I know it’s the day after, but I bet you are still up for thinking about Christmas. Here is the sermon I preached on Christmas Eve.
I’m sure most of you have held a snow globe sometime in the past month. There are hundreds of them out there. You can find a glass dome with a Christmas tree inside or a snow man or a quaint little town or a Thomas Kinkade church or people at the beach or just about anything you can imagine. I saw one with Santa Claus kneeling down at the manger, which is a nice thought, if somewhat hard to explain to your children.
You can actually get quite a variety of nativity snow globes. They all have Mary and Joseph with baby Jesus in a glass ball of liquid and fake snow. Depending on the size, some of them include the angels or the shepherds or the Wise Men or the animals. You can the flip the whole thing around and watch the snow gently fall on this porcelain scene of Jesus’ birth. It’s all very sweet and very pretty-a kind of Precious Moments Christmas live from Breckenridge.
There is nothing wrong with these picturesque nativity scenes. But I fear that many people look at Christmas like they are looking at a snow globe. It’s all soft and warm and fuzzy. Christmas becomes this magical event with this mythical story that captures the imagination like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or Narnia. And it’s perfectly fine to experience Christmas in this way, provided you realize that unlike those other stories, this one actually happened. Christmas is not just in the heart. It’s not just about the season of giving. It’s not just about the love of family and friends. Christmas is history. We remember an event that really took place with real people in a real place in a real century. This is not a fairy tale or a made up story that should inspire you whether it’s true or not. If it didn’t happen, let’s go home and not miss the beginning of It’s a Wonderful Life.
But if it did-if a virgin actually gave birth to the Son of God-then we surely have something to sing about. Everyone should know this story. Everyone should see that everything is different because of this story. Christmas is a story comprised of the most literal historical facts with the most amazing theological significance.
I want to spend just a few minutes tonight looking at the very beginning of Luke’s gospel. So please turn with me in your bibles to Luke 1:1-4.
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things that you have been taught.
It’s easy to skip over a paragraph like this at the beginning of the book. “Dear strange name I can’t pronounce, I’m writing you a book, etc., etc. Whatever. Let’s get to some angels!” But this dedication is critical in explaining what sort of book we are reading. In these four verses Luke talks about his sources, his approach, and his purpose in writing this gospel.
First he talks about his sources. He explains in verse 1 that many have already undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished. He’s probably thinking of one or more of the other gospels. He may also have in mind other written or oral traditions. By the time Luke sat down to work on this, there were already a number of sources to draw from. Luke read what was out there and talked with those who knew firsthand what had happened.
Notice some of the key words and phrase in Luke’s description of these sources. In verse 1 he talks about the things accomplished “among us.” The stories he is compiling did not take place in a time long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. These events did not happen in a corner. These are not stories Marco Polo brought back from China. These things happened among them-in their time, in their land, in some of their homes. We are not dealing with myths and legends. We are talking about things that people could touch and see and hear and smell.
And then in verse 2 you see the word “eyewitnesses.” This is very important. How do we know almost everything we know about history? We know something because someone was there and passed it on what he saw or wrote it down. Even today in a court of law, with all the DNA evidence and technology we possess, the jury still wants to hear from those who actually saw what happened. That’s what we have with the gospels-the record of eyewitness accounts. And not just eyewitnesses who saw one or two events, but those who saw everything that happened from the beginning.
But, you might be thinking, eyewitnesses can get things wrong. They can remember stuff that never happened or forgot important parts of the story. Or worse yet, people might claim to have seen something they never saw. How do we know these eyewitnesses accounts are trustworthy? Well, one clue can be found with the phrase “ministers of the word” in verse 2. See, there were not only eyewitnesses who saw these events, there were also official ministers of the word who were responsible to pass the reports down to others. This is why it doesn’t make sense to think all sorts of fake stories about Jesus got invented and passed around. From the very beginning there was an established tradition and authoritative spokesmen. It wasn’t like the first Christians just believed any old thing they heard about Jesus. It really mattered to them what really happened. So they sought out eyewitnesses and the official ministers and apostles who were passing on this authoritative message.
After talking about sources, Luke next talks about his approach. Look at verse three. Notice four things about his approach in compiling this narrative.
First, you see that his work is the fruit of investigation. I get that from the phrase “having followed.” It means “having followed along” or having “searched into this” or “having investigated.” Luke has been a student of these events.
Second, take a look at what he studied or investigated. He looked into “all things.” From Jesus birth to his death, for the prophecy before his birth to his resurrection and ascension after death-Luke followed all of it. He has tried to be thorough and comprehensive.
Third, notice that he followed all things closely. We know from Acts that Luke was a doctor. He was a bright guy, a sharp student. He was not interested in quickly putting together some propaganda piece. He really dug into the sources, read the materials, talked to eyewitnesses. He worked carefully and looked over everything closely.
