Sunday, December 24, 2017

Unto You

Another Christmas. And for some of us, this Christmas joins quite a few other Christmases. And how many times have we heard the story of the angel’s message to the shepherds, the story that I read to you earlier? Can there be anything that we’ve missed over the years? Is there anything more to see? Actually, there is. There always is. We’ll never exhaust the wonders that are contained in the Scriptures. And the way we get to see more of what’s there is by paying close attention to the words, meditating carefully on the words.

So, today we’re going to look at some of the words of the familiar story. Listen again to what the angel said.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Luke 2.11

We’re not going to take the whole sentence apart. In fact, we’re only going to look at two words, ‘unto you’. We’re going to see what these two words have to teach us about the Gospel.

The first thing I’d like you to notice is what the angel didn’t say. He didn’t say ‘unto us’. The angel didn’t include himself as one of those who is to receive the gift of a savior. Is that significant? Oh, yes, it is.

You see, angels don’t get to have a savior. Some of them don’t need a savior. They haven’t sinned against the God who made them. So, there’s no need.

But then, there are the other angels. These have sinned. And their leader in this rebellion is Satan. These angels have followed Satan’s lead and have fallen from their high estate. And because of that, they have been justly condemned. They will share the same fate as their leader.

… the devil who had deceived [the nations] was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Revelation 20.10

Satan, and those with him, will suffer the justice of God’s anger forever and ever and ever. There will be no possibility of any of them being rescued. No possibility. And the reason? God has decided that they will have no savior.

Now, that’s very interesting and all, but what difference does that make for us? What are we to learn from this? Here’s one thing to learn. God could have treated us in the same way. He could have decided that He would treat fallen people in the same way that He decided to treat fallen angels. No savior. Torment forever and ever and ever. And if you think about it, that is exactly what He should have done. How are we any different from those fallen angels?

So, don’t think that the angel simply informing those shepherds of the next thing to happen in history, as if it were inevitable. No. He is declaring something amazing. God has decided to rescue fallen humanity. He has decided that there would be a savior for you. What grace that there is even the possibility of rescue! A savior has been sent. What mercy! Consider what your life would be like if there were no savior sent. Not even the possibility of rescue. What a horrid life now. And eternal torment later, forever and ever and ever. But the angel said, ‘Unto you…’

Let’s move on. What else is there in our phrase, ‘unto you’? Here’s a good question to ask. Who is this ‘you’? Who’s the angel referring to?

One common error when it comes to understanding the Scriptures correctly is not keeping clearly in mind the original situation that the Scriptures are reporting.

So, for example, consider these words of Jesus.

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. John 15.7

How many struggle with this. It makes a very big difference in understanding what’s going on here if you remember who Jesus was talking to. He was talking to His apostles, those whom He would send out to preach.

So, back to the angel’s words. Who is the ‘you’ in our phrase ‘unto you’? Who’s the angel talking to? He’s talking to a bunch of shepherds. Is that significant? Well, consider. Could God have sent the angel to someone else? The answer is obvious. Of course, He could have.

He could have sent the angel to King Herod. But his heart was already so hard one wonders if even a visit from an angel could have made a dent in it. More than likely, after hearing from the angel, he would have sent some soldiers to kill the newborn savior. So, Herod wouldn’t be a good choice.

But what about someone like Simeon or Anna? Sending the angel to them makes total sense. They both rejoiced when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple. God could have sent the angel to them with good effect.

But He didn’t.

All of that, then, raises this question. Why did God send the angel to some shepherds?

Let’s start with this. What do we know about shepherds of that day? For one thing, they had a terrible reputation. They were known to be thieves. And they lied. In fact, it was so bad that they were not allowed to testify as witnesses in Jewish courts. After all, who would believe a shepherd? Shepherds were the outcasts of that society.

And God decided to send the angel to them. Why?

The message of the angel is communicated by more than just the words that he speaks. It’s also communicated in the manner in which he delivers that message. That the angel is sent to shepherds says something very important about the message itself. Oh, it’s subtle here. But it is quite explicit in many places. Here’s just one. Jesus said,

​I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. Luke 5.32

Jesus came for outcasts. He came for sinners. And seeing that clearly, stands at the heart of what it means to be a disciple.

Please note what I said. Words matter. I did not say that it lies at the heart of what it means to become a disciple. This isn’t about acknowledging something for the entrance exam, and then forgetting all about it since you made it in. No. Seeing yourself as a sinner stands at the heart of what it means to be a disciple. This is for every day of your life as you follow Jesus.

