4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This was be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethleham and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Almost every Sunday, we sing “Happy Birthday to You…” for those whose birthdays happen to fall on a day of this week. We celebrate the birthday of everyone, because our birthdays are the mark of God’s mandate that we are born into the world according to God’s creational law and good will.
God gives two basic mandates to all animals, including human beings. They are: to survive and to reproduce, which keep the continuity of the species. All the animals have these two mandates in different ways. The Alfa male monkey has to defeat the challengers to obtain and maintain the mating privilege to pass on its gene exclusively, until it is defeated by other younger and stronger new Alfa. God led human society to develop the marriage institution to bind the husband and wife together to make new souls. The parents welcome and celebrate the new life into their families. They feel their life fulfilled because they carry out God’s mandate. They have the opportunity to love and to nurture the new generation of their own. The birth of a baby gives them the sense of continuity and meaning. Everyone treasures their own birthday as their beginning and the milestones of their life journey. The birth dates are printed on the birth certificate and carved on the tombstones. Everyday many new babies are born. Birthdays are created and forgotten again from time to time.
However, in the Christmas season every year, the growing number of Christians all over the world remembers and celebrates the birthday of Jesus Christ. His birthday is most remembered and celebrated, for it brings the eternal good news to peoples on the earth and changes their lives. Jesus’ birthday becomes the most significant one so far. His birth has made eternal difference to the believers and becomes a powerful witness to those non-believers. A friend of mine once asked me, “Why baby Jesus but not anyone else? What was the significance of Jesus’ birth?” These questions challenge Christians regarding who Jesus is. Is He the name for the holiday commercials or for a true savior?
Jesus had the most unusual birth in history. His birth was divinely planned and predicted, He was God himself to be incarnated in human form. He carried the mission to save all. First, all humans were born of blood and flesh or of the will of people. Human blood, flesh and will are very random. That’s why human babies are born randomly. People have no idea why their parents have brought them into this world. They do as others do and as other species do to maintain themselves generation after generation. But Jesus’ birth was prophesied in the Bible. Isaiah predicted seven centuries before Jesus. Isaiah 7:14 “Therefore the Lord God himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Here “a sign” means “a miracle” from God. The birth of Jesus is the greatest miracle in the universe. I am amazed why Isaiah was not thrown into a mental health institution when he said so. In his time, it was impossible for a virgin to be pregnant. But he did say so and the prophecy was fulfilled seven hundred years later. God never forgets His promise.
Jesus was born by a virgin. We have to believe that nothing is impossible with God as the angel proclaimed. Not only Isaiah foretold Jesus’ virgin birth but God planned it from the very beginning in Genesis chapter 3 after the fall of Adam and Eve. God hated to see His human children suffering in sin and separating from His presence. Before God booted the first couple out of Paradise, God promised in Genesis 3:15 “I will put enmity between you, the devil, and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” God promised and planned that a person, who would strike the head of the devil and ultimately defeat it, was born of a woman, not born of a man and a woman. We all know that without sexual intimacy, a woman is not able to have the embryo, fetus in her worm, and then a baby. But God promised in the Garden of Eden that the birth of the savior had nothing to do with any man. This was an incredible promise. When time was fulfilled, God sent the Holy Spirit to visit a young Jewish virgin. We have the dialogue between the Angel and her. Mary got pregnant mysteriously from the power of the Holy Spirit, instead of a human sperm for conception. This means that the sinful nature of humanity was stopped from passing onto this baby Jesus genetically. Mary was a mere instrument to facilitate God’s Spirit to form a human in her womb. Jesus was a full man and full God in one person. Through Jesus as planned, God became a human to show us who God is in our midst. Jesus’ birth two thousand years ago fulfilled God’s salvation plan and gives humanity an opportunity to know our creator and savior through a personal relationship with Jesus. His birth brings God’s presence to the world.
We know that who we know will decide who we are. We all remember those who have changed the course and destiny of our lives. There are many important people we need to know in this world. But the most important person for us to know is God. The psalmist cried on our behalf in Psalm 27:8 “‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’ Your face, LORD, do I seek.” We all want to see God. When a child asks where he or she was from, this child is looking for the face of the creator. When an individual is searching for forgiveness, for the meaning in life, or for eternity, this person is seeking the face of God. Unfortunately, since the rebellion of our first parents, sin has kept humans from seeing God. God is too holy for sinful souls. We have looked right and left, or up and down for God through religions and philosophies, but no one has ever found God through their own effort. Humans continue to miss and to seek God until God shows himself to them in the form of a human. If God wants to communicate with birds, God has to become a bird first. This is Jesus who is God in human flesh through the birth tunnel of Mary on the first Christmas day to communicate with us.
