Finding Christ In Our World
Luke 2:10-14, Romans 15:13
Are you familiar with Bret Harte’s classic short story The Luck of Roaring Camp? He first published the story in the August 1868 issue of The Overland Monthly, and the story propelled him to international fame. In the story, Roaring Camp was the meanest, toughest mining town in all of the West. More murders, more thefts – it was a terrible place inhabited entirely by men, with just one woman who tried to serve them all. Her name was Cherokee Sal. She died while giving birth to a baby.
Well, the men took the baby, and they put her in a box with some old rags under her. When they looked at her, they decided that didn’t look right, so they sent one of the men eighty miles to buy a rosewood cradle. He brought it back, and they put the rags and the baby in the rosewood cradle. And the rags didn’t look right there. So they sent another of their number to Sacramento, and he came back with some beautiful silk and lace blankets. And they put the baby, wrapped around with those blankets, in the rosewood cradle.
It looked fine until someone happened to notice that the floor was so filthy. So these hardened, tough men got down on their hands and knees, and with hands hardened by mining and by fighting and brawling they scrubbed that floor until it was spotless. And of course, that made the walls and the ceiling and the dirty windows without curtains look absolutely terrible. So they washed down the walls and the ceiling, and they put curtains at the windows. And now things were beginning to look as they thought they should look. And of course they had to give up a lot of their fighting, because the baby slept a lot, and babies can’t sleep during a brawl.
So the whole temperature of Roaring Camp seemed to go down. They used to take her out and set her by the entrance to the mine in her rosewood cradle so they could see her when they came up. Then somebody noticed what a dirty place that was, so they planted flowers, and they made a very nice garden there. It looked quite beautiful. And they would bring her, oh, shiny little stones and things that they would find in the mine. But when they would put their hands down next to hers, their hands looked so dirty. Pretty soon the general store was all sold out of soap and shaving gear and perfume and those kinds of things. A baby who changed everything.[i]
We gather tonight with candles in hand to celebrate the coming of THE baby who changed everything. The baby born to a poor peasant girl who had never been with a man, whose earthly father was a carpenter. A couple from a backwater town called Nazareth in the region of Galilee. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” was what people said. It wasn’t really a question. The answer, in their minds, was “Of course not.” The baby whose birth was announced by angels not to kings and emperors and statesmen but to shepherds tending flocks in the hills. Shepherds who slept and ate and drank with their sleep. And smelled like it. The baby whose image appears on Christmas card and whose likeness in nativity scenes like the two here in the sanctuary tonight. The baby who, if you’ll let him, will enter into your life, and slip into every crevice of your experience, like the little girl in Roaring Camp. And when that happens, Christmas ceases to be one day, or a few weeks at the end of the year celebrated with family and friends. Every day becomes Christmas, and Easter, and Pentecost, all because that one baby, the baby who changes everything, enters your life.
Turn with me to Luke 2:10-14. The juxtaposition here is startling. Well, it isn’t anymore, because we’re so familiar with this story. But it’s supposed to be startling. This is the announcement of the birth of a king. And some king this is. The announcement is made not by royal couriers escorted by magnificent troops in full military array on horseback dispatched from the palace of Caesar in Rome. No, this announcement was made by an angel, surrounded by an unearthly light, dispatched from the throne room of heaven. The name of the baby isn’t shared. According to Jewish custom, he would receive his name 8 days later. But the angel Gabriel has already informed Joseph that he is to name the baby Jesus. Jesus. A common enough name. We would translate the name as Joshua today. But it’s meaning is significant. “God IS salvation.” Not “God brings salvation” or even “God saves.” Jesus means “God IS salvation.” Salvation is who God is. God is, at God’s core, a savior. The one who saves. And Jesus embodies that salvation quite literally. But here, his name isn’t mention. But his role is. In three words that serve as a series of royal titles: Savior, Christ, and Lord. Christ isn’t a name either, although we treat it as such. It’s based on the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for “Messiah.”
