Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Luke 2:1-20 The Birth of Jesus
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
The Shepherds and the Angels
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
When telling the stories of Jesus’ birth, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke both want to teach you something about God’s leadership by comparing it to Caesar’s leadership. Matthew contrasts God’s Reign from the King’s Reign by showing us a king who is frightened enough by a baby that he will try to harm the baby. Luke shows us that God’s Reign is different than Caesar’s Reign by showing us how very different Jesus’ birth and life are from the lives of the powerful in the era. Jesus’ very pregnant mom has to travel to a whole other town when she is almost ready to give birth, not because she wants to, but because the emperor has the power to force regular people to do things he wants when he wants them done, not when is convenient for them. He wanted them to go to Bethlehem to be counted. So, they had to go. Dr. Melinda Quivik in her commentary on this text, reminds us that royal Roman leaders would have had everything they needed. Jesus wasn’t even born in his own home and he slept in an animal trough in his first hours of life. He could not be more different from Caesar. Thank God for that.
Jesus’ life and the way he wields power will be different, too. Whomever wrote Luke is an excellent storyteller because they pack in a lot of foreshadowing that tell us that Jesus will be different than the military leader many people expected the Messiah to be. One more bit of this foreshadowing is showing us who is entrusted to celebrate his birth. It will not be the wealthy and the powerful. First, Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, is entrusted with the good news of the pregnancy. She has been similarly blessed with an unlikely pregnancy and Mary knew she could relate to this level of Divine Intervention. Then, after the birth, the shepherds are brought into the story. There are few people farther from Caesar than the shepherds in the fields. The shepherds are the first people outside of family to learn that there is something special about this child who has been born. They will end up not only hearing divine confirmation of the gift of his birth but also become a source of holy affirmation for Mary and Joseph. They received a gift and become a gift in the same night.
According to Dr. Fred Craddock, Roman poets and well-known speakers were known to create works in celebration of a child who was to become emperor. In Luke, it isn’t the well-known and articulate who celebrate the Christ child, but the Divine Wild and common shepherds. The heavens themselves sing forth in celebration. Their audience is not the wealthy patrons, as would have been true of the artists, but the very ordinary shepherds in the fields. Dr. Wesley Allen reminds us in his commentary on the text that these shepherds are likely not the people who own the sheep or own any of the land. They are either slaves or employees who are working the night shift. That’s why the author pointed out that they lived in the fields. They stay with the sheep, guarding them, either because they were ordered to by the people who owned them or because they were paid to do so. They are regular people with a demanding job that required a fair amount of skill to keep animals alive. It was a job that was utterly necessary as sheep provided food and clothing material. It was also a job that wasn’t necessarily well-paid or well-respected. Shepherds don’t usually get to hear the good news first, but they do in this story. They don’t usually hang out with the powerful. But, they will, in this story because God’s power will make space for them. We heard the first inklings of that in Mary’s song, with the lowly lifted and the powerful sent away. In inviting the shepherds to the manger, we are seeing God lift of the lowly as one of the first signs of the presence of the Messiah in the world.
I wonder what the angels looked like for them to have to tell the shepherds that they didn’t have to be afraid. Were they bright enough and loud enough to scare the sheep? Were the angels aware that, in the dark of night, any surprise visits could be interpreted as a possible danger to the flock? Was the instruction “be not afraid” more of a gentle way of preparing them for the incredible next words? “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” What a message to tell these hard-working, poor men! And, how wonderful it is that these men believed and traveled to find the child.
In reading up on this passage, I noticed that several different scholars are quick to point out that the life histories of Roman rulers never place them near common workers like shepherds, much less show them doing the work of shepherds. It is interesting that ancient Jewish leaders weren’t always so separate from this important and undervalued work. King David was a shepherd long before he was king. Luke tells us that Jesus was part of the line of David through his stepfather Joseph. Jesus was also born in Bethlehem, the city of David. In today’s reading, men who shared David’s earliest work would come to celebrate Jesus and confirm that his parent’s own angelic visions were true. The shepherds told Mary and Joseph what they had heard from the angels about their child. They would confirm the Divine future ahead of him. Everyone who heard the testimony of the shepherds was amazed. But, in particularly, Mary treasured all their words and pondered them in her heart. That means she thought about them, a lot. She considered the words the angels said to her, to her cousin, and now the shepherd, and what it means for her family and the world’s future.
Dr. Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero noted that, in leaving their sheep, the shepherds, too, are transformed, becoming God’s messengers alongside the angels. And, of course, poor, common people would do the work of God. In a couple chapters, when Jesus, as an adult, tells us about his mission with his own words, he will say that the poor will be of special concern for God and for him. Jesus himself comes from a poor family, despite having a royal lineage. God comes into the World through the margins of society, the homes over-full of relatives forced to travel and the darkened fields full of smelly sheep. Maybe you do work that is hard and often unappreciated. May you know that work is good, and that God can move through you, too. On this Christmas day, maybe you can consider what God is revealing to you while you work. And, may you see clearly how you can shepherd Christ into this world anew, in this time and this place. God called the shepherd and is calling us. May we sing out with joy.
Resources consulted to write this sermon:
• Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christmas-day-nativity-of-our-lord-ii/commentary-on-luke-21-7-8-20-9
• Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990)
• Melinda Quivik: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christmas-eve-nativity-of-our-lord/commentary-on-luke-21-14-15-20-18
• O. Wesley Allen Jr. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/shepherds-visit-2/commentary-on-luke-28-20
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.