There was a very unique and interesting dialogue between Jesus and his disciple Philip in John 14:8 “Lord, show us God, the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Literally, Philip spoke for all of us that our souls will be never satisfied until we see God. In John 14:9-10, Jesus answered, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” Jesus is God but in the same form of human flesh and blood as we are. His coming into this world is to bring God’s loving presence to everyone through his birth, death and resurrection. His name is Emmanuel, meaning “God is with us.” I may not be very smart in many things, but I am sure that I have seen God through the relationship with Jesus. I love to claim as Simeon said while holding the holy baby in his hands in Luke 2:29-30 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation.” Colossians 1:15 “Christ is the image of the invisible God.” The invisible God made himself seen in the person of Jesus Christ.
There are million-dollar babies born with a gold spoon in the mouth or very cute babies, but there is no divinely preloaded baby like Jesus from Mary. Jesus pre-existed before his mother Mary and even before the universe. He is the creator, and now assumes the role of savior starting as a baby. I believe that facing the fallen world, the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit of the Holy Trinity had an agreement that the Son would take human flesh to fulfill salvation. The plan was executed upon the birth of Jesus. Colossians 1:16-20 “For in Christ all things have been created through him and for him… He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” No one is able to understand all God’s richness. But whatever we see and hear from Jesus is from God. Mary’s womb carried the creator of the universe and the savior of humanity. The most important thing we have to see is that He was first to be raised from the dead. Some people whom Jesus raised from death like Lazarus died eventually. But Jesus resurrected into eternity and is living forever. His resurrection promises us that all repentant sinners have the hope to be accepted into eternity from this doomed and decaying creation through His pardon, truth and love.
When Jesus was born on the first Christmas, He began to unfold God’s full love for all. Many believe that a savior should come in super military and political power to conquer people with his authority. But Jesus came in a most vulnerable way as a baby, for our loving God was not going to intimidate His children with any power, except the power of love and grace. No one has ever been intimidated by a baby. Jesus’ debut was not in a palace but in a poor family of a carpenter. Mary and Joseph were under the colonial rule of the cruel Romans. They had to travel with her heavy pregnancy for the census for Roman taxation. The inn had no vacancy. A dirty stable was the only available place for them to rest and to have privacy to deliver a baby. The little one was wrapped in bands of cloth, and laid in a dirty manger. The first smell came into his nostrils was from the manure and urine of the sheep. This world was not welcoming for this holy baby. But anyway, he came into the world as divinely planned. Ever since His birth, King Herod wanted to kill Him. Various powers have tried hard to get rid of him from this world, from our hearts or even from the church. But I tell you that Jesus is not going to be kicked out of this world for nothing can separate God’s love from his people.
60 years ago, the atheist Chinese government was determined to eradicate Christianity in China. The regime kicked out all foreign missionaries, closed all churches, threw thousands of pastors into jail or labor camps, burnt all Bibles and hymnals, and kept the people from hearing the name of Jesus. Dr. Arthur Glasser, my teacher at Fuller Seminary, was the very last missionary to leave China on December 31, 1951. On the dock of the liner from Hong Kong to Singapore, he prayed to God on his knees, “Lord Jesus, now I am kicked out of China, but you are able to stay there, for you love the Chinese.” According to human calculation, the last group of the Chinese Christians would die out in decades, and Christianity would be uprooted in China. The wife of the strong man Mao Zedong declared in 1970s that there would be no more Christians left in China soon. The Western Christian mission enterprises somehow believed it and planned to launch another mission movement to spread the faith in China again. But after the death of Mao, people suddenly realized that there were 20 to 30 million Christians in the underground house church movement. The Chinese Christians were mass persecuted then, but it was impossible to kick Jesus out of China. Even His death on the cross was still not able to get rid of him from the world. Jesus continues to be with his followers through the power of resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit ever since. Wherever Jesus gets a foothold as he did in manger in Bethlehem, His life grows there, while the worldly power, prideful ego, and all human sins diminish.
Jesus’ humble and vulnerable beginning tells us that the good news moves in the direction from the powerless to the powerful. God never wants to intimidate us but always amiably shares his love in a humble way. That’s why I don’t like to preach the good news through the demonstration of intellectual, political or wealth superiority. Jesus only uses the power of humility, truth, pure grace and love to turn people back to God.
Christmas is not a human party. Its celebration was started from the realm of heaven. When the entire humanity was still in the darkness of sin and oppression, God sent the angel to stand before the poor shepherds working on the graveyard shift and to bring them the good news of great joy for all. “The Savior is born.” Verse 13-14 “Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’” Then these shepherds followed the angelic instruction to verify the truth. They found the baby in the manger and began to spread the good news. In this way, the good news continuously moves from person to person and from nation to nation, and to the end of the world. Going though so much, Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. See, even the mother of Jesus could not fully understand the whole significance of Jesus’ birth. She treasured in heart what happened with His birth and meditated on it from time to time. Do we do the same as Mary did? The Christmas witness urges us to ponder on the richness of Jesus’ birth like Mary did and to proclaim the good news as the shepherds did. Jesus’ birth is so divine, mysterious and unfathomable that we all can ponder on its meaning and understand more about God’s truth, grace and love. We are blessed to celebrate this greatest birthday. From the first Christmas, God is revealed in Jesus and His presence in our midst. Amen