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During the Sundays of Advent, we've been letting the Gospel writers prepare us to celebrate Christmas. We've heard from Matthew and Mark. Today, we hear from Luke.
Luke was a friend of the apostle Paul, and a doctor. On occasion, Luke traveled with the apostle Paul when he was spreading the message of Jesus throughout the ancient world. Being a doctor made Luke a great candidate for chronicling the events of Jesus' life. He was good at interviewing people, making observations, taking notes, and recording the information he gathered into a simple, easy to follow narrative.
We have two books from the pen of Luke, the Gospel that bears his name, and the book of Acts. The book of Acts chronicles how the Holy Spirit used different people to push the Gospel out in to the world that needed to hear it.
Now, Luke's Gospel is unique because it gives us so much information about the events that happened just before and just after Christ's birth. Luke himself tells us that he got his information from eyewitness accounts. That is, Luke interviewed people who were there when these things happened. Now, I hope it goes without saying that while Luke was the writer, the Holy Spirit was the author. The Holy Spirit guided Luke to write accurately and exactly what the Lord wanted preserved for the generations to come.
So, let's dive in. Our selection from God's Word for today is found in...
Luke 1:26-38 (ESV)
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
Perhaps you noticed that this section of Luke is filled with miracles. By my count, there's at least seven different miracles here that either happen, or that Gabriel says are going to happen soon. This is notable, especially since the years before this time were devoid of miracles as far as the Biblical account is concerned.
Every Bible has a division between it's two main parts, the Old Testament and the New Testament. This division stands between the book of Malachi and the Gospel of Matthew. If you've got a simple Bible there isn't much between these books. Maybe a blank page marked only with the title, "New Testament". But in the actual chronology there were about 400 years that intervened between the time when the last Old Testament prophet put words to a page, and when the Savior was born. During this period of 400 years, the history of the Jewish people marched on. Different foreign invaders came and either ruled kindly, or ruled roughly over the lands of Palestine.
But during this time, God was silent. There were no new prophets writing books or preaching sermons. There were no new prophesies made concerning the Savior to come. And, like I said, as far as we know, there were no miracles happening. It was a time of silence from the almighty.
But then, as Luke informs us, there was a Cambrian explosion of miracles around the year of Jesus' birth. First, an angel appeared to a priest named Zachariah to tell him that his elderly and barren wife would soon give birth to a son. And that this son would be a great prophet who would prepare the people to receive the Savior. When Zachariah doubted the message of the angel, he was struck dumb until the birth of his son John. And the conception of this child was miraculous in itself. Luke tells us that Zachariah's wife Elizabeth was not only past the time of child bearing, she was also known to be barren! But all the sudden, she's a mother.
Then you've got our reading for today. Did you search through for the seven miracles yet? First there's the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary. Miracle number one. He tells her that she's going to have a baby, even though she's a virgin. Miracle number two. Not only that, but the Child would be called the "Son of the Most High", that is, God's own Child. Miracle number three. Gabriel also says that this Child will rule on David's throne forever. Miracle number four. He says that this Child, yes, a human Child, will be called "Holy". He would be a sinless Child. Miracle number five. Then it seems that Gabriel noticed that young little Mary's jaw was on ground, so he gives her a little help to believe all this. He tells her that old barren Elizabeth is with child now also, because nothing is impossible with God. Miracle mention number six. And finally, the Holy Spirit works a little miracle right in the heart of Mary - she believes the message of Gabriel. Miracle number seven.
For God, miracles are like fireworks. You know, like the pyrotechnics that explode at a concert when the band comes on stage and starts to play. God uses miracles to get people's attention. To say, "Hey listen up! Check it out, I'm about to communicate to you in a pretty important way, and you need to pay attention!"
I think this is why God refrained from doing anything miraculous in that 400 year period. It was, excuse the phrase, a "pregnant pause". It was a calm before the storm of miracles that would surround the birth of the long promised Savior. And it all serves to draw our attention to that Savior. Here He is! Salvation is finally going to happen for all you sinners who need it so desperately!
And even more miracles came on the actual night of Jesus' birth. Only this time they were more like fireworks than ever. The brilliant messengers of God, the angels of heaven, burst out in praise of the Lord before a crowd of startled shepherds. And the sign wasn't dismissed or ignored by those shepherds. They went quickly to see why God had gotten their attention.
Now, miracles are attention getters. But there's something else about miracles that teaches us a lesson here. When God does a miracle, it is by definition something that we human beings cannot do. A miracle is something beyond the natural order of things. Miracles get our attention because we can't do them. And this is an important thing to note. Each time God caused another miracle to happen in connection with the birth of His Son into the human race, God was emphasizing the fact that salvation is something beyond us. We cannot do it. Saving sinners from the punishment their sins deserve is something that only God could do. Salvation is God's work, not ours. It is His gift that comes to us in Christ.
