The holidays are a season for joy. Isn’t that why we go through it all every year? Traveling with small children to see family, putting up Christmas lights in the cold wind, all of the decorations and the music and the food and gatherings. It’s all for our joy.
But it doesn’t always feel joyful does it? The holidays might not feel super joyful for the family celebrating its first Christmas without a loved one. They might not feel super joyful for the family in financial distress struggling to pay the bills let alone buy gifts for the kids. They may not feel joyful for the family whose house is loaded with gifts and decorations and a cabinet full of anxiety pills.
The good news I want to share with you this morning is that there is something better than the holidays available to you and I during this season. Join me this morning for a Christmas meditation in Luke chapter 2.
In Luke we are reminded that there is only one real problem/one need in our lives.
This is THE only real problem we have – our sin and guilt in the holy, pure, just and overwhelmingly powerful presence of a Holy God.
To understand this, we’re going to have to enter the world of the shepherds for a moment.
Look with me at verse 9. This verse can be translated they were terrified.
There is something here that our nativity scenes and children’s books cannot capture – pure terror.
To get a sense of the feeling you have to look somewhere else than the Christmas book at your kids’ bedside.
To get a sense of the feeling of the shepherds you can look to the movie Jaws, when chief Brody is chumming the water and the great white rises out of the water just off the side of the boat. Or the moment in Jurassic Park when the water cup starts vibrating and the goat leg slaps down onto the windshield and the giant eye of the looming TRex looks down on the jeep.
When you read “they were filled with great fear”, picture the pure terror in the faces in that jeep or that boat or in the dark house of any horror movie and you’ll get a good understanding of what Luke is trying to communicate.
You might not sell a lot of kids’ books with true to life illustrations of this moment of terror.
Yet this fear, this raw, visceral dread is the standard reaction recorded in the Bible when people encounter the presence of God or His messengers.
Turn to Luke 1. In verse 12, Zechariah encounters an angel and in that moment he “was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.” Another translation reads, fear overcame him. Zechariah was filled with dread.
In Genesis 28 Jacob experiences a vision of heaven, you remember – he sees a ladder with angels ascending and descending from heaven. Listen to his response – “How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Throughout the Old Testament we see this dread when people are visited by the angel of the Lord – Gideon, Jacob and Manoah – an encounter with the angel of the Lord created a sense of death hanging over their heads. When the prophets encountered God they experience this dread.
As Daniel prayed on the riverside and was visited by the angel Gabriel he “was terrified and fell facedown.”
When Isaiah saw a vision of the glory of God he cried out in terror “Woe to me! . . . I am ruined! . . . For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”
When John saw a vision of the risen Christ, he “fell at his feet as though dead.”
Every one of them experienced the immediate sensation of impending doom.
It’s natural for a vulnerable creature to feel terror in the presence of something vastly larger and more powerful – like a TRex. If the thought of a great white fills us with dread, how much more so the one who created not only the great white but every atom in the cosmos.
But it’s more than just size and power. There’s a moral element to this dread.
To realize the presence of an unimaginably great and powerful presence who is also moral and good and right is to be morally vulnerable.
It feels like terror when the reality of your moral condition is stripped naked in the presence of the holy one. We’re going to go back for a moment to an earlier era that had not yet lost this sense of God. This comes from Charles Spurgeon:
Is it possible to peer long into the vast abyss of Infinity and not to fear? Can the mind yield itself up to the thought of the Eternal, Self-existent, Infinite One without being filled, first with awe and then with dread? What am I? An aphid creeping upon a rosebud is a more considerable creature in relation to the universe of beings than I can be in comparison with God.
What am I? A grain of dust, that does not turn the scale of the most delicate balance is a greater thing to man than a man is to Jehovah. At best we are less than nothing and vanity.
But there is more to abase us than this. We have had the impertinence to be disobedient to the will of this great One; and now the goodness and greatness of his nature are as a current against which sinful humanity struggles in vain, for the irresistible torrent must run its course, and overwhelm every opponent.
