Hope Is Born This Day

Hope Is Born This Day

Luke 2:1-7

Dr. Jim Denison

This week I’ve been saving a few headlines from various newspapers. Here are some I’ve collected:

“Debt woes nearing record: filings for bankruptcy protection on the rise” (USA Today 11-26-02 B1).

“‘Draconian’ budget cuts loom, governors group says” (USA Today 11-26-02 A1).

“Female HIV cases on rise” (Dallas Morning News, 11-26-02 1A).

“Identity theft case called a sign of crimes to come” (Dallas Morning News, 11-26-02 1A).

We’re talking about hope today. Some people have lost it.

Woody Allen’s speech to graduates begins, “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

Robert Ingersoll was America’s best-known atheist in the 19th century. At his funeral, his brother said: “Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud, and the only answer is the echo of a wailing cry.”

Others know how much we need it.

Gabriel Marcel: “Hope is for the soul what breathing is for the living organism.”

G. K. Chesterton: “There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner.”

Samuel Johnson: “The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope.”

Langston Hughes:

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams

For when dreams go

Life is a barren field

Frozen with snow.

How are your dreams today? Do you have hope for your future? Do you believe that tomorrow will be good, even better than today? That our world is going somewhere that matters? That your life is accomplishing something significant? Do you have hope? In whom do you have hope?

Misplaced hope

Our text is among the most familiar in all the Scriptures. I’ve preached eight sermons from it over the years, and read it every Christmas season. But this week, as I studied it again, I was drawn to names I’ve never considered before. “Caesar Augustus,” who “issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” “Quirinius,” the “governor of Syria.” And Herod the Great, the “King Herod” included in Matthew’s version of the Christmas story. I wanted to know more about them. And I was fascinated by what I discovered.

Caesar Augustus was born Gaius Octavius on September 23, 63 B.C. His mother, Atia, was the daughter of Julia, the younger sister of Julius Caesar. And so Caesar was his great-uncle. Octavius was 19 when Caesar was assassinated on March 15, 44 B.C.

Caesar named him his chief heir. And so the next year he was named Caesar’s adopted son, under the name Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. On January 1, 43 B.C., Rome recognized Caesar as a god, and Octavian became known as divi filius, the “son of god.”

On November 27, 43 B.C., Octavian became ruler of the Roman world with Mark Anthony and M. Lepidus. By 29 B.C. Octavian had become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire, and was given the title Imperator. He declined the title “king” or “dictator,” considering them too insignificant for his greatness. So in 27 B.C., the Roman Senate bestowed on him the title of Augustus. The name means “one consecrated and honored by religion.” Our month “August” is named for him.

Caesar Augustus ruled the Roman Empire to his death on August 19, A.D. 14. It has been said of him that he found Rome brick and left it marble. He built roads which would cross the world, and a universal peace known as the Pax Augusta. The Senate built an altar to Pax Augusta which still stands in Rome today.

He was the single most powerful human being the world had ever seen; some consider him the most powerful person in all of human history. Across the empire he was hailed as “savior” and “god.” His birthday was celebrated as the birthday of god. His is the story of power—extreme, ultimate, unrivalled power.

“Quirinius” is not nearly as famous a figure, but he was no less important to the first Christmas.

Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was born in 51 B.C. in the Roman municipality of Lanuvium. He became a soldier, and fought especially well in the war in North Africa. In 12 B.C. he became a consul in Rome and very ambitious politician.

In 7 B.C. he came to Syria, the Roman area which included Galilee and Nazareth. While Varus was governor, Quirinius controlled the armies and directed all foreign policy. Thus he supervised the enrollment which moved Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

This was a periodic census for later purposes of taxation. The Jews kept their family records in the family’s hometown. Thus Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to register, much as we go to our home district to vote in elections.

From Syria, Quirinius moved to Asia as proconsul in 3 B.C. and continue his political ambitions. Six years later he divorced his first wife so he could marry Lepida, the woman who would have married the heir-apparent to the Roman throne had her fiancé not died suddenly. In 6 A.D. he returned to Syria as governor; in 9 A.D. he returned to Rome, where he remained to his death in A.D. 21.

Shortly before his death, Quirinius instituted legal proceedings against Lepida for attempted murder by poison and adultery, but she was acquitted. The Roman historian Tacitus spoke of “the combination of meanness with exorbitant power which had marked his later days.” His is a story of political ambitions unfulfilled.

Matthew 2:1 says, “Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod.” Herod was the third leading public figure of the first Christmas.

