Ok, a few more thoughts upon the question, “Why Shepherds?” which I’ve taken as the title for my Christmas Eve sermon. Not yet a sermon in finished form, but some biblical study and theological reflection on the way to the sermon…
First, two questions that arise in reading the passage closely, in route to an answer to my title question.
1. Where does the “glory of the Lord” typically do its shining? — “And the glory of the Lord shone around them” (v9). Divine glory is more properly located in the temple in Jerusalem, is it not? That’s why the temple is there. The center of religious life was the temple, a place to revere and worship God. That is where sacrifices were offered, where the priests resided, and where festivals were celebrated–all with an understanding that the Lord’s glory shone there. The temple had been a gift, after all. It was an orientation point for prayer and worship and service and community and faith. In the words of King Solomon upon the dedication of the first temple (The time of Jesus is known as the “Second Temple Period” in Jewish history because the first was destroyed in 586/7 B.C. The second temple was destroyed only a few decades after Jesus in A.D. 70.), “Now, my God, may your eyes be open and your ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. Now arise, Lord God, and come to your resting place, you and the ark of your might” (2 Chr 6:40-41).
2. Why the countryside for an angelic visitation and a divine revelation? — Again, why not the temple in Jerusalem for the reasons mentioned above? One thing I find interesting is that the person with the greatest social standing in the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel, Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth and father of John the Baptist is encountered by the angel in the most likely place to receive such visions. He is a priest serving in the temple, and in this instance, has been chosen to “go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. Even so, he is the one most doubtful of the angel’s message! The other three parties–Elizabeth, Mary, and the shepherds–had lower status in that culture, were engaged by God outside of the expected setting, and displayed faith, trust, and hope in God. As Joel Green points out in his NICNT commentary on Luke, the words of Mary’s Song, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble” (1:52), have already begun to come true: “Good news comes to peasants, not rulers; the lowly are lifted up” (p. 131).
Second, some observations on things that stand out in reading this passage of Scripture.
1. Response to the Angel – First, terror and fright at the appearance of the angel himself. He has to lead with “Do not be afraid,” as usual. Apparently angels (or at least this one) have a terrible time with their entrances because everyone has to be comforted before they are able to hear a word he has to say! (Wonder if they give Gabriel a hard time about this back in heaven? “Got to sneak up on everyone and scare the bejeebers out of ’em, huh Gabe? Can’t just make a normal entrance, huh Gabe?”) After the initial shock, the response of the shepherds to the message is inspiration to action: Let’s go and see! (v15) Upon seeing, the response is first to share with those present (v17), and second to praise God for what had been shared with them in word and in the flesh (v20).
2. Emphasis on the Gift of Revelation – Verses 8-14 narrate the gift of God’s revelation to the shepherds; verses 15-20 continue to reference it: “which the Lord has made known to us” (v15), “they made known what had been told them about this child” (v17), “as it had been told them” (v20). The fact that this news has been announced to them out in the fields rather than to the religious or political elite in the seems not to have been lost on them given the attention Luke gives to their repeated reference to it in these verses.
3. Universalizing of the Gift of God’s Rule – “The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord'” (vv10-11, italics mine). “For all the people” signals the inclusive reach of this news about the birth of a Savior, the Messiah of God, to be Lord over all. Luke narrates the fulfillment of this announcement both in the inclusive nature of Jesus’ ministry to those on the margins of society in the Gospel and in the mission to the Gentiles in the ministry of Paul in the book of Acts.
So, with this in mind, the answer to the question, “Why Shepherds?” seems to take shape like this:
Show and tell is a popular activity in Elementary school. One reason for this is that it engages the students’ capacities to learn on a couple of fronts, thus more meaningfully connecting them with the subject matter being taught.
In this passage relating to us the angel’s announcement to the shepherds and their response in word and deed, the gospel is put forward in a “show and tell” kind of fashion. God doesn’t just “talk the talk,” he “walks the walk” as well. God’s good news is for “all the people” in the words of the angel. As Mary has said earlier in Luke’s Gospel, “the lowly are lifted up.”
So, why shepherds?
Because in bringing the message of God’s salvation, promise, and expansive kingdom-rule of peace through the Lord who is also Savior and Messiah, God shows what he is telling. Those who receive the message are the lowly, the outsiders, those at the bottom of the social ladder, not the political leaders–Caesar Augustus and Quirinius the governor of Syria, far from being occupying a privileged place in the narrative, are merely a part of the background information! The gracious saving action of God is not confined to the usual suspects and the expected venues. The message even extends to poor rural shepherds whose disposition happens to be perfect for receiving the news–Let’s go and see is their gut response.
For us, this story reminds us that God’s gracious salvation, that is, his inclusion of us into his kingdom of peace and grace, extends even to us. More than that, it extends well beyond us because so many of us occupy a comfortable place in society. We have our troubles–real and serious, though few of us are among the “downtrodden.” But if, as the announcement to the shepherds shows, God’s grace extends that far, surely it extends to us as well. What God’s gracious announcement requires is our response of trust in what we have heard, faith in what we have yet to see, and joy in being encountered by the living God.