What does the great God seem to us out of Christ but a stupendous rock, threatening to crush us, or a fathomless sea, hastening to swallow us up? The contemplation of the divine greatness may of itself fill man with horror, and east him into unutterable misery!
Dwell long upon such themes, and like Job, you will tremble before Jehovah, who shaketh the earth out of her place, and the pillars thereof tremble.
Each one of the sterner attributes of God will cause the like fear.
Think of his power by which he rolls the stars along, and lay thine hand upon thy mouth. Think of his wisdom by which he numbers the clouds, and settles the ordinances of heaven. Meditate upon any one of these attributes, but especially upon his justice, and upon that devouring fire which burns unceasingly against sin, and it is no wonder if the soul becomes full of fear.
Meanwhile let a sense of sin with its great whip of wire, flagellate the conscience, and man will dread the bare idea of God. For this is the burden of the voice of conscience to guilty man, “If you were an obedient creature, this God would still be terrible to you, for the heavens are not pure in his sight, and he charged his angels with folly. What are you that you should be just with God, or have any claims upon him; for you have offended, you have lifted the hand of your rebellion against the infinite majesty of omnipotence — what can become of you? what can be your portion but to be set up for ever as a monument of his righteous wrath?”
Now we have a sense of the shepherds experience. Now we have a sense of the true state of every human being in the presence of God and we have a sense of the only true problem any human being has in this life.
What’s coming next? Are we dead?
Imagine the relief when the words came out of the angel’s mouth – “fear not”.
These two comforting words of the angel will develop in three waves of peace welling up into joy.
First is the good news.
Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
There is a universe of meaning in these words.
The essence is “you don’t have to be afraid because the presence of the Holy One is not coming in destruction but in friendship.” It is not a destroyer who is coming but a savior. Someone is coming who can rescue you and lead you to safety.
Then the angel adds to his good news of a savior a description.
And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.
This terrifying, awe-inspiring messenger has come to them – real ordinary people, in real ordinary space and time – to address them. To bring the greatest of news, the most glorious revelation with a sign to them. What sign does this awesome creature point them to – a baby wrapped in cloth lying in a makeshift bed.
Can there be anything more tender and comforting than the thought of a baby tightly wrapped and lying asleep under the watchful care of its Mother?
And now with the giving of that inexplicable sign – suddenly – the angel is surrounded by the appearance of a vast multitude of creatures shouting out with one massive voice – “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is please.”
Real, ordinary, flawed souls surrounded by the glory of heaven and the unbelievably good news that the glory of the Holy One does not bring the dread of destruction, but instead peace.
And like that, as suddenly as he appeared, the angel is gone. And the shepherds are left, having their souls stripped bare by the deep dread of terror and the flood of glorious peace which washed the fear away.
The men rush to Bethlehem and find Mary and Joseph and a tender baby lying in a manger. The Savior born unto you.
What did this experience do to these shepherds?
Is it too much to assume that it gave them joy?
Verse 20. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.
The Holy One has visited us, his presence did not destroy us and came in friendship and peace. Look again to Spurgeon:
“Beloved, this is such sweet comfort. He that is God this day was once an infant so that if my cares are little and even trivial and comparatively infantile, I may go to him, for he was once a child. Though the great ones of the earth may sneer at the child of poverty, and say, “You are too mean, and your trouble is too slight for pity;” I recollect with humble joy, that the King of heaven did hang upon a woman’s breast, and was wrapped in swaddling bands, and therefore I tell him all my griefs.
How wonderful that he should have been an infant, and yet should be God over all, blessed for ever! I am not afraid of God now; this blessed link between me and God, the holy child Jesus, has taken all fear away.”
Your greatest problem and the thing you need most to be rescued from is God. Your greatest problem is your sin in the light of a just and holy God.
If you have not understood this, you do not understand God and you will never be able to find the peace and joy that come from truly trusting in Him.