Herod was born in 72 B.C. At the age of 25 he was appointed by his father to be governor of Galilee. In 40 B.C. he was appointed King of Judea by Octavius; in 37 B.C. he captured Jerusalem. From 37 to 4 B.C., Herod was “king of the Jews.”


Joy Is Born This Day

Joy Is Born This Day

Luke 2:15-20

Dr. Jim Denison

This is the Advent week of joy. “Joy” is most simply defined as “contentment which transcends circumstances.” “Happiness” is based on “happenings;” joy transcends them.

Would you like real joy today? Where will you go to find it?

Many of us will try possessions, especially at Christmas.

I’ve been keeping a file on unusual products for sale this Christmas season. Do you know someone who needs a new cell phone? Vertu has one for only $19,450. New entertainment? There’s a plethora of new video games, which will help Americans spend a total of $10 billion on video games this year. Help around the house? Consider a mobile robot driven by a palm pilot. New technology? Give some eyeglasses which display e-mail and surf the Web.

Perhaps your wife would like some special clothing. Buy her a jewel-encrusted set of underwear from Victoria’s Secret for only $10 million. Maybe your husband is a James Bond fan. Buy him the same car 007 drives in his new movie, for only $255,000. Unfortunately, unlike the car in the movie, his won’t disappear. But maybe he’ll have joy, at least until next year’s model appears.

Can people give you joy which transcends circumstances? They need joy as much as you do. Position? It won’t be enough for long. Performance? Until your next performance.

Today you can experience joy—true, meaningful contentment transcending your every circumstance, no matter what it is. But only if you’ll make this story your own.

Have you ever noticed that Luke gives twice as much coverage to the shepherds as to their Savior (1-7 vs. 8-20)? Let’s see why.

Seek joy in Bethlehem

“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about” (v. 15).

The shepherds “said”—the word indicates a repeated and continuous action. They began talking to each other, all at once, as excited as the women who attended Janet’s first baby shower.

“Let us go to Bethlehem”—the Greek indicates that they had a distance to travel, but they didn’t care. It also contains a small Greek word untranslatable in English, a word which conveys a tremendous sense of urgency. “Let us right now get up and hurriedly go” would render the idea.

“And see this thing that has happened”—the birth was a fact of history. Something shepherds could see. No one in the first century, not even the worst critics of the Christian faith, thought to deny that Jesus was a real person born in a real place.

“Which the Lord has told us about.” They know this is from God, and of God.

King David, the man for whom Bethlehem was called the “city of David,” once said to the Lord: “You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psalm 16:11). “Joy in your presence,” in the presence of God. These shepherds don’t know it yet, but that’s exactly what they are about to find in the cave, at the feed trough, in the most unlikely place. Joy in the presence of God.

There is nowhere else to find it.

Job 20:4-5: “Surely you know how it has been from of old, ever since man was placed on the earth, that the mirth of the wicked is brief, the joy of the godless lasts but a moment.” Joy is found only with God. It is a gift only God can give.

Zig Ziglar writes about seeing a well-known interviewer and commentator on television. The discussion was about the death of comedian Freddie Prinz. Mr. Prinz had taken his own life, and the commentator was asked, “Do you know of any other superstar in athletics, music, entertainment, the television industry, or movies who might also be in danger of either deliberately or accidentally taking his own life?” After a moment’s reflection, she answered, “I don’t know of anyone who is famous in these fields who is not in danger of either deliberately or accidentally taking his own life, because I don’t know a single one who is happy” (Zig Ziglar, Raising Positive Kids in a Negative World, rev. ed. [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002] 207).

Would you like to find true joy this morning? Then go to Bethlehem. Do as the shepherds did. Travel any distance. Get up and go there now. You say you can’t go there? It’s too far? It’s not safe these days? Here’s the good news: you don’t need to go to the city of David; the Son of David has come to Dallas. To you. He’s waiting for you, with joy for your heart. Seek it from him. And from him alone. And “the joy of the Lord will be your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).

Find the Son of God

“So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger” (v. 16).

They “found” him—the original word describes a search in order to find. The went from stable to stable until they found this child lying in a manger, a feed trough. And then they knew they had found the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. They found the Son of God.

Note that they just walked uninvited into the cave which was his birthing room. I never visit a newborn baby without checking first with the nurse, then washing my hands, then knocking at the door. These rough, dirty, smelly field hands just rushed right in. Jesus was born in a place which had no doors, no locks, no nurses, no way to keep people out. He was born there on purpose, for anyone can come into a cave. Anyone can come to the Christ.

And find in him true joy.

The joy of salvation is found only in Jesus: “We rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Romans 5:11).


