8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
I heard that someone saw Santa at the local Wal-Mart today, doing some last-minute shopping. Strangely, eyewitnesses claim that he was there with twenty-two reindeer. And they weren’t the well-known reindeer like Rudolph, Dasher, and Dancer, but a bunch of unknown, and likely unproven, reindeer. When asked about this, Santa, who doesn’t often deal with money, said that he heard that what he needed to purchase would cost about 20 bucks. To make sure he had enough, he brought along some extra doe (Reader’s Digest).
Maybe one day we will spend a significant amount of time talking about the real St. Nicholas, who seems to have been a pretty interesting guy. Nicholas was a bishop and a part of the Council of Nicea, which debated the nature of Jesus in 325 AD. Another bishop named Arius argued at length that Jesus was simply human, and subordinate to God the Father. The story goes (and there is little to corroborate this story) that Nicholas had heard enough, so he got up, walked over to Arius, and punched him in the face as he spoke. Some versions of the story say that Nicholas took off his sandal and hit Arius with it. Yeah, how do you like that as an image of the guy that sneaks into your home every December 24?
The real Nicholas did some wonderful things that seem to have really happened, including helping women avoid a life in the brothels, negotiating food prices for the poor, and providing presents for needy children. So it isn’t entirely surprising the way that gift giving and the story of St. Nick have been connected over the years.
But is Christmas about giving gifts? Sure it is! I’m not going to be a Grinch and tell you that there’s no place for giving gifts at Christmas. Christmas is about a lot of things.
My wife and I spent yesterday celebrating Christmas with her family and we will spend time in Ohio celebrating with my family. We are going to eat too much food, laugh at bad jokes, tell pointless stories, and enjoy one another’s company. Is Christmas about spending time with family? Absolutely!
People have to sign up well in advance to serve meals at the Valley Mission around the holidays. I hear that they get so many presents that they stockpile them for a later date and to give to other families. Is Christmas about performing good deeds? You know it is!
We can go on and on, naming the things that occupy our time around Christmas. Attending Christmas concerts and Christmas plays, watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and drinking eggnog are all wonderful things. And they are all a part of Christmas and there is nothing wrong with that. But, and this is a big but, they are not at the center of this season. These things radiate from the center.
We give gifts because Jesus received gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh around the time of his birth. And if you are looking for a good way to stand up to the consumerism that tends to run rampant this time of year, I like the idea of only giving our children three presents for Christmas. You shouldn’t get more presents than the birthday boy (idea stolen from Tripp Fuller).
We give gifts, we celebrate with family, we perform acts of kindness, we sing carols, all because the central meaning of Christmas: the birth of Jesus. Look at the angel’s pronouncement in verse 10, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”
Do not be afraid. I love the cartoon “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” in part because I can relate well with some of the characters. Charlie Brown never seems to be able to get anything right. Lucy is often offering questionable advice. And Linus is kind of a scaredy cat, always carrying his blanky, his security blanket, with him wherever he goes. The next time you see “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” notice that as Linus recites our text for this morning, just as he says, “Do not be afraid,” he drops his security blanket. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but Linus seems to drop the object in which he found comfort, and placed his trust in the one born King of the Jews, who brings tidings of comfort and joy…comfort and joy!
The angel said “I bring you good news,” euangelion in the Greek. I bring you the Gospel. And it will cause great joy for “all the people.” Not all Jews. Not all Gentiles who perform a certain act of obedience. Great joy for all the people. Period. Full stop.
Let’s go on to verse 11, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Look at some of the nouns used here. Savior, Messiah, Lord. I think that we can fall victim to using these words as synonyms. They aren’t. Each of these words is used to describe Jesus, but a different aspect of him. Savior, for in him is the forgiveness of sins. Messiah, the chosen/anointed one. Lord, the one with power and authority.
Let’s put that all together, and we get, Fear not! I bring you good news, the Gospel, in fact. There is reason for all people, all people, to celebrate. That reason is the birth of the one filled with grace, love, and forgiveness. He is God’s chosen one, filled with power and authority.
So if someone tells you that Christmas is about presents, I want you to say, “You’ve got it!” If someone says Christmas is about spending time with family, tell them, “You are right.” And if someone says that Christmas is about peace on earth, goodwill toward men, tell them, “Absolutely.” Christmas is about these things, but only because Christmas is first and foremost about Jesus.
In fact, I would want to take it one step further. Christmas is about everything that is good, everything that is lovely, everything that is wise, everything that lifts up the downtrodden, everything that heals the broken. Christmas is about all of these things, because without the birth of the Jesus, none of these things would matter. All would be meaningless without the birth of the Savior of the world, the promised Messiah, the Lord over all.
As you gather with friends and family in the days to come, remember that all of this matters because a poor, unmarried couple welcomed the Savior, Messiah, and Lord into this world. Born in a stable, laid in a manger. The most powerful being in the universe entered our world in the most vulnerable way. And the world will never be the same again.