Remember the momentous day of January 20, 2009? All the eyes of the world were set on Washington D.C. for the inauguration of the first African American U.S. President Barrack Obama. Throngs of people flocked to the Capitol to witness this history-making event. Every news camera, every political leader, every person of prominence set out to witness history. Washington was the place to be where all the action was.
Now, amidst all the media fanfare and ongoing news coverage in Washington, imagine for a moment NBC’s Brian Williams interrupting an exclusive interview with the new President saying, “Excuse me Mr. President, we have some breaking news just in. We have reports that there are janitors in a warehouse nearby sweeping their floors by night.” Or, “There are shoe polishers at the airport nearby polishing the shoes of business men by night”, or “There are inner city teenagers working at a McDonald’s nearby flipping burgers by night.”
This is how shocking the familiar words of Luke’s Christmas story should sound if we really grasp what’s going on. Here’s a reminder of how Luke’s story goes:
2:1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world….8And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ[a] the Lord. 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14″Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” 15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” 16So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.
17When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (Luke 2:8-20)
Luke begins his Gospel at the world capital of Rome by mentioning the most powerful political leader of the day, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree…” (Luke 1:1) Rome is where the action is at, where the people of influence are, where world-rocking decisions are made. Yet, just a few verses later the focus of Luke’s story suddenly shifts away from the world of Caesar to a much different world: “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night” (Luke 2:8).
The Christmas story is radical and shocking at every turn. One such puzzle is why the angels of God would be sent to announce the birth of the savior to some poor, smelly, no-named, outcast shepherds out in an obscure field near Bethlehem. Why does God choose to announce his revolution with the shoe-shiners, warehouse janitors, and burger flippers of the world? Why didn’t he send the angels directly to Caesar’s court to announce the one true Lord is coming into the world? Why not begin his messianic movement in Rome or the metropolis of Jerusalem? Apparently, it’s just not God’s style.
Why did God choose an unmarried 15-year old girl to carry and give birth to the Son of God? Why did God choose uneducated fishermen to spearhead his movement? Why did God choose Paul of Tarsus, a religious terrorist and persecutor of the church, to become his greatest preacher and spokesperson for the faith? Why did God choose disreputable women to be the key eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ? This seems to be the pattern our God is quite fond of. God chooses “the nobodies” to bring good news of his radically subversive Kingdom to “the somebodies” who usually reject the news because it comes from the bottom-up rather than the top-down, and threatens their own power and privilege. I mean, how many congressman or senators would take the words of an uneducated burger flipper from the projects seriously anyway?
Long before he visited those shepherds on Christmas day, God shocked another young shepherd boy from Bethlehem by anointing him king of Israel — David son of Jesse. Remember that God passed over many fine kingly candidates that day who had the worldly appearance of royalty and strength saying, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
Perhaps this is part of the answer to the riddle of why God sent his angels to these shepherds rather than the power brokers in Jerusalem or Rome. Perhaps there is some advantage in being a simple shepherd out in an open field when it comes to hearing and recognizing the activity of God in the world. What lessons can we learn from these shepherds in this story as we think about our own receptivity to the good news this Christmas? Here are a few observations to ponder:
- The message should be loud and clear by now: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” What does “All” mean? That’s right: All! Christmas is the most inclusive event in history. The God of the heavens is coming for the rescue of all people by sending Jesus — CEOs and beggars, senators and garbage collectors, lawyers and taxi drivers, doctors and shepherds.
- Perhaps shepherds are less busy and wrapped up in their daily tasks so that they are able to notice the activity of God, recognize angels in their midst, hear the message of God and more willing to drop their responsibilities to go “see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where God might have sent angels to a busy business executive only to be ignored and pushed down to the end of his busy list of appointments. Let us all set time apart in our daily routine to listen for the voice of God, look for signs of his activity in our midst and always remain available to be used for his purposes.
- The shepherds responded immediately: “‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.” They hurried off. No hesitation. They didn’t finish their shift, go home to pack, jot it down on their day planner or make an excuse. They went immediately and thus witnessed the most magnificent birthday party in history. The shepherds perfectly model the single-minded commitment Jesus will expect from his disciples when he says, “Follow me.” Remember Jesus later words in Luke 9:57-62: “He said to another man, “Follow me.” But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” Let us also be bold enough drop our nets and leave our flocks immediately when God beckons us.
- The shepherds shared what they saw and experienced with others. “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child.” These are the first evangelists in Luke’s gospel. Notice that the pattern is simple: They merely shared what they saw. They didn’t hand out gospel tracts, conduct a course on apologetics, craft a persuasive evangelistic sermon and get on a soap box. They shared what they saw. We too should keep it this simple. Let us be more intentional about simply sharing how we’ve seen God at work in our lives and the lives of others we know.
We can learn quite a bit from these smelly, no-named, outcast shepherds after all. I think God knew exactly what he was doing when he sent those angels to them with that birthday party invitation. May we all be on the look out this Christmas for the ongoing saving activity of God in our midst.