jesus is indeed the cosmic Christ who died to redeem the whole creation. We cannot over-estimate the scope of Jesus’ saving work.
Still, there remains the vital dimension to Luke 2 that we’ve been thinking about this Christmas Day: the Savior whose birth we celebrate was indeed born to you and for you all. If you can hear and believe that part of what the shepherds said, then no matter what happens the rest of today or this holiday season, you will be able to join those shepherds in glorifying and praising God for all that you have seen and heard. In the light of that, merely to say “Merry Christmas,” seems weak.
Let’s try instead a “Hallelujah!” For there has been born to you and for you a Savior.
(This is a sample sermon for Christmas).
Note: Our specific Year A Advent and Christmas Resource page is now available for you to check out sample sermons and other ideas for the Advent Season.
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