What Was News the Day Before Christmas
December 24th, 1972 @ 8:15 AM
WHAT WAS NEWS THE DAY BEFORE CHRISTMAS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-24-72 8:15 a.m.
On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled What Was News the Day Before Christmas. In the second chapter of the Book of Luke, a most familiar story:
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 apographē—
was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
And all went to be apographō, registered, every one into his own city.
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 apographo, to be registered, with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child, heavy with child.
What was news the day before Christmas.
Do not ever persuade yourself that it is only in recent times that these newspapers would have opportunity to emblazon in big, dark, black headlines the catastrophic and overwhelming news of the world. It was as intensely interesting in that day, in 4 BC, as it is today. What was news in that day, the day before Christmas?
Well, this was news: the census, the worldwide census of Caesar Augustus. What did it mean? From one side of the Roman Empire to the other they were talking about it. It must mean some tremendous military campaign in Great Britain, for the Roman legions were never able to conquer the British Isles, just the southern part of what we know of as England. Or does it mean some tremendous campaign to the east beyond Parthia into India? Or does it mean an increase in our taxes? But the whole world was talking about this census, this worldwide registration of Caesar Augustus. That was news the day before Christmas.
What was news the day before Christmas? The dark, bloody underground—sometimes called “the zealots,” for Judea was a seething mass of embittered humanity—and that underground worked against the surveillance and the oppressive presence of Rome by day and by night. And in that group were the dreaded sicarius. A sicarius was a man who offered his life in the underground against Rome.
And these sicarii mingled on feast days with the throng, and clandestinely they gather around a government official or a Roman soldier, or a centurion, or a legate, and in the thronging crowd, hidden away in their flowing robes was a dagger, and they would assassinate that hated representative of the Roman government, and immediately disappear, unable to find them ever in the thronging mass. It was a dreaded thing for any Roman official ever to appear in a mob, in a mass, in a group of people in Judea because of the sicarii. That was news in the days before Christmas.
What was news in the day before Christmas? This was news: Herod the Great; in his old age he became increasingly jealous and increasingly suspicious. He killed most of his family, including his finest sons and the only wife that he loved, Mariamne the Maccabee. Caesar Augustus himself said that, “In Herod’s household it was better to be a hus than a huios. It’s better to be a pig than a son.”
Herod the Great shut up in the hippodrome four hundred of the finest leaders of Israel in order that when he died there might be mourning, having given instruction that all four hundred of those leading men were to be slain. That was news in the day before Christmas. And who would succeed Herod? Would it be Antipas? Would it be Archelaeus? Would it be Antipater?
What was news the day before Christmas? The court gossip in Rome was always interesting. Caesar Augustus was getting old. Who would succeed him? Would it be his stepson Tiberius? Tiberius was so disliked. Or could it be Germanicus? There never was a Roman general so loved as Germanicus, and he was of the finest parentage.
Germanicus had married Agrippina, the daughter of Agrippa and the niece of Augustus. He himself was of the royal lineage, and the whole empire, and especially the Roman legions, loved Germanicus. And Tiberius was so envious of him, that he had him poisoned to death. That was news the day before Christmas.
What was not news the day before Christmas? This certainly was not news: down the road on the way to Bethlehem is a man and a woman, and the only thing you might have noticed was that she was riding the donkey. But upon a closer look, you noticed that she is heavy with child [Luke 2:1-5]. So you smile in knowledge of why she is riding and go on your way. That was not news the day before Christmas.
I remember seeing in a newspaper a cartoon, and it stayed in my mind. It was a picture in the dead of winter, in Hodgenville, Kentucky. I drove by Hodgenville for years, going from the seminary to my little village pastorate. In this picture in the dead of winter, in Hodgenville, Kentucky, there is a heavy snow on the ground. There is an old dog with his tail tucked between his legs, shivering. There’s an old frontiersman here with a rifle over his shoulder and he’s talking to another neighbor on the horse.
And this neighbor on the horse has just come back from Washington, an unusual and long journey in those days. And the man in the snow asked the man who’d just come back from Washington, “What’s the news?” And the man on the horse replies, “Oh, lots of news! I’ve just seen Madison sworn in as president of the United States, the Congress of our America is getting ready to declare war against Great Britain again, and this fellow Napoleon Bonaparte is conquering all Europe. There’s lots of news!”
