Commentary on Luke 2:8-20
In Luke 2:1-7, Mary has just given birth to Jesus, wrapped him in strips of cloth, and laid him in a feeding trough. In Luke 2:8-20, we meet the first people to receive the announcement of Jesus’ birth, a group of shepherds tending their flocks at night in the fields not too far from Bethlehem.1
This is the third time in the opening chapters of Luke that we encounter the angel of the Lord.
First Gabriel speaks to Zachariah and gives him the promise of a son. This promise was made and fulfilled in Luke 1 and resulted in wonder and fear for those who saw it. Then, Gabriel spoke with Mary and promised her a son — a promise now come to pass. On the same night when Mary’s promise comes to pass, the messenger appears a third time. By this time, we have come to trust that words spoken by angels are the message of God and are worthy of trusting response.
This third visit is similar as once again people find themselves afraid in the presence of one sent from God, but it is also different. The messenger appears with the Lord’s glory that shines around the shepherds. And their response is terror. The “glory of the Lord” is an Old Testament phrase referring to God’s presence and strength. It is often associated with light and shining.
One of the first places we come across God’s glory is in the deliverance of God’s people from Egypt. In Exodus 14:17-18 God declares that he will get glory when Pharaoh and his armies are destroyed and that in this way Pharaoh will know who is truly God. God’s glory is first revealed in the destruction of Israel’s enemies as a form of God’s might. Then, God’s glory is revealed in the pillar of fire and the cloud as the presence of God that travels with his people and provides bread for them along the wilderness way (16:10). When the people of God came to Mt. Sinai, the glory of God was present on that mountain as a “consuming fire” (24:17).
God attains glory for himself by delivering people from their enemies, God displays his glory by being present with the people of God, and God’s glory is a purifying fire that brings about holiness (29:43). Although God’s glory becomes the manifestation of God’s presence, one should never take God’s glory lightly. It is possible to see the glory of the Lord and to witness signs of God’s deliverance and to despise them like the people of Israel did who did not trust in the God who had delivered them from slavery. To these, God swore that they would not enter into the Promised Land (Numbers 14:21-23).
Early in the days of the people of Israel the glory of God fills the tabernacle, the place of worship and meeting with God, so that Moses can no longer enter (Exodus 40:34-35). Later, God’s glory fills the temple built by Solomon (1 Kings 8:9-21) and Solomon reminds the people of God that the presence of the glory of the Lord in the temple is a confirmation that God has chosen the house of David as his very own.
Yet, even though God chose David and the Davidic dynasty, the glory of the Lord would not always dwell in the temple in Jerusalem. Ezekiel 10:18 is a vision of the glory of God departing from the temple. Yet even Ezekiel ends with the promise that God’s glory will once again dwell with God’s people and this time God’s glory will dwell with a people who have been made perfect and with a throne that will never end and never be defiled.
When the glory of the Lord shines around the shepherds, they find themselves surrounded by the power and presence of the God who delivers God’s people from enemies and evil, who calls God’s people to life set apart as the people of God, and who promises to establish an eternal kingdom and throne. They are terrified, but the angel goes to on proclaim “good news” that is accompanied by joy for everyone. The shepherds are told that they will find a Savior, the chosen of God, in Bethlehem. The promise will be known through a sign: the sign of a baby lying in a manger.2
At one and the same time, the glory of the Lord signifies the presence of God with them and yet not in the person of a king reigning on a throne but as a small baby lain in a feeding trough. Once the message has been delivered, a whole army of angels appears, and they are praising God and saying “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” The proper response to the news that has been announced is praising God.
This whole unfolding drama is God’s story, and God is the one who should be praised because of it. When the angels leave, the shepherds get up and go into Bethlehem to see with their own eyes the sign that was promised to them. And they find the sign just as it was given, and they begin to share with those around them who were amazed. Just like the angels, the shepherds also depart, and like the angels the shepherds are also praising God and, more than that, they are glorifying God. They are lifting up the one who is already exalted and honoring him with their praises and in this way they glorify God.
The theme of God’s glory runs throughout the passage. It is a reminder of God’s presence and a reminder of the response God’s people make to the gift of a Savior — a Savior who will defeat the world’s enemies by means completely apart from those of the enemy. This is the kind of kingdom and throne signified by a baby lain in a feeding trough.
1See the commentary on Luke 2:1-20 for further details, particularly details related to status, power, and wealth.
2This narrative has been discussed in greater detail in the commentary on Luke 2:1-20.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
We praise God for this day when we celebrate your miraculous birth! Transform us as you were transformed so that we may perfectly love you with our whole being, for the sake of the one who came humble and powerless, and became glory and power, Jesus Christ, infant king. Amen.
Lo, how a rose e’er blooming ELW 272, H82 81, UMH 216, NCH 127
Peace came to earth ELW 285
Angels we have heard on high ELW 289, H82 96, UMH 238, NCH 125
The three kings Healey Willan