Too many of us have missed this. We have been given a stripped down, modified vision of God – one that fits neatly in children’s books and Hallmark movies. A God who wants you to have a White Christmas and lots of presents under the tree and the presence of all of your loved ones.
This may seem like a better image of God than what I have described. But there is a problem. It doesn’t fit life does it? What am I supposed to do with this God when it doesn’t snow on Christmas? When I can’t afford presents for the kids? When my loved ones aren’t here any more? You see the problem.
With enough real-life experience, you will never trust the safe, feel good God of our contemporary age.
The good news is the Bible reveals something much greater and much more real than this view of God. A God who is far greater and, necessarily, more dreadful, than anything we can imagine.
To get to the peace and joy He gives, you have to first experience the terror of the shepherds. You have to know the terror of a real life encounter with the living God.
Then you will hear with the shepherds the message of the angels. You will hear the good news that our dreadful God is not only just and holy but is compassionate and merciful. You will hear that the one we need to be saved from is ready to save us.
This holiday season as the joy of the season is mingled with and maybe even snuffed out by the sorrows of your grief and the anxieties of your troubles and the shallowness of the commercial excesses – turn to Luke 2, stand with the shepherds in terrified awe of the glory of the Holy One and hear with them the comforting words of peace and good will. Join the multitude in praise of God and let the joy of the Savior flood your soul.
The good news of great joy will never really fill your heart until you know the dread of God. And it will never really fill your heart until you know your stake in its message.
The angel announced to the shepherds – regular, ordinary men in regular ordinary time and space – unto YOU is born a Savior. These shepherds are representative. They are representative of every regular ordinary person living in regular, ordinary time and space. They tell us that we too live under the watchful eye of a Holy God. And we too have been visited by a compassionate and merciful Savior. The birth of Christ in human form, the perfect life he lived, the sin he bore on the cross and the power he displayed in the resurrection are for YOU – but they will do you no good unless you draw near to Christ in faith.
Maybe you struggle to draw near. Maybe you still feel the dread of God pushing you away. Let’s listen to Spurgeon one last time:
But I hear a sinner say, “I am afraid to go to God this morning and confess that I am a sinner.” Well, do not go to God but go to Christ. Surely you would not be afraid of him. Think of God in Christ, not out of Christ.
If you could but know Jesus you would go to him at once; you would not be afraid to tell him your sins, for you would know that he would say, “Go, and sin no more.” “I cannot pray,” says one, “I feel afraid to pray.” What, afraid to pray when it is a man who listens to you! You might dread the face of God, but when God in human flesh you see why be alarmed? Go, poor sinner, go to Jesus.
“I feel,” says one, “unfit to come.” You may be unfit to come to God, but you cannot be unfit to come to Jesus. There is a fitness necessary to stand in the holy hill of the Lord, but there is no fitness needed in coming to the Lord Jesus. Come as you are, guilty, and lost, and ruined. Come just as you are, and he will receive you.
“Oh,” says another, “I cannot trust.” I can understand your not being able to trust the great invisible God, but cannot you trust that dying, bleeding Son of Man who is also the Son of God?”
“But I cannot hope,” says another, “that he would even look on me:” and yet he used to look on such as you are. He received publicans and sinners and ate with them, and even harlots were not driven from his presence.
Oh, since God has thus taken man into union with himself be not afraid! If I speak to one who by reason of sin has wandered so far away from God that he is even afraid to think of God’s name, yet inasmuch as Jesus Christ is called “the sinner’s Friend,” I pray thee think of him, poor soul, as thy friend. And, oh! may the Spirit of God open thy blind eyes to see that there is no cause for thy keeping away from God, except thine own mistaken thoughts of him!
May you believe that he is able and willing to save to the uttermost! May you understand his good and gracious character, his readiness to pass by transgression, iniquity, and sin! And may the sweet influences of grace constrain you to come to him this very morning!
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown