God’s Answer to the Green Book
Introduction: Let’s begin today by reading from the second chapter of Luke, verses 1-20:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.
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. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 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 room for them in the inn.
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. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
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.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
The most important book in Washington D.C. is one you can’t buy; it is not even found in the Library of Congress. It is published by Jean Shaw Murray and its informal name is The Green Book, because of its kelly-green cover. Its official title is The Social List of Washington, D.C. It is the register of socially acceptable people – about 5,000 in all. Before any politician or socialite throws a party or sends out wedding invitations or makes up a guest list for a reception, he or she almost always consults The Green Book to see who’s in and who’s out.
The surest way to get into The Green Book is to be born into a socially prominent family. But it also helps to be rich, good looking, influential, and a member of the political party currently in power. It’s not helpful to be involved in scandal, unless you are filthy rich, in which case it doesn’t matter. Shortly after Watergate stunned the American political scene, wholesale changes were made in The Green Book. Many who had been “in” were suddenly “out.” In one year over 400 names were dropped. I haven’t heard what the scandals in the current administration have done to its listings; probably not much since sexual scandals are generally not considered too serious by the elite, especially if they occur on the left side of the political spectrum.
I probably betray my own plebeian background when I say that I have no sympathy for The Green Book. To me it is one of the most blatant vestiges of medieval snobbery in our society. I think it would be fun to be a Senator just to throw a party with a guest list that included half beautiful people and half nobodies, forcing the former to mix with the latter.
I’m pretty sure of one thing—God has no Green Book of socially acceptable people. He doesn’t care how wealthy you are, how powerful, how beautiful, who your parents are, or any of the other factors that might get your name into The Green Book.
In fact, when God threw a party nearly 2,000 years ago the guest list broke every rule in The Green Book. I’m thinking, of course, of the birthday party for His Son. If there were any beautiful people invited, they didn’t show up. After all, whoever heard of having a party in a stable in a crummy little town like Bethlehem? When you stop and think about it, at Messiah’s birthday party there were many who were conspicuous by their absence, and there were many who were conspicuous by their presence.
When Messiah Jesus was born, many were conspicuous by their absence.
Notice, if you will, some of the important people who found it inconvenient to honor the birth event with their presence. They included:
The politically powerful, like Caesar Augustus and Herod the Great. Caesar Augustus assumed rule over Rome at age 19 when his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, was murdered by Brutus on the Ides of March, 44 B.C. Following civil war and a victorious battle against Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 B.C., he took the title of “Augustus” and humbly referred to himself as emperor of the world.
Where was this most powerful man on earth when God was invading time and space? Was he in the great palace in Rome wrestling with such critical problems as inflation and unemployment? Was he perhaps on a diplomatic mission to attempt to quiet an insurrection on the northern frontier? Was he at a warm-weather resort, vacationing from the cold winter and the rigors of a pressure-packed job?
Wherever he was and whatever he was doing, Caesar Augustus had no time for (or personal interest in) what might be happening down in Palestine. Rome was where the action was, and he was the center of it all. So long as there was peace in Palestine, he couldn’t care less what the Jews were up to.
What about King Herod the Great? Bethlehem was within his domain and one would think he would have more reason to be present at Messiah’s birth than Caesar. Though he was not a pure-blood Jew but an Idumean, due to a very careful playing of his political cards during the Roman civil war, he ended up being appointed as governor of Judea in 47 B.C. at the age of 25, and he was finally named king in 40 B.C. The first 15 years of his rule were devoted to consolidation of his power, and then the next 10 or 12 years were a time of prosperity. He built theaters, amphitheaters, racecourses, palaces, and of course the great Temple of Herod in which Jesus often spoke. In his old age, during the years immediately preceding Jesus’ birth, he ran into some domestic problems and began to lose his grip on power.
How do we find King Herod, when less than five miles from his palace, the King of Kings is about to be born? Ignorant, I guess, and unconcerned. Unconcerned, that is, until the Magi reported that the King of the Jews had been born. Then his concern becomes that of a paranoid old man who had already murdered several wives and nearly all of his own sons out of fear that they might threaten his power. He thinks nothing of ordering the deaths of all the infants in Bethlehem to prevent some new king from challenging him.
