Luke 2:1-20 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
Tonight at 8:00 pm on TBS begins 24 hours of “A Christmas Story.” Millions of viewers will sit down in front of their TVs to watch one of the most beloved Christmas movies of all time.
“A Christmas Story” is set in the 1940’s, and it centers on a nine-year old boy named Ralphie. Ralphie’s dream is to receive a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Or, in Ralphie’s words, “A Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle.” When he tells that to Santa, the man in the big red suit replies, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” Then, Santa pushes Ralphie down the chute with his boot.
Ralphie’s winter takes all kinds of twists and turns throughout the movie, but on Christmas morning (spoiler alert), he receives the gift of his dreams.
If you happen to watch the movie within the next 24 hours, pay close attention to its closing moment. The narrator for the movie is a man by the name of Jean Shepherd. “A Christmas Story” is based on his childhood, and as the narrator, he’s speaking as the adult Ralphie looking back on this perfect Christmas. The closing moment of the movie shows young Ralphie fast asleep in his bed, holding his beloved Red Ryder in his arms … and he still has both eyes. It is then that the voice of the narrator – the adult Ralphie – says this: “[It was] the greatest Christmas gift I had ever received, or would receive.”
You cannot help watching and hearing that moment without feeling a small clutch in your throat. “[It was] the greatest Christmas gift I had ever received, or would receive.” In those few words, Jean Shepherd – the real-life Ralphie – was acknowledging that the Christmas joy he had felt at nine years old had never come back.
I know the movie was meant to end on a high, emotional note. But, when you really think about those words, they really are quite sad.
Have there been times in your past when you felt like “all was right in the world”? Everything was going well for you. You had everything you needed – maybe even everything you wanted. But now those times are in your distant past. You feel like you’ll never reclaim or recapture that joy and excitement you once had.
That’s a problem that all of us feel, isn’t it? We felt such great joy on our wedding day, but the years since the wedding haven’t always been so joyful. Our heart was bursting with pride when our child was born, but that child has messed up so many times, we aren’t proud to be that child’s parents anymore. We were so excited to go to college, get our degree, and start working. That excitement has worn off a long time ago. We used to be able to run around all day, eat whatever we wanted, and stay up all night. Now we struggle to walk up steps, we need to watch what we eat, and we have a pharmacy in our kitchen.
We might feel like Ralphie – the joy we once had has never come back.
As much as you or I might love “A Christmas Story,” if we expect joy to come from a Red Ryder BB Gun or a leg lamp from FRAGILE or the Christmas duck that is smiling at you, you are going to be disappointed. The gun might shoot your eye out. The leg lamp will break. The duck will get its head chopped off. You’re going to be disappointed if you try to find your Christmas joy in the things of this world.
That’s why the greatest Christmas gift you have ever received was not wrapped in paper. The greatest Christmas gift was wrapped in swaddling clothes. The greatest gift wasn’t laid under the tree. He was laid in the manger. The greatest gift didn’t come from a store. He came down from heaven.
The Holy Spirit inspired St. Luke to record for us the story of the greatest Christmas gift of all. The holy Maker and Preserver of the universe sent His own Son. God came to earth. The Lord who holds the planets in their orbits and the stars in their places, left behind the eternal glory of heaven to become so weak and fragile that He couldn’t walk or talk or hold His head up. God became man.
God became man – not born in the palace of Caesar Augustus, because He wasn’t born to rule. He was born in poverty to take care of those who dwell in the poverty of their sins. He was born in Bethlehem, because that fulfilled prophecy and ties all of Scripture together into one cohesive unit. He was placed in a manger because He came to suffer, not to show off.
God was born a man so that through faith in the God-Man, we might become children of the divine God. He appeared weak at His birth and even weaker at His death, to overcome the power of the devil through His perceived weakness. He was born as the Seed of Eve to crush the ancient Serpent’s head. Even before His birth, His parents were keeping the law of moving to the town of David, thus demonstrating that Jesus, who began His life in keeping Caesar’s law would always keep the Lord’s law in our place. His first Advent in the manger was humble and only a few shepherds celebrated His Advent. Jesus’ second Advent in the clouds will be glorious and every eye will see Him.
St. Luke’s Gospel is so well-known that it is easy to miss exactly what is happening behind those inspired words. The God who plays kings and emperors like pawns on a chess board, had Caesar move the world’s population so that a census could be taken of the entire Roman world. With that earthly decree, the divine promise given to Micah, 700 years earlier was fulfilled: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel” (Micah 5:2). This is the kind of power our God has. He moves nations for His Son’s birth. This is what God does so that we can believe in His Son and be saved.
That’s the kind of power that the Son of God was laying aside so that He could be born on Christmas as our Savior.
We know these words so well: “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” The baby wrapped in cloths and spent at least the first night in a borrowed room. These words foreshadowed 33 years later that Jesus’ dead body was wrapped in cloths and placed in a borrowed tomb. This happened so that we might believe in Him and be wrapped in Jesus’ righteousness and live in someone else’s home – the home of our heavenly Father.
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid.” Christ came to take away your fear. You don’t need to be afraid of loneliness or pain or disappointment. More importantly, you don’t need to fear God’s judgment, the punishment you deserve, or eternal hellfire. You get to live every day of your life certain that because of that first Christmas, you are loved, forgiven, and immortal.
The best Christmas present wasn’t under a tree or wrapped in paper. He was wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in a manger. That one-time event two thousand Christmases ago, brings Christmas joy to every day of our lives.
Perhaps your Christmas this year will be far from perfect. That’s all right. Jesus is the greatest Christmas gift we have received … or will ever receive. Amen.