By Mark Scott
“The Savior has arrived.” That is quite a headline. Big news. Make no mistake—this is a big day for the church. Joni Eareckson Tada said, “If God can become man, then everything else is easy.” Paul Scherer, who taught homiletics at Princeton Theological Seminary, said, “God came walking down the stairs of heaven with a baby in his arms.” The story of the incarnation of the Son of God is something to sing about and something to talk about. Luke’s account of the story never gets old.
The world was watching Rome because that was the significant place (Luke 2:1). But our story takes place in Bethlehem (v. 4). The world was looking to world-class people (vv. 1, 2). But our story focuses on a young couple from Galilee and some ragamuffin shepherds (vv. 4, 5, 8). The world was expecting a big event (a census and taxation—v. 1). But our story concerns the birth of a baby (v. 7). God had his own way to fill ordinary places, people, and events so that they became extraordinary.
Angels from on High
Angels are ministering spirits (Hebrews 1:14). They do God’s bidding in the highest heaven. But at Christmas they stooped low and gave the Christmas message to lowly shepherds. The Bible has a love/hate relationship with shepherds. On the one hand, they were despised—at least by the Egyptians (Genesis 46:34). On the other hand God is likened to a shepherd (Genesis 48:15:15; Psalm 23:1). A mark of God’s grace is that he gave lowly shepherds the first glimpse into Christmas.
A visit to Bethlehem today will involve a trip to the Shepherd’s Field. Our Catholic friends have beautified the area with an attractive church building and gorgeous gardens. But originally the Shepherd’s Field was a series of caves where the shepherds stayed. They weren’t allowed in the temple area because they always smelled like sheep. Yet the shepherds were necessary because they cared for the flocks—some of which were used for temple sacrifice.
All of a sudden their peaceful evening was broken by the appearance of an angel of the Lord. Because the angel had come from the presence of the Lord, he shone with the glory (shining brilliance) of God. Obviously the appearance of this divine visitor terrified the shepherds (literally made them “fear a great fear”). This special heavenly messenger calmed their fears and proceeded to announce good news. The news would bring joy and would be for all the people. The time was announced: today. The place was announced: the town of David. The person was announced: a Savior . . . Messiah . . . Lord.
So that there would be no mistakes in finding this newborn Savior, the angel gave the shepherds a sign (a miracle that points to a greater spiritual reality beyond itself). Most babies in those days were wrapped in strips of cloths. But this baby would be lying in a manger. Now that is odd. His earthly bed/home says something about his humility. The angel was then joined with an angelic army which proceeded to sing (technically “say”) Heaven’s music. Glory in heaven is the first verse, and peace on earth is the second verse.
Shepherds Working Here Below
The shepherds were not naïve, but they were curious. They debriefed the angelic visit and set off for Bethlehem. They wanted to see this thing (literally, this “word”) which the Lord had told them about. Upon arriving at Bethlehem (house of bread) they found the holy family—probably by asking around if there had been any children born within the last few hours.
They saw Jesus and spread the word (made known the word that had been spoken to them) about what they had learned—from the angels but maybe also from Mary and Joseph. Three responses end this beautiful part of the Christmas story. Everyone who heard was amazed (marveled). Christmas is actually quite shocking. In contrast to the crowd we read about Mary, who quietly treasured (kept all things with respect to herself) and pondered (threw the word around in her heart). The melody that the angels sang hung on in the heads of the shepherds. They glorified and praised God. Shepherds were typically excluded from big events. They usually just watched sheep. But on this special night they were included in the wide embrace of God. If Christmas says anything, it says that the Savior has arrived for everyone.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.