The Story We Thought We Knew: The Story We Should Know
I read for you a portion of the story of the first Christmas. This is the Word of God.
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields, nearby keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today, in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you. You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.’
“Suddenly, a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth, peace to men on whom His favor rests.’ When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has told us about.’ So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen Him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”
May God bless to us the reading and the hearing of this portion of His holy word.
Pray with me, please. Give me Jesus, Lord. Give me Jesus. You can have all the rest. Just give me Jesus. Amen.
I suppose that the story of the first Christmas is the best-loved, most frequently told story in all the history of humankind. And yet, there is so much about that story that we just do not know. Oh, we may have thought we knew that story, but that is not altogether true. Let me begin to try to explain.
We do not know, for example, how the first Christmas happened.
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke declare that Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary. I believe that. I believe in the virgin birth. I believe it with all of my heart. I would even be willing to stake my life upon its truth. But I believe the virgin birth, and yet cannot begin to explain how it happened. Babies are not born to virgins. That’s what we would say.
But I believe in the virgin birth, and I believe it not because of any evidence or theory paraded before me. Rather, I believe in the virgin birth simply because of who Jesus was and is. You see, I believe that if you confront the life of Jesus with any honesty and objectivity at all, you will have to see in that life either one was consumed by insanity or one who is nothing less than God in human form. There can be no middle ground. We cannot be neutral. We must make our choice. And I tell you I choose to believe in the virgin birth, and the proof for me is in the living of Jesus. I will have to confess to you that I have tried, on occasion, quite seriously, to try to live my life the way Jesus lived His life, and in every instance, I have failed miserably. The fact is, no one, but no one, has ever lived as Jesus lived.
Now, I know there are those today who would suggest that the life of Jesus was simply too good to be true. I would argue exactly the opposite. The life of Jesus is too good not to be true. There are those today who would say that the life of Jesus is simply a myth; it is something created out of nothing other than the fabric of the human imagination. And I would counter that argument by suggesting that taking that position is trying to answer one miracle with another miracle because who in the world could ever have created a life like the life of Jesus Christ out of nothing more than imagination? And if it could be done, then why has it not been done in other cases and in other instances? The fact of the matter is Jesus lived as no one else has ever lived, and therefore, it stands to reason that Jesus would be born as no one else has ever been born.
When I behold the life of Jesus with its beauty, its purity, its power, its perfection, I believe. Though I cannot explain how it happened, nevertheless I believe that Jesus Christ was virgin born. I believe He was born to the Virgin Mary, and I believe that with my very life. But the fact of the matter is we do not know how it happened.
And furthermore, we do not know when the first Christmas happened.
“Oh,” you say. “Come on. That’s ridiculous. It happened shortly after midnight as December the 24th became December the 25th, 2,013 years ago.”
No, that is not when it happened at all. We know that’s true because we know for a fact that King Herod the Great died in 4 BC. And we know that King Herod lived for as much as a year or so after the birth of Jesus. That means, then, that Jesus would have been born sometime in the year 5 BC. Therefore, that makes this not 2013 AD; it’s actually 2018 AD.
Why the discrepancy? The calendar we use was established in the sixth century by a Roman Catholic monk named Dionysius the Little. And as he established the calendar, Dionysius made a little mistake which had major consequences. He chose to date the birth of Jesus from the date of the founding of the city of Rome, and he wrote down the wrong number. He made the most significant mathematical mistake in all of history, and the whole calendar has been five years off ever since.
Furthermore, modern scientists have taken very complex computer software and charted all of the movements and the placements of the celestial bodies in a range of years surrounding 2,000 years ago. And they’ve placed those things over the Middle East, studied them carefully, and offer the theory that Jesus was born not on December the 25th, but rather on June the 17th because at that point in the year 5 BC, there was a spectacular celestial astronomical event in the skies above, of all places, the little town of Bethlehem.
But for all of that, the truth of the matter is we simply do not know when Jesus was born. Why, then, do we celebrate it on December the 25th? Well, once again, it’s the Romans. The Romans had a pagan festival which they called the feast of the invincible sun. They set that feast day on the winter solstice because they were celebrating the day that the sun stopped its journey into the cold and began instead its journey toward the springtime. And they called this pagan celebration the feast of the invincible sun, and they set the date on the winter solstice, and they declare that that date was December the 25th. Well, you and I know perfectly well that the winter solstice occurs on December the 21st. Once again, the Romans must’ve had trouble with numbers because once again, they miscounted. They put down the wrong date. They declared that the winter solstice occurs on December the 25th, and thus, they celebrated their feast of the invincible sun.
In the fourth century, Christians came together and decided that they would create their own feast of the invincible Son. Only they didn’t spell it S-U-N, they spelled it S-O-N. It would be the feast of God’s invincible Son, and they would celebrate that on December the 25th. And so we celebrate the birth of Christ, the feast of God’s invincible Son, on December the 25th. Actually, I think it’s a pretty good choice. I mean, what could be more appropriate than celebrating the birth of Christ at the point where the sun has begun to make its move toward the new life of spring? So December the 25th, as far as I’m concerned, is a perfectly fine choice. However, the reality is we do not know precisely when Jesus was born.
Well, while we may not know how the first Christmas happened, and we may not even know when the first Christmas happened, we certainly do know why the first Christmas happened.
The great apostle Paul wrote these words. “And this is love, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” There it is. That’s why the first Christmas happened. Jesus was born to die, to die for your sin and mine.
There is an ancient legend that tells of Jesus when He was a boy growing up in Nazareth. According to the legend, Jesus had a garden in which He grew roses. And when the roses were in full bloom, He would pick the blossoms, and He would carefully plait and weave them into garlands to be worn in the hair. According to the legend, one day, Jesus invited some other children in Nazareth to come and play in the garden and share the garlands. The other children, however, simply pulled the flowers from the stems and left the garden stripped and bare. And then, mockingly, they said to Jesus, “And how will you make your garlands now?” And Jesus answered, “You left the thorns.”
There is so much about the story of that first Christmas that we just do not know, but this we do know. We know why it happened. Jesus came to die. Jesus came to pay a debt He did not owe because we owed a debt we cannot pay. Jesus came to die for your sin and mine. He bore our sin for us. He purchased our salvation. He defeated the power of death once for all, and forever He secured for us the gift of eternal life. That’s why the first Christmas happened.
How does the song go? “Oh, sing a song of Bethlehem, of shepherds watching there, and of the news that came to them from angels in the air. Oh, sing a song of Calvary, its glory and dismay, of Him who hung upon the tree to take our sins away.”
My beloved people, I plead with you to take the Christmas child into your heart and into your lives because if you do that, then that will make this Christmas the best Christmas ever.
Pray with me, please. God on high, hear my prayer. You come to us in the Christ of Christmas, and You come to us in the Christ of Calvary. Remind us, dear God, that here at this table, we encounter both. Amen.