“Christmas in Three Acts” (Luke 2:1-20)

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Eve
Thursday, December 24, 2020

“Christmas in Three Acts” (Luke 2:1-20)

The Gospel reading that we hear every year on Christmas Eve, Luke 2, verses 1-20–this account naturally falls into three sections, three parts, corresponding to the three paragraphs you find in your bulletin. In a way, it’s like a play that has three acts. Only this play is entirely factual; nothing fictional about it. It really happened this way. And when I say it has three “acts,” I not only mean that the story presents itself in three scenes, but I also mean that these are acts of God. In other words, God is acting in each one of these scenes. So let’s look at the story now, under the theme, “Christmas in Three Acts.”

Act I: The Birth. And really, most of this first paragraph is about the background to the birth. The birth itself is told briefly at the end of this paragraph.

And here’s the background: God is acting, God is at work, in order to have the birth of Christ take place where he wants it to take place, which is in Bethlehem. Otherwise, it would have happened in Nazareth, where Mary and Joseph were living. But God wants the child to be born in Bethlehem, so he arranges for it to happen there. How? By having the most powerful man in the history of the world, Caesar Augustus, issue a decree affecting the entire Roman Empire, just so that one insignificant little couple from Nazareth will have to travel to Bethlehem.

Why Bethlehem? Because that was the city of David. It was the town where King David was from, Israel’s great king from a thousand years earlier. Now Joseph was from the house and lineage of David, so that meant, according to Caesar’s decree, that Joseph would have to travel to his ancestral hometown, Bethlehem, to be registered.

They get to Bethlehem. Mary is very pregnant. But because of all the people coming into town for the registration, there’s no room at the Holiday Inn. In fact, no one even knew that this would be a holiday. The “No Vacancy” signs were out, and so the couple has to take shelter wherever they could find it–Mary’s about to give birth, after all–and they end up having to stay in a stable out back.

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” There’s the birth itself, simply stated. The baby boy is laid in a manger, an animal’s feed trough, because there’s nowhere else to lay him. And so this lowly manger becomes a King-sized bed, just right for the King of kings who comes to serve and save us in humility and lowliness.

This whole scene, Act I, is cast in lowliness and humility: no room in the inn, laying the baby in a manger. But it also shows us that God is at work behind the scenes, having the mighty Roman emperor unknowingly issue a decree, just so the Messiah can be born in Bethlehem. In Act I, then, the birth of Christ, God is acting.

Act II: The Announcement. Well, what good would it do for the Savior to be born, if no one would ever know about it? So now we come to the second scene: the announcement. Here we will see God acting once again.

So there were some shepherds who were out standing in their field. Actually, they were not so outstanding; they were just ordinary working stiffs. Being a shepherd was not a high-paying, top-flight profession. But the first ones to hear the good news are these lowly shepherds. Are you sensing a theme here? The Messiah is lying in a lowly manger. And now the first news of his birth comes to lowly, working-class shepherds.

All of a sudden, an angel appears to them. And, as always happens in the Bible whenever an angel appears to people, they become very frightened. The angel tells them to stop being afraid, and here’s why: “For behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.” Good news! Great joy! And for whom? “All the people.” Notice: “the people,” singular. This is referring to the people of Israel, the Jewish people. It’s not yet talking about good news for non-Jews, Gentiles. That will come later, at Epiphany. But for now, the birth of the Messiah is especially good news for the Jews. I’ve often said: Christmas is a Jewish holiday. It’s the fulfillment of the promises made to Israel.

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Notice how Jewish this announcement is: The angel doesn’t just say “Bethlehem”; he says, “the city of David.” This would have rung some bells for those Jewish shepherds. They would have remembered the promise made to King David, that one of his descendants would be the greatest king of all, who would rule over an everlasting kingdom of joy and blessing. And now here he is! The Christ, the Messiah! The Savior sent from heaven! Indeed, the Lord himself, born in human flesh.

And to underscore and magnify the great news of this all, suddenly there appears an angelic choir, singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” In other words, the birth of Christ does two things: It gives glory to God in the highest places, in the heavens, where these angels are. Secondly, it gives real peace to men here on earth. For now is born the Prince of Peace, who will heal the rift between God and man. We were at war with God, we were his enemies, by virtue of our sin. But God sends his Son into the world to reconcile us back to God, to establish peace once more. God’s own Son is born in the flesh precisely so he can die on the cross as the sacrifice for our sins, thus establishing peace. And this, out of God’s good will and pleasure.

But we would know nothing of this unless God would make the news known. So God is acting in Act II to do just that. And the proclamation starts with the angel bringing the good news of great joy to the shepherds. The angel even tells them where to find the Christ child: He will be a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. There wouldn’t be more than one newborn in Bethlehem that night matching that description!

And that brings us to Act III: The Reaction. Here in Act III, it may not seem like God is doing much, but he is. For the ability to receive the Savior and react with joy–this takes a miracle of God to give you that faith.

“Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” So off the shepherds go, heading into town. They’re excited! And they find the child, just like the angel told them. The Lord has made this great thing known to them. Now they in turn want to make it known to others. That’s how it is when you get good news of great joy, and you go and see it for yourself. Then you want to share your joy with others! “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”

Brothers and sisters, you have had the same good news of great joy proclaimed to you! God has acted in your life for you to know the Savior. You have been baptized and given the gift of the Holy Spirit. You have had the good news, the gospel, preached to you. You have received Christ’s very body and blood in your mouth, for the forgiveness of your sins. God has made known the Savior to you. In fact, you know more about this Savior than those shepherds did at that point.

So we have the same good news. But do we have the same joy and excitement that those shepherds had? Has the good news stopped being news for you? Has it become old hat? If so, ponder anew what the Almighty can do–and has done and will do for you! It’s pretty amazing! Act I: The Birth. God acted by sending his Son to be born in the flesh, so that you would never die but instead have everlasting life. Act II: The Announcement. God has acted by sending messengers, pastors, to you, to proclaim what God has done for you, that this child born in Bethlehem is indeed the Savior you need. And Act III: The Reaction. God has acted to give you the response of faith, so that you recognize in Jesus your Lord and Savior. The Holy Spirit is working through Word and Sacrament to keep you in the faith and strengthen you in it.

Christmas in three acts: The Birth, The Announcement, and The Reaction. Acts I, II, and III, and God is the one who acts. He is still acting today. And the good news of great joy for you is that God is acting, and will continue to act, for your eternal salvation.

Published in: on December 24, 2020 at 12:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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