Merry Christmas. What a beautiful season it already is and will continue to be with decorations and lights, all of which help us remember the beautiful, bright reason for this season, that, of course, being Jesus, whose birth we celebrate.
The Advent emphasis today are the angels who played an important role in the very first Christmas. One angel who talked to Mary nine months before the birth of Jesus. An angel who spoke to Joseph when it was discovered Mary, to whom he was betrothed, was pregnant. And an angel who spoke to some shepherds the night of Jesus’ birth.
The angel who talked to Mary is identified. He was the angel Gabriel. Maybe it was Gabriel who also spoke to Joseph and the shepherds. In those cases the angels are not named.
The next two messages we will consider how Mary and Joseph and the shepherds responded to the angelic announcements given to them, but in this message, it is the announcements that will be highlighted.
Beginning with the announcement given to Mary. An announcement recorded in chapter 1 of Luke, beginning with verse 26.
One day, the angel Gabriel was sent from God - he was sent by God - to visit a virgin named Mary.
From Luke we know Mary lived in Nazareth, a city in Galilee, which was the northern province of the Jewish homeland. We know historically that Galilee was a disrespected part of the homeland. It was certainly less respected than the southern province of Judea, where the capital city of Jerusalem was located. We also know historically that Nazareth was a small city, meaning it was one of the least significant cities in the disrespected province of Galilee.
We also know from Luke that Mary was betrothed to Joseph. A betrothal in that culture was more binding than the engagements we have today, but Mary and Joseph were not yet married.
On the day recorded, God sent Gabriel to Nazareth in Galilee to talk to Mary. Gabriel’s sudden appearance to Mary scared her. It is stated she was troubled. That is proved by what the angel said to her right after he greeted her with,”Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women.”
Mary was troubled. Greatly troubled. I am pretty sure part of her trouble was the sudden appearance of an angel. Another part was her confusion about how Gabriel greeted her. “The Lord is with you.” That was certainly true for Jews in general, but her being singled out? Remember she lived in a small city in a backwater province. Remember she was young. Blessed was she among women? What was that supposed to mean?
Seeing her trouble, Gabriel had these words of encouragement. “Do not be afraid, Mary.” What? The angel knew her name? “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.’ That, too, was troubling to Mary. Why was she considered worthy of having any more favor than anyone else?
But then Gabriel said, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.” Mary knew that would happen someday. Sometime after she and Joseph were married. But there was something about Gabriel’s words and how he said them that suggested the conceiving and the giving birth were to happen before the marriage.
And there was more. Gabriel told Mary the baby’s name had already been selected. “You shall call the baby Jesus.”
And yes, there was more. Gabriel described the son to whom Mary would give birth. “He will be great. He will be called the Son of the Most High. He will have the throne of His father David [meaning a position of ultimate authority], He will reign over the house of Judah forever[which refers to spiritual authority], of His kingdom there will be no end.”
What an announcement. Made suddenly, which frightened Mary, and holding such overwhelming news.
After which Mary had a chance to speak.
The first thing she brought up to Gabriel was the physical aspect. “How shall this be?” she asked. “Joseph and I are not yet married. We have not and do not plan to be together until we are married. You and I both know we have to be together before I can become pregnant. So the plan you have announced does not make sense.”
Gabriel’s answer? “No worries. It is all arranged. The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. That is how the conceiving will be done so the child to be born will be able to be called holy, the Son of God.”
Sensing Mary was still troubled and skeptical, the angel Gabriel had one more thing to say. He reminded Mary about her relative Elizabeth, a woman in old age who, six months earlier, had become pregnant. That was a miracle because Elizabeth was very old and had been considered barren, but she was with child. “So, too, will it be with you,” Gabriel said to Mary, “for with God, nothing will be impossible.”
How did Mary respond to God’s message delivered by Gabriel? We know her answer was “yes,” but tune in next week to consider the words she used in her response. For now, let’s think about the important role of Gabriel in the Christmas celebration. He talked with the one God had chosen to be the mother of Jesus. He explained the process that would be used. He promised Mary that her child would be very special. What an important role Gabriel had.
However, there was, if Mary agreed to God’s plan, going to be a problem. The problem, according to Matthew 1, beginning with verse 18, was Joseph, to whom Mary was betrothed.
how would Joseph respond to his bride-to-be being pregnant? How could he respond other than being troubled himself? The first conclusion he had to have made was that Mary had been unfaithful to him, which would have been extremely disappointing. On the other hand, it was somewhat common at that time that Roman soldiers did nasty things to young women. Maybe Mary had been attacked, the result being an unwanted pregnancy. Was Joseph willing to help Mary through that? Joseph himself was liable to be ridiculed by those who would accuse him of immorality or, if they did not blame him, would tell him he was stupid to continue to associate with a woman who had betrayed him, even before they were married.
As it turned out, Joseph was troubled. He was so troubled he decided to divorce Mary. Remember a betrothal then was more binding than engagements now. The only way to end a betrothal was by divorce. That is what Joseph decided to do.
However, he decided to do the divorcing quietly, which shows compassion on the part of Joseph. Legally he could have made a very public display of the divorce. In fact, he could have called for Mary to be stoned to death. In fact, he could have thrown the first stone.
It could have been a very violent, embarrassing, public divorce, but, being compassionate, Joseph decided to spare Mary at least public humiliation. As recorded, he planned for a quiet divorce.
Having made that decision, Joseph fell asleep. As he slept, he had a dream. In the dream, an angel of the Lord - maybe it was Gabriel, who had earlier talked with Mary, or maybe it was another angel, but the angel was of God - from God - communicated God’s message.l
The angel said to him, “Joseph, son of David…” Hey, that angel knew Joseph. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. She did not betray you. That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.”:
The angel added that Mary’s child was a boy. He further added the boy’s name was to be Jesus. He then described Jesus. “The boy will grow up to save His people from their sins.”
After the dream, Joseph woke up. I wonder if he thought of his dream as being weird. That happens to me many, many mornings as I remember some really strange dreams. Imagine Joseph. Mary’s baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit? Huh? The baby is already named? What about it being the right of the father to name the son he would raise? And something about the boy saving His people from their sins. What was that all about?
How did Joseph respond? We know his answer was “OK,” but tune in next week to consider the words he used in his response. For now, let’s think about the important role of the angel in the Joseph part of the Christmas celebration. He talked with the one God had chosen to help raise Jesus. He explained the process that was being used. He promised that the child would be very special. What an important role that angel had.
Which takes us to another angelic encounter, this one happening on the first Christmas night. An encounter with some shepherds, which takes us back to Luke, this time chapter 2, beginning with verse 8.
As we know, Jesus was born in the little town of Bethlehem, which was a few miles south of the capital city of Jerusalem. It would be thought that someone as great as Jesus was predicted to be would be born in the capital city, announced with trumpets and other fanfare, but that was not the case. Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
When He was born, there were some shepherds nearby, watching their sheep. That was not unusual, including for those shepherds, who were going through another night that was probably boring. It was night. At least most of the sheep were sleeping. About the only thing those shepherds had to do was protect the sheep from any predators that might venture by. All that coming after a long day of making sure the sheep had good grass and safe water. Shepherds also inspected sheep for any bugs that might bother them.
It was just another long, dark, boring, trying-to-stay-awake night. But suddenly, on the night of Jesus’ birth, everything changed. Suddenly an angel appeared to them - an angel of God - from God - an angel with a message from God. Maybe it was Gabriel. Maybe it was the same angel who appeared to Joseph. Maybe it was yet another angel. Whoever it was, an angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds, doing so very suddenly.
And it was not just the angel’s body that suddenly appeared. The glory of the Lord shone around him.
Luke records the shepherds were filled with fear. You think? I mean, one second they were trying to stay awake in the dark. The next second there was an angel with them, the angel surrounded by the glory of the Lord. Wow.
What did the angel say. He started with the same words Mary and then Joseph had heard. “Do not be afraid.”
That was easier said than done, but the angel explained why there was no cause for fear. “Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all people, for to you…” To you. How impressed the shepherds were to receive a message from God. Shepherds were looked down upon by everyone else in the Jewish nation because their work kept them from worshiping when Jewish law dictated and from following all the rules and regulations that defined proper Jewish living. But while others would also receive good news from God, the angel told the shepherds they were included.
There is good news for all people, the angel said. The good news? “This day, in nearby Bethlehem, the Savior was born. The Savior who was and always will be called Christ the Lord,” Christ meaning Savior, the Lord meaning He is the ruler.
Interestingly, the angel added some information. The Savior who had just been born was wrapped in swaddling cloths, which was common wrapping for babies born into poverty. He was lying in a manger - a feeding trough. Both descriptors being much less than one would expect for the Savior.
How did the shepherds respond? Tune in two weeks from today to consider what they did. For now, let’s think about the important role of the angel in the shepherd part of the Christmas celebration. He talked with lowly people about Jesus. He explained the hope the Savior would have available for all people, including them. Again there was the promise that the child would be very special. What an important role that angel had.
As mentioned, the next two Sundays we will consider how Mary and Joseph and the shepherds responded to the angelic announcements given to them. To help prepare ourselves for that, along with presenting the call for us to respond as positively as they did, here are two stories.
The first one is kind of a devotional that begins with the statement that stories with reversals make good tales.
For instance, we cheer for the high school nerd who gets the girl while the popular athlete is left in the dust. We shout for joy when the quaint, small mountain town fends off a large New York development firm from building a shopping mall. We are often happy to see an upstart political candidate win against a well-financed veteran from D.C.
Such stories are enjoyable because life does not always turn out that way in the real world. So often it seems the ones who win are the well-connected or powerful or beautiful or popular, while the poor, defenseless, weak, no-friends-types suffer.
What is so great about Christmas is that what rarely happens in real life actually comes true. The lowly Mary, the lowly Joseph, the lowly shepherds were all considered by God as being important enough to receive messages from Him.
No matter where you find yourself - well-connected, powerful, beautiful, or popular, and listen, as the angel or angels reported three times, Jesus came for those types of people, too - but whether you find yourself in high standing or poor, defenseless, weak, lonely, Jesus came for you. Know that. Rejoice about that.
And how about this? Behave in ways that show your joy about who Jesus is for all people.
Which leads to the second story, this one about something that happened when the author had a job while going to college.
The young man worked for a company that built and installed office furniture. On a typical morning, his supervisor would send a team to an empty office building with a set of materials and instructions to begin installing the furniture.
Because the supervisor was usually responsible for several projects at a time, the author and the rest of his team members often worked without on-site oversight.
Unfortunately, the word “worked” was often an exaggeration. Many of the team members used supervisor-free days to catch up on sleep or do just about anything other than installing office furniture.
The author admits he felt the temptation to join the sleepy, lazy team members. The combination of work, classes, and late-night studying caused that to happen.
However, there was always one thought that kept him from wasting his days. What if the boss came and caught him napping on the job?
God, speaking through an angel or two or three, talked with Mary and Joseph and some shepherds, giving or at least suggesting some tasks for them to do. As we will discuss the next two Sundays, they did not go to sleep or find other things to do. They did what they were supposed to do.
What about me? What about you? God has called us to worship the one whose birth we celebrate. He calls us to tell others about Him and make disciples of new believers. He calls us to spread love. All of which we can do in a number of ways - worshiping together, reading the Bible and praying, both together and individually, encouraging others. How about asking waiters or waitresses if they have any prayer requests or smiling at others to hopefully add some happiness to them, which can be especially helpful in the hectic season we are entering?
Let’s spend all this Christmas season being the presence of Christ in our world, knowing that when He came 2000 years ago, He came, as the angels announced, so that all can be saved from their sins. That is how wonderful and great He was, is, and always will be.
The closing carol for today touches on what happened after the angel gave God’s message to the shepherds. Just as suddenly as the angel had appeared, he was suddenly joined by a multitude of the Heavenly host, all of them praising God, glorifying Him, and wishing peace on earth for all with whom God is pleased. Let’s sing Angels We Have Heard on High.
Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply
Echo back their joyous strains.
Gloria in excelsis Deo,
Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Why your joyous strains prolong?
Say what may the tidings be,
Which inspire your Heavenly song.
Gloria in excelsis Deo,
Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Come to Bethlehem and see
Him whose birth the angels sing;
Come adore, on bended knee,
Christ, the Lord, the newborn King.
Gloria in excelsis Deo,
Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Lord, thank You for communicating with Mary and Joseph and shepherds. What You had the angels do reminds us that even those who are not important in the world’s eyes are important to You. And thank You for the part of Your communications that announce Your salvation is not just for the lowly, but for all who accept You, which means those who are well-connected, powerful, beautiful, or popular are also important to You.
Thank You for coming to be our Savior. Help us to accept that fact. Help any who do not already know You to give You the only Christmas present You want, which is their hearts.
Merry Christmas, Lord. Amen.