What Was News the Day Before Christmas
December 24th, 1972 @ 10:50 AM
WHAT WAS NEWS THE DAY BEFORE CHRISTMAS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-24-72 10:50 a.m.
On the radio and on television there are several hundreds of thousands of you who are rejoicing with us in the First Baptist Church here in Dallas at this Christmas season. And the title of the sermon is What Was News the Day Before Christmas. And this is the pastor reading the text before the message, taken out of the first verses of the second chapter of Luke.
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be apographō, registered.
(And this apographō, this registration, was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
And all went to be apographō, all went to be registered, every one into his own city.
That was the way the Jewish people took a census; it was not done that way anywhere else except in Jewry.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
To be apographō, to be registered with Mary his espoused wife, being great, being heavy with child.
What was news the day before Christmas? This was news: the registration of the entire civilized world under the dogma, that is the exact Greek word here, the decree of Caesar Augustus. Augustus was the name he took for himself because it was applied to God. “A god” was Augustus; and Caesar was Augustus. And he made a decree, this imperial emperor of the Roman Empire, that the entire world should be registered; a worldwide census. That was news. And from one side of the provinces to the other they were speculating why that universal registration.
Some of them said, “This means a great campaign in Great Britain,” because the most the Roman legionnaires had ever been able to overcome in Great Britain was just what we know today as the southern part of England. They were never able to conquer the rest of the isles. “It must mean a great military campaign against the British.” Others said, “No, it must be a campaign against India. Caesar Augustus is going to cross the Indus River, where Alexander the Great stopped. He’s going to conquer that sub-continent and add it to the empire.” Others said, “I know exactly what this portends. We’re going to have a raise in taxes, and he’s going to tax to the utmost the entire civilized world.” That was news the day before Christmas.
What was news the day before Christmas? The organization of the underground in Judea, for Judea was a mass of seething, embittered people; they hated their Roman oppressors. And they were doing all that they knew how to overthrow the yoke of Rome. And there was organized in Judea and in Galilee an underground called the Zélótés. And these men finally precipitated the rebellion against Rome in 66 AD that ensued in the destruction of the temple and the destruction of the city, and in the destruction of the Jewish nation. And they implemented their hatred for Rome in the organization in their group of the dreaded sicarii. A sicarius was a man who would mingle in the crowds in the city, and they would mark out a Roman governor, or a Roman tax collector, or a Roman legionnaire, or a Roman centurion. Hiding a dagger in their flowing robes, they mingled in the crowd, came around that one who was so despised and stabbed him through the back or in the abdomen and leave him dead in a pool of his own blood. And it was impossible to search them out because they immediately melted in the crowd. The dreaded sicarii; that was news the day before Christmas.
What was news the day before Christmas? This was news: Herod the Great, who was one of the bloodiest murderous tyrants of all time, he killed most of his sons; he killed Mariamne the Maccabee, his beautiful wife. This man Caesar Augustus said, “It is better to be a hus than a huios in the household of Herod.” It’s better to be a hus, a pig, than a huios, a son, in the household of Herod. He killed most of his own children with insane fits of fear and jealousy. That was news the day before Christmas.
Herod the Great pulled together four hundred of the leading citizens of Judah, put them in the hippodrome—locked them up in the Hippodrome—and gave command that when he died they also should be slain that there might be mourning over his decease in Palestine. That was news the day before Christmas. And who should take his place? Who should be heir to the crown; Antipas? Archelaus? Antipater? That was news before Christmas.
What was news the day before Christmas? This was news. The court gossip at Rome; Augustus himself was getting old. Who should be his successor? Is it his stepson Tiberius Caesar? “We hate him,” all the Romans said. “What we would like was Germanicus.” Germanicus was the darling of the empire. He was the darling of the Roman legions. He was one of the most brilliantly successful conquerors that the Roman army ever had, Germanicus. Germanicus was married to the daughter of Agrippa and the niece of Augustus himself. He himself was born of royal parentage. “Truly it is Germanicus”; and Tiberius Caesar was so jealous of him, he had him poisoned to death. That was news the day before Christmas.