The religiously prominent, like the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the chief priests. These were the religious leaders of first-century Judaism, corresponding more to ayatollahs and mullahs in Iran today than to pastors or priests in our country. Their power covered more than just religion, because some remnants of the Jewish theocracy of centuries before still remained. These religious leaders knew their Old Testament, at least the “letter” of the Law. When asked by Herod in Matthew chapter 2 where Messiah would be born, they were able to readily identify the place as Bethlehem from the prophecy of Micah 5:2 that had been given many centuries before. In fact, they had catalogued all the Messianic prophecies and could paint quite a complete portrait of the coming Messiah.
So why didn’t they go to Bethlehem themselves? Perhaps they were too occupied arguing some fine point of doctrine. Maybe they were too busy poring over the ledger sheets which recorded the weekly temple receipts. Could it be that they were simply too skeptical, because so many times in the past there had been reports of Messiah’s coming, only to be proved untrue? Whatever the reason, the religious leaders were also conspicuous by their absence.
The socially and financially influential. I think of the innkeeper in Bethlehem.[i] It’s impossible to tell for sure from the Scriptural text whether he was a socially prominent man or wealthy. But chances are he was above average on both accounts and should serve our purpose here as an illustration of another class of people that was conspicuous by its absence.
The innkeeper had perhaps over-booked his rooms due to the holiday season, and unfortunately, too many people with advanced reservations had shown up. Perhaps there was trouble with the help in the kitchen or the heating system wasn’t working properly in the west wing. At any rate there was no time to worry about more travelers. Let them sleep in the stable if they wished. Even when the woman had a child that night, there’s no indication the innkeeper paid any attention.
Well, if God’s big event in Bethlehem was passed up by politics, religion, and business, who was on God’s guest list for that momentous occasion?
When Messiah Jesus was born, many were conspicuous by their presence.
From the Scripture reading this morning you are aware that among the specially invited guests was a group of shepherds.
Shepherds. The work of a shepherd seems rather romantic to us today, but that’s only because we don’t know any shepherds. A glimpse into a shepherd’s life is seen through the eyes of the shepherd in Dr. John Reed’s story, A Shepherd’s Song. This shepherd named Heber offers the following soliloquy:
Shepherds do not have an honored position in society. The only ones lower than we shepherds are the lepers. We have a reputation for being treacherous – that sometimes we think that what is thine is also mine. But that’s only true for some few of us. And those few put the rest of us in a bad light. The biggest problem with shepherds is the fact that, well, there’s an old saying among us that ‘He who walks where the sheep walk has difficulty keeping his feet clean.’ We don’t get a chance to wash very often, but if you’re going to be an honored and respected Hebrew, you have to wash very often.[ii]
Who would have ever thought about inviting shepherds to the great event? Only God. In fact, He sent them a very personal invitation via the angel of the Lord. The story in Luke informs us that the shepherds were terribly frightened at the encounter, undoubtedly because of its unique nature, because of the tremendous light which was symbolic of the glory of the Lord, and because of their own lowly status. You know, the lower one considers himself, the greater appears the glory and majesty of God.
But not only that, the lower one considers himself the more he also recognizes his own need of a Savior. And that’s the message the angel delivers to the shepherds: “A Savior has been born to you.” Had those words been spoken to Caesar or Herod or the Pharisees or scribes, the response would undoubtedly have been, “A Savior? What do I need a Savior for? To be saved from what?” But shepherds were not inclined to such self-righteousness. They knew they were sinners and needed a Savior.
And then in verse 13 the shepherds were honored even further when the angel of the Lord was joined by a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” And what is the response of these shepherds to this remarkable announcement and invitation? They said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
Isn’t it intriguing that these shepherds mentioned in Luke 2 were apparently the only guests God invited to the actual manger birthplace to see the Christ-child? However, there were others who, though not present at the actual birth, were nevertheless on God’s party list, as seen in subsequent contacts.
