Jesus was born at a time before there were birth certificates. The concept of a birthday was reserved for royalty. Most common people had no idea when they were born or the exact date of their birth. Survival was more important than keeping track of the date of birth.
From time-to-time a person of common birth would grow up to become a person of historic significance. People would want to celebrate the historical significance of this person’s birth, but no one could remember the date of birth. No one had kept track of the birthday, and so they came up with a tradition for those whose birthdate was unknown.
This tradition made a connection between birth and death. It proposed that the date of CONCEPTION was the same as the date of death. Thus if a person died on January 1, they would say that he was conceived on January 1, and his birthday would be nine months later on October 1. If death came in the year 960 and he appeared to be about sixty years old, they would say that he was born in the year 900 on October 1. They had no idea how old he really was or the actual date of his birthday, but they celebrated his birth every year on October 1.
So it is with Jesus. The early church focused on the day of His crucifixion and the day of His resurrection. By the time people thought it would be a good thing to celebrate His birth as well, they had long forgotten the exact date He was born. BUT … they did know that He had died on Passover. The problem with Passover is that it always comes on a full moon which places it on different days of the year. So, some people did their best to estimate when Passover was during the year that Jesus died. Then, nine months later would be Christmas.
All went well for several centuries until people started to notice that spring came a little bit later than it used to. Finally, the astronomers figured out that we needed to add an extra day to the calendar every four years in order to keep the calendar in sync with the seasons of the year. Since there had been no leap years for a few centuries, they decided to add about a dozen leap days in one year to get things back on track.
Now the church had to decide. Do we adjust all the church holidays because of these extra leaps days, or should we keep them the same? The church in the East, centered in Constantinople decided one way. The church in the West, centered in Rome decided the other. So today, the Western church celebrates Gabriel’s announcement to Mary on March 25 and nine months later … December 25 … is Christmas. The church in the East celebrates Gabriel’s announcement to Mary on April 6 and nine months later … January 6 … is Christmas. The difference is twelve days … the REAL twelve days of Christmas.
In either case, from time-to-time, the church remembers Gabriel’s announcement to Mary on Good Friday … the day that we commemorate the death of Jesus on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. In this way, the day we remember His conception and the day we remember His birth are all tied to day of His death … the day He paid for the sins of the entire world.
In reality, the miracle of Jesus’ birth is the same miracle that takes place every time a baby is born. The unique miracle that we celebrate this evening actually took place nine months earlier by the power of the Holy Spirit. A single human cell within the womb of the virgin Mary began the process of dividing into two cells, then four, then eight, and so forth. The unique character of this little embryo is that even while it was just one cell, all of God was present in that cell. Think of it, God Almighty taking on full humanity in the single cell at the very beginning of life. The Son of God experienced all of humanity from the very beginning of life in the womb. In that single cell, the person of the Christ is God and man for you.
When we come to understand that God and man are one in Christ Jesus, we can say all kinds of strange sounding things on this night. Mary has given birth to God. Mary has wrapped God in swaddling clothes. Mary has laid God in a manger. Our champion who will one day crush the serpent’s head lays sleeping on the hay.
The forces of evil, the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh will want to keep this God-man in the manger. The last thing that the forces of evil want is for us to remember that this little baby who rests in the arms of Mary will one day hang from the arms of a cross. The world expends every resource to produce a flashy, glamorous, entertaining Christmas holiday. It romanticizes the birth of Jesus in countless ways. In many imaginative ways, the world produces a wide variety of diversionary tactics to draw us away from the main message of Christmas. The world would be happy if the only image you had of your savior was a sanitized version of a baby peacefully sleeping in a manger surrounded by a gentle mother, a noble father, adoring shepherds, and that is all there was to it. The world would be happy if Christmas was all that you knew about Jesus and nothing more.
The world also uses some of the best and most excellent traditions to take our minds off the savior completely. Getting together as a family is truly an excellent way to celebrate Christmas. The world would have us believe that getting together as a family is the main reason for Christmas, but it is not. Generosity is also an excellent virtue, not only at Christmas, but all year round. The world would have us believe that generosity is the main reason for Christmas, but it is not. What about amending your sinful life? That is always good. The world would have us believe that self-improvement is the main reason for Christmas, but it is not. There are all kinds of good and noble traditions associated with Christmas and the world stands ready to corrupt them all in order to divert us from the true meaning of Christmas.
The angel proclamation to the shepherds while they watched over their flocks won’t let us fall into this trap. If we will unwrap the present that they give to the shepherds, we will learn that there is more to this child than just a baby in the manger. The angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10–12) The angel used the terms Savior, Christ, and Lord. These words mean that this child lying in a manger was born to do more than sleep on the hay.
The angel said Savior … Savior from what? The Word of God teaches that we are all conceived and born sinful and are under the power of the devil. We would be lost forever unless delivered from sin, death, and everlasting condemnation. This is the reason we need a savior. That angel wants us to know that this one who is born in the City of David is the Savior who has come to deliver from sin, death, and everlasting condemnation. The God who lies in the manger has come to conquer sin, death, and the power of the devil.
The term Christ means the anointed one. It is the same as Messiah. Here the angel tells that this new born in the City of David is anointed to an office. This is the three-fold office of prophet, priest, and king.
The prophet speaks for God. As the Christ, this baby in the manger is anointed to be prophet. Who could possibly be better to speak for God than God Himself, Jesus the anointed one. Never the less, there is more to Jesus as prophet. When prophets speak for God they make promises for God. Jesus not only makes the promises, but He keeps them as well. He is anointed to be the ultimate fulfillment of the office of prophet.
The King is the one who reigns. As Christ, this baby born in the manger is anointed to reign. The one who reigns makes the rules. However, the one who reigns is usually above the rules that he makes. Not so with the Christ. When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4–5) As the one who is anointed to be king, He not only makes the laws, but He also keeps them as well. He placed Himself under the law to keep the law in your place, and He kept it perfectly.
The priest is the mediator between God and man. He prays to God for the people. He also offers up their sacrifices. The Old Testament priests were but shadows pointing forward to the one, true priest. As the Christ, this baby in the manger is anointed to be priest. He is the one, true mediator between God and man. He not only prays for the people, but He is the answer to their prayer. He not only offers up the sacrifice for the people, but He Himself is the sacrifice for the people. When the angel proclaims the birth of Christ, he is pointing us forward to the cross where the anointed one will offer Himself as the true sacrifice for all our sin. Within the Christmas proclamation, the angel is pointing us to the cross.
The angel said Lord. This indicates that the baby lying in the manger is more than a mere human being. He is God in human flesh. He is God who is anointed to fulfill the promises of the prophets, keep the laws of the king, and sacrifice Himself as the offering that removes all sin. The angel’s announcement says that here, at last, in the manger for all the world to see, is God in the flesh who has come to save His people from their sin.
All of us are born in sin and walk the road that leads to death. Here, on this night, we remember that God Himself took on our human flesh and was born so that He might walk that road to death with us. The baby in the manger will walk the road to death and die that we might live. He will blaze a new trail through death that leads to eternal life. His resurrection from the dead gives us the sure promise that we shall also rise from the dead.
The true meaning of Christmas is that God has taken on human flesh in order to travel the road that leads through death to eternal life, so that we may enjoy His presence forever. Amen
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