Then the man on the horse asked that frontiersman in the snow, “Neighbor, is there any news back here at home at Hodgenville?” And the old-timer replies, “Mister, nothing never happens around here. There’s been born a new baby over there in Tom Lincoln and Nancy Hanks cabin; and they named him Abraham. Nothing ever happens around here, that’s not news.”
So it was the day before Christmas; down the Bethlehem road is a man and a woman. They go to the Imperial Hotel in Bethlehem and ask for a night’s lodging. And the man who manages the hotel says, “Sir, we’ve been booked up for months. There are parties here every night celebrating the Feast of Lights, and the Feast of Dedication, and the winter festival. There’s no room here.”
And he makes his way to the Grand Hotel and asks for a night’s lodging. The manager of the Grand Hotel says, “We’ve been booked up for months. The hippodrome games are in their height, and today Lebanon is playing Hebron. There’s no room here.” And the man, leading the donkey with his wife astride, finally goes to the Bethlehem Inn. And Ben Ezra comes, and the man says, “Is there opportunity to find lodging for the night?” And Ben Ezra replies, “Sir, this census, this registration of Augustus Caesar has brought throngs into the city, and I have nothing at all. You’ll have to stay out in the streets.”
“But,” says this man, “is there not some place that I could take my wife out of the chill of the night?” Then Ezra says, “Sir, I’m sorry but there’s no place at all. We are filled.” And then Ezra’s wife motions to him, “Ben Ezra, come here. Do you see his wife? She is heavy with child. Ben Ezra, we must do something. Ben Ezra, in the stable where we feed the cattle and the sheep; Ben Ezra, isn’t there a place they could stay there?”
Ben Ezra turns to the stranger and says, “Sir, there’s no room here, but in the cattle shed find a place out of the chill of the night wind.” So they go to the cattle shed. And as the man makes a bed on the hay by the side of the cow, and the sheep [Matthew 2:9], and the donkey, Joseph says to his young wife, “Mary, I am so sorry.” And Mary replies, “Joseph, I understand.”
There is a very famous broadcaster who has a saying, and I take it and apply it to all mankind, “This is the top of the news from here. This is the top of the news as I look at it from here.” What was the top of the news as the man looked at it the day before Christmas? “This is the top of the news as I see it from here. Augustus Caesar, and Tiberius, and Germanicus, this is the top of the news as I see it from here,” says the man. “The sicarii and the underground Zealot; this is the top of the news. Herod, and Antipater, and Archelaus; this is the top of the news as I see it from here,” says the man.
It is interesting to see it from God. And God said, “The day before Christmas, this is the top of the news as I see it from here,” and God pointed out with a star and said [Matthew 2:1-2, 9-10], “Look!” and God sent His angel messenger to the shepherds and said, “See, see for yourself!” [Luke 2:8-16]. And God spoke to the wise men through His word and said, “Not in the palace, but here in a manger [Luke 2:12], between the donkey and the cow and the sheep. This is the top of the news as I see it,” says God, “from here.” What was news the day before Christmas.
It is an interesting word isn’t it? Now may I point out four things? This Child is God’s answer for His people Israel. Oh, the oppression they felt, and the bitterness and hatred in their hearts toward their Roman oppressors, and the flame of hope for liberty and victory over their conquerors! They lived for the day of the Son of David, the coming Messiah! They dreamed of His prowess, of His military conquests, of His exaltation at the head of the nations of the world. Israel dreamed of that ultimate and final benedictory remembrance, God’s promise that they should have a Deliverer [Isaiah 59:20-21]. And this is God’s answer [Romans 11:26].
All of the centuries of preparation, all of those thousands of years of the sovereign working of God finally consummated in this: a Babe in a manger [Luke 2:11-12]. And when the announcement came to Herod’s palace, “Where is He that is born King of the Jews? We have seen His star in the East, and have come to worship Him” [Matthew 2:1-2]. The scribes pointed out where He was to be born. And like most of us they never bothered to make the little journey of five miles from Herod’s palace to Bethlehem to see the wonder of God [Matthew 2:4-8].
Second: this Child is God’s answer to the insoluble social problems of the world. I have the impression that instead of solutions the world is getting increasingly bogged down; these men who come forward with their panaceas. Here’s Karl Marx, followed by Friedrich Engels, followed by Lenin, followed by Stalin, followed by all of the puppets of South America and the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe, and now China and the Orient. I read an editorial day before yesterday saying that one of the tragedies of the communist, socialistic regime is this; that they promise such glorying rewards to the oppressed and the poor, only for the oppressed and the poor find themselves in deeper degradation.
