Study in Luke’s Gospel. Presentation 07. Veiled And Unveiled Chap 2v1-20. Presentation 07. Introduction.
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The advertising industry regularly makes use of contrasts e.g. ‘Look what a difference has been made to my wash now that I Tide” washing powder’. Great use is made of ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots in order to persuade us of the effectiveness of a particular product? Luke also recognised the value of presenting us with before and after shots designed to show us the difference that Jesus makes in people’s lives. And a foretaste of the difference Jesus would make is indicated in the birth narrative with its initial focus upon the shepherds. One of the contrasts that we find in this passage is that of God’s glory veiled and unveiled.
Luke begins with the unspectacular, the birth of a child in the midst of all the upheaval caused by the emperor’s decree. Caesar Augustus also known as Octavian wanted a register of his subjects. We might whimsically suggest that he was intent upon issuing all his subjects with a National Insurance number for he wanted to ensure that no one avoided the taxman. The census certainly had this as its objective. It was in the midst of all this bustle that Jesus was born. We need to admire the amazing restraint of God in all of this.
No fancy publicity, no trumpet fanfare, ‘how silently, how silently , the wondrous gift is given,’ is how the hymn-writer describes the manner in which the Jesus gift was given. God chose to identify in the humblest way imaginable with those who were made in his image.
There was nothing to suggest to those passing by that the child born to Mary was in any way special, just another statistic, just another taxpayer in the making, arriving from and in rural anonymity.
Despite the social status of Mary and Joseph, [they did not have enough social standing to secure a bed for the night they managed to make stable-class but that was it] Luke’s description of Bethlehem, as the town of David, does trigger off a clue that this was to be the birthplace of the Messiah [Mic.5v1-2].
But the contrast between the birth’s commonness and the child’s greatness could not be greater. It is just that there is nothing here to indicate that anything out of the ordinary had happened. The glory of God was veiled as he stepped into our world. What do we sing? ‘Mild he laid his glory by’.
When the news of the birth of Jesus was brought to the shepherds on the Bethlehem hillside they were terrorised. They did not simply react in the way that people normally did when faced with angelic visitors.
This is not just a dose of healthy fear produced by a completely new and other worldly experience. This was terror, this was blind dread, and this was heart attack material. What caused it? The text supplies us with the answer. They were greeted not just by the angel of the Lord but by the glory of God that shone around them.
To be confronted with the glory of God in all its brilliance is to realise that we have been penetrated to the depth of our being by a God who knows all our secrets. He is a God before whom nothing can be hid. Heb.4v13
What things? Things which we have lived comfortably with, the grey areas of our lives which we have been very relaxed about are suddenly seen in their true light and we see their awful ugliness and blackness exposed. The unveiling of God's glory does that! These shepherds knew beyond all doubt that it was impossible for them to dwell in that glory.
This was also the experience of Isaiah the prophet of God. He was a godly man, a religious man. One day he went to the temple to pray and God revealed his glory. And when he saw the Lord high and lifted up, how did he react? The experience terrorised him. He cried out, "Woe is me, [I'm done for I can't live with this] I am a man of unclean lips.“ Isa.6v5
Think too of the experience of Peter after Jesus momentarily revealed something of his glory in the remarkable catch of fishes. Such was the impact that this revelation made upon Peter that it caused him to fall down before Jesus and cry out, "Lord depart from me for I am a sinful man". Luke 5v8.
Peter too was saying, "I can't live with this". Exposure to the glory of God does that. It exposes the utter inadequacy and failure of the creature in the presence of his Creator. Does this help us to understand the sheer terror of these shepherds in a somewhat different light?
The first Christmas was an extremely stressful one for these men. The glory of God in all its exposing, searching brilliance penetrated the darkest chambers of their hearts.
If we try and place ourselves in the shepherd’s shoes, we will be able to understand more clearly the significance and relevance of the angelic message. The birth of God's Son was the culmination of God's preparations to enable men to live with his glory. This child had come to "bring many sons into glory".
These messengers had come, not to incite fear but to dispel it with a message of quite glorious hope. It was a time of good news not just for the shepherds but for all people of all generations. God had a solution to the quaking terror in the hearts of men and women who would stand before his blinding glory.
First of all we find the second person of the trinity clothing himself with our frail humanity. This humanity veiled the essential glory of the Godhead. You could say that in this way God made himself approachable to the very worst of men. Men were able to see the attractiveness of God without being overwhelmed and confounded by his glory.
A child might be a bit intimidated on seeing a judge attired with all the instruments of his office sitting on the bench of the high court. But if that same child were to meet the judge doing his shopping in Safeway he would undoubtedly strike up a quite different relationship.
