God'sDecember 24, 2005, 7:30 pm
quot;The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in the land of deep darkness, upon them has the light shined." These words were first spoken by the prophet Isaiah to announce the arrival of a new king in Judah, a new power on the throne in Jerusalem, a new administration and governance bringing a profound transformation and great joy.1 The announcement was made at the darkest of times--war and its privation, its brutality to spirit as well as body, and the culture of fear and political oppression war generates. Into that darkness, new light has shined, the light of the one named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. The rod of the oppressors has been broken as well as all of their instruments of terror. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
The poem first emerged on Isaiah's lips as a prophetic word to a besieged and weary Jerusalem some twenty-eight hundred years ago. But over time, through other wars and occupations, the power of the words came to speak of a greater reign: a divinely appointed, sent and sustained monarch whose eternal reign of righteousness and justice would produce mercy and unending peace. This is Israel's expectation; it frames the well-known story we have just heard read.
A couple makes their way back to the husband's ancestral home, Bethlehem, the City of King David, because of the command of another king; the sovereign of the empire has demanded a census. It is a hard trip because the young wife is nine months pregnant and soon to deliver. Unable to secure a room, they find shelter in a grotto housing a family's animals. While there, Mary gives birth to her child--her firstborn--swaddles him in bands of cloth and places him in a manger. That's all Luke tells us. It is astonishingly simple, given the elaborate detail Luke has given us up until this moment. It is the other characters in the story--the supporting actors if you will: the Emperor, the shepherds and the angels who appear to them--who tell us the meaning of this birth. It is Luke's artistic way of answering the expectant question: Is this the long-awaited one Isaiah promised some seven hundred years earlier?
What does Luke say? The decree when out from Augustus, Sovereign of what Luke calls "all the world."2 Augustus had put an end to the civil strife that had dominated the Roman world of his day, ushering in the Pax Augusta. In the eastern part of his empire, Caesar Augustus was hailed as "savior" and "god." One Greek inscription named him "savior of the whole world."3 Luke is linking this birth not only to Israel's expectations, but also to its history. Rome and Bethlehem are connected by the one who created them both, the one who is sovereign over all sovereigns, the one who is coming to birth in this story, the one who is the true bringer of peace--the true "savior of the whole world." Yet, he has entered the world as every king enters it--a vulnerable infant--tightly wrapped in strips of cloth to keep him secure, safe and warm, and placed for safety's sake on a bed of straw in a cattle crib, so that his exhausted parents can rest in the obscurity of their nameless, unknown surrounding.
They will not be obscure for long. Enter the shepherds of Bethlehem, not far away in the hill country, doing what their famous ancestor David did before God called him from Bethlehem to be king. But there is more going on here than linking the shepherds with King David. Luke wants us to know of that connection. But he has another concern as well. Shepherds were among the lowest of the low: disreputable, considered dishonest, and treated both socially and religiously as almost non-persons4--nobodies--easily the last people to whom an angel of the Lord would appear to make an announcement ringing with echoes of Isaiah's prophecy. Yet, God's favor on the least of these will be a continuing theme throughout Luke's gospel, a theme woven into the fabric of the Bible itself. Moses the murderer was least likely to be the lawgiver, David, the least of his brothers, was least likely to be king, Mary, Jesus' mother--who was she?--and thus Mary's son, least likely to be the coming one. But God works through the least likely, shows favor upon them, and they find their lives being caught up in the drama of God's grace, just as the nameless shepherds of Bethlehem will be forever remembered as the first to hear the astounding news. "Do not be afraid; I bring you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord."5
So much is packed into the angel's announcement. Do not be afraid. The darkness of life is being pierced by the light of God, and it is being announced, not to Caesars and senators, potentates and princes, priests and prophets, but to nobodies, to those of low or no estate. Be not afraid--it is not only good news of great joy, it is for all people, not just the shepherds, not just the people of Judah, not just Rome and its many conquered lands, not just those who will come to call themselves Christian. This is good news of great joy for all people. The three titles that follow are astonishing: Savior, Messiah, Lord. Savior was the title Augustus had incorrectly borne, but now the Savior of the world is also Israel's long awaited Messiah, God's holy and anointed one, long-announced by Isaiah. But more, this child is none other than the Lord in human flesh. Four times the word "Lord" appears in this story and, in each of the other three instances, it is a direct reference to God.6 Luke has not used it accidentally this fourth time in reference to Jesus. He wants us to know that this is none other than the gift of God's self in and through the one who will be called God's son. "Veiled in flesh the godhead see, Hail the incarnate deity," sings the carol.7
No wonder the sky explodes with angelic presence and doxological song praising God. God's reign of everlasting justice and righteousness, God's gift of peace on earth among those whom God favors has begun. In this child, God's grand design for the redemption of the world is unfolding.
The shepherds respond in a very unshepherdly way: they abandon their sheep to go look for the sign the angel gave them. But who wouldn't in their place? If told the savior of the world was just over the hill in the form of a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger, wouldn't you get up and go see for yourselves as fast as your legs would carry you, sheep or no sheep? The shepherds are not unlike others who will appear in this gospel: fishermen who abandon their nets and boats, tax collectors who leave their lucrative source of income behind, lepers who risk a crowd, desperate parents with dying children, a hemorrhaging woman who reaches out to touch the hem of his garment, each responding to the presence of God among them. Every nobody needs good news.
The shepherds find Mary, Joseph and the babe just as the angel said, and tell the new parents what the angel had said about their newborn son. But their telling does not stop there. They tell any who will listen. And all are amazed. And why not; is there any less reason for amazement this night? Mary takes it all in, placing it alongside the earlier visit of another angel and, looking at her son, treasures yet wonders what this will mean. And the shepherds, what did they do? The sheep--they had forgotten the sheep. So back to their fields and flocks they go. But the darkness is not as dark as it was. It has been pierced with divine light. The "no" of being a nobody is no longer as damning, confining or condemning; they have seen God's "Yes." They have experienced God's favor; they have looked into the face of a sleeping infant and seen God's promised savior. They and their world will never be the same. No matter how dark their night might become, they have seen God's light. They have heard God's "Yes," in their world of "No."
What have you seen and heard?
Oh holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us this day. We hear the Christmas angels their great glad tidings tell. Oh come to us, abide with us, O Lord, Emmanuel.
- Most likely, Hezekiah in 727 BCE.
- Commentaries are filled with discussions about the absence of any record of such a census demanded by Augustus. Has Luke misplaced the census that came later, after Archelaus was deposed as ruler of Judea, or is Luke making a larger point: that as God used Cyrus, king of Persia, to free the Jews from the bondage of Babylon, so God was using Augustus to effect divine purpose? Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year, Year B, (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity International Press, 1993), p. 32.
- Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke, I-IX, (New York: Doubleday, 1970), p. 394f.
- Craddock, Op Cit., p. 33.
- Luke 2:10-11.
- Beverly R. Gaventa, Texts for Preaching--Year B, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), p.57. See Luke 2:9 (where it is used twice), and 2:15.
- Charles Wesley, "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" The Presbyterian Hymnal¸ (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990), No. 31.
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