[Darrell Buchanan is enjoying life as a Moose Javian and ministering with the Moose Jaw Church of Christ. He is a follower and a learner who is thankful for the patience and love extended to him by God, his wife, and his son. Darrell blogs irregularly at www.darrellbuchanan.ca.]
Today’s reading (Luke 2:8-20) always takes me back to A Charlie Brown Christmas Special. It’s the scene where Linus tells Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about by reciting Luke 2:8-14 with its memorable opening sentence: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (KJV).
Shepherds actually frame today’s reading, being mentioned in 2:8 and 2:20. They and the angels are a unique Lukan contribution to the account of the birth of Jesus. Their stories come immediately after Jesus’ birth to show how the news is received with joy and praise.
It is often noted that shepherds in 1st century Palestine were part of a despised occupation that was also, for various alleged reasons, considered ceremonially unclean. This is a surprising contrast to the positive image of God in the Old Testament as the shepherd and protector of his people (Gen. 48:15; Psa. 80:1; Isa. 40:11) and should raise questions about our frequent negative assessment of shepherds. It would also be surprising that the Jewish sacrificial system and temple would so heavily depend on the work of individuals who were viewed as being unclean.
Nevertheless, shepherds in 1st century Palestine were among the marginalized and outcast of society but not because they were viewed as being ceremonially unclean. Small plots of land and heavy taxes meant that many could not provide for their families and were forced off their land to work for others. If Caesar Augustus and Quirinius represented power and prestige (2:1-2), the shepherd-peasants were the humble and the hungry (1:52). But it is lowly shepherds, not rulers on thrones, who first receive the news of the birth of the promised Messiah! It is peasants, not religious or secular rulers, who receive a divine visitation (2:13-14)!
The heavenly host, along with the angel of the Lord (Gabriel?), are the other main characters in today’s reading. They announce that the Messiah’s birth in an unpretentious manger brings peace throughout the earth. It is a direct challenge to the powerful propaganda in praise of the peace that Augustus had brought to the Roman Empire but which ignored the violence with which that “peace” had been achieved and was maintained.
Shepherds and angels — can you think of two more disparate groups? But the shepherds alert us to the truth that God is not about announcing his arrival to the prominent and the powerful. The angelic announcement alerts us to the truth that because a Saviour has been born who is Christ, the Lord (2:11) status and values must be re-examined. The way that the arrival of Jesus is announced to the world makes a powerful point about status. It confronts our constant seeking for position and prominence at both the personal and the corporate level. It is a sobering word to Christians, churches, and institutions.
So, while this account of shepherds and angels may take us back to sentimental Christmas specials of our childhood, a sober reading shakes us of our stupor. Linus was right; the shepherds and the angels really are what Christmas is all about.