This is one of the most beloved passages in all Scripture.
People read and allude to it the entire Christmas season, every single year. People cherish the warm familiarity of these Lukan verses—we can all imagine the lyrical sounds of the words read aloud, or images of children traipsing about in oversized bathrobes and pipecleaner halos as they reenact the scenes. Of course, this also makes the story of Jesus’ birth one of the hardest passages to preach on. How does the preacher do justice to this beloved passage and simultaneously offer something new and fresh, so it doesn’t become cliché? It’s a fine line to walk. How can we proclaim the euaggelion, “the good news,” anew?
I think the writer of the Gospel of Luke was asking himself the same question, and I think the narrative itself is his answer. In other words, the Gospel of Luke is the result of its author asking, “How can I proclaim the good news anew?” Luke recognizes that others have tried to write the “good news” of Jesus (Luke 1:1-2), but he’s not satisfied with their attempts; he wishes to try himself (Luke 1:3).
One of these earlier proclamations of the good news with which Luke worked was the Gospel of Mark, and the changes he made to Mark are significant. One such change is the addition of Jesus’ birth. Mark, for his part, launches in: “The beginning of the gospel (the euaggelion) of Jesus Christ…” (Mark 1:1).
In last week’s commentary, I pointed out that the Greek words euaggelizo (“to preach good news”) and euaggelion (eu = “good” + angelos = “messenger”/angel; “gospel”) were not originally Christian words. In the Roman Empire, they were often used to describe an imperial conquest or a Roman emperor’s birth as “good news.” Thus, even before Luke, Mark has employed this politically charged term “good news” to describe the story of Jesus. But while Mark then starts with the adult John the Baptist proclaiming the coming of Christ, Luke adds the infancy narrative. This is one way, then, that Luke tells the good news anew: he adds a beginning.
And what a beautiful beginning it is. Jesus is born, Luke says, and Mary wraps him up and sets him in a manger “because there was no place for them” (Luke 2:7). What could be more natural than a mother, providing warmth and a place for her infant son to sleep? It’s such a normal human act. It might even seem banal. The beauty of the detail that Mary “wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger” is in the explanation: “because there was no place for them” (Luke 2:7).
This tiny family is displaced. Far from home, they can’t even procure the kind of accommodations that usually would be available for travelers (Luke 2:7). Yet, Jesus’ birth—his very presence—calls Mary to extend hospitality, to provide for him and welcome him into the world. And she does, without fanfare or public proclamation of this infant king’s birth as euaggelion, “good news.”
The scene then switches to a group of shepherds watching their flocks in the fields at night. Again: a fairly quotidian description. These shepherds are going about their normal routine. Unlike Mary and Joseph, however, they are in the place they know best, doing what they know how to do. Suddenly, here—in an unlikely place and to an unlikely audience—we hear the dramatic pronouncement of Jesus’ birth as “good news.”
Our familiarity with the images can obscure the fact that Luke paints a picture of spectacular grandeur: an “angel of the Lord” appears, and the “glory of the Lord” shines around them (Luke 2:9). The shepherds hear this otherworldly creature proclaim “good news of great joy,” and then, “suddenly” the “angel of the Lord” is not the only one. A “multitude of the heavenly army” appears and bursts into praise (Luke 2:13). No wonder the shepherds are “filled with great fear” (Luke 2:9). Though the angel tells them, “Fear not” (one of the most repeated phrases in Scripture), their fear probably doesn’t just disappear. Nevertheless, they choose to go and see “this thing that has happened” (Luke 2:15-17).
Many nativity scenes depict these two scenes together—the angels above a barn, the holy family inside, and shepherds there worshipping the infant Christ—as though they occurred in one and the same moment. But the way Luke tells the story, the scenes unfold separately. The implication is that when Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph didn’t yet know what happened out in the fields. Only later (Luke 2:15-17) do they learn what has been going on elsewhere. They might be forgiven for assuming the angel Gabriel’s earlier visit to Mary (Luke 1:26-38) had been some kind of false vision, a misleading daydream. Perhaps to them, it seemed time was marching on as it always had, and the world was taking no notice.
Luke’s beginning thus gives us several new depictions of good news: the very presence of Jesus calls for hospitality toward those who are displaced (literally or metaphorically). Sometimes, this can be as simple as providing warmth and a place to sleep, as Mary did. And this way of telling good news anew might not be accompanied by fanfare or public acclaim.
Other times, it can be the reminder that God often works beyond the bounds of what we can see, and we might only discover that fact later, from others, as Mary and Joseph did when the shepherds arrived. Still other times, good news will surprise and perhaps even terrify us, appearing when we least expect it, when we’re simply going about our days in familiar ways and places, as happened to the shepherds. The euaggelion, Luke teaches us, is unpredictable and uncontrollable. It defies expectations. And it’s always breaking into the world anew.
Loving God, you sent your only son, Jesus, into the world, so that all might know of your love. Remind us daily that we are your precious children, too. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
O come, all ye faithful ELW 283, H82 83, UMH 234, NCH 135 Silent night, holy night ELW 281, H82 111, UMH 239, NCH 134 Away in a manger ELW 277, 278, H82 101, UMH 217, NCH 124
What sweeter music, Michael Fink