We’ve always been told that anything too good to be true probably is. And so we carry with us a healthy dose of skepticism lest we be taken in by charlatans and con men. We read the news and assume it has a slant or an agenda, or both. We dismiss those stories that emphasize the good in people because we’ve seen too much of the other side to believe that people really do act selflessly.
And so, if we were to pick up the Bible for the first time and read the Gospel accounts of the birth of Christ, we might be inclined to raise our eyebrows and think, “Oh, really?” Our modern minds don’t usually have room for angels and virgin births.
Most people have been around long enough to know the basic storyline and a few of the characters: Mary and Joseph, an angel named Gabriel, some wise men following a star in the East, the shepherds watching their flocks, the inn that is too full so Mary gives birth in a stable, Herod the king, and of course the baby Jesus. I suspect for most people it is a quaint little story that has its place among the fairytales they tell their children that start out, “Once upon a time…” (our cue that what follows shouldn’t be believed).
But if that’s the story you’ve heard, you’ve only heard the half of it. That’s the story you hear in the Gospels written by Matthew, the Jewish tax-collector and Luke, the Greek medical doctor. What John, the fisherman writes is even more amazing. He gives us the prequel – the back story to everything that’s going on in Matthew and Luke. He starts the story this way: John 1:1-14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
“In the beginning.” He doesn’t start with Mary and Joseph. He doesn’t go back to Abraham. He doesn’t even start with Adam and Eve. He goes all the way back. “In the beginning” – before man, before creation.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.”
In case you’re wondering, John refers to Jesus as “the Word.” But by Word, he means more than a few pen strokes on a page. This Word is God himself. When we refer to the Trinity, we are talking about the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. In John, the Word and the Son are one and the same. They are in the beginning – no man, no earth, just God. And suddenly God speaks the word – “let there be light and there was light.”
And so we come to verse 3: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” There is no primordial sludge and a spark of lightning and a one-celled amoeba appears and billions of generations of evolution later you and I sit here. God spoke the Word, and it was. On the sixth day he said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…” And then, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” And then, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”
But as you and I know, anything that God makes good, Satan can twist and man can mess up, and that’s exactly what happened. And suddenly the story that began with such a bright future takes a turn into darkness.
God from that moment on pursues his precious creation trying to bring his people back to him, but it seems only to go from bad to worse, and at one point God despaired of ever creating man and sent a flood to wipe all of creation clean… except for Noah and his family – and God begins again. But Satan has a foothold firmly entrenched in the hearts of men, and throughout the generations every time one step is made toward God, they take two steps backward.
Hundreds of years pass, generations come and go, God sends Abraham to a land he will give him, but his family ends up in Egyptian slavery; God sends Moses to deliver his people and gives them the Law at Sinai; their faithlessness brings them 40 years in the wilderness; and after that generation dies out they are ready to come to the promised land. The people are led by judges, but still the writer of Judges summarizes, “In those days Israel had no king and everyone did as he saw fit.” Deeper into darkness they descended.
God gave them kings, but those kings, with rare exceptions, led the people further and further away from God. God sent prophets, but the people ignored them and persecuted them. God sent his people into Assyrian captivity and into Babylonian exile hoping to recover a remnant of people to begin again. But further into darkness they fell.
But God is not finished. Don’t forget where we left off in John’s Gospel. In vs. 4, John writes, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” And four verses later John writes, “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.”
And then in vs. 14, John lays all his cards on the table: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Man was not lost, hope was not dead. When John comes to chapter 3, he will tell us this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Even when Satan seemed to have the world under his control and darkness had enveloped God’s precious creation, God was not finished. That Word, through whom he created the heavens and the earth and man himself, would now come to redeem and save that precious creation. He became flesh and dwelt among us.
Now, if you thought the nativity story was a sweet Christmas tale about a little baby born in a stable who grows up to be a good man and a great teacher, you’ve missed the point. That little baby is none other than the eternal Son of God through whom all the world was created and who has now come to rescue it.
If you don’t understand that, then of course, the nativity story will be a childhood fairytale that begins, “once upon a time.”
But if you understand that the angelic announcement, and the star in the east, and the virgin birth of this baby are the culmination of centuries of God’s plan to redeem his people, then you realize that there’s a whole lot more going on than the touching story of a baby born long ago and far away.
This is the most important story that we could ever tell, because it is the story of a God who loves his people so much that he will never give up trying to win them back. It is a story about a God who was willing to do anything, pay any price to have his beloved creation back.
And he did it in a way that no one would ever say, “that’s how I would have written the story.” Nobody would have selected that cast of characters and under those circumstances – it’s just too unbelievable. Why would anybody choose an illegitimate baby, (conceived by the Holy Spirit no less), surrounded by scandal, born in a sheep pen, raised by peasant parents – he becomes an itinerant preacher who claims to be the Son of God, gets crosswise with the religious establishment and ends up being executed as a common criminal to be the hero? That’s too far-fetched.
If we were writing the story, we would have made the hero a child born in a palace who grows up to be a great king or a conquering general. He would be beloved by the people and feared by his enemies. Now that’s the kind of hero we could believe in.
And if we were writing the story of salvation, it would be according to how good a person is and how well they keep the rules. We would grade on the curve. It makes a lot more sense that the Pharisees would have been the recipients of the Savior’s blessings rather than the poor and the outcast and the sinners.
This idea of grace and salvation being a free gift doesn’t make any sense at all. We want things to be fair – you get what you deserve. If you want a place in heaven you have to earn it.
But God is writing this story. And this story breaks all the rules. Jesus came and hung around prostitutes and tax collectors. He was called a friend of sinners – and it was the Pharisees who considered him their enemy.
I know – it’s unbelievable. But that’s the point. This is the unbelievable true story of Christmas.
Don’t forget what the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 1:27-30: But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.
This is a story that could only come from the heart of God. Only in his wisdom and by his grace would he think of sending his Son as a baby born to a peasant girl in a manger in Bethlehem to save the world.
And so when we open our Bibles to Matthew 1 and read, “This is how the birth of Jesus came about…” don’t forget that the story began long before: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God… The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The infinite, eternal Son of God became a very finite baby, clothed in flesh, helpless and dependent. A child like every other child, and yet a child like no other child. He came to earth to be one of us, because only in becoming one of us could he become our perfect redeemer and savior.
Everybody loves a baby laying helplessly in a manger, but how do you feel about the eternal Lord of all creation who calls you to follow him and demands that you die to yourself in order that he might live through you? Because that’s the real story of Christmas – believe it or not.
Posted on Sun, December 24, 2017
by John Roberts