Luke 2: Shepherds and Angels
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast January 4, 2008.
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this first Sunday of the new year. I hope that you had a blessed Christmas and New Year’s celebration. It is traditional for Moravians to gather on December 31 to welcome the New Year with prayer and song. 2008 was a very difficult year for many people in America and around the world. I think we are all praying that our hopes for 2009 will be realized. Normally we have a live broadcast from the chapel of Home Church, but the lesson this week was pre-recorded. I am at the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History in New York City. I was a little tempted to arrive a couple of days early and join the throngs in Times Square, but I decided that our small family gathering in front of the TV would be more enjoyable.
I had hoped to finish Luke’s narrative of the birth of Jesus on the fourth Sunday of Advent, but I rambled a bit too long, and we did not get to the shepherds. I know many of you have already put away your Christmas decorations and have nativity fatigue, but Christmas began on Dec. 25; it didn’t end then. We have twelve days for the season of Christmas, and so we will explore the remainder of Luke chapter 2 today.
Resolutions But first, it has become a tradition to greet the New Year with resolutions for the people we have been reading about in the past year. Years ago I decided that it is much more fun to write resolutions for other people rather than for myself. If you have been following these broadcasts, you know that we spent several months discussing the book of I Samuel, so most of the resolutions come from there.
Hannah: Don’t pray so loud that people think you are drunk.
Eli: Spend more time with your children.
Eli’s sons: Worship is not the place to meet women.
Israelites: Don’t think a king will solve all your problems.
Samuel: Show up on time for sacrifices.
Samuel: Be more careful when pouring oil on people.
Nahash: Don’t be so literal. Just have people should “aye” not give you an eye.
Saul: Try Prosac.
Saul: When angry, count to ten before hurling your spear.
Saul: Get a book with suggestions for wedding presents.
Jonathan: Honey is nice, but too many sweets can get you in trouble with Dad.
Goliath: Don’t get stoned.
Goliath: Don’t get so angry that you lose your head.
David: Rock on!
David: Don’t play the liar to your boss.
David: Remember you are not a tailor.
Nabal: Don’t be a fool.
Abigail: Be more gentle in breaking bad news.
Achish: Do a background check before making someone your bodyguard.
Saul: Don’t hang out with witches.
Saul: Stop with the necromancy.
David: Be a better king than Saul.
Luke’s Shepherds We left the Gospel of Luke with the birth of Jesus in the town of Bethlehem. It is likely that when writing this chapter Luke had in mind the words of the prophet Micah that refer to a leader coming from Bethlehem. Micah speaks of the daughter of Jerusalem being in travail, like a woman giving birth. Luke does not need to describe the birth pangs of Mary for us to recognize that God’s redemption often comes through pain and labor. Micah spoke of great things happening in Jerusalem, which is also called Zion, but Luke says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a few miles from Jerusalem. Luke that Bethlehem was the city of David, but everywhere else in the Bible Jerusalem is called the city of David. Bethlehem was no more than a village. It might have been tempting for Luke to say that Jesus was born in Jerusalem, the city of David, but he kept to the tradition that he inherited that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem.
It is only in Luke’s Gospel that we have an account of shepherds being involved in the birth of Jesus. Incidentally, Luke’s statement that the shepherds were in the fields keeping watch has led scholars since the 3rd century to propose that Jesus was born in the summer rather than the winter. We celebrate his birth in the winter primarily for theological and liturgical reasons, not because there is any evidence to support a December birthday. Scholars have puzzled over these shepherds for centuries. Many have speculated that this is evidence that Luke was well read in the Greek classics where shepherds often figure in the old myths. Others have seen a reference to King David here since David had been a shepherd as a boy. Raymond Brown points out that the Micah prophecy mentions “a Tower of the Flock”, which is Migdal Eder in Hebrew (Brown, 421). This was a mountain near Jerusalem where the flocks were kept for the Temple sacrifices.
So, Luke’s shepherd may have been a reference to biblical prophecy or Greek mythology, but we should remember that shepherds in the time of Jesus were lower class people and virtually outcasts. They were one step away from being outlaws, and some probably thieves in the off-season. Real shepherds in the time of Luke were viewed kind of the way modern Americans view carnival workers or seasonal laborers. In other words, these were not A-list people to invite to a major celebration. We romanticize the shepherds in our Christmas carols and pageants, but Luke’s original readers were probably scandalized at the thought that shepherds came to welcome the Christ child. This is far different than Matthew’s wise men coming from distant empires. The fragrance these laborers brought to the manger was not myrrh, that’s for sure.
