What Happened at Christmas

Dr. Don Garlington

The World At The Time Of The First Christmas

For Most People Life Was Hard

By and large people at the time of the incarnation were poor, bone-crushingly poor. There was no real middle class in the sense that we know the middle class. You were either very rich or very poor, there was no real buffer zone in between the two. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer, no doubt about it. People worked very hard for relatively little. There was little or no medical care, and very little entertainment, at least in terms of the way that we would evaluate entertainment. Then on top of that, there was exploitation by the rich. Exploitation in the sense that a rich person could lay hold of your property if you had any, and take it for his own. The Roman government at that time had instituted a policy whereby if they wanted someone’s land, they would raise the taxes so high on that land that the landowner had no choice but to sell to the government. He would then become a sharecropper on his own property. Only the very rich avoided that kind of exploitation. So it was a time when life was hard. It was a time when people were in great need, when they were looking for hope, they were looking for consolation. The Jewish nation was looking in particular to the promise which God had made, that one day he would send a redeemer and a deliverer.

It Was A Time Of Religious Confusion And Cynicism

In the Greco-Roman world of the first century, the intelligentsia—the philosophers and the scientists and the orators and all the rest—have long since stopped believing in the traditional gods. In Spartacus, one of the characters said, “Let’s go off for an old-fashioned sacrifice.” The guy next to him said, “Crassus, you don’t believe in the gods anyway,” and he said, “Well, privately it’s true I believe in none of them but in public I believe in all of them.” This being a time in which the intelligentsia have cast off the traditional gods has certain ramifications. It is a world which is really very much like our own world. On the one hand, you have scientific rationalism saying, essentially, that all things evolve from pre-existent matter. Sounds familiar, does it not? Everything can be explained in terms of that which can be touched and seen, that you can smell, that you can put in your mouth, and if anything can’t be demonstrated empirically that way, then it doesn’t exist. Again, that’s very familiar.

On the other hand, and this is a 180 degree swing in the other direction, there were the mystery religions of that day, in which scientific rationalism was simply thrown to the wind. All kinds of irrational things went on as the mysteries into which people were initiated. Followers could climb the various degrees in the religion  until, at the top, all the mysteries of the religion were revealed. There was a great deal of sensualism involved; a great deal of just letting your imagination run its full course. All kinds of wild and weird and wonderful things were going on in these mystery cults, very much like the present day, because the new age movement, among other things, is with us. Some very wild and wonderful things go on today as well.

Thirdly, there was just plain old sensualism, where people didn’t care about either rationalism or the mystery religions, but were just simply living for the day. Paul quotes a popular description of epicureanism when he says, “Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die...” These people were saying, “Let’s live for pleasure, let’s live for delight.” Of course, people will take that to its logical conclusion and say, let’s eat, drink, and be merry because we’re going to die anyway. That was the kind of world at the time of the incarnation, the first Christmas, and once again it’s the kind of world that we live in. Nothing changes, nothing is new under the sun.

Something Happened At The First Christmas

Well, it’s precisely in that setting, in that kind of world, that something happens at the first Christmas, something happens with the incarnation.

Heaven came down to earth

The Several Appearances Of The Angels

In the Gospel birth narratives we see various phenomena. For one thing, the several appearances of the angels who celebrate the One who descended from heaven. Here we can look at the very familiar passage in Luke 2. You know the familiar story starting in verse 8, “In that 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 round about them and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Be not afraid, for behold I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all the people. For to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord…’” In v. 15 it says, “When the angels went away from them into heaven the shepherds said to one another, let’s go to Bethlehem.” Here is a rather startling scene. The shepherds are watching their flocks by night, and of course in those days there would have been no real “light pollution” as we call it coming from the city, the atmosphere was basically stark black. Dark. And because it was dark of course the stars shone all the more brightly. Then all of a sudden, in this blackness, there is a great burst of light and these angels sort of pop in from another dimension. It says that the shepherds were afraid. Wouldn’t you be afraid? Everything is still, everything is calm, everything is pitch black, then all of a sudden: Light. Light unlike anything they’d ever seen before was upon them. It goes from being midnight to noon, just in the snap of a finger. All of this is creation language, because when you go back to Genesis, the very first thing that God does when he decides to bring order out of the chaos is to say, “Let there be light.” It is in some way the manifestation of his own Shekinah, his own glory, which comes flooding into the darkness of the chaos. That is repeated in the case of the announcement of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, because a new creation is ready to take place. God does that in a very dramatic and startling way, as the angels signified, “Here is one who has come from heaven.”

