James C. Denison
I learned a new term this week: “Lifehacking.” This is the word being used in the computer world to describe programs which are supposed to make our lives easier. Software to organize our to-do lists, programs to prioritize our priorities, reminders set for all hours of the day and night, files set to pop up on our PDAs or cell phones to tell us what to do next, and how. All this because we are living in the fastest-paced, highest-stress culture known to human history.
My father could expect to change his employer three times; my sons can expect to change their vocation, their careers, their life work, seven times. The global economy means that a downturn in China today affects your stocks and retirement tomorrow.
For every disease we seem able to eradicate like tuberculosis and polio, we are afflicted with new diseases like AIDS and the bird-flu scare. To say nothing of global warming and the future of our planet, with predictions that the seas will rise and the glaciers will melt and life will change drastically in coming generations.
How can a holiday like Christmas be “good news of great joy” in a day like ours? When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the light bulb was 1883 years away.
If today were Christmas, Edison’s invention would be announced in the year 3890. Columbus wouldn’t “discover” the New World until the year 3495. That’s how old Christmas is. How can a holiday which predates the Middle Ages by 500 years and the Declaration of Independence by 1780 years possibly be relevant for our problems and questions today?
The answer is that it can’t. At least, not without a decision only you can make today. Let me explain.
Hear “good news of great joy”
The angels brought “good news of great joy” to the shepherds, and such news indeed it was. On that day we learned that “a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (v. 11). This news is “for all the people,” for the Christ has been “born to you.” If to them, then to us all.
You know their story. First-century shepherds were thieves, stealing from their masters’ flocks. They were liars, so that they could not testify in court. They were ritually unclean, living out in the fields for up to six months at a time, so that they could never be allowed into a synagogue or the Temple. And yet Christmas came for them, because God loves all of us.
No other religion makes such a claim. Zeus and his pantheon loved those who obeyed them. Hindus and Buddhists have no concept of a personal, loving God. Muslims base God’s acceptance on our obedience, the degree to which we keep the five pillars of Islam.
Every other dimension of life is conditional and performance-based. You are what you do, how well you perform, how many people you impress. I am this sermon; you are your work, your school, your achievements.
Except with God. This promise is for shepherds everywhere, you and me included. What is the promise? Why is it relevant? It applies to your life only if you need help with your past, your present, or your future.
Christmas says that God forgives us, no matter what we’ve done. What have you done that you’re glad we don’t know about? Guilt leads to low self-esteem, anger at yourself and others, the inability to forgive yourself and others, depression, anxiety, panic, and even suicide. The shepherds knew what guilt was about. Modern-day shepherds still do.
To people like us, “a Savior has been born to you.” Literally “one to save us.” No other religion has a Savior. No one else has someone who will forgive your sins and failures and remove your guilt from your soul and life. No one. Because of Christmas, God can forgive you.
Will anyone else forgive you like this? Will anyone else forgive us, no matter what we do? There are crimes you and I could commit which would be unforgivable. Child abuse, torture, 9-11 terrorism–who could pardon such sins? Only God can. That’s “good news of great joy.” Who needs such forgiveness today? Well, this news is not enough. Before this forgiveness is relevant to our souls this morning, there’s something left for us to do.
Christmas says that God delivers us, no matter what we need today. This Baby is “Christ,” the Lord. Christos, the Greek word for Messhia, the Messiah, the Promised One who would deliver God’s people from slavery into freedom. This was “good news of great joy” for a people enslaved by the pagan Roman Empire.
Because of Christmas, God can deliver you. Can anyone else deliver us, no matter where we are? There are diseases which no doctor can cure, lawsuits which no lawyer can win, battles which no army can survive. Only God can deliver us, wherever we are today.
That’s “good news of great joy.” What problems need God’s solution in your life? What burdens need his strength? What despair needs his hope? Why do you need deliverance today? Well, this news is not enough. Before this deliverance is relevant to our souls, there’s something left for us to do.
Last, Christmas says that God directs us, no matter where we need to go tomorrow. He is Christ “the Lord.” Kurios in the Greek, the Master, the Boss. The Romans used this word for their Caesar; Christians used it for their Christ. This was “good news of great joy” for a people subjected to a man in Rome, to know that the true ruler of the universe was their God and that he would guide their lives.
Because of Christmas, your God rules the universe and is ready to guide your life. Can anyone else guide us, no matter where we need to go? There are problems no counselor can resolve, decisions no wisdom can help us make. Only God can guide us, no matter how dark or bleak the future, no matter how perplexing and confusing the day.
This is “good news of great joy.” What decisions need God’s wisdom? What steps need his direction? Why do you need guidance today? Well, this news is not enough. Before this guidance is relevant to our souls, there’s something left for us to do.