Angels After introducing the shepherds, Luke provides us with one of the most beloved and beautiful scenes in Scripture. An angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds watching their flocks by night. If you grew up on the King James version of this story, you may have mistakenly thought that the angel’s name was “Lo,” but Lo is the translation of one of Luke’s favorite words: Behold or See. We aren’t told anything about the physical appearance of the angel, only that the glory of God was unveiled. This is a common motif in biblical theophanies. People who have visions of God are nearly blinded by the light surrounding God. We have already discussed the fact that the normal response to such a revelation of God is fear. For the third time in Luke’s Gospel, we hear the words “Fear not.” The Gospel is glad tidings. I do not know why so many preachers want to turn this into bad news.
The angel tells the shepherds that a Savior has been born, and then he goes on to name the Savior as both Lord and Messiah. These are three exalted titles for Jesus. During his lifetime, some of Jesus’ followers thought he might be the Messiah, which is Christ in Greek. A question that runs throughout all of the gospels is whether Jesus really was the expected Messiah. Luke says that an angel declared that Jesus was the Messiah on the day of his birth, but the word was only given to shepherds. It was proclaimed in glory, and yet it remained hidden, just like the resurrection.
Messiah and Savior: Though the word “Christ” is Greek, the idea of a Messiah is thoroughly Jewish. The kings of Israel were anointed by a priest or prophet, symbolizing their adoption as the sons of God. After the Davidic monarchy was destroyed by the Babylonians in the 6th century BC, people began to hope for a new king who would be anointed by God. The Lord’s Anointed, or Messiah, would save the Jews from their enemies and restore the kingdom of Zion. History records many men who claimed to be the expected Messiah, but none of them were able to establish a new monarchy. Jesus was the only one who did not try to be king, and he was the only one raised from the dead. Luke was writing his Gospel after the resurrection and he has no doubt who the true Messiah was, and so he begins the story with this proclamation.
The angel tells the shepherds that a Savior has been born. In the context of the story so far, we would expect a Savior to be someone who would throw off the yoke of Rome, but Luke knows that is not what is going to happen. Still, Luke puts the angel’s message in the context of the Roman Empire, as we saw earlier. In his imperial propaganda, Augustus often described himself as a Savior of the people rather than their conqueror. In his birth narrative, Luke contrasts Augustus and Jesus. The true Savior does not need legions of soldiers and an enrollment of the people to prove his power. The shepherds will not find the Savior resting in a cradle in Jerusalem; they will find him wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger. The paradox of salvation has never been so vividly portrayed.
Heaven on Earth: One of Luke’s favorite phrases is “this day,” which may be a literary quirk. I’ve known preachers who use a catch phrase like this so often that members of the congregation start counting how many times they say. However, it is more likely that this was Luke’s way of saying that the kingdom of God has come. Salvation is not just for a distant future or for the realm after death; salvation is here and now. At this point, Luke says that suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel. Luke paints a scene similar to the vision of Isaiah when he saw the heavenly host singing “holy, holy, holy,” but this vision was not given to a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem. It was common shepherds who caught a glimpse of the heavenly host. Heavenly glory has burst into mundane existence. The shepherds may not have known fully what the glad tidings of the angel meant, but they felt the joy of heaven. Luke implies that we can experience the joy of salvation today.
According to Jewish writings available in the time of Luke, the angels had sung for each act of creation. Here they are singing because God has begun the work of re-creation or redemption of the world. This vision of the armies of heaven singing the praises of the creator is Luke’s version of the prologue to John’s gospel. The child in Bethlehem will be more than just a Jewish Messiah; his birth has cosmic significance. He will shake the thrones of the powerful precisely because it will be shepherds and slaves, prostitutes and sinners who glimpse his glory and experience his salvation. The angels praise God in the highest heaven because his redemption will reach to all people.
The song the angels sing has vexed translators for centuries, in part because there are several variations in the ancient Greek manuscripts. There are basically two ways of rendering the angel’s song: either “on earth peace and among men divine favor” or “on earth peace among men favored” (Brown, 404-405). A slight difference in grammar makes for a big difference in meaning. Are the angels proclaiming that there will be peace on earth because of the birth of the Messiah or is this a prayer that there be peace among those chosen by God? We have here the difference between a doctrine of divine election for some and the expectation that the kingdom of God is for all. In the context of Luke’s Gospel, I think the older King James version of “peace on earth, goodwill to men” is the preferable reading. The whole tenor of Luke’s gospel is that Jesus is the prince of peace who is the Savior of the whole world.