If there was a way for sinners to erase their own sins, than all these Christmas miracles would be merely sparkle and entertainment. If finding our way back into God's good book was really something that individuals could accomplish with enough effort and determination, than the whole birth of Christ Jesus wouldn't be something to celebrate. But Scripture is clear on this point, no sinner will be able stand before God on the Last Day and receive His stamp of approval on the basis of what we've done with our lives. Even a good life, a great life of love and compassion, even that life is riddled with evil thoughts, lies, sinful actions, and good things left unsaid and undone. Only Christ was truly holy, as the angel Gabriel said He would be. And only standing with Christ beside us are we holy in the eyes of God. Thank God for the Christ Child, and for forgiveness through His cross!
Last Sunday in Bible Class I brought up something I heard on the radio recently. I think it was an ad for "World Concern". World concern is an organization that "attempts to transform the lives of poor and marginalized people through disaster response and sustainable community development" (worldconcern.com).
Now, I myself haven't been personally involved with World Concern, but it sounds like what they're doing is a great thing. What bothered me was the ad on the radio was what it suggested. The ad said something like, "Donate to world concern, and help people who need it this Christmas. In doing this you'll be getting back to the real meaning of Christmas."
Now, call me a big religious humbug, but it bothered me that they talked about getting back to the real meaning of Christmas, but never mentioned Christ. As if the real meaning of Christmas is giving physical gifts to the poor and needy. That's a great thing to do, and it's particularly meaningful at Christmas if it's meant to be a reflection of God giving Christ to us. But the fact remains, Christmas is not about what we can do.
The world around us is always trying to turn Christmas into something other than a celebration of the birth of Christ our Savior. For business owners, Christmas is a time to sell, sell, sell, and get out of the red and into the black. For others Christmas is a time to celebrate different cultures and their many religious beliefs. For still others, Christmas is a time to rest and enjoy family time, to reset priorities, and to be thankful. To Charles Dickens Christmas was a time to celebrate the "spirit of Christmas", that is, to celebrate giving to help others.
But all these things are things that WE CAN DO. When Luke records all these miracles in his Gospel, he's directing us to watch a story unfold that is all about what ONLY GOD CAN DO, and what GOD DID DO FOR US!
He sent the eternal Son to be born as a human baby, so that He could live, suffer, and die in the place of sinners. God sent Christ into the world to be our sin eraser, to be our Savior.
When the apostle Paul traveled around the Roman Empire carrying the message of sins forgiven to people who didn't know Jesus, one group of people he shared that message with was slaves. People who were literally the property of others. Paul never led a revolt of slaves against their masters. He didn't work with government officials to lead them to legislate the end of slavery. He may have wanted freedom for his fellow Christians that were slaves, but more important than freeing them from slavery to human masters was the freeing of them from sin and eternal punishment. This comes through faith in Christ.
Let's keep this in mind as we prepare to celebrate Christmas. It is about freedom from sin, through Christ our Savior. As important and noble as it is to try to improve the quality of people's earthly lives, this must NEVER become the meaning of Christmas.
When we look at the miracles Luke records in the first few chapters of his Gospel we see this. The miracles that God did here were amazing, but they were not miracles to eradicate physical pain and earthly difficulties.
Mary and Joseph received no special miracle ride to Bethlehem. They had to hoof it on foot. Both Elisabeth and Mary gave birth to their babies in the natural way. When Mary and Joseph found there wasn't room for them to stay comfortably in Bethlehem, God didn't have His angels erect a house for them to stay in. No, they bedded down in a place meant for animals.
The point is, the miracles of Christmas were to draw attention to the Savior of sinners. And this was more important to God than miraculously addressing any social concerns because a relationship with the Savior would lead to far greater and more lasting benefits than any other help He could offer.
In a very real sense, God was addressing EVERY social concern by sending His Son into the world. Through Him we are invited to experience peace with God our Creator. And one day, through Christ we will be ushered into a new world. One no longer infected with poverty, pain, hunger, tragedy, murder, genocide, hatred, war, or want.
This is what God can do, and what He WILL do. This is what Christmas is about: What God has done for us in Christ Jesus.
Again, don't misunderstand me, help others in need. Christ commands us to. Just don't make Christmas into a command. Let it remain what it really is - the gift of salvation from God, given in the form of the little Baby Savior.
Prayer: Father in heaven, thank you for getting our attention with all your miracles in the Christmas accounts. Thank you for doing what we could never. Thank you for sending Jesus to be our perfect Savior. Thank you for sending the Holy Spirit into our hearts through your Gospel message of free forgiveness in Christ. Help us to reflect your giving heart in the ways that we help others. Help us to give generously to those who do not have as much as we do. Help us to champion the cause of the poor and those who cry out for justice. But help us to keep perspective Lord. Help us never to focus on what our own hands can do over and above what you can do, and have done for the salvation of all people. Keep us trusting in YOU above all, and praising the precious gift of Christ. Amen.