You see, deeply embedded in Jewish consciousness was and is the idea of God’s messiah, “the anointed one” whom God would send to save his people. In their minds he would be a great military leader and a brilliant political leader who would lead Israel to victory over her Roman overlords at last and lead her to freedom and a place of significance and influence in the world once again. It’s really not that different than our constant search today for the next truly great leader here in America who will help us solve our problems, who will unite us as a people and restore us to greatness. And like the ancient Jews, we constantly disagree about what that leader will look like, what that leader will say and do, and what that greatness really looks like. Fortunately for us, and for the Jewish people in Jesus’ day, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, God’s plans were and continue to be much bigger and more significant than our human minds can comprehend. And yet, they’re still practical. God’s salvation touches us in the mundane details and struggle of daily life here on this earth. But it doesn’t stop there.
Yes, this baby, the Christ, the Messiah, is Savior of the world. But like the little girl of Roaring Camp, this baby seeks to save one life at a time. Entering our lives, slipping into every dark crevice, bringing his light, his healing, cleansing touch. God IS concerned about the details of our lives. About the mundane. The struggles and the situations we find ourselves in. But God chooses first to go to the source of the trouble, and deal with things there first. And the source of the trouble is sin. It’s something you and I are born with. A desire to rule our own lives, to answer to no one but ourselves, to do things our own way. After “mama,” the two words babies tend to learn first are “no” and “mine.” Sin is our “no” to God, an innate unwillingness on our part to live his way. Not only is it an unwillingness to live God’s way. It’s the inability to do so on a consistent basis. Yes, most of us are capable of doing some incredibly good and unselfish things. Sometimes. But we are also capable of, and have a bent toward, selfishness and self-centeredness, wanting to do things our own way. Rejecting God’s way of living in the world he has created. In some way, in some shape, in some form, we’ve all managed to make a mess of things, no matter how good we think we are. And we’re all capable of incredible darkness, of doing amazingly bad things. We’re all in need of a Savior, a Messiah, who is also our Lord.
A lord is one to whom we bow our knee and pledge our allegiance and undying loyalty. A lord is also our benefactor or patron. The one who supports us, acts in our benefit, protects us, and supplies our need. But this baby isn’t just A lord. He is THE Lord. The only one worthy to receive our adoration, our praise, and our loyalty. When we stand and remove our hats, and place our hands over our hearts, or salute, as we say the Pledge of Allegiance or sing our national anthem, we are, in a sense, bowing our knee, pledging ourselves to support and defend our country. But when we bow our knee before Christ, THE Lord, we are saying that there is one allegiance that is higher than all others, and that is our “Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The one whose birth was announced by an angel, dispatched from the throne room of heaven.
And that angel was joined by a “multitude” of angels. Now, we often picture this multitude of angels as an angelic choir because we picture them singing. But the word “host” is a military word describing ordered ranks. This is no angelic choir. This is the army of heaven, shouting “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” The armies of heaven accompanying an angelic dispatch to announce the birth of “the Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
And that’s important because across the Mediterranean Sea, a little over 1,400 miles away, Caesar was beginning to use the same kinds of words of … himself. On March 15, 44 B.C. the same men who had declared Julius Caesar a god conspired against him and stabbed him to death. And everything he owned – his property, his wealth, and his titles, including the title of Caesar, supreme ruler of the Roman Empire, became the possession of his adopted son and only heir – Gaius Octavius, a nineteen-year-old boy.
Over the next 20 years, Octavius became the greatest leader the Roman Empire had ever known. Greater even than his adoptive father Julius Caesar. And he gradually added to his titles the designation of Princeps, meaning “leading citizen.” And then Pontifex Maximus, meaning “high priest.” And eventually “Augustus,” meaning “supreme ruler.” And while he actively sought these titles and openly placed himself at the center of Rome’s global power, he craftily played the part of a humble, reluctant leader. And the people ate it up.
