Madison Church

The Transformative Power of the First Christmas

December 24, 2023 Stephen Feith
Madison Church
The Transformative Power of the First Christmas
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Embark with us as we peel back the layers of time to the very heart of the Christmas story, retracing Mary and Joseph's steps to Bethlehem within our narrative series, "Christmas According to Luke." The Gospel of Luke paints a tapestry of the extraordinary entwined with the humdrum – a census journey, a stable birth, and shepherds' wide-eyed wonder, all fulfilling ancient prophecies while resonating deeply with both believers and inquisitive souls. As we narrate this tale, we consider its profound impact on individuals like Theophilus, the original recipient of Luke's Gospel, and its promise of reassurance and insight for those who seek to understand the Christian faith today.

This episode is a heartfelt invitation to view the divine through a new lens this Christmas, seeing God's presence in the quiet, everyday moments as well as in the monumental ones. Through the Christmas story, we are reminded of the universality of God's grace and love, transcending barriers of circumstance and social standing, and offering solace and hope. Listen closely as we share how grace meets us in our frailties, how everyday miracles illuminate our paths, and how, in the ordinary, we can discover the extraordinary. Let's together revisit the transformative presence of God's love in the Christmas narrative and reflect upon its echo in our own life stories.

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Speaker 1:

At that time, the Roman Emperor Augustus decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. This was the first census taken when Cornius was governor of Syria. All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for the census and because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go back to Bethlehem and Judea, david's ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who is now expecting a child, and while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped them snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger because there was no lodging available for them. That night, there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them and the radiance of the Lord's glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. Do not be afraid. He said. I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior, yes, the Messiah, the Lord, has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David, and you will recognize him by this sign. You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth lying in a manger. Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others, the armies of heaven, raising God and saying Glory to God in the highest heaven and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased. When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other let's go to Bethlehem, let's see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about. They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph and there was a baby lying in a manger. After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. All who heard the shepherd's story were astonished, but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them. Eight days later, when the baby was circumcised, he was named Jesus, the name given to him by the angel even before he was conceived. This story is one we all know well. In all likelihood, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pastors like me or church leaders are going to read from this passage in Luke either today or tomorrow, christmas day to their church communities. We've come to expect this story to be told this time of year. It's as much a part of our tradition as giving and receiving gifts and watching Christmas movies or listening to Christmas music. But have you ever stopped to think how unremarkable this story actually is? In this series, christmas, according to Luke, we've studied the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, a biography of sorts of Jesus' life, crafted for someone like you and me, a man named Theophilus. And while we may not know much about Theophilus, we're told by Luke that Theophilus sought assurances concerning the Christian faith. Theophilus could be anyone among us watching or listening today. He might not yet identify as a believer of Jesus, yet curiosity has led him to seek answers regarding the intriguing tales that had to be circulating around the Roman Empire, stories of signs and wonders and miracles performed by this Jesus. Alternatively, theophilus could be a recent convert, somebody new to the faith, and he's wrestling with questions about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Yes, in Greek and Roman mythology, gods could be killed and come back from the dead, but this was real life. He might have been a seasoned believer navigating newfound uncertainties about faith, grappling with new theological ideas like how can a good god allow pain and suffering Enter in Luke, a theologian, a meticulous historian, a traveling companion of Paul and a storyteller. Luke embarks on this writing journey to provide Theophilus and, by extension, all of us today, with certainty regarding what we have heard and what we believe about Jesus. Yet have you noticed that Luke doesn't immediately dive into the questions that might be on Theophilus' mind? If somebody were to ask you or me a question about the resurrection of Jesus or the signs, wonders and miracles, we would probably dive in directly answering those questions, quoting Paul or church history or telling our own story. But Luke doesn't begin that way. I mean, if Luke had begun that way, we would know whether or not Theophilus was a believer or somebody who was just curious or somebody who was struggling with their faith. But Luke doesn't begin this way. Luke begins his gospel writing about a couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth. This is certainly an unexpected prelude to his narrative. His peers, john begins his gospel with a poem, mark jumps right into Jesus' public ministry and Matthew begins with a genealogy, a history of Jesus' family. But Luke, who begins with Zechariah and Elizabeth, transitions from them to the birth of Jesus, and he does so by bringing up a census, was ordered by Caesar Augustus, and it is here, in this moment, that the ordinary and the divine intersect. Joseph and Mary have to embark on a journey back to Bethlehem to be counted for tax purposes, and, unbeknownst to them at the time, this would fulfill an ancient prophecy by Micah that pinpointed that this small town, that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem something absolutely divine and foretold hundreds of years before Jesus all came together out of something ordinary Politics. Go back to your hometown so we know who should be paying taxes and how much when the time comes. The promised King, jesus of the everlasting kingdom, is born Not in a palace, but in a stable, a cave actually. That would have been in someone's are, on someone's property, and it was a makeshift shelter for their livestock. Jesus' crib is not adorned with splendor, but it's actually a feeding traw for the animals who occupy the space. And this is what I'm saying that this is unremarkable. This is not the story you would expect if you heard it for the first time. Could this really be the birth of this Jesus who was crucified and rose from the dead? The awful us would have had to have been wondering, and Luke says it's so. It's in this ordinary entrance of God that we learn. God meets us, god meets people, god meets humanity in the ordinary. Now remember what we've talked about the last five weeks, what's already been said about this baby. Elizabeth was promised that she would give birth in her old age to a forerunner to the world's Savior. The angel assured Mary that her son would be king of an eternal realm, and Zechariah prophesied that Jesus would be the guiding light, the Savior and the Redeemer for all generations. And yet the birth of Jesus unfolds in a cave in Bethlehem, surrounded by nothing special. The manger, which again was a feeding traw for the animals, cradles the hope of the world. This isn't a tale of grand entrances, but a story of an unexpected and humble beginning. In this seemingly inconspicuous setting, the Savior chooses to break into our world, and in doing so, in the simplicity of a stable filled with livestock, the king of kings enters the world in a way that defies all expectations but fulfills the promise of ages, and it's at this point you and I should feel the need to pause. Theophilus would likely find himself on a crossroads reading this for the very first time. Everything he's heard is rumors, and he's heard some of this and he's heard some of that, and he doesn't know what's true and what's false. But he trusts Luke and Luke has put something together. And as theophilus reads, you can just imagine that he's got to put the writing down for a moment. But even as he does so, you can't help but think that he also wants to really continue reading, because what happens next? And as we read and as theophilus reads, we come to find out next that God doesn't just meet us in the ordinary, god meets us in weakness. Jesus's mother, mary, had to be wary from the journey, the travel back to Bethlehem and the labor of childbirth, not in a controlled hospital setting but in a barn of sorts, and you can imagine her just being tired. She lays the baby Jesus down in this feeding trawl, this manger, but later that night, no doubt the cries of a hungry baby would echo throughout the stable. The world's Messiah, wrapped in swaddling clothes, would have to communicate through the vulnerability of Christ and for a time, the Creator of the universe is utterly dependent, requiring nourishment, care and a soothing touch from his mother. The Almighty finds peace and comfort in the arms of a tired and loving Mary. The weakness in this moment, the cries, the need for nourishment to be fed, to be changed, the reliance on human care. This is where divinity intersects with the frailty of humanity. You see, god meets us in weakness and it's in this very ordinary and humble setting that God unveils his extraordinary plan. This plan begins with weakness, but it culminates in the redemption and the salvation of every human everywhere. This is why so many religious people who knew the Old Testament text so well 2,000 years ago, missed Jesus when he was standing in front of him. They believed that when God came, that when the Messiah came, he would come with strength, not in weakness. But while Jesus may be laying down with the animals, make no mistake about it heaven is present and this shows us that God meets us faithfully, which I know is a churchy thing to say, especially on Christmas Eve. However, for those in the story and for theophilus, uncertainty persists. They're like us in that way, even when God answers the promise, something we've been praying for and praying for and praying for. God answers the promise, we wonder. Will he do it again? And let's be honest, for Zechariah and Elizabeth, for theophilus, for Mary, this setting the Savior of the world in a cave with farm animals sitting in a feeding trough. It doesn't instill a whole lot of confidence in God's promises. And yet God's faithfulness is gradually and continuously revealed throughout Luke's gospel. And