Shepherds Visit (or The Magi)

As I write this, the gap between God’s promises and reality as we experience it that I spoke about in reference to Zechariah’s song two weeks ago seems especially pronounced.

December 25, 2015

View Bible Text

Commentary on Luke 2:8-20 (or Matthew 2:1-12)

As I write this, the gap between God’s promises and reality as we experience it that I spoke about in reference to Zechariah’s song two weeks ago seems especially pronounced.

In addition to the rampant gun violence here, the horrific mess that is Syria and its refugees, and the rest of the world’s woes, an alert from the New York Times just popped up (I know, I should turn that off when I’m trying to focus) that details the latest violence in Israel — talk of a third intifada, from where I sit, does not seem exaggerated. It also brings to mind my visit to the “actual” shepherds’ field outside Bethlehem with a group of students; we read the story of the angels proclaiming “Peace on earth” to the shepherds aloud overlooking one of the grand and intimidating Israeli settlements that form a ring around Bethlehem (which is in Palestine). Such reality makes the task of understanding the story of the peace proclaimed to the shepherds both more difficult and, paradoxically, somewhat easier.

The focus this week is on the reaction of those who first heard the news of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem, both on earth (the shepherds, then Mary) and in heaven (the angels and the heavenly “army”). The two aspects I’d like to focus on are Luke’s choice to make shepherds the first recipients of the news of the savior’s birth, and his focus on Mary’s reaction to what had taken place.

If you’ve preached on this text before, I’m sure you’ve attempted to dislodge from your audience’s mind the romantic, sentimental associations we usually have of the shepherds — not to mention the bathrobe-clad children of the Christmas pageant. Shepherds were not only among the lowest social class, spending their lives among animals, sleeping with them in the fields, and smelling like, well, sheep dung. They were also seen as dishonest and crafty, for they were often accused of grazing their sheep on land that was not theirs; thus the early rabbis counted them among those who were unfit to serve as witnesses or judges! On this score, it’s hard to avoid seeing the shepherds as foreshadowing the type of people to whom Jesus himself will bring “good news” — as well as the reaction it will generate. In contrast to what happens here, there will be no heavenly hosts giving glory to God when Jesus lays out his “mission statement” focused on the poor, outcast, and prisoners (Luke 4:16-21); indeed, his inclusion of outsiders in the sphere of God’s love and mercy results in an attempt by his own town to throw him off a cliff, and brings him into direct conflict with many of his fellow Jews, and ultimately the Romans.

But the symbolism of the shepherds does at least double duty; Israel’s tradition is replete with imagery of God, and righteous kings, as shepherds who feed and protect their flock (and evil kings who fail to); and some of Israel’s most significant figures (Moses, David), of course, were shepherds. Perhaps it’s this very duality that Luke wishes to evoke for his audience, linking something scandalous in human eyes with the work of God (maybe sort of like the execution of the Messiah?)

In recording Mary’s beautiful reaction to the shepherds’ epiphany, Luke continues his focus on the unlikeliest, even scandalous central players in his story. Of all those who hear the news (of course, who else was there besides Joseph and the animals?), this peasant girl is the only one who seems willing or able to puzzle out what it all might mean. The NRSV’s “pondered [all these things] in her heart” really doesn’t do justice to what Luke ascribes to Mary here, and it feeds right into the sentimentality that surrounds the story. The heart, for the Greeks as well as the Jews, was the seat not of emotion (that’s the bowels!), but of thinking and reasoning. So unlike the shepherds, who skip back to their sheep (albeit in a very good mood), and unlike Joseph, who is characteristically mum, Mary actively engages the situation — and no doubt “all these things” refers to everything that has happened since Gabriel’s startling appearance to her. And let’s not forget that it’s Mary who gives voice, through her song, like almost no other character in the Gospel to the central significance — theological and political — of the child she is carrying: with his appearance, God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. She will get one more thing to ponder, of course, when she’s told by Simeon that “a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35); by then, perhaps, she’s no longer in the mood for singing.

Strikingly, it’s only in Luke (and Acts) that Mary is portrayed as a faithful follower of Jesus in his adult ministry (though she appears twice in John, it’s more symbolic of Jesus’ earthly ties, which he relinquishes at the end); and she’s the only character who witnesses every stage of Luke’s story of Jesus. Unlike Matthew and Mark, who redefine Jesus’ family in terms of those who do the will of God (Matthew 12:46-50; Mark 3:31-35), Luke uses the same scene to affirm their faithfulness: “My mother and my brothers are the ones who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21). This is confirmed in Acts 1:14, which includes Mary and Jesus’ brothers among the followers of Jesus who “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.”

A baby in a feeding trough; a peasant girl; grimy, slimy shepherds. These are the signs that herald the birth of the savior of the world, the bringer of the way of peace. There could be no greater contrast to the violence, domination, and oppression that so characterize our world. And this is why it’s both difficult and easy to preach this story: Difficult, because such pronouncements can ring hollow in the face of such reality, especially if it’s not acknowledged; and easy, because there could be no clearer vision of the world as God wants it to be, a vision God calls us, inspired by the Spirit, to help realize. Rise up, shepherd, and follow!

Joy to the world! Our Lord Jesus has come! We welcome you, little king, as you reign in this world. Amen.

O come, all ye faithful   ELW 283, H82 83, UMH 234, NCH 135
Angels from the realms of glory   ELW 275, H82 93, NCH 126, UMH 220
Go tell it on the mountain   ELW 229, H82 99, NCH 154, UMH 251, TFF 52

While shepherds watched, Hugo Jungst