Believe “good news of great joy”
What is left for all of us shepherds to do? Only this: we must “go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about” (v. 15). The Baby in the manger is no good to us if we stay in the fields. His love, forgiveness, deliverance, and direction are no help to us if we will not receive them.
If we will not ask, he cannot give; if we will not seek, he cannot share; if we will not knock, he cannot open. If we will not go from Dallas to Bethlehem, Bethlehem can be no help to us in Dallas.
Even the God of the universe cannot give what we will not take.
So let’s go with the shepherds to Bethlehem. Through the nighttime fields, leaving our flocks in the care of a handful while we go to investigate. To the town inn, the square caravansary, crowded to overflowing with travelers from all over Israel and beyond. No newborn baby here.
But the angels said he would be in a “manger,” the feed trough in the animal stable. So we go behind the inn and into the cave where the animals and livestock are kept. The walls are clammy and covered with moss. The smell is pungent and a bit rancid.
The cave is perhaps 10 feet from side to side, maybe 20 to its back. At its center, it’s tall enough for us to stand. But it slopes quickly to the rounded walls, so watch your head. The dank, musty smell is even sharper here.
The only light comes from a flickering fire. Smell the burning wood; feel the sting of the smoke in your eyes. Cough if you must. Hear the snorts of the animals. Sense the field hands crowded next to you; see the dirt caking their hands, the sweat running from their streaked faces onto their stained, rough burlap shirts.
Turn to what they’re watching. It’s a baby–a newborn, helpless infant. Cradled by a very young adolescent girl, her eyes dark circles, her face still marked with the pain of her delivery. Half sheltering, half protecting her is a rough peasant, more than twice her age, his gnarled hands testimony to his life’s labor.
Who could have imagined that this could be the Savior who is Christ the Lord? The One who would accept and forgive us, who would deliver and direct our lives and souls? The One who would save us from hell for heaven–this helpless infant? And of course, you and I know what the shepherds do not. We know that the story only gets stranger.
He will grow up in a town so obscure it’s not mentioned a single time in the entire Old Testament. He will call peasants and tax collectors to be his disciples. He will spend his time with the crowds and commoners, feeding and teaching and healing them. touching lepers and sinners wherever he can.
The proper folk down in Jerusalem will have nothing to do with him. The authorities will soon reject his message and movement. He will be arrested and executed as a common felon, crucified like so many other would-be Messiahs come to threaten the mighty Roman Empire.
It makes no sense, does it? How could the birth of a baby in Bethlehem possibly be relevant to your world and life today?
It would be relevant only if the baby who came to die would die to live. Only if he would be raised on Easter Sunday, resurrected to heavenly glory. Only if he would be ascended to heaven and reign with the Father in glory.
Only if the Baby would come again as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and every knee would bow and every tongue would confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11). Only if he is the central figure of the human race and the leader of the column of human progress. But this he is.
Though he never wrote a book, more books have been written about him than any person in all of human history. Though his longest recorded sermon takes less than 20 minutes to preach, more sermons have been preached about him than any subject in religious history.
He never ran for office or held a weapon, but his movement has toppled kings and overthrown the mightiest armies the world has ever seen. He never owned a home or claimed more than the clothes on his back, but more resources have been given and spent in his cause than any since time began.
He had less than a dozen disciples when he died, but his movement today numbers more than two billion.
As the poet said rightly, all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not influenced the life of humanity on this earth as has that one solitary life.
Now it is your turn to join him. It is your turn to go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about. It is your turn to ask for his accepting love and forgiving grace. It is your turn to accept his deliverance and follow his direction. It is your turn.
Have you been to Bethlehem yet this year? Have you asked him to forgive your past and liberate your present and direct your future? Have you come to Christmas?
It takes faith to go to Bethlehem. Faith to believe that it’s all true. Faith is a relationship, and like all relationships, it requires a commitment transcending the evidence.
If Janet waited until I could prove I’d be a good husband, I’d not be married. If she waited for proof I’d be a good father, we’d not have children. Step into this relationship by faith, and it will be real for you. It takes faith to be a shepherd. Are you willing to make that step?
And it takes humility to go to Bethlehem. Humility to admit that you need his forgiveness and deliverance and direction. Humility to be a shepherd. Are you that humble?
Tom Brady is leading the unbeaten New England Patriots and will set every single-season passing record in NFL history this year. He’s won three Super Bowls already. But when he was interviewed by 60 Minutes about his success, his response wasn’t what viewers were expecting.
“Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there is something greater out there for me?” he asked the interviewer. “A lot of people would say, ‘This is what it is. I reached my goal, my dream…’ Me, I think, God, it’s got to be more than this. I mean, this isn’t… what it’s all cracked up to be.” “What’s the answer?” the interviewer asks. “I wish I knew,” Brady replies.
The shepherds knew the answer. Do you?