Series: Christmas Words
We kick off our series on Christmas words with peace, but we also see that peace comes as part of a bigger package–good news of the birth of a Savior who brings glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth.
We’re starting a new series of sermons leading up to the Christmas holiday, where many Christians have historically focused on Jesus’ birth. And this year to do that we’re looking at a series of words that are often associated with Christmas: Peace, love, hope, joy. They’re things it seems like everyone wants, which means they’re also powerful marketing tools. But what are they really? And will that thing on the commercial really bring them? That’s what we’re talking about in this series of sermons leading up to Christmas. Today we begin with peace, which shows up in the story of Jesus’ birth, recorded in the passage that was just read for us. But it doesn’t show up explicitly until the very end of the passage. It’s the result of what comes before it, and so in our lives, peace is something you can’t get by aiming directly at it. You can’t will your way into peace, or love, hope, or joy for that matter. As with everything good in the Christian life, peace comes to us in Jesus. So we have to first understand the story of Jesus before we can receive the peace He gives, and that means even in this sermon we must talk about a number of things before we get to peace. As valuable as peace is, the birth of Jesus is about more, not less, than peace. The birth of Jesus is good news, because it happened, He is Savior, He brings glory to God, and, He does bring peace to His people.
Our passage today begins with what may seem to us like dry, historical details, but that’s how historians roll. When Luke began this book that now bears his name in chapter 1, he said that he was writing to give an “orderly account” for his recipient, a man named Theophilus, so that he might “have certainty” concerning the things he had been taught. So this man had heard the story of Jesus, but Luke wanted him to have certainty about it. Maybe you’ve heard the Christmas story as something like a fairy tale, but verses 1-7 are here to say that it really happened. The birth of Jesus can only be good news if it is first of all news. And here’s the news: There was a real Caesar Augustus who ruled the Roman Empire on the same planet earth on which you and I live now. If you had gone to Rome about 2000 years ago, he would have been there. And in those days he made a census decree, kinda like how now, in our country, there is a census every 10 years. There was another guy named Quirinius who was a governor in Syria, and this census was the first while he was governor.
So all the people of the Roman Empire go to be registered, each to their appointed town. For a man named Joseph, that means he went to a town in Judea called Bethlehem, the city of David, because that’s his ancestry. His betrothed, which is kind of like a fiancée, but more legally binding, went with him, and she was pregnant with a child who Luke introduced in chapter 1: A child not born of Mary and Joseph’s union, but specially created in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit. While they were there, the time came for her to give birth, and she gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and then laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them at the inn. Whether he was laid in the cattle’s feeding trough or what not the text doesn’t tell us; there are legends that arise around this stuff that aren’t necessarily historical. There’s also no story of a hard-hearted inn owner who mercilessly turned them away. But they did spend that first night in the animals’ quarters. There you have it; that’s the news Luke the historian wants to report.
The story of Jesus’ birth is not mythology, and one of the dangers of Christmas is that we can start to think of it like that. There’s the legend of Santa, the legend of reindeer, and the legend of Jesus. But that’s not an option Luke gives us. The birth of Jesus is as much a fact of history as your birth and mine. But it did have a significance beyond my birth and yours, and that’s what the rest of the passage unfolds for us. Verses 1-7 answer the question, “Did it really happen?” with a resounding yes, and then verses 8-14 answer the question, “What did it really mean?” Verses 1-7 show us that it is news, but verses 8-14 shows us it is good news.
He is Savior
Verse 8 tells us that in the same region where Jesus was born there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flocks at night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them with a bright light shining around him, a light which the Bible calls the glory of God. The first response of these shepherds in verse 9 was fear. We’ve read the whole story now and know that the angel came to announce good news, but these shepherds didn’t know that at first, and in the Bible, God coming isn’t always good news. Sometimes God comes in judgment, and that’s bad news for the guilty. That the shepherds respond with fear at first, then, shows that they know they are guilty. They were Jewish shepherds, after all, who had lived under the tutelage of God’s law, and the law had done its job: It convicted them as sinners. So when a messenger clearly sent from God appears to them, they are filled with fear.
And then, much to their surprise, the angel says, “Fear not.” Why? It’s not because it was unreasonable of them to be afraid in the first place; it’s because this messenger of heaven hasn’t been sent with a message of judgment. Here’s why the angel says they don’t need to stay afraid: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The good news of great joy is not that they aren’t sinners; it’s that unto them has been born a Savior! And the fact that such an announcement takes place in the time of the Roman Empire is not insignificant. Biblical scholar Darrell Bock points out that at this time the birth of the emperor Augustus was announced with a report of “good news” and the arrival of a “savior.” The salvation the Roman Emperor offered was what came to be known as the “Pax Romana,” the peace of Rome, where Rome would conquer their enemies so that their people could dwell secure.
