Welcome back, fearless readers! Today we are tackling the second half of the most famous narrative of the season, the birth of Jesus. So check out our daily reading and reflections below . . .
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 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: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15 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.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
#1: Shepherds, not Emperors
We began our discussion of the first part of this story with Luke’s detail about Caesar Augustus. This time, we begin with shepherds. As you are probably well aware, shepherds were poor peasants, at the bottom of the social ladder. They did not have enough land to support themselves, so they cared for other people’s livestock. It would not typically be an honor or pleasure to be visited by shepherds. It is striking then that God chooses to reveal the birth of Jesus to them, rather than the people at the top (i.e. Augustus, who as self-proclaimed ruler of the world is conspicuously absent). If the angels serve as heralds, then it would be expected for them to go to the nobles and kings to announce a royal birth. Yet we see here that God chooses to work by lifting up and honoring the lowly, which we might expect if we remember Mary’s Song. Of course, this raises questions for us: do we expect for God’s transforming work to be revealed at the top, or the bottom of society? If we’re looking at the top, this story suggests we might be mistaken.
#2: Gospels, Saviors, and Lords
In the Roman world, the Greek word translated “gospel” or “good news” was typically used to describe a victory in battle or a royal birth, and was pronounced by an authorized messenger sent from a king or person of importance. The point is: it was a political term! That Jesus’ birth is called a “gospel” implies from the start that he is challenging the powers that be; his birth is claimed as the birth of the true king. Likewise, Caesar Augustus (and those who followed him) took the titles of “savior” and “lord”; they claimed to have saved the world by establishing peace through their victories (hence, lord). These titles were commonly known through statues, coins and proclamations. Luke’s description of the angels words again sets Jesus in direct competition with these claims. Jesus is the true savior and lord, and he will be the one who brings real peace. Again this puts the reader in the position of having to make a choice: whose claims do we trust? And whose peace do we hope in? Caesar’s peace through domination, or Jesus’ peace through the gift and work of God?
NOTE: This passage suggests that it is God’s will for there to be peace “on earth”, as in “the whole earth”… it is an inclusive intention for all of creation (and again, the hope of Israel!). God has favored all humans by sending Christ, yet the details above hint that there will be many, especially the rulers, who will resist this gift of peace.
#3: Who can we hear?
One of the details that I have always found interesting is that, contrary to many nativity scenes, only the shepherds see and hear from the angels. Mary and everyone at the birth scene do not. As I suggested in the last blog, the birth of Jesus was far from ideal, and Mary certainly would have had reason to question whether God was really doing the things she was told by Gabriel. It is the shepherds then who function as a sign to her; they are the ones who bring encouragement and confirm what she was told by their story about the angels and their pronouncement. So while God did not directly encourage or “show up” to Mary and her family, he does so through the words of the shepherds. Mary’s reception of God’s encouragement then was contingent upon her ability to listen to people who would generally be labeled as undesirables, and who would not be welcomed for evening visits- especially after the delivery of a child!
For those of us who are attempting to participate in God’s work, this reflection begs a question. Are we able to hear the people that God is using to speak encouragement to us? Are we open to listening to people who we would generally write-off? For each of us this will be different . . . it could be someone poor or homeless, a child, an older person, an enemy, someone with different political views, or any other distinction that makes it hard for us to hear from them. If we are to hear them, of course, first we must allow them to have proximity to us. Then we must respect them enough to stop what we’re doing and listen to them.
My challenge for you today is simple: name at least one person or one type of person who you have not been listening to. First, confess this to God and pray for strength and courage to listen better. If you need to apologize, do so. Then, prepare yourself to listen well to whoever God would send your way, and particularly to that person or group of people!