The Christmas story has been told so many times that, to some, it can lose its potency. We all think we know it so well… Mary, Joseph, Manger, Wise Men, Shepherds, Herod, etc., etc. I want to ask you to try to listen again for the first time and thentake a look at the first people to hear the good news of the birth of Jesus.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 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 place for them in the inn.
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “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. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. ( Luke 2:8-20)
We talked about this a bit last week, but it’s such a striking story that it’s worth digging into because it’s pretty amazing to consider that the first people to hear about the birth of the most important person in history were a small group of shepherds sitting in their field, in the middle of the night.
Think of what we do when a child is born! We put it in the newspaper, the church bulletin, call our family and friends, post pictures on Facebook, and tell as many people as we can, as quickly as we can.
We would have sent the angels to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem, to wake the High Priest, to sing “Glory to God on High!” in every part of the world so everyone could see. We wouldn’t have even waited until people were awake to let the trumpets ring! We would have arranged the clouds and stars to say “The Messiah has been born!”
But God goes a different direction.
Outcasts & Rebels
Something you need to know about shepherds, which I alluded to last week, is that they were actually outcasts in their society. We romanticize them because David was a shepherd, and we love the picture of God as our shepherd from Psalm 23, we have shepherds in our nativity sets (and they seem nice), Jesus called himself the good shepherd, and we have little pictures of sheep and shepherds all over the place on our Christian mugs and posters. But during the time of Christ, shepherds were actually social rejects that nobody liked or trusted.
It would be like having pictures of the guys who collapsed Enron or Nortel, or the shady construction companies that overcharge people and then do shoddy work, or used car salesmen or pawn-shop owners, on our coffee mugs and nursery walls.
Their work made them continuously ceremonially unclean, and therefore they couldn’t associate with good, religious Jews. Going to the temple was almost prohibitive for them so they just didn’t. Their reputation was tarnished and they stayed on the outside of society, and were generally considered to be untrustworthy and unlikeable. Sure, they needed them – to buy their sheep for sacrifices in the temple – but they didn’t like them.
Think of them the way that we think of gas companies or phone companies. We need their product, but we don’t really want to be associated with them, right?
But that’s who God chose first. And I think the reason is because God wanted to demonstrate that He didn’t send His Son for the special, wealthy, loveable, or elite of human society, but for everyone, even (and especially) broken, rejected sinners.
The angels announce in verse 10, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Those words, “all the people”, are the Greek words PAS LAOS. LAOS is where we get our word “laity”, as in “lay people” or “lay worker” or “commoner”.
The good news of Jesus was given first to common people. This is a theme throughout the life of Christ. He is continuously found speaking to, doing miracles for, teaching, eating with, and associating with regular people. That was one reason the Pharisees and religious elite found Him so perplexing and annoying. They had built a big wall between themselves and all the “unwashed masses” that weren’t like them. They were the “holier-than-thou’s” and everyone else was beneath them.
And yet when God sends His Son, the first people He tells are the common, hard-working guys that are just out there doing their job, never expecting any kind of special treatment. They were rejected by “good society” but God gives them a special place in history.
Many of us wouldn’t be getting the invite to visit Jesus in the stable. It would be the poor, immigrant who is working at a low-paying but can’t find anything better because of discrimination and intolerance. The angels would be appearing to the group of homeless people and prostitutes huddled under an overpass to keep warm. He would come to the senior citizen’s home or the women’s shelter, to those who have had to leave their home, are in debt up to their ears, have little hope and feel forgotten by the ones who they thought cared about them.
That’s an amazing think the shepherd’s story teaches us. God introduces Himself regular, normal, struggling, sinful, hurting folk, in a spectacular way. He doesn’t give the good stuff to a a certain age, economic, or ethnic group. The message to the shepherds, and to us, is that a relationship with God through Jesus Christ is not just for certain people – but for everyone.
An Understandable God
This shows up all over scripture. God speaks to people in ways they can understand. Sometimes movies and books portray God as confusing – as though He speaks in riddles. But that’s not the case! God is extremely clear about what He says, all the way though scripture – it is we who complicate His message by our disobedience, ignorance and willful attempts to twist His words.