Emmanuel, God With Us

The fact that Jesus has come from heaven is evident in Matthew’s Gospel as well where we’re told that the birth of this One, who is begotten of the Holy Spirit, signifies that God is with us, Emmanuel. The background to that is Isaiah 7and what is interesting about the manner in which Matthew uses that is that in Isaiah 7 the one who is called Emmanuel is not in the least divine. Rather he is a child who is born by the normal means and before he comes to a certain age Jerusalem is going to be delivered from its enemies. When you come to Matthew’s Gospel you find that there is a transposition into a higher key. The things that take place on a relatively low level in the Old Testament all of a sudden are put into this higher key so that Emmanuel is not simply an ordinary child, born by the normal means but, rather, He is one who is God himself who is begotten of the Holy Spirit. It is at this point in Matthew that what you can call the theology of the divine presence is introduced. Emmanuel indeed is the one who is “God with us.” Then when you come to the end of Matthew’s Gospel, to chapter 28, it’s the risen Christ who says to the disciples, “I am with you until the conclusion of the age.” Compare that with something that appears in the Old Testament more than once. God comes to Israel on more than one occasion, especially when they go in to war, and says, “I will be with you.” Now Jesus takes up the very same language and it’s as though Yahweh is speaking to Israel, but it’s Jesus speaking to the church in the very same terms in which the God of Israel spoke of old. We might say that’s a subtle way of saying that He is God. But it’s not subtle in the least. In the context and mindset of the day it’s a very blatant way of saying that He is God with His people. Only Yahweh can speak the words of Yahweh.

So if we ask what happened at Christmas? The first answer is that heaven came down to earth, God became a man to dwell with His people. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.

God Did What He Said He was Going to Do

Why the Long Wait

Look at the songs that are recorded, especially in Luke chapter 1. The songs of Mary, Elizabeth and Zacharias stress that God had promised something. He said He was going to do something. Yet having said that He was going to do something the people had to wait, and wait, and wait. Over centuries, in some case millennia. It’s a long wait. When you were a child, if you grew up in a certain culture, wasn’t it a long time from one Christmas to another? But then you hit a certain age and the Christmases come one after another in very rapid succession, I can assure you. If you know that something good is going to transpire, even within a few days or a few weeks, it’s a long wait. Dr. Adams at the prayer meeting last night said, “We just have a couple of weeks left in the semester,” and Joëlle was very quick to speak up and say, “No, three weeks!”

Why the long wait for what God had promised? What was going on? Was God just being mean and arbitrarily putting all this off until such a time that people got sick of waiting. No. What was going on was that the human race was being educated through Israel. T. F. Torrance speaks of God’s running controversy with the carnal mind. What is meant by that is that even under the best of conditions Israel showed that it was prone to idolatry, and by that means the human race is being taught that it is prone to idolatry. M.R. DeHaan used an illustration about growing bananas in Canada. He was talking about Romans 8, that the law was weak through the flesh. Imagine someone up in Northern Ontario, or up in the Territories, trying to grow bananas. There is nothing wrong with a banana plant, but there is something inhospitable about the climate in Northern Ontario to growing bananas. So it is with the human heart. There is something inhospitable to the Word of God to be found in the human heart. Robert Leighton, the Scottish puritan, said that the grace of God in the human heart was like a tender plant in a strange, unkindly soil. In the history of Israel God was demonstrating that He has a running controversy with the carnal mind. A controversy which He intends to end one day, and yet it must be demonstrated that such a thing exists. We learn many lessons from ancient Israel.

God Fulfilled His Promise in a Way That No-One was Expecting

When the fulfillment comes, when the end-time comes, it is a complete surprise. As you read the gospels with an eye to this, then on page after page after page it becomes apparent that when Jesus brings the kingdom, He brings the kingdom in a way which is totally subversive to what His contemporaries were expecting. As to His own person as the Messiah, a complete reversal. As to His teaching about the kingdom’s presence, a complete reversal. Gone is the nationalism. Gone is the expectation that God favours one people above another people, but rather Gentiles are to be brought in. The kingdom is not to be brought about by force as the zealots were trying to do. The parables, not just one or two of them, but all of them are deeply subversive to what was going on in the national mindset. A very interesting example is in Matthew 20, the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. There are those who work all day, and there are those who come at the eleventh hour and yet the late-comers get as much as those who had borne the burden in the heat of the day. It happens that there is a Rabbinic parable which speaks of the way Israel has worked longer in God’s vineyard than the rest of the nations, and therefore Israel is going to receive a greater reward, because they have produced so much more. But Jesus reverses that and says that these late comers to the covenant, the Gentiles, are going to get as much as Israel gets. Talk about Jesus driving on the left hand side of the road, as far as Israel is concerned! That is why humanly speaking He was crucified. So the promise is fulfilled in a way that no-one was expecting.

The Nativity Stories in the Gospel are in Contrast to Jewish Messianic Expectation

In a document called the Songs of Solomon there is the idea that the Messiah is going to rid Jerusalem of the Gentiles, He is going to kick them out, He is going to impose upon them the yoke of Israel. However, in the gospels things are the other way around. There is no ostensibly glorious personage who comes to do these things, but rather there is lowliness, there is humility, there is obscurity. What does Mary say of herself? She says, “I am the lowly handmaiden of the Lord.” It is a very obscure girl that God chooses and her very lowliness and obscurity is a token of what is coming. Take the place of His birth, the manger. We have glorified the manger into a lovely, idyllic, picturesque scene, with Mary and Joseph, the baby Jesus, and the shepherds and the wise-men. Yet the first manger was not even in a building, it was probably in a cave in which animals were kept. It was a place which stank because of the manure of the animals to put it bluntly. It was a place which was ceremonially unclean by definition. But this is where the Messiah was born! He is born in contact with that which is unclean and throughout the gospel narratives Jesus goes out of His way to touch things which are unclean, and by so doing, deliberately provokes controversy. If this is the coming of the kingdom as anticipated by the prophets, then it is a radical revision of what they understood the prophets to be saying.