However, the salvation offered by the emperor of Rome wasn’t such good news for God’s people, the Jews. The Romans gave them some latitude to serve their God, but they also demanded the allegiance of the Jews to Rome. Can you see why that would cause problems for the Jews? What happens when obedience to their God requires them to do something that seems contrary to Roman interests? And what happens if Rome decides to stop being nice to them at any point? Throughout the Bible, God’s people find themselves under the reign of these brutal, powerful empires: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and now Rome. And as long as they are, they can’t serve the LORD without fear. But God also promised to send them a savior. In Isaiah God said that “unto you” a child would be born, who would rule His people and give them peace. In Micah he said a ruler would be born in Bethlehem who would rule God’s people as a shepherd, and He shall be their peace. And then in Luke chapter 1 we get this summary of the prophecies: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1:68-75).
So what was this promised Savior to come and do? He was to save the people of Israel from their enemies and the hand of all who hate them, so that they might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all their days. Now the angel says, “Unto you is born that child of which Isaiah prophesied, in that city of which Micah prophesied, for unto you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” This promised Savior was also called Christ, a word meaning anointed one, or in Hebrew, Messiah, and so we see that title appear here. He’s also called Lord, a title with a double referent: In the Greek translation of the Jewish Bible, it’s the word that was used to refer to God. The child that was born here was nothing less than the one true eternal God, who became human on that day when Quirinius was governor in Syria. But in a Roman context, Lord was a title given to Caesar. Not only did they proclaim good news of the birth of Caesar, their savior; they professed that Caesar is Lord. But now the true Lord has come to reclaim His people, so that they might once again serve Him without fear.
And the circumstances of His birth show us that He is a different kind of Savior and Lord than Caesar. Suffice it to say no Caesar ever spent his first night sleeping with the animals. Even when traveling, the wealthy and powerful always have connections. Jesus had nobody. The first people who hear of Jesus’ birth weren’t the Roman nobility; instead it was a group of shepherds, keeping watch by night. Because Micah has prophesied that the coming ruler would shepherd His flock in the strength of the LORD. Shepherds do rule; they have authority, but they feed, protect, and provide for their sheep. And look at the signs the shepherds will see of this Savior, Christ the Lord, in verse 12: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. Do you see how humble Jesus is? How many of the rulers and power players in our world are constantly starved for people to tell them how great they are? Now here comes the one who is truly great, the true Lord, and He chooses to come as a baby lying in a manger.
Make no mistake about it, He is a ruler, and is presented as such here. He is Lord. But He’s the one Lord it’s truly safe to submit to. He saves us from all the other rulers we might serve, so that we might serve the LORD without fear. He’s the one ruler whose reign is good news of great joy for all the people, even sinful, fearful shepherds. And once the announcement of such good news is made by the angel, there was suddenly with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.” The birth of Jesus is good news because this Savior saves in such a way as to bring glory to God in the highest.
He brings glory to God
Why do the angels proclaim glory to God in the highest in verse 14? Because God is the Savior who has come! In coming for all His people, God shows that He is faithful to His promise and greater than Caesar. The angels proclaim glory to God in the highest, that is, above Caesar even, the highest ranking official on earth! Above him there is a God reigning in the heavens, in the highest place, and He has come to rule His people as their shepherd once again.
But because He is a different kind of Savior and Lord than Caesar, the way He gets glory is different too. If Caesar wanted to get glory for himself, he killed people, and then those who were left would either give him glory or get killed too. And there were plenty in Jesus’ day who expected Him to get glory like that. After all, even Luke 1 said that this child would save them from all their enemies and from the hand of those who hated them. So surely Jesus was going to exercise His power as Mighty God to defeat the Roman armies in battle and ultimately put Caesar to death. Then Israel would be saved from their enemies and all would glorify God above Caesar. But that’s not how the story goes. Instead, Jesus’ life ended in death, death at the hands of an official of the Roman Empire!
The path to “glory to God in the highest” began with God coming down, being born in a manger without any glorious fanfare, and then assuming the lowest, most humiliating position possible, dying on a Roman cross at the hands of the Roman Empire, because the enemy from which Israel had to be delivered was far bigger than the Romans. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Rome; they were all societies built on sin, but sin was not confined to them. The shepherds feared the messenger from heaven because they sensed they were guilty of it too. For God to get glory in the highest, He would have to not only save His people from the sins of the Romans; He would have to save them from their own sins. If there is one thing Israel’s story revealed, it was that. Because God had saved them from the Egyptians, and like, a week later, they made another god for themselves and worshiped it. God gave them victory over their enemies and brought them into the promised land. He gave them the temple where they could serve Him without fear. And still they went after other gods. Their problem, our problem, is not merely that people with power over us won’t let us serve the Lord. Our problem is that something in us doesn’t want to serve the Lord, and that makes us guilty before God. Jesus would be no savior at all if He didn’t deal with that problem.
