Signs and Wonders of a Baby, Luke 2.1-20
Luke’s Gospel records the message of the nativity as a news story with all the Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Luke has gathered the historical data as a master reporter having gotten the scoop from credible sources (Luke 1.1-4). Luke has investigated eyewitness accounts from the very beginning. God’s plan is about to unfold!
God has pierced the quiet of this night with the utterance of the Word made flesh dwelling among us. Do you hear what I hear? Do you see what I see? Do you know what I know? Are you listening? Has the Word become flesh within you? What story are you telling? The Christmas Gift you behold is inside you. It is the gift of the Spirit of Jesus! The gifts that God gives us is in the shape of peace for our minds – the mind of Christ. God gives us joy for our spirit – the Holy Spirit fills us with unspeakable joy that proclaims the good news of the Gospel story.
The passage begins with the setting of the scene in the agricultural town of Nazareth in Galilee with about 200 people (Bible Places). Luke locates the story as part of Israel’s history within the boundaries of Northern Israel, and cross the boundaries to Southern Judah to unite the two separated communities of the Hebrew people. At the time Jesus was born there had been two capitals and two peoples claiming the right to be God’s people.
A census has been announced, and Joseph finds himself needing to travel to his hometown of Bethlehem in Judea. We don’t know why Joseph was living in Nazareth. We only know that he is required by the Roman Empire to return to his family of origin to enroll for the census. Some say that the census has no historical support, and that the dates for the census are erroneous. Nevertheless Luke places Joseph and his betrothed, Mary, on the road to Bethlehem. The census pointed to something bigger – Christ’s identity as the Son of David!
Mary and Joseph are betrothed, and are not married yet. We do not know when they were officially married, but it would stand to reason it was sometime after Jesus was born. The betrothal was customarily considered the same as a marital relationship. However, when we bring in other passages of Scripture we can understand the story in a broad sense that Mary and Joseph were not sexually familiar with one another until after Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1.25). The sexual relationship is what secured the marriage.
To be sure the word from “inn” is not the word Luke uses for the lodging place for the story of the Good Samaritan. The guest room is full. There’s a stable out back or underneath the house. Perhaps there is even a cave under the home with a feeding trough for the animals that served as Jesus’ crib. The trough would become a sign of what Jesus would become for the world. Indeed, the manger was a “feeding trough” for animals, a sign that he would become for us the Bread of Life. The Bread of Life that came down from Heaven would feed the world. There are no angels heralding Jesus’ delivery, but they show up in the fields outside of town among the caves where the shepherds are tending their sheep.
In Luke’s Gospel God is good to all – even the ungrateful and the selfish. Yet, Luke will also write more often than any other author in the New Testament about the need for repentance (13.1-5, 15.7-10, 16.30, 17.3, 24.47). Luke holds together God’s infinite grace and mercy with his righteousness and justice. When emphasizing grace and mercy in preaching, the risk is making God’s grace seem cheap even disregarding our moral and ethical obligations. The story of Jesus birth helps us to remember the cost of the Incarnation as God emptied himself of his power to become his creation. The story of Jesus birth brings a sense of balance between the “have” and the “have not” experiences.
The angels show up to a rag-tag bunch of outcasts who where ceremonially unclean and untrusted, who would not be fit to be at a birthing! Up until now the news of Jesus’ identity had only been revealed to a few. The shepherds were the first to experience the wonder of Jesus’ birth aside from his parents, a few relatives, and maybe an innkeeper. Here on the hillside of Bethlehem the manifest presence of God’s glory shines forth among the outcasts. The holiness of God became real, and the unseen became a reality.
The marginalized became a captive audience for the big reveal of the Messianic promise through the angels. The messengers of the good news are those who have been sent by God Himself to herald the joy for all people. This great joy “chara” is met with the words of praise and glories “doxa” to God. Here is where we get the word doxology! John’s Gospel will confirm that what Jesus brings to us is the Spirit of great joy that shall be for all people. In Luke’s Gospel the angels bring the messages of great joy, and the messages of warning that will protect this baby from harm. God will continually speak prophetically through dreams, visions, and angelic visitations to guide the holy family.
The angels provide the definition of Luke’s understand of who Jesus is as the Son of God, the Son of David, the Messiah, the Lord of all. Hearing the story we might want to read into the manuscript our own interpretation of the Messianic identity. What we have heard as tradition or what we understand with our culture becomes our view of the Savior of the World. But if we strip away all the overlays of our western culture and our big assumptions from Christian tradition, the foundational truth that we can lay hold of and never let go remains! Jesus is the long-expected Messiah come to set his people free.
All the “bits and pieces” of the Christmas story serve to point us to the reality beyond our senses that God, indeed, is with us! His name is Emmanuel, God with us! Jesus, the Messiah! Jesus’ identity was wrapped up in the role he would live on this earth as prophet to the nations. His whole life would be a sign and a wonder pointing beyond the here and now to the reality of God. Sometimes we look for proof of God when all we can see are signs and wonders that point to the reality beyond our senses. This story continues, and will continue until the consummation when Christ returns for his people. One day there will be a new heaven and a new earth and Christ Jesus will rein forever more. God with us! Amen!