He would not be intimidated or overawed. God quite purposefully veiled his glory in order that he might communicate the breadth of his character to us in a non-threatening way. There were times of course in the life of Jesus when something of his essential glory shone out. It happened on the Mount of Transfiguration and again at the time of his arrest in Gethsemane cf. John 18.6. The arresting party were stopped momentarily dead in their tracks by his glory.
Here then is the first significant thing to consider about the incarnation. God was making himself both approachable and identifiable to men. In that babe, God has laid his glory by that he may come into close personal touch with men.
Secondly, the angelic intimation made it clear that this was a promised child. His identity is revealed - he is
Christ the Lord. From the fall when it became apparent that sinful man could not live in the presence of a holy God, God had promised that his Christ would come.
The word ‘Christ’ means 'anointed one'. One set apart
for a very particular function and purpose.
In the OT, both Kings and High Priests were anointed, indicating that they were set apart for a particular purpose. Now the Christ had been set apart to make it possible for man to stand unterrorised in the presence of God. Peace with God instead of terror in his presence was his goal. The angels say, ‘today God has kept that promise the Christ with this special mission has been born!’
Thirdly, the angels indicate the nature of the mission of this child. He is to be a Saviour. The word was all too familiar to these shepherds. They would have known that ‘Saviour’ means 'deliverer'. In Jesus’ day there were all sorts of expectations among the Jews concerning what the coming Saviour might do.
The tendency of the Jew was to fasten on to whatever aspect of deliverance best served them, be it deliverance from political, cultural or economic tyranny. Remember that Joseph was told to name Mary’s child Jesus, which means saviour because, “he will save his people from their sins.”
We have stated that its is a consciousness that we have broken God's laws and fallen short of his standards which causes us to be terrorised by God’s glory. The Christ-child was born in order to deal with the root cause of that terror. For he himself would pay the penalty of our sin. He would stand in our place and be exposed to the terrors of God. He would exhaust the righteous demands of God's justice on our behalf. This is the essence of his saving work.
Little wonder Paul could affirm with such feeling that we have ‘peace with God through the blood of the cross’. Col.1.20 cf Eph. 2.14
Think too of the lines of Toplady’s hymn as he grasped the significance of Christ's sacrificial death . He wrote:
A debtor to mercy alone,
Of covenant mercy I sing,
Nor fear with thy righteousness on
My person or offering to bring,
The terrors of law and of God,
With me can have nothing to do,
My Saviour's obedience and blood
Hide all my transgressions from view.
Can you understand why the angels could describe the birth of Jesus as good news?
How then did these hitherto transfixed and terrified shepherds respond? They went to discover for themselves this child who would enable them to stand before God's glory.
Instead of being terrorised by God's glory they are now overwhelmed by God's grace. That is what an understanding of God’s provision does for men. This great swing in emotion from terror to near ecstasy comes about when we realise that through faith in the Saviour God has provided that; ‘the terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do!’
In the stable the shepherds saw lying before them God's peace child. The one who could cancel their fears and subdue their anxieties and banish their stress. Here lay God's answer to the greatest terror they had ever experienced, the terror of their own inadequacy in the presence of the glory of God. Are you surprised that having seen the 'peace child',
they proclaim the good news with uncommon euphoria. They had discovered God's answer to man's need. Like the hymn-writer they recognised that:
“There is a way for man to rise to that sublime abode,
An offering and a sacrifice, A Holy Spirit's energies,
An advocate with God.... The sons of ignorance and night, May dwell in God's eternal light, Through his eternal love.”
What might Mary have thought about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth.
First, think of her failure to get put up in a decent hotel, could God not have arranged a measure of comfort for the birth of his Son? Then consider the unspectacular nature of the child himself. Jesus wasn’t born with a halo or with a mystical glow or, an aura around him. There were no choirs of angels hovering over the stable announcing the wonder of his birth. There was nothing at all that would attract any attention to Jesus or mark him out as being different from any other baby.
But then the shepherds arrived. And it became apparent that God has held the press conference announcing the child’s birth in the hills of Bethlehem of all places and those attending were not journalists but despised shepherds. However, the message these men had received pinned her ears back.
They would have described their terror giving way to unutterable joy. Mary was left with a lot to think about and ponder in heart [v19]. God’s ways truly are past finding out. The child she had borne was able to transfer men from abject terror to unparalleled praise. These shepherds were walking advertsof God’s grace!
What kind of child is this? That is a question that all men and women must be encouraged to think about. And to see in Jesus one who alone addresses the deepest terrors of our heart. Terror produced by a consciousness of sin. Terror which asks, ‘how can sinful man stand in the presence of a God of awesome holiness?’
The gospel holds out to such men and women the person of Jesus, God’s peace child -a Jesus who came with this express purpose in mind, to lead many sons into glory.