Commentary on Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
The temptation is to do too much rather than too little on Christmas Eve.
For many, there is the feeling that preachers are the bringers of magic from the first century into the twenty-first. People who may not come the rest of the year will somehow find their way into the church building on Christmas Eve. Some of us may tell ourselves if we put enough into our sermons for today and tonight, perhaps these folks will come back sooner than next Christmas Eve. The risk we face is an attempt to fit a year’s worth of hope and wonder at this Good News into a single night.
The narrative of the shepherds has a lot to teach us. We hear of them only in Luke’s Gospel and only in the second chapter. They come into the narrative and then are never heard from again. Except for every single year on Christmas Eve. The shepherds are the first people to hear the Good News. They are prominent in many sermons, whether because they are associated with the lowly, the outcast, and the marginalized, or because they give us hope (or both!).
If the first preachers of Jesus’s birth were not immediately met with incredulity and scorn, there is hope for the rest of us who tell the story of Jesus’s nativity year after year. If the shepherds can come into the narrative once and the tradition of their message extend outward through time, culture, and space, perhaps those who find their way into church only on Christmas Eve will do the same. Enlivened by the message of Jesus’s birth and welcomed to the Nativity, the shepherds’ place is crucial to the story.
But what is the story we will tell? François Bovon gets it right, I think: “The episode of the shepherds attempts less to prove something than to bear witness to a heavenly revelation.”1 Our stories, rather than prove that the wonder of the shepherds during the first century extends to the twenty-first, is to bear witness to the wonder of Jesus’s Nativity. Part of the problem with this witness is it provides more avenues than can be pursued; the text is filled with possible questions and wonderings.
We could ask: Why was there no room for Joseph and Mary in Joseph’s hometown? In a society that valued hospitality and in which the family unit was the bedrock of economy, identity, and empire, it is peculiar that there would be no room for Joseph and Mary with his extended family in Bethlehem. Had they heard rumors of Mary’s premarital pregnancy and not wanted to be considered a party to her circumstances? Had there been divisions generations-long that nobody could quite remember but that nevertheless remained? While Joseph and Mary may not have been welcomed among extended family, their family extended beyond the reach of biology, as some of the families worshipping in our communities tonight will as well.
We could ask: Who is this God who shows up in a helpless infant yet sends a heavenly army at the announcement of Jesus’s birth? The angels tell the shepherds to not be afraid, a command that has been heard a few times already in Luke, in the announcement of the birth of John to Zechariah (1:13) and the birth of Jesus to Mary (1:30). Zechariah and the shepherds respond to messenger of God with great fear. The irony is that the messenger brings news of joy and of God’s presence in powerlessness.2 The military imagery of the stratias (armies, Luke 2:13) seems excessive for a baby — especially for a baby whose birth mentions no midwife, no help, and no biological family outside its mother and her betrothed to welcome its arrival.3
We could ask: Why does God declare victory through the heavenly messengers at the beginning of the story? Luke is evidently not very good at keeping secrets, because the Gospel reveals that peace has been achieved not through Jesus’s death and resurrection, but through Jesus’s birth: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to humanity (anthropois) — the object of God’s favor” (2:14). Jesus’s Nativity is God’s statement of victory, and it is a victory that announces God’s delight in humanity. On Christmas Eve, God draws near and takes joy in the intimacy of the moment that divine and human scream to clear their lungs.
In the end, the best a preacher can do on Christmas Eve is to bear witness to the unimaginable and invite all who will listen into the absurd wonder of the moment. It is enough. For all of the preacher’s preparation and potential hopes and fears this night, preachers are not the bringers of the magic or wonder, but witnesses of the mystery of God’s incarnation — along with the shepherds and all of creation.