In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.
Joseph 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And 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.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
And 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!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
The hopes and fears of all the years…
It seems that we’ve been celebrating Christmas for a long this year. Every year the stores bring out the Christmas decorations a little earlier and the commercials start hammering away a little louder. At the same time, in the midst of our hectic schedules, we keep hearing the reminders to slow down and celebrate “the reason for the season.” Just to survive we go through the motions of celebrating Christmas. We decorate the trees, we hang the lights, we rush out to find the “perfect gift;” all the while longing to recreate the feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment we knew in Christmases long ago.
The nostalgia of Christmas awakens a longing buried deep within each of us; for home, for family, for peace. Our thoughts return to what over time we remember as happier days. We long for nothing more than the fellowship of those we love. We’ll travel thousands of miles to be with those we love. We’ll spend money we don’t even have on things people don’t really want or need just to demonstrate our love. We’ll decorate our homes with lights and trees and warm inviting fires to create an environment of belonging and peace.
Perhaps we do this out of a force of habit; we do Christmas like this because that’s the way its done. But I think we celebrate the holiday in this manner as an answer to a deeper desire and longing.
In 1865, the great American preacher Phillips Brooks wrote the classic Christmas Carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which we have sung tonight. In that classic carol is a curious line which speaks to this longing we share, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” But his is not the only carol that reinforces this desire: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel; Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus; Savior of the Nations Come, I Wonder as I Wander; the titles alone express our longing.
Tonight we bring to our Christmas Eve service all “the hopes and fears” of our lives. They are not extra baggage. They are who we are and what we have lived through. Our hopes, our hurts. Our fears, our dreams. The desires of our hearts, the search for belonging. These are the things we are made of. And they are all here with us, around us and in us tonight.
Isaiah wrote that, “the people living in a land of darkness shall see a great light, on them shall the light shine.” “At the heart of each of us is a compulsion for completion so strong that no [single event or relationship] can consistently fulfill it.” It is a consuming darkness, a gnawing hunger that we desperately seek to satisfy. “There are times, glorious moments of intimacy and belonging (with family, friends, or a soul-mate), that makes us feel complete. But those times are few and far between. They are snapshots we paste into our mental scrapbook to fondly recall and treasure. Unfortunately for some, these moments become the mark against which everything else is measured” (From Les and Leslie Parrot, Relationships).
Are met in thee… the babe in the manger
The shepherds in the fields that night knew our desires well. They were a lonely people, the poorest of the poor; outsiders, rejected people of a rejected nation. There the shepherds were, living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks in the cold of night. A lonely and hungry existence, they were ready for their longings to be fulfilled.
In the bleak midwinter, the glory of God shone around them and an angel of the Lord stood before them, saying, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
To the shepherds, this announcement meant everything. Their hopes of finding meaning and belonging had been answered – in the birth of a baby.
Emmanuel – God with us – The Answer to our Hunger
How could their compulsion for completion be met in the birth of a baby? Babies are born all the time. Almost always they are welcomed and received as gifts of joy. (, we live in a day and age when even this miracle is scorned.) But all babies grow up, the newness wears off, and as they become toddlers, terrible two’s, tweens, teens, and twenty-something’s, they seem like more work than blessing, more fight than fulfillment.
But the message of the angel tells us that this baby is different. This is the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. Earlier in Luke’s gospel, the angel had visited Mary and told her that the “child to be born to her will be called holy – the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Matthew’s gospel tells us that “his name shall be called Immanuel, which means God with us” (Matt 1:23).
The message to the shepherds was about more than just a baby. It was about redemption, being restored to a relationship with God. It was about salvation, freedom from their guilt and sin. It was about fellowship with God himself.
The Christmas message then, and now, is not about the birth of a baby, “it’s about the incarnation of God. It’s about God with us, the visitation from on high. God first sent His angel, then He sent His Son. In a sense, we are meeting with God in the manger.” (R.C. Sproul – audio recording)
Until we can pull ourselves away from all of the trappings of the celebration of Christmas and come to this realization, our hunger will continue to grow. Until we, like Brooks’ carol sings, with “meek souls will receive him still,” we will never know the joy the shepherds experiences as they returned to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for what they had seen. Without him we will know no comfort, no peace, no lasting hope; Christmas is but another empty holiday, teasing the gnawing hunger for fulfillment until it consumes us.
“Our compulsion for completion must be met in Jesus Christ” (Les Parrot, Making Marriage Work). Jesus is the one who came to save us and deliver us from our sins. Our hopes, our fears, are met in Him. He is the perfect answer to our question of belonging, the faithful assurance of our deepest hopes.
For those of you tonight who have receive Christ by faith, I encourage you to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely” this Christmas season so that you may run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Heb 12:1-2) that we might place our hope and our faith in Him. As you will tonight light your candle and share it with those around you, may you carry the light, the hope, the promise of Christ into the world, sharing it with those who have dwelled in darkness and despair.
And you tonight, who don’t know have a saving faith in Christ, do you desire to know of the hope that only Christ can give? Do you long to know how to be right with God and the world? Are you tired of each Christmas getting a glimpse of what it is all about only to find yourself rejecting him once again? This Christmas receive the Lord Jesus Christ. As Savior of sinners he does not require you to be righteous first! All that he requires is that you believe in Him and receive Him as your only Savior and hope. This is the message of Christmas, the good tidings of great joy that shall be to all people throughout the earth who believe! (Charles Randal Biggs, http://www.reformationtheology.com/2007/12/an_uncomfortable_christmas_car.php)