Love Is Born This Day

Love Is Born This Day

Luke 2:8-14

Dr. Jim Denison

This is the Advent week of love. No subject is a greater mystery to us.

Children try to help. When asked why love happens between two people, Mae, age 9, replied, “No one is sure why it happens, but I heard it has something to do with how you smell. That’s why perfume and deodorant is so popular.”

On the role of beauty, Brian, age 7: “It isn’t always just how you look. Look at me, I’m handsome as anything and I haven’t got anybody to marry me yet.” And Christine, age 9, replied, “Beauty is skin deep. But how rich you are can last a lifetime.” She’s a smart woman.

We adults are no better with the subject.

Have you heard about The Sims Online? Thousands of people are paying $10 per month for the privilege of living in a virtual community on the Internet. They interact with each other via a computerized role-playing program. Over the next five years, people are expected to spend $1.4 billion on subscription fees to such community games.

ABC’s The Bachelor gave Mr. Aaron Buerge 25 women from whom to choose as his fiancé, while America watched. “The Osbournes” is the first family reality sitcom, debuting on MTV last March. Six million people watch each week as they go about their dysfunctional lives.

True love is a true mystery to our culture. Mother Teresa: “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted by everybody. The greatest evil is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference towards one’s neighbor who lives at the roadside assaulted by exploitation, corruption, poverty and disease.”

And now we’re just ten days from Christmas. Are you lonely? Do you need to feel loved? To be loved? To know that you are wanted and important? You’ve come to the right text.

Who does God love?

“And there were shepherds living in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night” (v. 8). Nobody reading these words for the first time in the first century would expect to see them here. You see, people knew about shepherds.

They couldn’t keep the ceremonial laws of Judaism—kosher diet, hand washings before and after meals, and the rest. They couldn’t abstain from work on the Sabbath, since the sheep didn’t very well know what day it was. And so they weren’t allowed to attend worship in the synagogue or at the Temple. They were religiously unclean. But that was only the start of their problem.

Shepherds were unsupervised for months on end. So they were known to steal from the flocks they kept, and to graze them on land which was not theirs. They were known to lie about their crimes, so that they were not permitted to testify in court or hold office. You were not to buy a lamb, wool or milk from a shepherd.

They were classed with tax collectors and prostitutes. It is worth noting that this text is the only occurrence of real shepherds to be found in all the New Testament.

Here’s the shock: “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified” (v. 9). Of all classes in first-century Judaism, they were the least likely to see an angel. And especially to see the “glory of the Lord.”

I learned in study this week that the “glory of the Lord” is a specific biblical phrase, meant to denote the presence of God which was first made visible to humanity with Moses at the burning bush. The “glory of the Lord” was next revealed to the Israelites in the Exodus desert (Exodus 16:10); to Moses on the top of Mt. Sinai (24:15-17); in the Tabernacle (40.34-35); and in the Temple when it was dedicated to God (1 Kings 8:11).

The “glory of the Lord” was displayed in Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:29-32). It was shown to Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 22:6-11). He later described it: “I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions” (Acts 26:13). And in heaven, “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light” (Revelation 21:23).

No wonder they were “terrified.” They literally “feared a mega fear.”

This “glory of the Lord” was not revealed to Mary with the angelic visitation. It was not revealed to Joseph in his dream. Or earlier to Zechariah in the temple, or Elizabeth his wife. Not to the Magi in their visit. Not to anyone else in the entire Christmas event. But to shepherds. To the lowest caste of ancient Jewish society. If to them, to us.

An Irish priest on a walking tour of a rural parish came upon an old peasant kneeling by the side of the road in prayer. Impressed, the priest said to the man, “You must be very close to God.” The peasant looked up from his prayers, smiled, and said, “Yes, he’s very fond of me.”

Dr. Fred Craddock was invited to lead a lecture series in Winnipeg, Ontario. He arrived on Saturday night, and a blizzard arrived soon after. The lecture was canceled, and Fred was told to walk down the block from the hotel to a bus depot diner for breakfast.

Fred said, “It was packed with everyone trying to find a warm place.” He found a seat. A moment later, a lady came in. A large man with a greasy apron asked her, “What do you want?”

“May I have some water, please?”

He brought her the water. “Now, what do you want?”

“Water is fine.”

“No, I mean, what do you want?”

“The water will be okay.”

“I mean, what do you want to order, lady? We’ve got paying customers. If you don’t order, you can’t stay.”


Peace Is Born This Day

Peace Is Born This Day

Luke 2:1-7

Dr. Jim Denison

This is the Advent week of peace. Does the topic appeal to anyone this morning?

“Al Qaeda: Alive and Killing” (Newsweek, 11-25-02).