One very large problem for us is that we think way too highly of ourselves. I could label that pride, but that’s become just another church word. So, let me use a different word. We are arrogant. Oh, we’ll admit that we have our weak spots here and there, but we just know that basically we’re decent people, not like so many others.

If someone really believes that, then the Gospel is not for them. Jesus didn’t come for decent people – you know, the righteous. He came for sinners.

Now, if a person really does get it, if he knows that behind his nice facade lies the heart of someone who really loves his sin, then there is hope. And why is that? There is hope because there is a savior for such people.

You see, Jesus has come not to make sure we get into heaven one day. No, He has come to clean up our lives. And they are in desperate need of cleaning. Sin abounds! And if truth be known we like it that way. Oh, we don’t call it sin. It’s just attitudes and habits that just aren’t so good. All too often, we coddle our sin.

What a mess. But that’s what this savior is about. He has come to transform abominable sinners into glorious saints. And He will do this for all who believe the message of the angel, a message spoken to shepherds.

I’d like you to notice something else about these shepherds: their response to the message. They didn’t say to each other, ‘Well, what do you think? Was there something in the wine? Did we just imagine that?’ No. What did they say?

Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us. Luke 2.15

They believed the message. God had done something amazing. A savior has come for them, for outcasts like them. They believed it and rejoiced in it.

And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. Luke 2.20

The more we grasp our sinfulness, the greater our wonder will be. Imagine. A savior has come - for sinners like us. Why would God bother? And the greater our wonder at this savior, the greater our devotion to Him. Lives are changed when the whole Gospel, including the part about our sinfulness, is believed.

Let’s move on. It’s good to notice that the ‘you’ in our phrase is plural. The angel was speaking to all of the shepherds. But that also means that he was speaking to each of the shepherds. It’s as if he had said, ‘The Savior has come for you, and for you, and for you, and for you.’

There are so many ways in which we are treated as a cog in the machine, one insignificant unit in a bunch of units. Marketing people try to fool us by having some computer put our first name in the opening of the form letter that’s trying to sell us something. But we are just one name in a bloc of names in that computer’s memory.

But when the Savior came, while He did come for the group at the same time, He came for each individual of the group. And that makes a huge difference.

Paul understood this. Listen to how he expressed it.

… the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Galatians 2.20

Paul got it. But he didn’t just make it up. He got it from something Jesus said. Listen to how Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd.

The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. John 10.3

Jesus loves the group, His Church. And that’s really important. But at the same time, He knows and loves each and every person who is a part of the group. So, when the angel said, ‘unto you’, his words included each of those shepherds. And in light of what the rest of Scripture says, the angel’s words also include each of you.

Put yourself in the picture. ‘Unto you is born this day a Savior, and unto you and unto you and unto you.’ And when a person gets this, he understands the difference between following a religion and following a person.

Let’s pull all of this together. Let’s talk about one glorious result of all of this. For this, we’ll consider something else that the angel said that night.

Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Luke 2.10

‘Good news of great joy.’ Let me remind you of the difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is a response to pleasant circumstances. And that’s great. However, as those circumstances change, happiness evaporates. But joy is not rooted in shifting circumstances. No, it is rooted in something solid, something that can never change. It’s rooted in the Father’s plan to rescue outcasts. So, joy isn’t a passing emotion, though it can be quite emotional. Joy is a solid, enduring optimism.

That’s huge when you take an honest look at life. There is so much ugliness, so much evil. People’s lives are being ruined in a multitude of ways. You can try to hide from that, but that’s what it would be, hiding - hiding from reality.

The world that the angel shouted his message into was filled with all sorts of evil. So, you have Herod who slaughtered innocent babies and beheaded opponents. The Romans oppressed people by putting crucifixion to frequent use. And religious leaders who were supposed to assist the people were actually just using them. But the angel told the shepherds about ‘good news of great joy’.

The details have changed but not the main themes. We still have innocent babies being slaughtered. We still have people being beheaded. While they don’t use crucifixion, there are still so many governments that crush their citizens. And we still have religious leaders who use their followers. The world is still an ugly place. There is still so much evil.

But we can take heart in that ‘good news of great joy’. We can rejoice because the Father is still working His plan to rescue outcasts. The Savior has come. And He is at work changing our world. And one day He will finish that task, and we will once again have a pure and perfect Garden for purified and perfected saints. In that we most certainly can rejoice.