Sunday, December 20, 2015

Shepherds Joy!

Our reading for Christmas Eve, often used as well for the day of Christmas, comes to us from the Gospel According to Saint Luke. As we read this lesson, the text reveals the birth of the child Jesus occurring within the realms of mighty men, and provides great predictions of peace for the lowly. The scripture reads…

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
 And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
 And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.
  And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”
 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”
 And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.  And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:1-21)

A Wide World…
Our author in Luke relates a history of miraculous birth to a wider world than his predecessors, or for that matter, even his Matthean contemporary. As a dedicated historian, he dates the birth of Jesus with references made as to the decree of Caesar as Emperor, and then furthered noted of Quirinius as a governor. As our author, Luke thus anchored his telling within a given historical timeframe. Though the exact day and year of our Lord’s birth has been disputed by biblical scholars, because of the historical reference to the rule of the governor and the wintry season of shepherd activities… we find that the aim of the writer was to inform about the heavenly signs. In keeping with his suspected Greek heritage, Luke tells both familiar and the unfamiliar persons about the divine identity of the Christ child. Concerning this faith history message then, we see that the gospel thus speaks to the knowledgeable diaspora Jew and to the Gentile. By anchoring the timeframe to these ruling figures, Luke invites his readers to compare between those prominent political figures mentioned, and the person of Jesus, who was born the Messiah (Christ) of God.
 Though the newborn child is not described by Luke as hunted by worldly powers, such as in Matthew… our author set the stage for his claim. He clearly stated that this birth changed the course of history. There was an over-against-ness established. God had acted to overturn the powerful…

For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.  I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
 Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life.
 Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, ‘Give up’, and to the south, ‘Do not withhold’; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”  (Isaiah 43:3-7)

 We clearly thus note that according to the prophetic scriptures, that the Law was being fulfilled in Joseph and Mary. The man-made laws of the Roman Empire, local governances, and even the religious Law of Moses were being obeyed. However, within this context of obedience, God worked to demonstrate great power. In Luke’s telling, that divine power was demonstrated first in the declaration of angels. Beneath the very nose of the Roman world then, the history of our salvation was written. The context of prophetic fulfillment had come true as the newly-married couple made their way to Bethlehem, where it had been long, scripturally-established that the Messiah would be born.
 Take note here! Given the environment of a male-dominated society, it would seem that only Joseph would have been required by “decree” to go to Bethlehem. But for the sake of prophetic fulfillment, though having little or no status… though very pregnant… Mary went with him to his home town. Thereby Jesus was born according to the prophetic texts.
 We need pay attention to such details here! We note that as a ruler who would stand by the love of God above both Caesar and Quirinius and other dignitaries, Jesus was born in a place that was not in the highest prestige. Therefore Luke stressed that God stood the hierarchy of the world on its head. Though of divine and royal birth, Jesus was born into a lowly place. He was cradled in an empty manger… a feeding trough! In this way, the Christ child was rightly posed as the lowly One, the Christ child who was born, who would awaken and rise to feed his followers… even unto our own day.
Then the Lord awoke as from sleep, like a strong man shouting because of wine. And he put his adversaries to rout; he put them to everlasting shame. (Psalm 78:65-67)

 The divine witness remained at first with those of low station as they who were outcast formed for us a view of God’s redeeming love. Like his ancestor, the shepherd king David… Jesus through the lineage of his earthly father and the Oneness with his heavenly Father…. would shepherd his people. The lowly shepherds who were shunned by society, yet  responsible for keeping the safety of temple’s sacrificial sheep in the Migdal Eder (watchtower of Jerusalem), were thus caused first to see and hear. They were brought to witness the manger as the throne of the sacrificial Lamb. They saw the Christ child who would make strong men weep over wine poured out, and his body given.
 Note surely… today we need remember that Luke related this as a scene occurring during the watch of night, a time a sin and foreboding. Therefore in the dark and dreary way, both the shepherds and the reading audience of Luke thus heard this Good News. Luke boldly told a persecuted and lowly people of the angelic choir’s singing. That choir was described as heralding the glory of God and the peace which is made certain through Jesus Christ. That announcement was therefore extended to all of the known world of Luke’s day. This is the miraculous message that yet stands for us today. Such is the power of the Word.

Glory to God!
We may ask, “How astounding is this good news?” Consider this! Amid men and nations who thought themselves as powerful, working according to the Law given to condemn sinful humanity, God provided his beloved Son as Savior for his own people. This news was so shocking that blessed Mary pondered the news silently in her heart… as the lowly outcast shepherds rejoiced in the faith message given to them.
 So it was too with the first readers of this gospel message… they rejoiced! So it is now with us. We are to ponder these things… consider them deeply… then rejoice! We are to consider that this Jesus, who is the King of kings and Lord of lords, was and yet is God’s salvation born. Through him and only him, there is peace available between God and sinful humanity. So it is written by Luke, and so it is even unto this wondrous day.

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