The greatest gift of all

Sermon: Sunday, 18th December, 2023
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: Luke 2:8-20

Has this story of angels and shepherds got any relevance for you today? As you might expect from a minister, I’m going to say ‘Yes!’ Why do I say that? Firstly, because this really happened. This is a historical event. The birth and life and death of Jesus are recorded by Dr Luke in this gospel, and by Matthew, Mark and John in the other gospels. But it is also recorded by secular, non-Christian historians such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger and Josephus. Together, these secular sources speak about Jesus as: a good-natured and virtuous man; a teacher who amassed a large following; a man who performed supernatural feats; and one whose disciples claimed he had risen from the grave and was believed him to be the Christ and the Son of God. Dr Luke begins his gospel saying that he spoke to many eyewitnesses of these events. He says: ‘… I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.’ (Luke 1:3-4)

The Christmas story is not just a nice story for children. It is, rather, a true story, relevant to each one of us. The Bible is a completely reliable book, and is God’s message to each one of us. In fact, if the Christmas story isn’t the best news that you have ever heard, then you haven’t properly understood it.

Of course, at Christmas Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ birth is not his beginning, as it is for us. Because Jesus is God and so is eternal. There was never a time when Jesus did not exist. His birth in the stable is his beginning as a human being. Right at the heart of the Christmas message is that in Jesus, God became something he wasn’t before, a real human being. He is 100 % God and became 100% human at his birth, whilst remaining 100% God. This begs the question – why did God humble himself to leave a perfect Heaven and come into earth as a real human being. To answer this massively important question, we need to listen to what the angels says, because God sends his angels to explain the meaning and relevance of this wonderful event- God becoming a real human being.

In verse 8 we find the shepherds doing what they do best – watching their sheep, even during the night. It’s no wonder we read that they were terrified (verse 9). Not only do they see a normally-hidden supernatural being, an angel, but we also read that the ‘glory of the Lord shone around them’. What was this glory? This is the shekinah glory of the presence of God himself. This was the amazing manifestation of God’s presence that used to settle on the temple at certain times, and which went ahead of the Israelites in the desert. During the last watch of the night the LORD looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. He made the wheels of their chariots come off so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, ‘Let’s get away from the Israelites! The LORD is fighting for them against Egypt’. (Exodus 14:24-25) In other words, God is making it clear that he is with the shepherds. I love the fact that Jesus announces his birth not to king Herod or to the emperor Caesar Augustus, or to the rich or religious elite, but to ordinary shepherds. This surely must inform us that the birth of this baby is for ordinary people like us.

Let’s get to the angel’s explanation of this wonderful event. 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 Christ, the Lord.’ (Luke 2:10-11)

Jesus left Heaven and came to earth in order to save ordinary people. God’s Christmas gift to us is a Saviour. It is a gift offered to all the people of the world. And if received in faith, it is a gift which will give us lasting joy.If Geoff gave me some deodorant and mouthwash for Christmas I might be somewhat offended as he’d be telling me this is something I need. I need to improve my hygiene. In the same way, God’s gift to us, in one way, is offensive; because if God sends us a Rescuer, then that means there is something we all need to be rescued from. The Bible tells us plainly that we need to be rescued by God, because of the many wrong things we have all thought and done in our lives. The short Biblical word for this is ‘sin’, and it means breaking God’s rules. He says we are to love Him and one another, but the truth is that so often we don’t. So often we are selfish and proud and even ignore God in the world he created. Often, we don’t even get on with those we love the most.

Human beings are capable of great acts of love, and much good. Sadly, we are also capable of lust and anger and rudeness and unkindness. God hates these things and this spoils the relationship between human beings and God. So, God takes the initiative and comes to rescue us from ourselves. If our greatest need was information, God would have sent us an educator. If our greatest need was money he’d have sent us an economist. If our greatest need was technology he’d have sent us a scientist. But our greatest need is forgiveness so he sends us a Saviour.

‘Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you…’ (Luke 2:11)
‘She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ (Matthew 1:21) Today, God is offering you a Saviour. The question is, will you receive this gift?

We’ve been enjoying Christmas carols today. But the first Christmas carol was heard, when thousands upon thousands of angels appeared in the sky: Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’ (Luke 2:13-14) Let’s think together about this first ever carol. Why are the angels singing ‘glory to God’? Why are they rejoicing in God’s actions? These myriads of angels are rejoicing at the prospect of millions of people being saved from their sins and receiving eternal life. The angels are full of wonder at the grace of God, sending his one and only Son to die for rebellious humans, who simply do not deserve such a gift. They wonder at the love of Jesus, knowing he was going to die on the cross in the place of others- instead of them.

They are also singing about peace: ‘… and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’ I think a lot of people sing carols and misunderstand what kind of peace this is, and I don’t want you to misunderstand today. This is not a horizontal peace, between humans. This is not about peace in Ukraine or Israel or in other places where there is war. This is a vertical peace between humans and God. Again, that’s a sobering truth, as it means without a relationship with Jesus, we cannot possibly have peace with God, which is the only lasting kind of peace there is.

How do you get this peace? The answer is simple. You get it by turning from your wrongdoing, and believing that when Jesus died on the cross, he died to pay the price of your sin. You ask him in prayer to take charge of your life, and worship him as your God and Saviour. ‘Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…’ (Romans 5:1) Do you have this peace today? This also means that the peace is not for everyone. Yes, it if offered to everyone. But many reject God’s incredible gift, too proud to admit the wrongness in their hearts.

How have you responded to the gift God offers you today? He offers you himself. He died on the cross and says that if you come and admit your need of forgiveness and ask him to forgive you, then he will do just that. I hope each one of us will respond like the shepherds: The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (Luke 2:20) Notice that the shepherds respond to Jesus’ birth in exactly the same way as the angels did, praising and glorifying God. If you really understood Christmas, you too would praise and glorify God for sending Jesus into the world to be our Saviour.

We often talk about the spirit of Christmas, and by that we mean a sense of togetherness and kindness and generosity and selflessness that sometimes marks the Christmas period. All these things are good, of course. But the spirit of Christmas in its truest and purest form is to marvel, as the angels and shepherds do, that God would leave Heaven and come to earth in order to die for us. When we ‘get this’ and grasp it, we are able to have a joy and peace which no one can take from us, and which lasts, even when everything else in our lives goes crazy.

If you have been ignoring Jesus, things are not fine between yourself and God. You can’t ignore God and be his friend. But, the good news is this: God offers you a present. Will you take it and unwrap it? No matter what you have done in your past, you can be forgiven by God, through receiving the gift of Jesus’ death on your behalf. I urge you to receive this gift for yourself and enjoy peace and eternal life.