Give glory to God (Dec. 21, 2014)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Luke 2:8-20

Taking care of sheep in ancient Israel was a task for rural peasants — usually boys and young men. It was a dirty, grimy job, not only because sheep are notoriously smelly but also because shepherds lived outdoors in the field for considerable periods of time. It could also be a dangerous job. There were predators or thieves who would occasionally capture a stray sheep or a wandering lamb. Shepherds were certainly not admired or honored in ancient Jewish society.

It is significant, therefore, that Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus features shepherds as the first ones to hear that the Messiah had been born. A recurring theme in Luke’s gospel is what commentator John Carroll calls “status inversion.” Mary’s song describes this very succinctly: God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). Lowly shepherds were the first people to hear the news that the Messiah had been born.

Luke 2:8-10 — Joyful news for all people!
The shepherds were simply doing their job taking care of their sheep when God entered their world in the form of an angel. With the unnamed angel came the blinding light of God’s glory, the divine presence that Ezekiel had seen returning to the temple in Jerusalem (Ezekiel 43:1-4). The shepherds, very understandably, were terror-stricken (literally, they feared with a great fear). Nothing like this had ever happened to them before.

The angel’s calming words, “Do not be afraid,” enabled the shepherds to hear his message. The angel brought good news. The Greek verb describing the angel’s action is the root form from which our English word “evangelism” is derived. It means literally “good news.” So the angel was actually the first evangelist.

Luke 2:11-14 — The Messiah is born
The angel’s good news describes the newborn child with three of the most important titles in all of Scripture: Savior, Messiah, Lord.

The child is identified as a savior. In the Hellenistic world this term was applied to Asclepius, the god of healing, and to other deities of the mystery religions. It was also applied to human benefactors and especially to Roman emperors who claimed to be manifestations of the divine. Luke follows the usage of the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) in which God, the provider of salvation, is called a savior (Psalm 24:5; Micah 7:7).

Luke identifies Mary’s baby as a savior. Luke must have been aware that Roman emperors called themselves saviors, so his use of that term for Jesus issues a subtle challenge to Roman rule. The baby born in Bethlehem, King David’s city, will invite people to embrace God’s reign.

Luke also identifies Mary’s baby as Christ, God’s anointed servant, who fulfills the hopes of Israel for a deliverer. Jesus is the promised Messiah, God’s agent of redemption.

And finally Luke identifies Mary’s baby as Lord. Luke is again following the usage of the Septuagint, where God is identified as Lord (kurios). Jesus is God’s divine son incarnate in a newborn baby.

The angel even told the shepherds how they could confirm the accuracy of this message from God. In Bethlehem they would find Mary’s baby lying in a feeding trough for animals. Then, suddenly an angelic choir added sound to the overpowering light of God’s presence surrounding the shepherds. “Glory be to God in heaven,” they sang, “and peace on earth to the favored human race” (my translation).

Luke 2:15-20 — The shepherds become evangelists
The shepherds agree to hurry off to Bethlehem to check out this surprising event. Somehow they found their way to exactly to Joseph, Mary and their infant son. There they told Mary and Joseph what the angel had told them about their very special baby. The shepherds must have brought a crowd with them, because Luke reports that others were amazed at what the shepherds were saying.

Mary, too, was amazed and perplexed about what she had experienced. Luke reports that she kept on ruminating about the miraculous turn of events that had engulfed her. The shepherds, however, did not stop to reflect. Filled with praise to God for what they had experienced, they went back to tending their sheep.

For discussion
Do you think it is important to know exactly when and where Jesus was born? Why or why not? Do you believe people who say that God spoke to them? Or are you skeptical? Luke says that he has written an “orderly account” based on earlier firsthand testimony of eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1- 4). Would Luke’s description of the birth of Jesus meet the standards of historians today?