The Shepherds Were the First to Know (Christmas Eve, I)
Luke 2:1-20 (CEB)
2 In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. 2 This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. 3 Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. 4 Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. 5 He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant.6 While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. 7 She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.
8 Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. 9 The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.
10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 14 “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”
15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully.20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.
The Savior of the world is born this night! The Messiah is here! The New Son of David has come! This Christ is the Anointed King of Israel and all Creation. The LORD God of Israel who made the heavens and the earth has drawn near to us, taking the form of a human being. The world is turned upside down. Nothing will be the same.
And the shepherds are the first to know.
This child comes to fulfill all our social and political hopes, and, more importantly, to unite us to God; to save us and redeem us; to make us into a community built on God’s love.
And the shepherds are the first to know.
Something dramatic and earth-shattering occurred on this night some 2000 years ago. God did a new thing to save and heal the world. The prophets and the faithful of Israel knew something was coming. They couldn’t quite put their fingers on what it would be, but they knew that God was preparing something new and beautiful for us, something that would take us out of the sin, violence, and death of this world to give us new life.
We expect something dramatic when God does something so radical and world-changing. If you're paying close attention, you'll notice that Luke doesn't make Jesus’ birth sound too special when he first tells it.
6 While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. 7 She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger
Perhaps it was unusual for a child to lay in a manger, but not necessarily world-changing. Then, finally, something marvelous occurs.
An angel of the Lord appears! The Glory of the Lord shines around! The angel delivers a powerful message, declaring, “good news to you -- wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord” (vv. 10-11). The angels appear and shout, “Glory to God in the highest!”
And who do the angels appear to? To Emperor Caesar Augustus? To Quirinius, the Governor of Syria? To King Herod I? To a king, a president, a nobleman? To anyone powerful or influential? No. The Angel of the Lord appears in all of God’s Glory to a group of shepherd and their sheep.
The shepherds are the first to know.
Now forget everything you have ever heard or seen about shepherds and angels in the Christmas specials on TV.
Shepherds were poor people. Watching over sheep was regarded as one of the least respectful jobs somebody could have in that society. It’s what you do when you don’t have any other career options.
But shepherds were also tough. You need to stay up all night and all day. You have to deal with troublesome animals, and you need to fight wolves, lions, and bears. You can’t be a good shepherd and be weak or cowardly.
Not only that, but shepherds were intimidating. Bishop Craig Satterlee writes,
“Society stereotyped shepherds as liars, degenerates, and thieves. The testimony of shepherds was not admissible in court, and many towns had ordinances barring shepherds from their city limits. The religious establishment took a particularly dim view of shepherds since the regular exercise of shepherds' duties kept them from observing the Sabbath and rendered them ritually unclean. The Pharisees classed shepherds with tax collectors and prostitutes, persons who were "sinners" by virtue of their vocation.”
Another pastor has said that shepherds in Judea were a lot like cowboys in the Wild West: rugged outdoorsmen who are tough and scrappy from a lifetime of fighting to survive (D. Mark Davis).
And these tough-guy shepherds were terrified when they saw the angels. The Angels probably weren't wearing long white robes with smiley faces and floating halos, “singing sweetly through the night” (The Hymnal 1982, #96).
That's not a knock on the previous costumes our kids wore tonight, or on the adults who designed the costumes. We just have been fed a diet of European images of angels that aren't very biblically or theologically accurate or insightful.
If you look at ancient Jewish and Christian art featuring angels, they are dressed in military attire. They look like soldiers with wings. The Gospel of Luke identifies “the Angel of the LORD” as St. Gabriel the Archangel. He is usually depicted in icons wearing clothes of a Roman commander and carrying a shield and a spear. It would be scary for him to appear out of nowhere with a message.
Then, a “great assembly” of angels appear. The Scripture calls this group of angels the “heavenly troops” or “heavenly forces.” They are probably large and intimidating. They may have all carried weapons (swords, shields, and bows), and they surprised the shepherds in the middle of the night.
This is big and cinematic. If you were trying to make a movie out of this scene, you would need a big special effects budget because the shepherds saw some things that are out of this world.
But the point here is that the shepherds are the first to know.
The message of God, the declaration of our salvation, came first to these lowly shepherds -- the people who the rulers and authorities would not give a second thought; the people who townsfolk were afraid of; the people who were considered scum by the religious elite. Those people are the first ones to receive the Good News from God that our Savior has come to earth.
The shepherds are the first to know because salvation is for people like shepherds. Jesus came not to call the righteous, but for sinners. The healthy do not need a doctor, but sick people do (Mark 2:17)!
Jesus came to bring loving community to those whom society ignores and persecutes. He came to bring hope to those who had given up all hope. He came to bring new life to those who are dead inside.
When Jesus is born, God’s angels declare it to shepherds. The Spirit of the Lord anointed him to bring good news to the poor (Luke 4:18-19). And this same Spirit dwells in us, the Church, the Body of Christ.
We are the hands and feet of this Baby Boy, born in a manger and praised by angels and shepherds alike. We are called to do even greater things than he did on earth by the power of the Holy Spirit (John 14:12ff.).
We are called to follow the example of the angels, and look for the “shepherds” in our communities. Look for the lonely people, the ones whom the mainstream rejects, whom no one seems to love.
Do the “shepherds” in Savannah know the Good News of God in Christ? Can they see our love and know we are followers of this loving, liberating, and life-giving God? Do they see our great joy? Our compassion for all, come what may?
On this Christmas night, may we embrace our call to be Christ’s Body. May we follow the Savior born in David’s City. May we bring Good News of Great Joy to the shepherds in our lives. God is Love and Love has become a human being to dwell with us -- all of us… even the shepherds.
D. Mark Davis, “Registering "Jesus," Cowboys and Ninjas: What a Story,” Left Behind and Loving It, published 19 December 2016, accessed 22 December 2016, http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2016/12/registering-jesus-cowboys-and-ninjas.html
Joy J. Moore, “Commentary on Luke 2:1-14 [15-20],” Working Preacher, published December 2011, accessed 22 December 2016, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1172
Craig A. Satterlee, “Commentary on Luke 2:1-14 [15-20],” Working Preacher, published December 2012, accessed 22 December 2016, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1522