So He came and took upon Himself our nature, was made like us in every way except sin. Though He was the one who gave the law, He now took upon Himself the obligation to obey it. And though He was born under the Roman Empire, He did obey it, even though the Roman Empire brought against Him the most powerful weapon they had. They put him to death. And here’s how we know sin wasn’t just a Roman problem: The Jews, God’s chosen people, conspired with them to do it. But God used that very act to accomplish the salvation of His people, not only from among the Jews, but even to save people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. On the cross Jesus took our sins upon Himself and suffered the judgment under God’s law that they deserved, and then as the reward for His obedience, God raised Him from the dead. That’s how Jesus defeated the Romans. He let them kill Him, and then He rose from the dead. That’s how Jesus defeated our sin. He died for it, and then He rose from the dead. In so doing, He accomplished a salvation no Caesar ever could. And so to Him, and to Him alone, belongs glory in the highest.
To what else are you giving the highest glory in your life? Passages like this can be hard for us to relate to because we never lived under the brutality of the Roman Empire. And we should be thankful to God that we live in a nation which under the influence of Christianity made more space for liberty than Rome did. However, let us not forget that hasn’t been the experience of everyone in America. The arrival of Europeans wasn’t good news for native Americans. Black folks have suffered under the brutality of slavery, Jim Crow, and the prejudice that remains today, often at the hands of those who claimed to be followers of Jesus! And some of you have grown up in abusive households or have even suffered at the hands of abusive pastors. So you know what it’s like to be forced to serve an evil power.
But whether that’s your story or not, we all have in fact served something other than God, to which we have given the highest glory, which controls us and keeps us from serving the Lord without fear. Though people may not officially rule over us the way the Romans did the Israelites, many of us are so afraid that people will shame us, reject us, or hurt us, that we are controlled by them. We give a professor, a boss, a love interest, a tribe glory in the highest. Do you see why this is good news of great joy now? You don’t need to do that anymore! Your sins have been forgiven. You’ve been set free. You can come back to God through faith in Christ, and the moment you do, know that He accepts you and that you will live with Him forever. That’s how Jesus saved His people from the Romans. He saved them in such a way that revealed God to be more glorious than any emperor, and He conquered Rome’s most powerful weapon: death, so that whoever believed in Him, though they die, they knew they would live with Him.
So give God glory in the highest, and fear people no longer. What can they do to you? Shame you? Jesus has covered your shame. Reject you? Through Jesus, God has accepted you. Hurt you? Kill you? Through Jesus, you will live again. And so we see finally, that even as He brings glory to God in the highest by revealing God’s glory and freeing us to worship God above people, in so doing He also brings peace to His people on earth.
He brings peace to His people
So the angels sing in verse 14 not only glory to God in the highest, but on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased. The glory of God is not at the expense of our peace. Remember the prophecy of Luke 1 that God would save His people so that they could serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days. Because this savior has been born, God’s people will have peace on earth. They will be free not only to serve Him again, to give Him glory in the highest, but to do so without fear, because their enemies will be defeated.
A couple things to notice about this. One is that it proclaims peace on earth. Many religions and mythologies offer a kind of peace, but it’s typically by escaping the earth: You meditate to transcend the material and visible. Or, with less religious overtones, what do you do when you lack peace? You watch a TV show. You get into another world that’s not filled with the problems you’re facing. The problem of course with all these escape tactics is once they’re over, you’re still on earth, and so are your problems. But here we read that on this earth, the angels say there will be peace among people. And then, second thing to notice, is that it doesn’t say “all people” in this case. Remember that the good news of great joy the angel announced was for all people, because a Savior has been born, and He has provided salvation for whoever believes. The work is done, and is sufficient to save all people. However, there are only some to whom God is pleased to grant that salvation. And what do those people look like?
They look like the shepherds. They are those Jesus described as poor in spirit. They are those who are aware of how much greater God is than they, not those, like Caesar, who are trying to be God. They are those who know they are guilty before God, not those, like many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, who were righteous in their own eyes. It was they who happily received the good news of great joy, because they knew they needed a Savior. Do you? Is doing whatever you think it takes to get powerful people, the Caesars of your life, to accept you, really bringing peace? It never will. You’ll always have to keep them liking you, there is always one more person to get to like you, one more inner ring to break into, and there is always the threat that some other tribe will become more powerful than yours.
Is relying on your own righteousness really bringing you peace, telling yourself that you’re a good person, and you try your best? It never will. Because you know deep down you aren’t as good as you should be. You know deep down that you don’t always try your best. You can’t save yourself, and you don’t have to. People can’t save you, and they don’t have to. For unto us has been born a Savior, who gives us peace with God, and who therefore enables us to have peace on earth. That’s how Jesus gave peace to Israel, to those who like the shepherds despaired of their own righteousness and acknowledged their spiritual poverty. He died for their sins, and thus gave them peace with God. So now they didn’t have to fear Caesar or any other enemy any longer. Nothing they did could separate them now from the love of God in Christ Jesus their Lord. Not even the Roman sword could do that. And so do you know what Christians in the Roman Empire did? They sang God’s praises while they were being carried off to be executed. They gave glory to God in the highest without fear. Today they’re singing with the angels in heaven while Rome lies in ruins. And one day they will walk on the earth again in resurrected bodies and give glory to God in the highest forever, when neither sickness, nor crying, nor pain, nor death, will be anymore. That’s peace. And it’s a peace that can begin for you now on this earth and last forever. Receive Jesus, and you will receive it.