In America, the problems that beset America, labor and management, and our socialistic turn, and the redistribution of wealth, and so many things that we look upon; the bankruptcy of our cities in their increasing programs of welfare, demonstrated by the decay and disintegration and bankruptcy of our greatest metropolitan city, New York. What is the solution to all of the social problems of the world, ours and our sister nations across the sea? They could be solved overnight, overnight in the gentle, tender, sweet, humanitarian, charitable spirit of this Christ Child.
Third: this is God’s answer to the cry for peace in the world. On the radio, coming to church this morning, there was an editor, a newspaper commentator who was speculating that tomorrow, Christmas Day, there might be a cessation in the bombing of North Vietnam by our B-52’s. And I suppose, and this is just my speculation, I suppose the reason for his speculation was this: it seems so out of character to fight war on Christmas Day. This is God’s answer to the warring armies and governments of the world, this Child.
When I was in Japan, on a four month’s preaching mission twenty-three years ago, not too long after the Second World War, my last assignment, my last revival meeting––they lasted for three days in each place––my last revival meeting was in a little city named Izumi in the Kagoshima Prefecture at the tip end of Kyushu, the lower island of Japan. And in those three days I was left there without a missionary, nobody to help me, or translate for me, or anything.
I had a high school student who could speak just a little English that he’d learned in the classroom. I became so attached in those three days to a Japanese family by the name Ikebe, Ikebe. Oh, that mother and that father and those sons, the Ikebe family—they were glorious Christians and the heart of our Baptist church in Izumi.
As I visited with them, they described to me Pearl Harbor and the bombing of our American ships, and the thrusting of Japan in the war against America. And the Ikebes said to me, “We were won to Christ by American missionaries. And we loved the American missionary. And when word came that our country of Japan had attacked America, we bowed our heads in sorrow and in grief.” And I thought, “Had the spirit of that Ikebe family who loved the American missionary been the spirit of the Japanese government and of the Japanese nationals, there would never have been a war between the Stars and the Stripes and the Sun of the flag of Nippon.” Somehow, around this Child we forget our instruments of battle and bombing.
Fourth: this Child is God’s answer to the needs of the human soul. What ultimately we long for, pray for, covet for ourselves is God. In sickness, sometimes disastrous affliction, in catastrophe, in age, and finally in the grave, in death, somehow, ultimately, all of us long for an answer from God. Where is He? What is He like? What is His name? How can I know Him?
Dr. E. Y. Mullins, the president of our seminary in Louisville, one of the great theologians of all time, said, and I quote a sentence out of his book of theology that I studied, he said, “If we are ever to know God as a person, God must reveal Himself to us as personal.” We can never know God really by the infinitude of His universe or by the majesty of His creation. If we’re ever to know Him as a person, as somebody, He must reveal Himself to us as personal. That is what He did in Bethlehem [Matthew 1:20-2:1; Luke 2:7-16].
Do you notice the words of those prophecies? “And His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor,” what? “The Mighty God,” what? “The Everlasting Father” [Isaiah 9:6], this Child. Do you notice the words of the prophecy? “And thou, Bethlehem, though thou be little among the cities of Judah, yet out of thee shall come forth the Governor who shall rule My people Israel”—listen—“whose goings forth are from of old, even from everlasting, from everlasting” [Micah 5:2]. This Child from everlasting; that was not His beginning. This is His incarnation, when God became man that we might know His name.
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, made flesh, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of God.
[John 1:1-2, 14]
“For the law came by Moses” [John 1:17]; “Do this and thou shalt live” [Deuteronomy 4:1]. We can’t do that, therefore we are under the sentence of death! “For law, death, judgment came by Moses, but grace, and truth, and mercy, and forgiveness, and salvation, and deliverance came by Jesus Christ” [John 1:17]. This is God’s answer to the need of the human soul.
“O little town of Bethlehem,” that was news. God said, “That is 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.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
[from “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Phillips Brooks, 1865]
That is the news. This invitation:
O come all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, oh come ye,
Come and adore Him,
Born the King of angels
O come let us adore Him,
Oh come let us adore Him,
O come let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.
[from “Adeste Fideles,” John Francis Wade]
Whatever number that is let’s sing it. While we stand and while we sing.