Speaker : John Johnstone
Note: Christmas surprises are good but one unwelcome surprise during the Carol Service was that the technology gremlins were out in force. Nevertheless, it was a great event and we have two videos that cover most of the proceedings.
Most children love Christmas for all kinds of reasons. One reason is, of course, the presents. We can all remember getting up on Christmas morning, and finally being able to rip off the wrapping paper. Sometimes what lay inside was a total and utter surprise, hopefully a good one! Christmas can be full of surprises. There’s the surprise of unexpected gifts. There are also times when family members that you think are unable to come on Christmas Day due to work, manage to swap a shift and there’s a knock on the door, and there’s the lovely surprise of an unexpected guest, and the joy of the whole family being together. Christmas surprises can be big and small, from the best and most useful present ever, to the surprise of what’s inside your cracker.
The Christmas story in the Bible is also full of surprises, mostly big ones. There’s the surprise that God himself was going to become a human being. Then there’s the surprise of how it was going to happen – through the power of God the Holy Spirit coming upon a virgin called Mary.
The carol captures it beautifully:
‘Christ, by highest heaven adored; Christ, the everlasting Lord;
late in time behold him come, offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail th’incarnate Deity,
pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel.’
Joseph was certainly surprised that his beloved was pregnant, knowing they hadn’t been together. He would have been gutted, until the angel visits, yet another massive surprise, explaining to him what was going on.
Let’s think about some more Christmas surprises today, in our passage in Luke 2:8-20. We believe this account is true and historical. I’d encourage you go and research the historicity of the Bible, including the huge number of early manuscripts we have.
Dr Luke tells us that Caesar Augustus has ordered a census to be taken, probably so the Romans can maximise taxation. All serious historians believe that Jesus existed. Today, we’re thinking about a real event.
1. It’s surprising who God chooses to first hear about the birth
This was the most important event in the whole of human history up to that point – God was becoming a real human being. The news was about as big as it gets. When you have huge news, you want your loved ones to find out directly, and not second hand. It’s a privilege to hear ‘big’ news early on. So, who will God choose to hear about the birth of his Son? Will it be Caesar, or King Herod, or the religious elite? Will it be the rich and powerful of Jerusalem?
Surprisingly, God announces this birth privately and at the dead of night, and he does so to humble shepherds. Now this was a huge surprise. You couldn’t get more ordinary people that shepherds. They were generally poor, uneducated, not highly thought of, and did this dirty and difficult work out in the hills. Their testimony wasn’t valid in court, because they were, at times, despised and thought of as untrustworthy.
So why does God choose the shepherds to be the first to hear this amazing news? Why send an angel to them? God is telling us that Jesus has come for ordinary people. He’s come for the humble. He’s come for those who have made a mess of their lives. He’s come for the poor and lowly.
Mary’s song in Luke 1:52 says: ‘He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.’ Shepherds might have been excluded by the people, but not by God. When baby Jesus grows into a man, he is known as the friend of sinners and marginalised – tax collectors and prostitutes and those society writes off. I hope none of you ever thinks, ‘God couldn’t possibly forgive me’. He will, if we but turn from trying to run our own lives, and receive the greatest gift ever offered, that of forgiveness.
Let me be blunt, the fact that God chose shepherds to hear this news is a sign to us that there is no one too poor, too uneducated, to messed up morally for God. He invites all people to come to him to admit their need, confess their wrongdoing, and turn from those things. If we do, then he forgives and transforms our lives.
Those who are proud, and think they are ‘good people’, and think they don’t need God, well of course they ignore the message of Christmas, but tragically so.
2. The gift God offers is surprising to many people
‘But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.’ (Luke 2:10-11)
When our car broke down on the Queensferry Crossing there was nothing we could do to get it going again. We were helpless. We needed to be rescued. It was so good to get a tow home!
God is saying to us that people are stuck and in need of rescue, and cannot get themselves going again. This surprises many. Yes, sometimes we do good things and can be hardworking and kind. But I know only too well that I can be selfish, greedy, and even hurt those I love the most very deeply. We think again of cartoons, and those thought bubbles coming out of a character’s head, showing us what they are thinking. The truth is, if people could read our bubbles, we’d be deeply ashamed.
