The religious leaders of the day were on the lookout. They knew from the Scriptures that God would send His Messiah to rescue them from oppression “to show his justice to the nations of the world” as “the time of the Lord’s favour has come.” (Is.61:2,11). In their eyes they anticipated a military leader, a conquering king. When he was born, to a rich and powerful family no less, his arrival would be proclaimed, trumpeted throughout Israel with great praise and celebration. He would send the Romans home and re-establish Jerusalem as the capital, ruling over the people with justice and honesty, turning their hearts back to God.
But as the picture of salvation’s story is painted on the canvas we see something quite different. God has always been present. He is always there. He is self-revealing: His general revelation in nature; His special revelation in the Bible. Affirmation was given to the patriarchs of old, covenants made with Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. Assurance was given to David that his kingdom will never end. Assertion was given to the prophets that the salvation of the world would be centered round a new head of humanity, a second Adam, anointed with God’s Spirit, who would bring good news to the poor and comfort the broken hearted.
We’re so familiar with the Christmas story and yet it should shock us to the core. Consider the characters for a start. God chose an ancestor of David, not a king, but a modest carpenter from a small, unimportant town, to be the adopted father of His Son who will fulfil the hopes and fears of the people. “He will be called ‘Immanuel’, God with us.” (Is.7:14). How’s this for a Christmas tree! Jesus’ genealogy is traced in the Gospels right back to Abraham and Adam. And when Jesus was born the Lord chose to share the good news first, not with the priests, or the rich or powerful, but announcing it with an army of angels to lowly group of shepherds. Men considered ritually unclean because of their occupation. Considered by many to be thieves. And God chose them: “The Saviour has been born today in Bethlehem…And you will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” (Lk.2:12).
I think it’s really significant that shepherds were chosen to visit the infant first. Throughout the OT the Lord is regarded as a shepherd. Jacob, Moses and David were experienced shepherds. Here the shepherds were out in the fields near Bethlehem where King David once tended the flock and the child descended from David, who would inherit the throne one day, will later describe Himself as the “Good Shepherd who lays his life down for the sheep” (Jn.10:11). It’s very powerful symbolism. They were shepherds who raised the sheep offered as sacrifices at Passover. So even at Jesus’ birth, we are reminded of His sacrificial death. The crib and the cross belong together. The shepherds leave their sheep behind to visit the Lamb of God – the perfect sacrifice. The Messiah has been born, not as a conquering warrior king, but as a baby, needing protection. That helplessness of the God of Christmas past remains the same today. He is present in the normal and ordinary struggles of human life. By being born in a borrowed stable He declares union with today’s outcasts; the neglected, marginalized, powerless and helpless: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (Mt.9:12-13).
The unwanted, despised, forgotten shepherds emphasize this. They get the angelic choir’s message that God is now residing with them. They are privileged and “all who heard their story were astonished” (Lk.2:18) as now things would be different. That’s good news. It’s the greatest story ever told. Jesus Christ entered into His creation. He was the true image of God. No man ever spoke or acted as He did. He told life-changing stories about shepherds looking for their lost sheep as an example of how God looks for us. He longs to have each one of us in His presence. He offers us His care. He will never fail or forsake us. The challenge this Christmas is to recognise the proclamation made to the nativity shepherds – for it is a story about God’s grace and Jesus’ love for you and me today.
You don’t have to have a degree in theology, or be fluent in ancient Greek and Hebrew, or even considered important – because no one is too unimportant, too powerless, too forgotten, or too anything for God to love them. Jesus was born for you and me. He loved us so much! He sacrificed His life for us. He will be coming back to take us with Him. That’s what makes it a Merry Christmas! God of surprises indeed! In a world in which we look out for spectacular signs and wonders we find the truth lying in a manger. As we remember and wait in this Advent season, we light these candles of hope, joy and peace against the background of the darkness of human suffering and sin, into which the Lord will come again. As into the barren sands of our toughest times, Isaiah’s promise is that He can make us bloom “like great oaks that the Lord has planted for his own glory…He gives beauty for ashes, strength for fear, gladness for mourning and peace for despair” (Is.61:3).
If we choose to wander away from this essential truth we won’t have fellowship with God and we won’t be blessed with His peace that comes across 2,000 years of history. Wise men and women still seek Him. The angels didn’t sing, “Peace on earth for all people” – but “Peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased, or “on whom his favour rests.” (Lk.2:14). So to live in God’s favour we need to make room for Him inside our hearts and motivations. We need to be focused like the shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks at night” (Lk.2:8) – which is about being faithful, putting our trust and hope in Him and not be like the wave of the sea driven by doubt and despair, stirred up by the winds of desire and falsehood. We need to turn our lives around and be at peace with God through Christ. One of the most important messages of Christmas is that our human nature is good enough for God to dwell. Into our broken, wounded and hopeless lives can pour God’s grace.
That’s the key to understanding the angel’s message: “Don’t be afraid! I am here with good news for you, which will bring great joy to all the people.” (Lk.2:10). Everyone matters to God. The shepherds received news about the gift that still goes on. Like them, while we’re waiting for the world to get better, we too can “go to Bethlehem to see this thing that has happened” (Lk.2:15) and ask God to break in and shine His light into the darkness. The shepherds were changed forever by what they saw and you can be as well if you follow their example. May this be your focus in Advent: Peaceful preparations for Christmas, peace with God, accepting the awesome wonder and gift of the Gospel which you must get excited about in order to go and tell others about it!
Love in the Messiah. Blessed be the Word.