The New Testament is written in the common language of the day, using words everyone could understand. Jesus taught mostly using simple stories, not complicated theological jargon. And we know He loves using regular, normal, everyday people to do amazing things for His glory and to grow His kingdom. That way He gets the glory, and people get to be involved with something that is on an eternal scale.
Look at what the shepherds got to do! They ran away from their sheep (something a shepherd would not normally do) and were the first people to see Jesus, and then ran all over town spreading the good news!
Instead of doing what we would do, using the religious elite like pastors, priests, teachers and politicians – or even angels from Heaven – God’s plan was to use normal people to tell Bethlehem about the Messiah.
And He’s still doing that today. God doesn’t work primarily through people like Billy Graham or other famous Christmas. People like me are not His primary workers. Billy Graham brought people to God. I’m someone who was given to the church to help equip people for what God wants them to do. It’s you and other normal people that God works though most.
“God Helps Those Who Help Themselves” is WRONG
The words “God helps those who help themselves” is NOWHERE in scripture! Neither is “God helps those who deserve it”. It’s just not there! God’s grace is amazing because it is for those who need it, who don’t deserve it, and can’t help themselves.
- “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Timothy 1:15)
- Jesus said, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)
- When His disciples were asked, “‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” Jesus answered, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’” (Mark 2:16-17)
- Jesus said, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28 )
This is all over the Bible and the very foundation of how we understand the Gospel! We need to understand that when Jesus came to earth at Christmas He wasn’t coming to simply give us an example to live by – no, He was coming to save us because we couldn’t save ourselves. He was coming out of love for people who didn’t love Him. He was coming to resurrect dead souls and make His enemies into friends.
- “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:9-10)
That word “propitiation” means Jesus was the One who satisfied the God’s wrath against sin on our behalf. His judgement of sin is right and good and punishment must be given to sinners. But Jesus came to earth as a baby so He could grow up and take upon Himself the full measure of God’s hatred for sin — the punishment we deserve.
- “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:6-10)
More than this, Ephesians describes the state of our souls before the coming of Jesus as being dead. Dead people can’t help themselves. No doctor would walk into a morgue and look at a dead body and say, “I’ll help him get better when he can help himself.” That’s ridiculous. But that’s what people are saying when they say “God helps those who help themselves.” Before Jesus changes our hearts, we are corpses… enemy corpses… unable to do anything to save ourselves.
- “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (Ephesians 2:1-3)
Do you see that? That’s what Jesus came to at Christmas. He didn’t come to a world that deserved Him. No, he came to surround himself with people who were dead in their sins, following Satan, disobedient, more interested in the desires of our flesh than what God wants, and were, along with all mankind, under God’s WRATH. Thank God for verse 4.
- “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:4-10)
Another reason that “God helps those who help themselves” is wrong is because it assumes that we can actually do something good before we are saved. From God’s perspective, that’s impossible. The Shepherds didn’t do anything to deserve to hear the gospel from the angels, and we can’t do anything to deserve salvation!
When the prophet Isaiah described the state of affairs of a group of people who have turned away from God he said this:
“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” (Isaiah 64:6-7)
Theologians call this the doctrine of “Total Depravity”. It means that unless we are washed by the blood of Jesus, we are stained completely black from the inside out, not one ounce of good left within us.
The term “polluted garment” is a very strong one. Other translations use the word “filthy rags” or “permanently stained rags”, but it doesn’t quite capture the picture – and it’s a gross one. The word to describe all of our “good deeds” before salvation is the word “polluted” or “filthy” and it’s the Hebrew word IDDAH, which literally means “the bodily fluids from a woman’s menstrual cycle.”[i]
We sometimes ask the question, “But what about all the good people who don’t believe in Jesus? What about all the really nice people who are so moral and good? Won’t they be able to go to heaven and say, ‘I did good things for you, God! I was a good person!’”
The Bible says that since they are still in their sin, in rebellion against Him, are enemies of God, are playing for team Satan, and that even their so-called “righteous acts” are as repugnant as a soiled feminine hygiene product.
Now, to give this context, remember what was happening when Isaiah wrote this. The Israelites had turned their backs on God, were worshipping idols and demons, and making sacrifices to God on pagan alters. They thought they were doing something good, but it was all stained by sin. There is no way to impress God as a pagan unbeliever.
There was an old sketch on SNL where Stewart Smalley would stare into a mirror and do a daily-self-affirmation where he would say, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” It was a joke – but it really is the basic mantra of all self-help gurus. It’s the belief that most people have for the afterlife too. And it’s total garbage.
Martin Luther once said,
“The most damnable and pernicious heresy that has ever plagued the mind of man is that somehow he can make himself good enough to deserve to live forever with an all-holy God.”[i]
When Jesus talked about the judgement of all people in the end He said,
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21-23)
This is why He said that. Good works do not impress God, and they cannot save. They are like “filthy rags”.
What does this mean for us today?
First, if you’re feeling the conviction of your sin, then realize that God isn’t expecting you to clean yourself up before you come to Him. You don’t need to stop sinning in order to be saved. No, the difference comes in that you must hate your sin. As long as you love your sin, make excuses for it, make allowances for it, and tell God that you love it more than Him, then you cannot be saved. Thinking you need to clean yourself up, or that you need to do so many good deeds to impress God first, is a satanic lie that actually keeps you from God.
Salvation comes when you realize that you are a sinner, that you cannot save yourself, that you start to hate your sin and want to be free from it, and come to the only one who can forgive you. That’s what “Repentance” means. It means turning around and walking the other way. You know you are wrong, admit you’re wrong, come to Jesus and say,
“I’m wrong. I’ve been living wrong. I’m a sinner and I can’t get out from underneath. There is no amount of good deeds I can do to make up for my sin, and no matter how much I try to do, I always feel guilt and shame. Jesus, be my Lord, be my Saviour. I accept your salvation. I accept that you died on the cross for me, and I will spend the rest of my live living in a way to say ‘thank you’.”
1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” It’s not about feeling forgiven – it’s about accepting that you are forgiven because Jesus did everything that was necessary. The feelings will come later as you live out your faith. Know you are saved and cleansed because God always keeps His promises.
Remember the words of the Angels to the Shepherds,
“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.” (Luke 2:10-11)
Second, if you are a Christian today who has fallen backward, has allowed sins to pile up, or is drifting away from a life of consistent prayer and bible reading, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re too far gone. Don’t believe must come to God perfectly or you shouldn’t do it. Don’t think it’s too late to start praying. Don’t believe that you’ve got too much back-logged sin to confess, or too much to say to start praying again, too much to read to start reading again, too many back-payments in tithing to start giving again.
Jesus wants you as you are today. Ask forgiveness and just start today. I don’t see anywhere in scripture where God wants back-payments. You don’t need to “catch up” your prayer life or bible reading. Just start today. Don’t be paralyzed by guilt or shame. Stop making excuses, confess your sin of neglect, ask God for help, ask a Christian friend to hold you accountable, and start being obedient today.
And third, if you’ve come to church, or go to a small group, work in one of the church ministries, or simply feel a draw to talk to your family or friends about Jesus and feel overwhelmed by the responsibility and mistakes you’re making, don’t get down on yourself thinking that God is disappointed in you.
It’s ok you don’t know all the right words, know exactly what to do, or what the “rules” are. It’s ok if you stumble through a song, feel shy praying aloud, or drop the ball in some area of work. God listens to your heart and your motivations. God doesn’t just hears prayers if they are formatted properly, using special words. He doesn’t just accept worship from professional singers. He doesn’t just use people who are talented and confident. No, God uses regular people most of all – in fact, He prefers it! Normal, nervous, dependant, obedient people are His favourite way of affecting the world.
1 Corinthians 1:26-31 says,
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
So let’s do that this Christmas. Let’s “boast in the Lord” and be thankful that the first people He told were normal, messed up, sinful shepherds – people like us. Let’s be thankful that we cannot save ourselves, because then we’d always be stressed out that we’d done enough, or be prideful thinking about how great we are. Let’s be thankful for the one who came and saved us, who keeps saving, and who will always save those who come to Him and ask.