Text: Luke 2:1-20
Luke’s picture of the birth of Jesus is a study in opposites. On the one hand it is a glorious announcement about the birth of the Son of God on earth. Yet it happens in a largely private setting, in an unknown little barn in tiny Bethlehem. The word is given to basically anonymous shepherds, and while they do go out telling other people, the event doesn’t make much of an impact on the people of the day.
The angels make a huge announcement. The messiah, the Lord, the Savior, is born. But who was there to hear this? And they say that there will be a sign to confirm this good news. But even the sign is not necessarily spectacular. It’s a baby in a manger. That’s strange, to be sure. But it’s not in and of itself miraculous, and, again, it’s the kind of thing that didn’t generate that much attention.
Finally, the effects of Christmas are paradoxical. The angels say, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” But what did this actually look like? It looked like the ministry of Jesus Christ which created division and brought suffering upon Christ and His followers. That’s what the “glory” ended up looking like. That’s the “peace” and “goodwill toward men.” It’s not what we’d expect. It’s not always easy to understand.
And yet, as we will see, these Christmas paradoxes are actually quite fitting. They demonstrate how God always chooses to work, by putting His treasure in earthen vessels and making His strength perfect in weaknesses. The gospel is a story of God making Himself lowly in order to raise men up to grace and to glory, and that truth is displayed perfectly at Christmas.
Notice how Luke 2 begins. It names a giant of history, Caesar Augustus, who is right up there with Julius Caesar as the most powerful and important leader of the Roman Empire. Then it moves to a descendant of King David. But this descendant is not really royalty any more. No, the line has fallen out of standing, and the man in question, Joseph, is nobody famous. Indeed, he and his wife Mary appear to be rather poor. They don’t have anywhere to stay and end up sleeping with the animals. When the Christ child is born, He has to be placed in a feed trough, because they don’t have any other bedding for Him.
The contrasts continue, as Luke moves to the shepherds. A shepherd was not a high-paying job at this time in history, and these men were probably the hired manual laborers. They had to live in the fields (Luke 2:8). They were probably dirty and stinky.
It is to these shepherds that God’s angels appear. The angels are covered in “glory.” “The glory of the Lord shone around” the shepherds, and they were rightly afraid. The night may been silent and calm at first, but it got loud and bright when the angel showed up.
The Glorious Announcement
The angel’s announcement is glorious too. “I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). A savior is born. He is the messiah. He is the Lord. To Jewish people of that day, this means that this messiah was the heir to the throne of David and would restore the kingdom to Israel. This was not simply a “feel good” message. It was a political announcement that would affect all of Israel, the Roman Empire, and indeed the whole world.
But who was there to hear it? Just a few shepherds. There was no welcoming party. There was no court. There was no parade. It was told to a few unknown manual laborers.
And the miraculous sign that the shepherds are supposed to look for? It’s a sign of poverty. “This will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). That might seem strange, but it’s hardly a miracle. Instead it’s a paradox. The savior messiah is sleeping in a feed trough. He looks like nobody special. God is saving the world through this?
But this sign is perfect, isn’t it? It shows the way in which God will bring about His purposes. He has angels. He has glorious light and loud chorus. But He chooses to have His Son born to a poor virgin who is presently sleeping beside barn animals. God is humbling Himself to make His power manifest through weakness.
The angels also tell us what this miraculous birth will bring about. They say, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:14). These are the effects of Christmas.
The first part is easy to understand, but still wonderful in its curiosity. This event will bring the highest glory to God. The birth of an unknown child in a small town in a barn will bring more glory to God than all of the miracles of the past. In this, His glory will be shown. Truly “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty” (1 Cor. 1:27).
The second part requires a little more explanation. This birth of Christ will bring peace on earth and goodwill towards men. What does this mean?
Our Christmas carols all like to talk about Christmas being about peace. More recent ones try to use this message to argue for an end to contemporary wars. Others say that Christmas should cause us to set aside our differences and simply love one another.
If this is what “peace” means, then it’s hard to see how Jesus’ birth actually brought it. After all, it’s not very long until King Herod orders the death of all of the Hebrew boys. And Jesus’ ministry was not characterized by widespread agreement and unity. No, He Himself said:
Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to “set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law”; and “a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.” He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it. (Matthew 10:34-39)
Jesus message was one of forgiveness and salvation, but it always also carried rebuke and a call to absolute loyalty. This will not bring earthly peace. No, the only way peace can be a fruit of His ministry is if it is the result of Him changing us—of His salvation and the work of His Spirit in our lives.
The same is true for “goodwill towards men.” Jesus most certainly does not inspire men to all get along with each other. Instead, He calls them to repent, and many of them reject Him and fight against Him.
In fact, there’s a tricky translation matter with Luke 2:14. The expression “goodwill toward men” is not completely clear in the Greek. The word we translate as “goodwill” is actually modifying the noun. It doesn’t simply say “goodwill that is given to men” but rather “the men of goodwill.” Some even argue that it should be translated “peace on earth towards those goodwill men” or “towards those men whom God’s goodwill has been given.” That’s a rather different idea, isn’t it?
Now, I am not pointing this out to you in order to limit the amount of people who can have peace and goodwill. I’m explaining how anyone can have peace, only by God’s favor. If we are still in our sin, we are in a state of war. As James put its, “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (James 4:4). We can only have peace if we receive God’s favor, die to the world, and are born again through His Son.
And this is exactly what Christmas does, or what it begins to do. Christmas is how God begins to bring about His salvation on the earth. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). This is how the peace is brought to earth, through the birth of Jesus and, ultimately, through the giving up of Jesus to die for us. This humility of God—the pouring out of Himself to become low—is what saves us.
And, amazingly, it’s what brings Him glory in the highest. This is, perhaps the biggest Christmas paradox of all. God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.
Christmas is a time when what is high is brought low. It is a time when the poor are exalted. God is born under the law, born of a woman. This is how He decided to bring about our salvation—in and through the weak and lowly things of this world.
That’s God’s glory and grace.
This is an example to us. This is how we ought to be, as well. We should be content with a lowly status and calling. We should imitate God in Christ by living humble lives, lives that do not draw great attention to ourselves nor pursue vainglory. Instead, we ought to find our glory in glorifying God, by worshiping Him, by serving Him, and by proclaiming His message.
I made some criticisms of Christmas carols earlier. But the classic Christmas carols usually do capture the message of humility and paradox quite well. They say some astounding things. Consider the great “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” and may we all ponder these truths in our hearts:
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 the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
… Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the new-born king”
Let Us Pray