A Big God for a Little People—Luke 2:1–5
Have you ever thought what an amazing thing it is that God ordained beforehand that the Messiah be born in Bethlehem (as the prophecy in Micah 5 shows); and that he so ordained things that when the time came, the Messiah's mother and legal father were living in Nazareth; and that in order to fulfill his word and bring two little people to Bethlehem that first Christmas, God put it in the heart of Caesar Augustus that all the Roman world should be enrolled each in his own town?
Have you ever felt, like me, little and insignificant in a world of four billion people, where all the news is of big political and economic and social movements and of outstanding people with lots of power and prestige? If you have, don't let that make you disheartened or unhappy. For it is implicit in Scripture that all the mammoth political forces and all the giant industrial complexes, without their even knowing it, are being guided by God, not for their own sake but for the sake of God's little people—the little Mary and the little Joseph who have to be got from Nazareth to Bethlehem. God wields an empire to bless his children. Do not think, because you experience adversity, that the hand of the Lord is shortened. It is not our prosperity but our holiness that he seeks with all his heart. And to that end, he rules the whole world. As Proverbs 21:1 says: "The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will." He is a big God for little people, and we have great cause to rejoice that, unbeknownst to them, all the kings and presidents and premiers and chancellors of the world follow the sovereign decrees of our Father in heaven, that we, the children, might be conformed to the image of his Son, Jesus Christ.
Calvary Road—Luke 2:6–7
Now you would think that if God so rules the world as to use an empire-wide census to bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, he surely could have seen to it that a room was available in the inn. Yes, he could have. And Jesus could have been born into a wealthy family. He could have turned stone into bread in the wilderness. He could have called 10,000 angels to his aid in Gethsemane. He could have come down from the cross and saved himself. The question is not what God could do, but what he willed to do. God's will was that though Christ was rich, yet for your sake he became poor. The "No Vacancy" signs over all the motels in Bethlehem were for your sake. "For your sake he became poor." God rules all things—even motel capacities—for the sake of his children. The Calvary road begins with a "No Vacancy" sign in Bethlehem and ends with the spitting and scoffing and the cross in Jerusalem.
And we must not forget that he said: "He who would come after me must deny himself and take up his cross." We join him on the Calvary road and hear him say: "Remember the word that I said to you, 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you" (John 15:20). To the one who calls out enthusiastically: "I will follow you wherever you go!" Jesus responds, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."
Yes, God could have seen to it that Jesus have a room at his birth. But that would have been a detour off the Calvary road.
Fear Not—Luke 2:8–11
The angel said to Zechariah: "Fear not!" He said it to Mary: "Fear not!" And now he says it to the shepherds: "Fear not!" It's a natural thing for a sinner to fear. The more guilt we have, the more things we fear: fear of being found out for some little deceit, fear that some ache we have is God's judgment, fear of dying and meeting the holy God face to face.
But even though it's natural, God sends Jesus with the word: Fear not! Hebrews 2:14 says: Jesus became man "that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death have been held in lifelong bondage." Doesn't this last phrase imply something tremendously liberating for our daily life? If the worst fear—fear of death—has been taken away through the death of Christ, then surely God does not want us to fear the lesser things in life: job insecurity, not having enough time to finish a sermon, having over for lunch someone who can't speak English, failing a test in school, being rejected by your friends, etc. The message of Christmas is fear not! God is ruling the world for the great good of his children. Believe his promises: "Fear not for I am with you. Be not dismayed for I am your God. I will help you; I will strengthen you; I will uphold you with the right hand of my righteousness . . . Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall wear . . . Cast all your anxieties on God because he cares for you . . . The Lord is my light and my salvation: whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life: of whom shall I be afraid?"
And in the place of fear Jesus puts joy. Joyless faith in Jesus is a contradiction in terms. Paul summed up the goal of his whole ministry like this: "for the advancement and joy of your faith." And he told the Philippians and Thessalonians, "Rejoice always, and again I will say rejoice." Always? Yes. Not without tears of grief and pain. But still joyful. When my mother was killed, I cried for about half an hour before I could stop. But as I knelt there by my bed, I was not only grieving. I was hoping. And while it is very hard to describe, there was a kind of joy in God and his sovereign goodness that later on at her funeral I tried to express.
So don't oversimplify: it is not wrong to cry (weep with those who weep), but there is a joy rooted in God's rule of love that is never overcome in God's children.
Peace for Whom?—Luke 2:12–14
Peace for whom? There is a somber note sounded in the angels' praise. Peace among men on whom his favor rests. Peace among men with whom he is pleased. Without faith it is impossible to please God. So Christmas does not bring peace to all.
"This is the judgment," Jesus said, "that the light has come into the world and men loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds are evil." Or as the aged Simeon said when he saw the child Jesus: "Behold this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is spoken against . . . that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed." O, how many there are who look out on a bleak and chilly Christmas day and see no more than that.
For Everyone Who Believes
He came to his own and his own received him not, but to as many as received him to them gave he power to become the sons of God, to as many as believed on his name. It was only to his disciples that Jesus said, "Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid." The people who enjoy the peace of God that surpasses all understanding are those who in everything by prayer and supplication let their requests be made known to God. The key that unlocks the treasure chest of God's peace is faith in the promises of God. So Paul prays: "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing". And when we do trust the promises of God and have joy and peace and love, then God is glorified. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men with whom he is pleased: men who would believe.
Spreading the Light—Luke 2:17–20
In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light that all might believe through him.
If you are ever granted to see that light for what it really is, you will believe it. Everybody who knows the light is like John the Baptist: we have seen the light and testify to it. We have been lifted out of the dark caverns of our sin and guilt and fear into the bright daylight of his grace. How can we help but spread the light?
To symbolize the coming of the light into our dark world and the spreading of the light through the world we will spread the flame of the Christ candle through the room.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.