yet we cannot help as we continue to read. Will God continue to keep his promises? Elizabeth got pregnant and she had her baby boy named John, which answered some promises. But would this child, john, actually be the forerunner of God's Messiah? And Mary got pregnant and she had a boy, which those were answered promises as well. But would her son, would Jesus be our Savior, the Son of God? And so we wait. Theophilus waits, mary waits, elizabeth waits, zechariah waits, john waits. And while they wait, god faithfully meets them. But this just isn't a story 2,000 years ago. It's not just a tradition that we have to talk about this time of year in our own lives. This isn't just another story. This is our story, because in our own lives we wait, I wait and you wait, and while we wait, god faithfully meets us where we are at. It's during the ordinary moments of our lives that God meets us and embraces us. Often we might mistakenly believe that if we're gonna have a great relationship with God a robust, healthy and vibrant relationship that we've got to be some sort of ideal version of Ourselves, or better than the average person. We think that we've got to have perfect marriages where faithfulness is unwavering. We think that we've got to have picture perfect families, prestigious while paying jobs, a profound understanding of life's complexities and sure of the correct answers in life. We've got to have a good theology. We got to be confident about the next steps in our journey or life, what we're gonna do next year, this year, in the months to come. However, this Christmas story, this passage in Luke, illuminates a different reality that God willingly engages us in the ideal and in the profound parts of life, but also in the ordinary, and Not just the ordinary. God goes a step further. When we fall short of the promises that we made on our wedding day, when our children, for reasons unbeknownst to us, choose some really stupid decisions or make some stupid decisions, when we have professional setbacks, like getting fired, being replaced, getting passed up at work, when life's complexities leave us grappling for answers, we don't know why that happened, we don't know how come it went that way and when. The future is uncertain and we don't know what steps to take, god still meets us. God meets us with open arms in these moments marked by vulnerability and Weakness, it's crucial to recognize that God's presence. It isn't reserved for our triumphs, but it extends gracefully to our struggles and uncertainties. God intimately understands what it's like to rely on another, to seek help from another and to navigate the complexities of the human spirit. This passage is the story of Christmas and it invites us to shift our perspective. It urges you and I, this holiday season, to see the divine, to see God not only as extraordinary but perhaps, and more profoundly, ordinary, that God reaches out to us not just in the extraordinary parts of our lives, but in the Ordinary aspects of our lives as well. It challenges us to acknowledge that God's grace doesn't shy away from our weaknesses and instead it meets us precisely there, offering us comfort and strength and the assurance. But we're never alone. Now, whether you find yourself in a season of plenty right now or you're navigating through some really difficult, tough challenges, I Hope and pray that this Christmas season serves as a reminder of the Messiah, our Lord and Savior, and how he comes to us in the ordinary and in our weaknesses, ever so Faithfully. The Christmas story back in zester. Recognize that Christmas is the source of enduring hope, regardless of our circumstances or what we have done, and the grand narrative of God's involvement with humanity. There's no discrimination based on greatness or specialness. This isn't about how much money you have or how much money you don't have, or the size of your house or the newness of your car, what your job title is or how much money is in the bank account. Instead, the Christmas message, or profound message of Christmas and it echoes that God embraces and extends to all of us extraordinary love, this universal grace encapsulated in the Christmas story, assures us that, no matter where we are on our spiritual journey, god is present with us, offering us hope, redemption and a transformative touch that transcends every aspect of our lives. And so, you see, I believe that Luke begins his gospel this way to show theophilus and all of us today that, before we can give solid answers to the questions about the signs and wonders and miracles that Jesus is going to perform, that everyone is going to talk about, luke begins this way to show that God is already doing signs, wonders and miracles before everyone is talking about them. So, as we continue through Luke's gospel, let's carry the questions that we have and the waiting in the messy middle, where answers are elusive, where we wait. In the mix of certainty and uncertainty, we encounter Jesus. We may not have all the answers we want today, and perhaps we never will. Still, it's precisely in this messy middle, where we have some answers, where we have no answers and we have only parts of answers, that we find the transformative presence of God's love. And as we revisit this timeless story this Christmas, let's resist the urge to rush past the seemingly ordinary details of the Christmas story and instead let's pause and consider how God often works in our everyday lives, weaving extraordinary purposes into the fabric of the ordinary. And as you reflect on your own life, consider the extraordinary within your ordinary. How might the seemingly mundane actually hold divine significance?

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