Add to this the annunciation to the shepherds that we have already considered. This is the paradox of His coming into the world; the creation glory, the new creation glory that God shines upon shepherds. Shepherds were the last people in Israel who would have been expected to receive the news of the birth of the Messiah. We think of David and so tend to glorify the shepherd, but the shepherd in Israelite society in that day was a very lowly personage, one who, in some quarters at least, was held in suspicion, looked upon as being a ne’er do well. Yet it is to these that the announcement is made.

In all of this we find a Messiah who identifies with the poor of Israel. He does so in fulfillment of Psalm 72 which said that the Messiah, the kingly personage, descending from David, is going to judge the poor. That sounds mean, doesn’t it. Don’t the poor have enough problems without being judged. To judge in that context, in Hebrew thinking, doesn’t mean to pronounce a sentence upon, but rather it means to come to the aid of, to help the poor, to uphold the poor, to provide for the needs of the poor. The Messiah comes not to the Ted Turners, and the Bill Gates, and the Donald Trumps of this world but rather he comes to the outcast. He comes to the lowly, and He identifies with them. On the one hand we can say that the incarnation is just what Charles Wesley said that it is, “God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.” Incomprehensibly made man, but on the other hand something very comprehensible. It is something very understandable, that He comes to the helpless. Jesus is the first spokesman of the poor in that sense. He comes to their aid and the sons of the kingdom are cast out. The knowledge of the kingdom was revealed to babes because that was God’s gracious will and yet others are left in darkness. All of this, and much more, is the theology of the incarnation, the theology of Christmas.

“He shall save His people from their sins” takes on its true significance

The bottom line to everything is that He is going to save His people from their sins. It is within this whole context of the subversive character of His ministry to Israel that you see the significance of that statement. The Israel of that day was looking for deliverance, not so much from their sins, as from the Romans. They believed that God had provided for their sins in the sacrificial system. “We don’t need to do anything else except take an animal to the priest and have it slain and then have our sins pronounced as forgiven in the Name of the God of Israel.” But Matthew says much more. He says that all of that is simply pointing forward to One who must come and must give His life as a ransom for many. The logic of the epistle to the Hebrews is that the very repetition and multiplicity of the sacrifices was an indication that definitive forgiveness had not yet been accomplished. Again, something that Israel was not looking for. The idea that the Messiah would die in the place of the sins of the people was totally unprecedented in the Judaism of that age. This is a completely unique idea that sort of comes out of the blue in the New Testament. No precedent for it whatsoever. It is startling. It is arresting. It gives one pause. It causes one to evaluate one’s background and upbringing and training. All of one’s presuppositions are challenged just in that one stroke.


There is almost no chance that Jesus was born on the 25th of December. That all stems from a pagan winter holiday in the early Christian centuries. What we call Christmas, the incarnation of the Son of God, is about two things.

It is About a Person and not About Things

At Christmas the advertisers and the stores are in a frenzy trying to persuade you to buy gifts you can’t afford for people who don’t need them. Now that’s Christmas in the world. But Christmas for you and me is about this blessed Person who came, who did not count equality with God a thing to be exploited for His own ends, but rather He relinquished it, taking upon Himself the form of a servant and sacrificing His body on the cross.

Christmas is About Hope

Christmas is about hope, the only hope. It has been said cynically of the words, “Peace on earth and good will to men,” in Luke 2, “Well the first part of that has obviously failed, so we will see what happens about the second.” The peace in question is the cessation of the hostilities between heaven and earth. It has to do, not with humanity in general, but rather, as the Greek reads with “the men of God’s good pleasure,” those He has set His heart upon from the foundation of the world. The incarnation is the only hope. We live in a world which is very much like a world of the first century. We may have more conveniences, yet we have unprecedented pressures. We have unparalleled problems that grow out of our very technology. Our own technology, as much as it has helped us, may be in the process of destroying us as well. What happened at Christmas signifies hope and may we cleave to that hope, to the One who came as the heaven’s rich Lord, so that we might become rich through His poverty, an astounding statement that Paul makes in 2 Corinthians 8. The Lord of heaven is rich beyond all comprehension and yet He becomes poor as the poorest of the poor who has no place to lay His head. All so that you and I might share His riches and that forever. That is hope and the only hope worth living for. As we contemplate that great doctrine of the incarnation may it grip us and lay hold of us and refurbish our hope.         

This is a sermon preached to Jarvis Street Baptist Church by Dr. Don Garlington.