Wonder to Ponder - Luke 2:1-18

Good news can come in unexpected ways. Sometimes it is shocking and requires us to pause and take stock of the message we have received. Good news can force us to re-evaluate our prejudices and expectations, forcing us to reconsider our priorities and plans. It may even change our perspective on reality. We don't normally pause long enough for all that to happen, but good news can be a major interruption in our patterns of living. What is unexpected can cause discomfort even while it is to our benefit.
The unexpected happens in the birth story Luke paints for us. In the midst of a mundane tale of traveling to pay taxes to the Roman Empire, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. God sent an angel to announce this birth to a band of shepherds keeping watch over sheep in the hills outside of town. This should have been a run of the mill birth, yet God sent angels to announce it. The angels heralded Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, but this announcement was to shepherds on the hillsides beyond the town. By all accounts, that would have been the wrong place and audience to hear these good tidings of joy.
This is simply not the way these things were supposed to happen in the eyes of society. Messiah's birth should have been in the society section of the newspaper, splattered on the cover of People, and taken place in comfort, luxury, and pomp. Then again, this was a singular event and there was no established pattern appropriate to the importance of this birth. Even so, this is the last format we would expect for the birth of God's son.
Then again, Luke does not tell us directly that Jesus is God. That was John's starting point in his gospel, but Luke introduces Jesus here as the son of David, the Messiah, and Lord. It will only be in hindsight that we will be able to read back into this text our understanding that this is God born to this young couple and laid to rest in a feeding trough. Even the angel announcement and the heavenly chorus do not go so far as to declare this the birth of God. It is enough for them to announce that this birth is of great importance, as Messiah has finally come.
Much has been made over the fact that Luke tells us there was no place for Mary and Jesus in the inn. What we miss is that the term in Greek simply means there was no “fitting” or “appropriate” place for Mary to birth Jesus without making all in the inn unclean by standards of ritual purity. Luke's point is that Jesus was relegated to the meanest, most humble of settings for his birth, just as his life would also reflect God entering the life of the lowly.
The birth announcement to these shepherds was likewise one more aspect of the lowliness of Jesus' birth. Shepherds were necessary to the economy of Israel, but they had little standing in society. The image of the shepherd was often used to describe the attributes expected of a good king. Even so, the position of a shepherd was nothing special. Most of the time, they were merely forgotten participants in the local economy and society. That the angelic message was presented to them went beyond the realm of anyone's expectations.
We would more likely have expected these messengers to have proclaimed the news in Bethlehem itself, if not in Jerusalem. One would think they should have made the happening public among the larger population and the well-connected. God's purposes, however, were not served by making the announcement of Jesus' birth according to our standard expectations of what is appropriate and proper. Instead, Jesus' birth and its announcement joined to portray God's priorities in proclaiming good news to the poor and forgotten, entrusting them with the message of God's redemption for the benefit of all.
The halls of political and economic power might claim our attention. God, however, is not so impressed by them. More than that, however, God's purposes are not served by pandering to the wealthy and positioned. In point of fact, the prophets throughout Israel's history had the essential role to be the critics of the wealthy and politically powerful. Their actions had never been presented as following the demands and purposes of God. On the contrary, they had consistently opposed God's will with very few exceptions.
The good news of God's visitation would not be good news for those wielding power. God's news was to the benefit of those forgotten by the powerful and connected. If anything, the coming of Messiah would be a threat to human power structures. It was these very power structures which forced Joseph to take Mary on a trip to Bethlehem for a census enrollment. It was political power which forced them into an uncomfortable birthing arrangement divorced from their established support network.
The circumstances of Jesus' birth were a message of the identity and character of God's purpose for Jesus' life and ministry. The announcement to the shepherds extended the same message of good news of God's care for those shoved aside as irrelevant to the political and social elite. The specific words of the angelic announcement, however, hit on the same message from a different perspective. “Be not afraid. This is good news which will be a reason for all to rejoice.”
While Caesar's degree was not good news for the poor, God's announcement was. Caesar was not concerned with the good of the population under his control. He was concerned only with extending and concentrating his power over them. If their lives were disrupted, so be it. If the consequences of a decree were the disruption of life for many, Caesar did not care. Had God's announcement come to Caesar's ears, the message would not have been spread on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised. For the powerful and connected, good news and blessing were for those of their own class and privilege.
God did not bother announcing Messiah's birth in the halls of power. God sent heralds to proclaim the news among those to whom it would be the most meaningful. In so doing, they were left with much to ponder. In contrast with the message continually passed on by society, God cared for those left on the margins of society, relegated to the hillsides beyond the comfort of palaces. A baby lying in a food trough could only be Messiah according to some revolutionary notion of Messiah's importance and identity. That God would deem these shepherds as worthy to be let in on this great good news while the important and powerful were left out called for a lot of reflection and wonder.
This was not an easy message to swallow, because it interfered with the established understanding of how God worked and what God valued. It called into question the messages of God's blessing on those who enjoyed the finer comforts of life. It called into question the understanding that the religious elite stood in closer relation to God's desire to bless than those struggling for subsistence on the outskirts of civilization. When all of Israel was focused on the coming of Messiah, why would a lowly group of shepherds relegated to the night watch be those God chose to let in on the secret?

This was good news in so many ways. Messiah had come. God cared enough to let them know. Messiah had come among the poor. Messiah's birth was announced to simple shepherds as though they really mattered to God. Messiah would grow up in a home considered insignificant by society, but deemed of import to God. How would they make sense of this? Are we too enamored of social status to see people according to God's priorities? After all, if Jesus' birth is only good news if it is for everyone.

©Copyright 2017, Christopher B. Harbin  http://www.sermonsearch.com/contributors/104427/ 


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