And finally, notice that Luke’s gospel is meant to be “an orderly account.” You may have this idea that when God inspired the biblical writers he just took over their brains and downloaded information, but here we see that he fully employed Luke’s intelligence and his hard work. Luke was doing his best to be a careful scholar of these events. He wanted to arrange this story in a logical way. This probably means there is a rough chronological order, a rough geographic order, and a broadly theological order to this narrative. He is trying to produce a work that is true, understandable, and based on what really happened.
A couple years ago I was talking to another pastor around Christmas time and he was explaining to me why the virgin birth didn’t have to be historically true. He said maybe Matthew and Luke were just trying to throw in a bit of mythology that would appeal to the Greeks. Maybe they were trying to force the story into Isaiah’s language. Maybe it was just their way of saying Jesus’ birth was from God. But do you see how that sort of reasoning can’t work with these four verses? Luke is at great pains to inform us that he has compiled a narrative that has been researched, investigated, poured over, and comprises the best scholarship and the best eyewitness accounts. Luke could not be any clearer: there is nothing in this book that should be understood as legend. The history may be rearranged at points, but there is nothing here that has been invented or mythologized.
Think about the familiar words from Luke 2. If you study other religions and read about the birth of Hercules or the birth of the gods in Hinduism or the birth of the gods in Shintoism the stories are nothing like Luke 2.
In those days [a certain time in history] a decree [something that the Romans issued from time to time] went out from Caesar Augustus [a known world figure] that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria [an extra bit of history which shows that Luke is trying to be meticulous, even if scholars today aren’t sure where to place Quirinius chronologically]. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph [a historical person] also went up from Galilee [a specific region], from the town of Nazareth [a specific town], to Judea [another specific region], to the city of David [more historical background], which is called Bethlehem [another specific town we have record of], because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child [more background information]. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
There is nothing in here that sounds like fairy tale and everything to prove that Luke means this to be verifiable, accurate, precise, historical fact.
Which brings us to the third point. Luke talks about his sources. He talks about his approach. And finally he talks about his purpose. We see in verse 4 that he is writing to a man called Theophilus. We don’t know exactly who this man was. It seems that he was an important man. He is given the title “most excellent” Theophilus. In Acts Felix and Festus, two Roman magistrates, are both called “excellent.” We also know that Luke’s gospel, more than any other, is directed toward the rich. So I suspect that Theophilus was an important Roman official, Gentile and probably well off.
Luke wrote this gospel to be read by a wide audience. He understood that many Christians would read it. But most specifically he wrote it for Theophilus. Most likely, this man was a new Christian who had just received the message of the gospel. But Luke wants to make sure Theophilus has certainty concerning the things he has been taught. You can imagine this man as a baby Christian, taking this big step to accept the gospel, perhaps risking his reputation in the process. He has heard and believed, but there may have been moments for him, like there are for you, when the whole story seems so crazy, so fanciful, so unbelievable, maybe too good to be true. So Luke says, “Look, I have researched this thing. I’ve talked to eyewitness. I’ve read the other reports. I’ve studied the story from top to bottom, every bit of it, as carefully as I can. And now I’ve written it down in a orderly account so that you can be sure that there is good reason to believe what you have believed.”
That’s what Luke wanted Theophilus to understand a couple thousand years ago. And that’s what God wants us to understand tonight. The Christmas story is not a snow globe. It’s real. It’s history. Now, it’s not bald history. There is a shape to this narrative. It’s like a documentary. A good documentary is all true. It’s about history and facts and eyewitness reports. But the there is definitely a order to it, a design, a purpose. The film maker is trying to tell a story, trying to persuade. That’s what the Luke’s Gospel is like. It’s all true. It’s history and facts, with a theological point.
You ought to be absolutely confident that a virgin named Mary gave birth to a child named Jesus. In some ways it was plain and ordinary. It certainly wasn’t a Thomas Kinkade moment. Mary grimaced and groaned. She pushed and pushed, through anguish and pain. Just like millions of moms before her and billions after her. It was a bloody, messy, scary, happy scene. That’s what it’s like whenever a child comes into the world. It was all completely normal and real.
And absolutely unique and supernatural. For this Child had been predicted for millennia and prophecies were made about him for centuries. A virgin had never given birth before, because God had never come to his people like this before. Immanuel, God with us. Not a myth. Not a legend. Not a fairy tale. A real boy born to a real woman in a real town on a real day, so you can know there is a real Christ to save his people from their real sins. God came to earth on Christmas to live, to die, to be raised, to ascend, and to come again. It’s all gloriously true. So you can be certain.