What wasn’t news the day before Christmas? This wasn’t news: down the Bethlehem road there walks a man by the side of a donkey, and on the donkey is a young woman, his young wife. The only thing you might have noticed was that she is riding and he is walking. Well, when you look more closely, she is great, heavy with child [Luke 2:1-5]. So you smile to yourself and understand why, and walk on. That wasn’t news the day before Christmas.
I remember reading, seeing, in a daily newspaper in America a cartoon. The artist had drawn a scene near Hodgenville, Kentucky, in the cold of the winter. And I especially noticed it because for years I drove by Hodgenville from our seminary in Louisville where I was in school, down to my little village church. And this is the picture in Hodgenville. There’s a heavy snow on the ground, and an old flea bitten dog with his tail tucked beneath his legs, shivering in the chill and the cold. Here’s an old frontiersman standing in the snow with his boots on, and a long rifle over his shoulder, and here is a man on a horse. And the man on the horse has just come back from Washington D.C., a long journey. And the man standing, the old frontiersman says to the man on the horse, “What’s the news? What’s the news?”
“Oh,” said the man from Washington, “Lots of news, lots of news, oh, the earth’s filled with news. I’ve just seen Madison sworn in as president of the United States. The Congress of the American states are gathering together and they’re in a mood to declare war on Great Britain; and this fellow Napoleon Bonaparte is conquering the entire European continent; lots of news!” And the man on the horse says to the old frontiersman there in the snow, “Neighbor, anything happen around here? What’s the news here at Hodgenville?”
“Oh,” he says, “nothing ever happens here, nothing. They got a new baby over there in the cabin of Tom and Nancy Hanks Lincoln that they named Abraham. But there ain’t nothing ever happened around here. No news at Hodgenville.”
What wasn’t news the day before Christmas? This couple on the road to Bethlehem, leading a donkey and the man, arriving in the city of David, comes to the Grand Hotel and says, “Is it possible we find a place for the night?” And the manager of the hotel says, “What? You think we’d have a room tonight? This is the winter festival. This is the Feast of Lights. This is the Feast of Dedication. We’ve been booked up for months. They are partying all over this place. There is no room.”
He goes to the other hotel, and he says, “Is it possible for us to have a place for the night?”
“Why,” he says, the manager, “there’s no room at all. We’ve been jammed for days. The games are in the hippodrome, and just today there was that rivalry seen between Lebanon and Hebron. There’s no room!” The man goes to the Bethlehem Inn, and he says to Rabbi Ben Ezra, the owner, “Is there some place for the night out of the chill of the night wind?” And Ben Ezra says, “Stranger, this census has brought into this city of David so many to register. I’ve been jammed for days and days. There’s no room, no room.”
And his wife calls, says, “Ben Ezra, come here, come here. Ben Ezra, look at her, look at this man’s wife, great with child. Ben Ezra, out of the night wind, couldn’t we make a place in the stable, where the cow and the donkey and the sheep are? Look at her Ben Ezra, isn’t there some place in the stable?
Ben Ezra turned and said, “Stranger, stranger, in the stable you’ll find a place out of the chill of the night. Spend the night there.”
So they go to the stable. And as Joseph arranges the hay by the donkey and by the sheep and by the cow, he turns to Mary and says, “Mary, I am so sorry.” And she replies, “Joseph, I understand.” That wasn’t news the day before Christmas.
It is such a strange thing in human nature, our evaluation of what is important. If I could copy a phrase from a famous American broadcaster, this is what the man says, “This is the top of the news as it looks from here.” Caesar Augustus, Tiberius, and Germanicus, that’s the top of the news. This is the top of the news as it looks from here: the dreaded sicarii, and the Zélótés, and the underground revolution, and insurrection against imperial Rome, that’s news. This is the top of the news as it looks from here: Herod the Great and his Herodium and his Masada, and Archelaus, who’s going to be named his heir apparent over the province of Judea, that’s the top of the news as it looks from here; so says the man.