Simeon. According to Luke 2:22, Mary and Joseph came to the temple to dedicate Jesus to the Lord. This occurred when the days of their ceremonial purification were over, 40 days after his birth. This act of dedication involved the offering of a sacrifice, and since they were poverty stricken, they brought the sacrifice allowed for the poorest of people. We pick up the story in verse 25:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ(Luke 2:25-26).
While Jesus’ parents were on their way to the temple, the Holy Spirit revealed to Simeon that the Messiah was coming, and he was waiting for Mary and Joseph when they arrived with Jesus. We know relatively little about Simeon. We do not know his age or his occupation. If he were a priest or a prominent person, it seems we might have been so informed. I would assume that he was a very ordinary person except for his spiritual qualities.
In verse 25 we are told three things about him: he was righteous and devout, he was believing and expecting, and he was Spirit-filled and Spirit-led. When Jesus was brought into the temple Simeon took him into his arms and delivered a beautiful blessing. A third guest of honor at the Incarnation was Anna.
Anna. Look at verses 36-38 of Luke chapter 2:
There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
Anna, too, was not one you would expect to receive a special invitation from God. She was very old, 84, and had been a widow for perhaps 60 of those years. She never left the temple, serving there every day, perhaps in exchange for food and lodging. Chances are the scribes and Pharisees tolerated her as a senile old lady because she was willing to work cheaply. But God viewed her differently and gave her, too, a special invitation. Prompted apparently by the Holy Spirit, Anna came forward at the very time Simeon was prophesying regarding Jesus and paid her own tribute to the young Messiah.
So far the guests God has invited are a group of outcast shepherds, an old man whose credentials are unknown, and a very old and widowed prophetess. But the list also included some foreigners.
The Magi. There is perhaps no aspect of the Christmas story which has been subjected to as much extra-biblical tradition as the story of the Magi. Among the things we assume, but which are not explicitly taught in the Scripture are these: there were three of them, they were kings, they came from the Orient, and they visited Jesus at the manger. The fact is that all we know about the Magi is that there were more than one, they were astrologers, they came from the East, and they visited Jesus in the “house.”
Now why do I suggest that these Magi are conspicuous by their presence? Well, they weren’t Jewish at all (as Jesus was); they were astrologers, which was a career that was anathema to the Jews; and they were foreigners. Yet here they are to pay their respects to the young Messiah.
Shepherds, Simeon, Anna, Magi. These comprised God’s Christmas guest list. So there were those conspicuous by their absence and those conspicuous by their presence. What was the basic difference between these groups? Why do we find shepherds, Simeon, Anna and the magi present at the infancy of Messiah, but not Caesar, Herod, scribes, Pharisees, or businessmen? I think a hint can be found when we note what those present are doing. They have several common occupations or preoccupations.
When messiah was born, all who came were conspicuous in their response.
They rejoiced and were thankful. We see this characteristic with each of the guests God invited. In Luke 2:20 the Scripture says, “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” In Luke 2:28 Simeon responds similarly as he takes the baby Jesus in his arms and blesses God. He is very thankful that God has granted him the privilege of seeing the Lord’s Messiah before death. And then Anna, in verse 38 gives thanks to God. Also the Magi in Matthew 2:10, “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (NASB) when they were directed to the house where Jesus was.
Each of these guests was made aware, either by angels or by dreams or by the Holy Spirit, that the birth of this child was a unique event in all of history. They somehow realized that this child was the fulfillment of all the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament and that the salvation of the human race rested in him. They rejoiced and were thankful.
They worshiped. The act of worship appears implicit with each of the guests we have looked at, but the word “worship” is used explicitly only of the Magi. In Matt. 2:11 it says,
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.
The whole concept of worship appears to be a rather foggy one today in many people’s minds. They equate worship with a warm feeling up and down their spine, or with a quiet, beautiful sanctuary, or with enthusiastic singing. While none of these things is necessarily antithetical to worship, by the same token, they are not equivalent to it either. Worship at heart is the recognition of the worth-ship of God. That is, we must acknowledge that His worth and value are far above that of anyone else or anything else in this universe.
