The story of Christmas doesn’t begin in a manger, or even with the angel’s visit to Mary. It doesn’t begin with the prophets and their foretelling of Jesus’ birth. It begins with creation and the fall.
Neither is the birth of Jesus the climax or the end of the story. Rather, it is the beginning of the climax. It begins the heart, the focus of the Scripture: Jesus and his work.
Most people, at least most Americans, are quite familiar with the popular nativity story, in part thanks to Linus’ famous monologue. Jesus’ birth, him lying in a manger, surrounded by Mary, Joseph, and multiple visitors. But the nativity is more than a story or yard decorations. In the gospels we see something more, something significant.
Luke 2:8-20 records some events immediately following the birth of Jesus. After the long and exhausting trek from Nazareth, Mary had given birth to her son in Bethlehem. While she held her newborn son in her arms, Luke writes:
In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”
When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them. (Luke 2:8-20, NASB)
So the story is told that Jesus is born, angels tell shepherds, who go and see the baby, then leave. But look again, there’s a lot more to the story. The angel tells the shepherds, “I bring you good news . . . there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (vv. 10-11). He tells them that Messiah has come, and this is good news! Good news, the Gospel. The Gospel message is about Christ’s work, which begins its climax here in Bethlehem.
Notice also something about the song sung by the angelic host (v. 14; cf. Isa 6:1-2; Rev 4:4-11; 7:9-12). They begin by giving all glory to God. He alone deserves credit, for the birth of Jesus is an act of God’s love and grace. Also, they declare “peace among men.” Many today strive for world peace. Every Miss America wishes for world peace. But as you look throughout history, man alone cannot achieve genuine peace among the people of the world. Whenever a sense of peace seems to come, it’s when people are ruled by a dictator or other oppressive forms of government. This is not peace among men, but an iron fist on the throats of men.
The angels declare “peace among men.” But not just any men. It is “peace among men with whom He [God] is pleased.” Peace, true peace, comes to those with whom God is pleased. Who are those people? They are those who put their faith alone in Jesus, who is Christ the Lord. They are the believers in Jesus, his disciples. Genuine peace is only possible when one is transformed by the Holy Spirit after an encounter with Jesus. For this peace is not merely the famed “world peace,” but peace between man and God. Paul writes that, as sinners, we are enemies of God (Rom 5:10). Yet, Jesus still came and died for those who are his enemies (Rom 5:6-8). Why? Love (John 3:16).
The angels are declaring the Gospel: Glory to God, for he is bringing genuine peace to all who believe in Jesus! He is restoring the broken relationship between man and God. He is reconciling back to God all who believe in Jesus. Glory to God in the highest, indeed!
Next, notice how the shepherds respond: after hearing this good news, they exclaim that they must go and see the baby. They are not nonchalantly saying, “I think we should probably check this out, guys. Whaddaya say?” No. The shepherds are excited about this good news. They exclaim, “Wow! Guys, we have got to see this child! Hurry up, let’s go!” They can’t wait to see this baby, Christ the Lord. They “hurry” (v. 16) to see Jesus!
When they arrive, they don’t casually walk in, politely nod hello, and peek in. Rather, they can’t help but to tell Mary, Joseph, and all the others there what the angel declared (v. 17). While Mary contemplated everything in her heart, the shepherds looked upon the face of the promised Messiah.
After a while, though, the lowly sheep herders returned to their flocks. But notice they don’t return to life as normal. They returned “glorifying and praising God.” What for? The praised God “. . . for all they had heard and seen.” They left praising God for the Gospel message (good news) they heard and for seeing Jesus. That small encounter with Jesus changed their lives forever! They didn’t go back to their jobs and their lives as if nothing really happened. They didn’t go back to life as usual unaffected by encountering the Savior. No. These men were changed forever!
Did they still have duties? Yes. Did they still struggle with life? Yes. Were they the same after encountering Jesus as they were before? Absolutely not! They left praising God. They now praised God, declaring his glory and Gospel as part of their daily lives. As they tended sheep, they praised and proclaimed! As they did their jobs, they praised and proclaimed! As they traveled, saw others, and did the things they do every day, they praised and proclaimed! How do we respond after encountering Jesus? Have you encountered the Savior?
Matthew records a similar event. Magi from the east came to visit the promised Messiah (Matt 2:1-12). It’s uncertain what they understood about the Messiah, but it is clear they fully intended to bring him gifts of honor (Matt 2:11b). But when they arrived and saw the Messiah, they did not simply present gifts, “they fell to the ground and worshiped Him [Jesus]” (Matt 2:11a). Only after worshiping Jesus did they present their gifts.
Like the shepherds, the magi’s encounter with Jesus changed their lives forever. They came seeking a newborn Jewish king, and found God incarnate. When they encountered the Savior, Christ the Lord, they fell down and worshiped him. They worshiped baby Jesus. Have you worshiped Jesus lately? When you went to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, did you just attend a service, or did you worship Jesus?
An encounter with Jesus is a life-changing event. Today we have an advantage over the shepherds and magi. They encountered Jesus at his birth. We encounter the risen Jesus. Unlike the nativity visitors, we can look back and see the cross, the empty tomb, and the risen Lord. We can see and know exactly why he came, what he did, and what he accomplished. The magi and shepherds could only anticipate what was to come.
Did those shepherds who hurried to the birthplace of Jesus have any idea what would happen three decades later? Did they understand why Jesus came? Maybe, but probably not. Few understood or even accepted Jesus’ purpose. Even the disciples, after being told over and over and over by Jesus about his coming death and resurrection, didn’t get it. According to Luke, it seems that even after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension the disciples still were clueless about Jesus’ sacrifice (Acts 2:9-11). While it’s possible the shepherds and magi knew, it’s more likely they did not really understand. But we can.
A popular Christmas song asks, “Mary, did you know?” This song proclaims something that boggles my mind. That baby whom the shepherds encountered that night was no mere human boy; he was and is God incarnate. Jesus is God! When I see a baby, I see just that: a baby. A small human brought into this world, created by God. But not so with Jesus. Jesus is eternal; he always was and always will be. I cannot fathom such a wonderful, magnificent, and transcendent concept. But then again, my mind and understanding are finite; God is God, and God is not limited to my finite mind. Glory to God for that!
But in that song, “Mary, Did You Know,” there is one line that lingers in my mind: “When you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God.” The thought that God the Son became man, sends tingles (good ones) down my spine. The sheer idea that the baby in that manger was God — wow! No wonder the shepherd’s encounter with Jesus had such a powerful impact. No wonder lives are still changed when people encounter Jesus today.
The lowly shepherds and highly educated magi had an encounter that changed their lives. Upon encountering Jesus, they worshiped him and praised God. The shepherds told others what they heard; they praised God for the good news they received and the Savior they saw.
After going to church on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or both, how did you respond? Have you encountered Jesus? Are you a believer in Jesus? Have you put your faith in Jesus? An encounter with the Savior is a life-changing event. How has Jesus changed your life? Do you praise God and proclaim Jesus in your daily life as did the shepherds? Do you worship Jesus as did the magi? Or do you walk away and go back to life as normal, as if nothing really happened? Maybe it’s time you encountered Jesus for the first time — or once again.