God says, “This is the top of the news as it looks from here,” and He pointed Him out with a star and said, “Look!” And He sent an angel messenger from the courts of heaven to the startled shepherds and said, “See, go see for yourself” [Luke 2:8-16]. And He spoke to the wise men [Matthew 2:1-2], the magi from the East, through His inspired and written Word: “Not in this palace, no! Here in a stable, in a manger, between an ox and a sheep and a donkey [Matthew 2:9]. This is the top of the news as it looks from here.”
Four things: that Child is God’s answer to the crying need, the heartfelt prayers of His chosen people Israel. Ah, how they waited and longed and prayed for their coming King, their Lord Messiah, the Son of David [Isaiah 59:20]. The prophecies are written on every page of the glory of His coming, “Someday, someday, and He will deliver us from the yoke of the oppressor; He will deliver us from the hands of these who humiliate us, who bow our necks between irons, who grind us beneath their heavy heels. The Messiah is coming. He is coming. One day, He is coming!” [Isaiah 59:20].
And the answer to that messianic prayer was this humble Babe in a stable in Bethlehem [Luke 2:11-16]. And when the scribes pointed out the place He was to be born, they were so uninterested they didn’t even bother to make the trek from Jerusalem to Bethlehem [Matthew 2:4-8], which is no further away from the First Baptist Church and White Rock Lake. They never bothered to make the little distance in order to see what God had done.
Israel today is no less oppressed from every side. She has fifty million enemies, all surrounding her, who plot day and night for her annihilation and destruction. There will never be peace in Israel till they bow down at the blessed feet of their Lord Messiah. The prophecies of the years and of the centuries are fulfilled in that Babe, born in a manger [Luke 2:10-16].
Second: this Child is God’s answer to the social problems of the world. In my humble opinion, as I read the story of humankind and look at modern history, we are not beginning to solve our problems. We are beginning to be more bogged down, and overwhelmed, and frustrated, and enmeshed in them! These men arise with their panaceas, and they say, “We have the answers.”
And here comes Das Kapital from Karl Marx, followed by the writings of Friedrich Engels, followed by the writings of Lenin, followed by the writings of Stalin, followed by the writings of Mao Tse-tung. And they are sweeping the entire world into socialism, and communism, and welfare-ism, seeking to solve the seething, massive problems of humanity. I read an editorial day before yesterday, and it was pointing out that wherever socialism, communism, welfare state-ism has seized the government or a people, seeking to elevate the oppressed and the poor, the people, the nation, the oppressed and the poor just bog down deeper into misery and poverty and want.
In America there is a terrific tide pushing America into those same socialistic, welfare state programs, and we’re seeking to solve our problems of capital, and labor, and management, and race, and poverty, and need, and a thousand other things, leaving Christ out of it. We’re beginning to see the decay and the bankruptcy of our great cities, none of which is more decayed or more bankrupt than the greatest city in America, New York. We’ll never solve those problems, never, nor in America, nor in the world, till we solve them in the charity, and in the spirit, and in the love, and in the humility, and in the honesty and integrity and devotion found in the Babe of Bethlehem.
Three: this Child is the answer to the cry for peace in the world. On the radio this morning, as I drove to church for the first service, I heard a newscaster speculate. His speculation was that the president of the United States, Richard Nixon, would almost certainly halt the bombing of North Vietnam tomorrow, Christmas Day. And as I listened to him, I speculated on his speculation. Why would you stop the bombing on the twenty-fifth day of December? And the answer is apparent: somehow, somehow, it just doesn’t fit to battle, and to bomb, and to war on Christmas Day.
Twenty-three years ago, I was sent by our Foreign Mission Board on a four months preaching mission in Japan. My last assignment in that series of three day revival meetings, starting at the top and going to the bottom, from the north to the south, my last assignment was in a little city called Izumi in the Kagoshima Prefecture at the bottom of Kyushu, the island south-most.
I was left there without a missionary. My interpreter was a boy in high school who was just beginning to learn to speak English. But in those three days that I was there, I came to love an Ikebe family, Ikebe. A father, a noble mother, and some of the finest sons; they were the heart of our Baptist church in Izumi. And as I visited with them, they described to me the day of Pearl Harbor.