“Ready to move in: U.S. forces could be primed to start fighting Iraq again in short order” (Time, 12-2-02).

“Ammunition plant fired up” (Dallas Morning News, 11-30-02).

“‘Topping off the tanks:’ The Bush Administration has been quietly pumping as much as 150,000 bbl. of crude oil a day this fall into the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve… That ensures that in the event of war, President Bush can order the release of more than 4 million bbl. a day onto the market for at least 20 weeks—more than enough to compensate for Iraq’s average daily exports” (Time, 12-02-02)

“‘Smallpox stashes:’ U.S. officials say Iraq, Korea, Russia, and France probably have secret stashes of the smallpox virus” (U.S. News & World Report, 11-18-02).

“Would a war kill your stocks?” (Fortune, 11-25-02).

We need peace. Do you?

Time magazine recently reported four traits which lead to hypertension: a tendency to get upset when having to wait, a tendency to eat took quickly, a feeling of pressure as the end of the regular workday approaches, and a feeling of time pressure in general. Do you have all four? Then you are twice as likely as others to develop moderate to severe hypertension (Time, 12-2-02).

We need peace. New research suggests that those who live to be 100 are less likely to dwell on problems and have a better ability to handle stress than those who die younger. Says Charlotte Chipman, 100 years old: “Life has a way of mixing grief with joy, evil with good, darkness with light. You have to be good at handling this, and go along with whatever comes your way” (Dallas Morning News, 11-29-02, p.55A).

We need peace. And now it’s Christmas, the busiest season of the entire year.

Fortunately, there’s good news inside the shopping malls. One area mall has created the Spouse House “for those who’d rather watch TV than shop, but still feel obligated to accompany a spouse to the mall. It features football, pizza, soda, snacks, even skating—all for free” (DMN 11-30-02, p.33A). That’s the mall for me.

What does our world need more than it needs peace this morning? What about you?

Do you need peace?

Last week we discovered the people “in the news” during the first Christmas. Today let’s focus on those who made the news, then and for all time. Here’s what we know about their first Christmas.

Mary and Joseph have come from Nazareth to Bethlehem. They must do this because the Empire requires another registration, an enrollment for purposes of census figures and future taxation. Caesar Augustus had issued this decree in 8 B.C.; Herod the Great delayed its enforcement for two years. The Jews kept family records at their ancestral home, which for Joseph’s family, was Bethlehem.

So they traveled together 80 miles (90 if they went around Samaria). He walked, she likely rode on a donkey’s back. The road climbed 734 feet in elevation from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Imagine yourself nine months pregnant, or your wife in that condition, as you set out to walk from here to Waco.

Finally the three arrive, but “there was no room for them in the inn” (v. 7).

Tradition says that this was a caravansary, a hotel to our culture, and that when they arrived late after their slow journey, its rooms were already filled. Preachers for twenty centuries have made much of the innkeeper who had no room for the Christ.

Now scholars aren’t so sure. No “innkeeper” is mentioned in the text. And the word for “inn,” kataluma, typically means a “guest room” (cf. Luke 22:11: “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”). The word here was most commonly used for the room allotted to visitors in a private house.

Here’s what may have happened. Joseph returned to Bethlehem, his family’s home. He had relatives all across the area. And so he and Mary stayed with one of them, in the guest room. But this room was tiny, with no privacy at all. And so when “the time came for the baby to be born,” “there was no room for them in the inn.” The guest room was not suitable for a birthing room.

So they moved to a stable, a cave behind the home. Here Jesus was born. Here Mary placed him in a “manger,” the feeding trough for the cattle and sheep which typically were housed in that cave.

Imagine it.

You are Mary. Your marriage to Joseph has been arranged for many years, and you have dreamed of your future with him. But now people would always remember that you were not yet married to him when this pregnancy occurred. Your child would be the “Son of God,” whatever this will mean. Now, far from home, you bear him in a stable and lay him in a feed trough. How much peace would you feel this morning?

Or you are Joseph. You have planned for your marriage and life with Mary. But now she bears a child who is not yours. He is the Messiah, whatever this will mean. How much peace would you feel today?

How much peace do you feel this morning? Where is your heart most in turmoil, your mind most confused, your spirit most troubled? In what ways do you identify with Mary and Joseph? In what ways does the first Christmas feel like this Christmas to you? How can this be the Advent week of peace for you?

Where will you find peace?

King David answers: “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8).

He adds: “The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with peace” (Psalm 29:11). Jesus promises: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). How does Jesus give us peace? The prophet explains: “the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). We find peace only when we find it in Jesus.