In our modern world, unfortunately, so many things vie for our attention and affection that it is difficult for us to love God from a pure heart. Richard Adams notes perceptively in one of his novels,
Worship yields nothing to the slipshod and half-hearted. I have seen worship which if it had been a roof they had built would not have kept out a half hour’s rain; nor had they the wit to wonder why it left their hearts cold and yielded them neither strength nor comfort.[iii]
The guests God invited to witness the incarnation had no problem grasping the significance of the occasion nor did they fail to see the total value of the person they came to honor. These people came to worship.
They shared the good news. In Luke 2:17 it says of the shepherds that when they had seen Jesus in the manger, “they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child,”apparently to everyone who would listen, for verse 18 adds, “and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.”
Anna, too, shared the good news she had discovered. In verse 38 it says she began giving God thanks and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. The Magi also had no intention of hiding their good news until warned by the angels of Herod’s evil intentions on the Child.
If you’re like me, you want to be the first to report good news. When I was ten years old my mother got pregnant with the last of my siblings. She and Dad informed us kids and warned us strictly not to tell anyone for several months. It was customary in those days for a woman to wait to announce a pregnancy until it was obvious that she was “in the family way,” as a previous generation referred to pregnancy. At any rate, that was more than I could stand, and I promptly told my friend Billy Minshall, swearing him to absolute secrecy. Billy promptly told his mother, and Ruth promptly called my mother to congratulate her—all within 20 minutes after she told me! And she was waiting for me when I got home!
Wouldn’t it be great if the good news of the Savior was as hard to keep quiet about as the news of a new baby brother! God’s special guests rejoiced and were thankful, worshiped, and shared the good news.
You know, there is a part of each of us that craves everything the world has turned Christmas into—trees, days off, football, big meals, a new computer, traveling to see relatives. But strangely, when we choose the world’s brand of Christmas, isn’t the result amazingly predictable? There is a grueling process of preparation from Thanksgiving to Christmas, then a quick peak of excitement and hilarity on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and then it all quickly dissolves into exhaustion, boredom, depression, or at best an attitude of “glad-that’s-over-with-for-another-year.”
Not so with the shepherds or the magi or the old man or the widowed prophetess. When Luke 2:20 says that the shepherds, following their visit to Bethlehem, “returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen,” that sounds like a refreshing aftertaste to Christmas. How much different from the typical Christmas party hangover or the discomfort that comes from stuffing ourselves at the typical Christmas feast.
What the shepherds experienced was hallelujah rather than heartburn, fullness of spirit rather than fullness of stomach, a tongue full of praise rather than one loosened with alcohol, and a head pulsating with memories rather than one pounding from a migraine.
Conclusion: I would like to leave you with this principle: God places no premium upon social, political, financial or religious prestige. This is a truth taught clearly in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, verses 27-29:
God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.
That doesn’t mean he refuses to invite such people, but the prestige of this world seems to be a natural barrier to man’s responsiveness to God. Every man, woman, or child, no matter who he or she is, must come to God renouncing every human pretension and trusting exclusively in Jesus Christ, who died to pay the penalty for our sin and rose again to demonstrate that he had conquered the last great enemy – death.
God has no Green Book. He does have a Book, however, and like the Green Book, it too is missing from the Library of Congress. It’s called the Lamb’s Book of Life. Is your name written there? It can be, for God’s Christmas guest list is still open. John 1:11-13 says,
He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
That includes you.
[i] It is not a certainty that Joseph and Mary even came to an inn. Some scholars believe the “inn” (kataluma in Greek) is actually a reference to a guest room in a relative’s home. The lower level of homes were often used to shelter animals at night.
[ii] Dr. John Reed, A Shepherd’s Song, from class notes at Dallas Theological Seminary.
[iii] Richard Adams, Shardik, Beklan Empire Series, 12.