And those boys, with their father and mother, said, “When the news came over the radio that our planes had bombed Pearl Harbor and had thrust Japan into a death struggle with America,” they said to me, “we bowed our heads and wept in sorrow and in grief for the Americans that we knew were the missionaries, who had brought to us the good news of Jesus our Savior.”
And you know, I thought, “Had the government of Japan been like the Ikebes, and had the nationalist leaders of Japan been like the Ikebes, and had the people of Japan been like the Ikebes—‘We love the American; we know them through the Christian missionary’—there would have been no war.” There’s nothing wrong in nationalism. A man can be a good Japanese, a fine Canadian, a splendid Mexican, a marvelous Britisher, and a loyal American; love his country, love his people. There’s nothing wrong in patriotism and nationalism. It’s just that awesome, terrible mark of a trail of the serpent that throws in anger and hatred these governments at one another’s throats. This is the answer; the Child born in a manger [Luke 2:10-16].
Fourth: this Child is God’s answer to the need of the human heart. Ultimately, finally, somewhere, someday, sometime our greatest, deepest agonizing cry will always be for God. Just before I came here, walked in this pulpit, the fine, fine brother of Roy Ramseur, he heads one of our Baptist institutions in Texas, that fine man said, “Could I just sit by your side for a second?” So I went back into my study, and he sat down by my side. He’s at church here this morning. He could hardly say a word to me for crying.
He said, “Pastor, just wanted to express to you in behalf of our family, gratitude for your prayers and your remembrance of our brother Roy.” All of us someday, somewhere, sometime will come to that inevitable hour; we need God. When illness comes, when invalidism strikes, when age oppresses, when senility seizes, when death knocks at the door, “O God! O God!”
How do we know God, in the creation, majesty and might? It’s not majesty and might. How do we know God, in these spheres that He slings out in their orbits in space? How do we know God? The only way we could ever know Him is in His self-revelation. In my studying theology, our textbook was written by the president of our seminary, E. Y. Mullins; and in that book is a sentence that stayed in my heart, “If we are ever to know God as a person, He must reveal Himself as personal.” I can never know God personally in an ocean, or a mountain range, or a Milky Way, or a vast infinitude of creation, never! Somehow, if I am to know Him, He must reveal Himself as personal; His name, His heart, His words, what He is. That is what God did in Bethlehem! [Matthew 1:20-21; Luke 2:7-16]
Do you remember these words? They’re so used, we don’t think of their meaning. The prophet Isaiah said, “Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor,” listen, “The Mighty God,The Everlasting Father,” that Child! [Isaiah 9:6] What do words mean? “And His name shall be called the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father” [Isaiah 9:6].
Look, in Micah 5:2, quoted here by the scribes [Matthew 2:6], He shall be born in Bethlehem; for thus the prophet said: “Thou Bethlehem Ephratah, Judah, though thou be little among the cities of Judah, yet shall He come who shall be Ruler of My people Israel—look, listen—whose goings forth are from of old, even from everlasting, even from everlasting” [Micah 5:2].
He did not begin there, “from everlasting,” before the worlds were:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God. And the Word was made flesh … and we beheld Him, full of grace and glory.
For the law came by Moses, judgment and death came by the law.
[John 1:1-2, 14, 17]
“The soul that breaks this law shall die” [Ezekiel 18:20], and “the wages of sin is death” [Romans 6:23].
For the law came by Moses, and judgment and condemnation came by the law, but grace, and truth, and forgiveness, and understanding, and sympathy, and mercy came by Jesus Christ.
The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God in that Child is eternal life in His name, [Romans 6:23].
This is the top of the news:
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep,
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
For the hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
[“O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Phillips Brooks, 1865]
That is the top of the news! Our invitation hymn is one we all love:
O come all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant.
O come ye, O come ye
Come and adore Him,
Born the King of angels;
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Jesus Christ our Lord.
[“Adeste Fideles,” John Francis Wade]
And while we sing that hymn of appeal, you, in humble acceptance; you, putting your life in His church; you a family; you a couple, or just somebody you, making the decision now in your heart, “I’m coming, pastor, and here I am,” while we stand and while we sing.