Advent Week 4 – Luke 2:8-19
Our final “Do not fear” passage for Advent this year is the visitation of the shepherds in Luke 2. One last time, don’t let the familiarity of this passage obscure its profound message. Glorious light pierces the darkness, people are startled out of their sleep, and the most exalted beings in all of creation proclaim the best message that has ever been uttered to the lowliest members of society. What else captures the upside-down message of Christmas so clearly?
Read Luke 2:1-7 and you’ll have the classic story of Jesus being born in Bethlehem, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laying in a manger. Let us all keep striving to evict the quant Christmas images we’ve picked up from greeting cards and cheesy movies—imagine if you will what it would be like to give birth in a barn. Andrew Peterson’s song, “Labor of Love,” captures this well. There’s no midwife around, Joseph was likely incompetent like men are when a baby is being born, and this was Mary’s first child. Surely the Lord’s grace bore them through it, but nevertheless, this was no picture perfect moment.
This same thing was true for the shepherds. Shepherds occupied an incredibly low position in society; as much as their profession took skill and expertise, they were looked down upon. A good modern corollary for us might be construction workers, fast food cooks, or the folks who work at the landfill. These people occupy crucial roles in our society but are largely ignored, or, at the very least viewed as interchangeable commodities. But the Lord has a point to make in this passage: these kinds of people who are rejected or ignored by society receive God’s special attention. News that is fit for the highest earthly ruler is instead given to these nameless men. The angels didn’t show up in Caesar’s grand palace; instead they show up in a field to poor shepherds.
And, as we’ve seen in past weeks, the shepherds are initially terrified. The passage indicates two sources of fear: the angel of the Lord and the glory of the Lord. We’ve already covered why angels are so scary. But in this case the glory of the Lord is added in here, and this isn’t just dramatic lighting for the angel. “Glory” here is the same thing that happened when Israel was in the wilderness and God’s presence would descend onto the Tabernacle like a cloud, the same immanence that led Israel as a cloud in the day and a pillar of fire at night (Exo. 40:34-38). This is the light, cloud, or fire that denotes the presence of God, reminiscent of heaven which, unlike the earth, is fully inhabited by God’s presence and glory (on earth we have his uninhibited presence, but not his uninhibited glory). This is like a door in the air suddenly opening up into God’s heavenly throne room. All of us would be just as startled to encounter God’s presence like this in the middle of our work shift.
And to these lowliest members of society the best news ever is announced. Think of all the implications of the angel’s message: this news is for “all the people,” reminding us the Messiah came for more than just Israel; a child is “born this day in [Bethlehem],” the city in which the Messiah was predicted to be born (Matt. 2:5); this child is a “savior,” meaning a way of salvation has been opened for mankind; this child is called “Christ the Lord,” hinting at the miracle of the incarnation; and “peace on earth” can finally be had because of this child. And all the angels do is give these shepherds the details, sing a chorus, and then leave. The shepherds don’t have to do anything, nothing is asked of them, they’re just told the good news. But they immediately set out to go find this child, to wonder with his parents at the signs of his birth, and tell everyone there about the news of heaven given among men.
This is how we receive Christmas. We are the shepherds, undeserving of a divine proclamation and unwelcome in the sight of God’s heavenly courts. And yet God welcomes us. We are the lost and lowly, never deserving God’s grace or presence, deserving instead to be banished from his presence forever. And yet he came to dwell with us. This is our story, the one we receive and repeat in the gospel, not some pretty Hallmark movie, but the stark reality of God coming to save the ungodly and bringing good news to sinners. This is Christmas.
Questions for Discussion
• Would someone read Luke 2:8–19 for us?
• What stands out to you from this passage?
• Why do you think the shepherds were initially afraid of the angel and the “glory of the Lord”?
• What was so important about this angel’s message?
• What do you think it was like for the shepherds to receive this news?
• How does this passage help us understand the significance of Jesus’ birth?
• How can this passage help us celebrate Christmas this year?