And then, in the Autumn months of 12 BC, as Halley’s comet painted a blazing stripe across the night sky, Caesar Augustus proclaimed that it was the spirit of his father, Julius, entering heaven as a god. And the superstitious Romans affirmed this claim to deity and insisted that Caesar Augustes should also be worshipped because he was, after all, the son of a god. He was the one the people looked to, to bring them peace, to be their savior and their lord. The only one before whom they would bow their knee.[ii]
A decade later, 1,400 miles to the east, in Bethlehem, outside Jerusalem, angelic messengers and the armies of heaven, the armies of the Kingdom of God, with blinding light and deafening shout, and a star shining in the sky, announced the birth of “the Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Jesus. God IS salvation. The anointed one who would take away the sin of the world and bring God’s “shalom,” God’s peace, to every human heart that believes.
And this announcement was made to … shepherds. Not the rich and powerful. Not Caesar. Not Herod, Caesar’s puppet ruler in Judah. Not Quirinius, the Roman governor in the region. Not to Annas, the Jewish high priest in the temple in Jerusalem, the one who entered the holy of holies on the day of atonement to make atonement for the sins of the people. Nope. This angelic courier and the armies of heaven appeared to shepherds. No status. Peasants. People who ate, and drank, and slept with the sheep they tended out in the hill country. People who bathed rarely, whose hands and feet and bodies were marred by cuts and scars from bushes and brambles and run ins with predators. Whose knees and shins were bloodied by stones and stumps the tripped over as they tended their sheep. And there lies the juxtaposition. The magnificence of the announcement, and the humility of the recipients.
What was God doing here? In a world bent toward the rich and the powerful and the connected, he was saying, “I see you. I hear you. I know your name. I know how many hairs are on your head. I see your struggle. I am for you. And I am with you.” The words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, echoed in Matthew’s gospel, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us)” (Matt. 1:23). God with us. God with whom? Not just the rich and powerful and connected and beautiful. God with … any who will come. All who believe.
Turn with me over to Romans 15:13. The God of hope. Hope. Not wishful thinking. Not “I hope the Lions win today.” Which we know is wishful thinking. Hope, in the Bible, is an assured expectation based on the promises of God. The God of hope. The one who keeps his promises. Jesus. God IS salvation. Messiah. Savior. Lord. God keeping his promises. Promises that go back farther even than the Old Testament prophets, to the earliest days of humanity, when God, to the serpent who led Adam and Eve to reject God’s way, proclaimed, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he (her offspring) shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his (her offspring’s) heel” (Gen. 3:15). You will surely strike him. But he will deal to you a crushing, deadly blow. You will wound him. He will end you. THAT is the promise fulfilled in Jesus, God is salvation, Messiah, Savior, and Lord.
And our job? It is simply to believe. The joy and the peace of the God of Hope are ours “in believing.” In other words, in faith. In trusting God. We all place our faith somewhere. There is no such thing as a “faithless” person. Without some form of faith, you wouldn’t sit down in a chair, for fear of it collapsing under you. You would get in your car and drive down the street, for fear of someone intentionally crossing the center line and running into you. You wouldn’t eat or drink, for fear of someone poisoning you. We all place our faith in something. The question is, where do you place yours. Ultimately. In whose hands is your life? Is it in the hands of Caesar, whose father was killed by the very men who had declared him a god? Is your faith in the “goodness of humanity” and everyone “doing their best?” Or is your faith in God’s Son, “the Savior, who is Christ the Lord?”
Placing your faith in him doesn’t mean you won’t face challenges and pain in this life. It doesn’t mean that you won’t get sick and will not die a physical death. It doesn’t mean you’ll be rich. It means that your life on this earth is in God’s hands, for you belong to him. It means that your life on this earth, no matter how great or how mundane in your eyes, has meaning and value and purpose. It means that when your life on this earth ends, you will leave behind a legacy of faithfulness in the Kingdom of God, and you will find yourself alive and well in his presence. It means that Covid, or cancer, or convicted felon don’t get to determine to whom you belong, for you belong to the one who IS salvation.
The shepherds on that hillside received the announcement with great joy. How do you receive it? Let us pray.
[i] Bruce W. Thielemann, “Hark! The Herald Angels,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 63.
[ii] Chuck Swindoll, “Insights on Luke.”