Imagine a friend who is kind enough to let you live in their house for free for a few months while they are away. They say, ‘Make yourselves at home, but there are a few house rules I’d like you to keep, and I’ve left you a copy of them’. You move in, and ignore the rules. It’s not just that you walk all over the carpets with muddy boots, but you’re careless, breaking several things, thoughtlessly using things you’re not meant to, and leave the place in a terrible condition. You move out without a word of thanks for the stay and without a word of apology.
Many treat God like this. This world is his home, as he created it, and we are just his guests here. Again, and again, we flout his rules, don’t thank him for the good things he gives, blame him for the bad, and refuse to apologise. That’s why the Bible says we all suffer from ‘sin’. We ignore God and often rebel against his house rules.
The joy of Christmas is that God has sent a rescuer. I needed rescuing by Jesus far more than I did by the AA on the bridge. God’s gift at Christmas is exactly what we need. It’s been said: ‘If our greatest need was information, God would have sent us an educator. If our greatest need was money, God would have sent us an economist. If our greatest need was technology then God would have sent us a scientist. But our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a Saviour.’
3. The words of the first Christmas carol are surprising
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’ (Verse 14)
The shepherds are just recovering from the appearance of angel. Verse 9 says they were terrified. If this were not enough, next (verse 13), a great army of angels appear praising God, perhaps in song. Another Christmas surprise. Let’s not be embarrassed by the supernatural in this story. It’s plain from the design in the world around us that there is a God, so we ought to expect the supernatural.
These vast numbers of angels are singing about God being glorified, or magnified through the birth of this baby. And they are singing about people knowing peace. What do these lyrics mean? What is God telling us through this first carol? How can God be magnified through the birth of a baby? How can we say peace is coming when there have been almost continuous wars throughout history? The words of the first carol, in this sense, might surprise you.
The angels are gobsmacked that in Jesus, God has become a real human, with the purpose of rescuing human beings. He will grow up and die on the cross, not for his sins but for others, and this act of self-sacrifice will bring glory to God, because it will reveal his holiness, justice, love and grace.
The peace the angels speak of, isn’t peace between countries, but peace between us and God. This is the great gift of Christmas – peace with God. So many Christmas pleasures are fleeting: the tree comes down, the holidays end, the turkey is eaten, the wider family leaves, and we go back to normal. God is offering you something lasting and forever today- peace with God. This is only possible if our sins are forgiven, and this can only happen if we receive Jesus as our King and Rescuer.
4. The reactions to God’s great gift are surprising
Through Jesus, God offers everyone in the world rescue, forgiveness, peace and eternal life. No one is excluded from this offer. All you need to do is admit your wrongdoing, and receive the gift. Christianity is the most inclusive group in all the world, made up of men and women, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, from people all over the world. God even signals to us how wide the offer is in the Christmas story by first inviting shepherds, and also by including foreigners, those wise men from the east, possibly modern-day Iran. You are included. ‘I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.’ (Luke 2:10)
Surely, everyone would want this gift! Sadly not. It’s sad reading of the reaction of hostility to Jesus in the Christmas story. Herod tries to kill the infant Jesus. He doesn’t want to submit to the true king. And then there’s the indifference of those in Bethlehem. Verse 18 tells us that people ‘are amazed’ at what the shepherds say, but it doesn’t seem to have a lasting impact. It’s a bit like many today who say, ‘Well I’m glad it helps you and that’s interesting.’ but at the end of the day, they choose to ignore the gift themselves. I hope that we can react like the shepherds and like Mary.
The shepherds believe God’s promise, and respond in faith and obedience, going to see the baby. They know they need rescuing from sin, and so they praise God (verse 20) for the birth of the Rescuer. Mary reacts in this way too, treasuring the news up in her heart, because she knows there is nothing more precious that peace with God. My hope is that we’ll have the same reaction as the shepherds and of Mary. We can do so today, by praying to Jesus, and asking him to forgive us and change us.