Finding the Child: After this glorious song, the angels departed as suddenly as they appeared. That is the nature of religious experience or mystical rapture. It rarely lasts for more than a few moments according to the clock, but it can change the rest of your life. Who knows what those poor, uneducated, unsophisticated shepherds thought of this blinding vision of beauty? Did they ponder this momentary glimpse of divinity years later during the dull routine of daily living? Were their lives different? What is important for the story, and for our lives as Christians, is that angelic visitors may proclaim good news but shepherds still have to take action in the real world. They could have ignored this five-minute interruption of their normal lives, but they chose to seek out the Savior. It was only after the angels left that the shepherds could go to Bethlehem.
There they found Mary and Joseph, and they saw the baby lying in a feeding trough. Historians raise many questions about this story, but let’s leave aside our modern skepticism for a moment and ponder the sublime beauty of the tableaux. Rather than removing the shepherds as a literary invention of the evangelist, let us paint ourselves into the scene. Luke is not writing about an event in the past, he is inviting us to adore our Savior. Imagine the story of the Messiah as Luke imagined it. It is not just shepherds who crowd around the prince of peace, but poor people of every kind. Picture yourself elbow to elbow with all of the outcasts, sinners, and lepers to whom angels sing words of hope and love today. Let the song of peace flood your heart and soul. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.”
Pondering: Luke does not end the story with the shepherds coming to see the promised child. He tells us that the family of Jesus was amazed by the shepherds’ story of angelic messengers. The shepherds the leave, and we never hear from them again. Many people are skeptical of this tale because when Jesus begins his ministry, no one knows who he is. Even his family seems surprised when he starts preaching and doing miracles. You would think that if Jesus’ birth had been heralded by angels, he would grow up with great expectations, but Luke removes the shepherds and angels quickly. The visitation is almost like a dream, and it will be many years before hopes are fulfilled. He tells us, though, that Mary kept all these things in her heart.
This is a very interesting phrase, which seems to be related to the wisdom literature of ancient Israel. We all know things in our heads, such as what our mortgage rate is or what is on our to-do list for tomorrow, but that is mere knowledge. Israelite sages spoke of the need to learn things in the heart, not just the head. There are important truths that we can only understand when we have pondered them for years in the depths of our being. These are the truths that change the way we live. I know people who are still pondering the truth that God is not racist and that being patriotic is not the same as being faithful to God. Some of us have only begun to learn the truth that the love of money is the root of evil or that the tongue can be more deadly than spears. Many of us continue to ponder who we are and what our lives should be.
Mary had a lot to ponder as she nursed her son. She pondered Gabriel’s words to her and the mystery of her own pregnancy. No doubt she pondered the depths of Joseph’s love and faithfulness to her. And then there was the shepherd’s story of heavenly music about her child. If she knew her Bible, she may have pondered Hannah’s story and wondered if she would have to give up her first born the way Hannah did. Luke tells us that Mary kept these things in her heart, perhaps not understanding them until thirty years later when a sword pierced her heart.
Circumcision: This is where we usually end the story of Jesus’ birth, but there is more. Luke tells us that Jesus was circumcised when he was eight days old, according to the law of the covenant. This is a feast day in the Christian calendar, but few churches observe it any longer. We’re become too refined and dignified to talk about such things in church. We save such subjects for television and magazines. There are three things to note about the circumcision of Jesus that are important for the life of faith. One of them is that Luke removes any doubt that Jesus was a man like any man. This may sound obvious to you, but you would be surprised at how difficult it has been for Christians to accept that the Son of God was completely human. For too many centuries, Christians have been ashamed of their own bodies instead of celebrating the fact that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine. For most of his life, he bore the scar of his circumcision, just like all Jewish men.
That leads us to the second point, there is no doubt that Jesus was Jewish. With all of the culture wars about Christmas and religious inclusiveness, we should keep in mind that Jesus was Jewish. Luke emphasizes the fact that Jesus and his family were observant Jews. He was circumcised, which marked him as a foreigner in the Roman Empire. His parents took him to the Temple when he was a child, and he will begin his ministry in a synagogue reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. The final point to note is that Jesus was circumcised as an infant. Too many parents think that they do not have to be concerned about the spiritual life of their children, but Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple when he was an infant. People sometimes ask me why Moravians and other Christians baptize people as infants instead of letting them choose to be baptized. I think Luke 2:21 gives us an excellent example of our Lord entering the covenant before he could speak.
Conclusion: I had every intention of completing chapter 2 this morning, but I see that clock remains a cruel master. Next week we’ll look at the story of Jesus’ circumcision and why that was a feast day in the church for many centuries. And we’ll talk about two elderly people, Simeon and Anna, who greet the baby with songs and prophecies, some of which were painful.