Lowly, Beautiful Christmas
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It is written in Haggai 2:6–7 that God says, “I will shake the heavens; and the precious things of all nations shall come.” This is fulfilled today, for the heavens were shaken; that is, the angels in the heavens sang praises to God. And the earth was shaken; that is, the people on the earth were agitated; one journeying to this city, another to that throughout the whole land, as the Gospel tells us. It was not a violent, bloody uprising, but rather a peaceable one awakened by God, who is the God of peace.
This Gospel is so clear that it requires very little explanation, but it should be well considered and taken deeply to heart; and no one will receive more benefit from it than those who, with a calm, quiet heart, banish everything else from their mind, and diligently look into it. It is just as the sun which is reflected in calm water and gives out vigorous warmth, but which cannot be so readily seen, nor can it give out such warmth in water that is in roaring and rapid motion.
First, behold how very ordinary and common things are to us that transpire on earth, and yet how high they are regarded in heaven. On earth it occurs in this wise: Here is a poor young woman, Mary of Nazareth, not highly esteemed, but of the humblest citizens of the village. No one is conscious of the great wonder she bears; she is silent, keeps her own counsel, and regards herself as the lowliest in the town. She starts out with her husband Joseph; very likely they had no servant, and he had to do the work of master and servant, and she that of mistress and maid. They were therefore obliged to leave their home unoccupied, or commend it to the care of others.
Now they evidently owned an ass, upon which Mary rode, although the Gospel does not mention it, and it is possible that she went on foot with Joseph. Imagine how she was despised at the inns and stopping places on the way, although worthy to ride in state in a chariot of gold.
There were, no doubt, many wives and daughters of prominent men at that time, who lived in fine apartments and great splendor, while the mother of God takes a journey in midwinter under most trying circumstances. What distinctions there are in the world! It was more than a day's journey from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in the land of Judea. They had to journey either by or through Jerusalem, for Bethlehem is south of Jerusalem while Nazareth is north.
The Evangelist shows how, when they arrived at Bethlehem, they were the most insignificant and despised, so that they had to make way for others until they were obliged to take refuge in a stable, to share with the cattle, lodging, table, bedchamber and bed, while many a wicked man sat at the head in the hotels and was honored as lord. No one noticed or was conscious of what God was doing in that stable. He lets the large houses and costly apartments remain empty, lets their inhabitants eat, drink, and be merry; but this comfort and treasure are hidden from them. Oh, what a dark night this was for Bethlehem that was not conscious of that glorious light! See how God shows that he utterly disregards what the world is, has or desires; and furthermore, that the world shows how little it knows or notices what God is, has and does.
See, this is the first picture with which Christ puts the world to shame and exposes all it does and knows. It shows that the world's greatest wisdom is foolishness, her best actions are wrong and her greatest treasures are misfortunes. What had Bethlehem when it did not have Christ? What have they now who at that time had enough? What do Joseph and Mary lack now, although at that time they had no room to sleep comfortably?
But what happens in heaven concerning this birth? As much as it is despised on earth, so much and a thousand times more is it honored in heaven. If an angel from heaven came and praised you and your work, would you not regard it of greater value than all the praise and honor the world could give you, and for which you would be willing to bear the greatest humility and reproach? What exalted honor is that when all the angels in heaven cannot restrain themselves from breaking out in rejoicing, so that even poor shepherds in the fields hear them preach, praise God, sing and pour out their joy without measure.—Martin Luther1
Wouldn’t it have been much more respectable and acceptable for the King of kings, Jesus, to have been born in a palace, with illustrious members of the court in attendance, and with all the honor and praise of society? Instead, He was born on the dirty floor of a barn, next to cows and asses, wrapped in rags and lying in a feed trough, with a motley crew of poor little shepherd boys kneeling on the floor beside Him.
The unexpected and the improper, the unconventional and untraditional, the unorthodox and unceremonious, contrary to man’s natural expectation—this is the way God usually works. “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.’”2 Who can know the mind of the Lord, and who can show Him anything?—David Brandt Berg4
Great little One! whose all-embracing birth
Lifts Earth to Heaven, stoops Heaven to Earth.—Richard Crashaw
God uses little towns and youngest sons and slingshots to magnify his glory by contrast, to show that he is not the least dependent on human glory or greatness or achievement. The apostle Paul puts it like this in 1 Corinthians 1:27–31. “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God . . . Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” God chose a stable so no innkeeper might boast, “He chose my inn!” God chose a manger so that no woodworker could boast, “He chose the craftsmanship of my bed!” He chose Bethlehem so no one could boast, “The greatness of our city constrained the divine choice!”
“What then becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? The principle of works and human merit? No! But on the principle of faith in God's mercy. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”5 The divine choice of little Bethlehem as the place of the incarnation is essentially the message of justification by faith apart from works of the law. Bethlehem means that God does not bestow the blessing of salvation on the basis of our merit or our achievement. He does not elect cities or people because of their prominence of grandeur or distinction. When he chooses, he chooses in freedom in order to magnify the glory of his mercy. So when Micah contrasts little Bethlehem with the greatness of the Messiah, he shows God acting in his typical fashion: to magnify his glory and to turn human boasting into gratitude and praise and faith. “Glory to God in the highest,” the angels said, and so should we.—John Piper6
Why should there be a miraculous announcement at all, and why should it be to these shepherds?
It was fitting that such angel voices should attend such an event, whether men gave heed to them or not; and because, recorded, their song has helped a world to understand the nature and meaning of that birth. The glory died off the hillside quickly, and the music of the song scarcely lingered longer in the ears of its first hearers; but its notes echo still in all lands, and every generation turns to them with wonder and hope.
The selection of two or three peasants as receivers of the message, the time at which it was given and the place are all significant. It was no unmeaning fact that the glory of the Lord shone … round the shepherds, and held them and the angel standing beside them in its circle of light. No longer within the secret shrine, but out in the open field, the symbol of the Divine Presence glowed through the darkness; for that birth hallowed common life, and brought the glory of God into familiar intercourse with its secularities and smallness. The appearance to these humble men as they sat simply chatting in a rustic row symbolized the destination of the Gospel for all ranks and classes.—Alexander Maclaren7
O Christmas Sun! What holy task is thine!
To fold a world in the embrace of God!—Guy Wetmore Carryl
This is the message of Christmas: We are never alone.—Taylor Caldwell
Published on Anchor December 2013. Read by Simon Peterson. Music taken from the Christmas Moments album. Used by permission.
1 “Sermons for Christmas Day,” The Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol. I.
2 Isaiah 55:8–9.
3 Romans 11:34; Isaiah 40:13–14.
4 Dare to Be Different (Aurora Production AG, 2001).
5 Romans 3:27, 28.
6 From http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/from-bethlehem-in-the-majesty-of-the-name-of-the-lord.
7 “Shepherds and Angels,” Expositions of Holy Scripture: St. Luke.