As a pastoral theologian, I‘ve been most curious as to why the grandest news of Christ’s coming was first announced to lowly shepherds watching their flock by night? Why not proclaim the arrival of the ‘Prince of Peace’ to King Herod and his powerful authorities in the royal palace? Or, share the Advent of Messiah to the high priest and theologically learned leaders in the temple? Why not to all the family relatives of Mary and Joseph? Why would an angelic host bring the glorious message of Christmas: glad tiding of great joy for all people, to lonely low-class common labourers in the fields outside the city?
Christmas is about Jesus and the good news of God’s salvation. If so, something about these pastoral nomads: who they represent and how they responded, redefines for our commercialised culture the worthy recipients and true purpose of the gospel. God’s ‘grace’ and ‘peace’ that leads to great ‘joy’, still come to all those during this busy, holiday season who are: (1) quiet enough to listen to God (2) yielded enough to obey his word and (3) eager enough to share his love with all they come across. In God’s wisdom, these shepherds whose testimony wasn’t accepted in secular law courts became the first itinerant evangelists and preachers of the gospel (Luke 2:8-20).
1. The Gospel of GRACE to the Needy:
The angel brought glad tidings of the birth of a saviour in David’s city ‘unto you’ i.e. specifically for these shepherds. As Isaiah (9:2) prophesied, these toiling in the night, were representative of ‘people in darkness’ who in responding to what God revealed, had ‘seen a great light’. These pastoral out-castes, not familiar with the Scriptures, hoped in God and God alone. They were in need of welfare, freedom, a decent life and a future. Less wonder, heaven’s exalted beings testified to the lowly and humble on earth of God’s perfect love that casts out all fears. Humanity has nothing to fear when the God of heaven moves in grace. The message of Christmas brought them hope in the midst of their fears. Literally, the coming of Christ was for them light, life and liberty. Let us this Christmas amidst our hectic lives, be still so that we may know Immanuel – God is with us!
2. The Message of PEACE on Earth:
In our world filled with all kinds of wars and rumours of wars, several peace treaties have been signed. Yet, unless we seek God’s glory and his grace/favour rests on us, there can be no peace on earth. Christmas, the incarnation, was God’s peace treaty with humanity. While a child was born, God’s eternal Son was given. What exactly was the sign given to the shepherds? Not a baby in Bethlehem wrapped in swaddling clothes (this is quite normal!). Rather, the sign was in the contrast – this Saviour would be ‘lying in a manger’, in something the shepherd could readily identify! In this animal-feeder/trough laid heaven’s majesty and earth’s salvation. Paradoxically, this signalled how God’s salvation was to be accomplished – through the Cross! The same gospel the shepherds joyfully proclaimed, Mary painfully pondered in her sword-pierced heart. It is not the infant Jesus but the Christ at Calvary who is our Peace (Eph 2:14) breaking down every ‘hatred-wall’. The sign was given with an intention and may we with the shepherds discover this reality for ourselves. Jesus was born to die that we might live; He came to earth new life to give.
3. Tidings of JOY to all the World:
The shepherds’ explicit response is clear and exemplary for celebrating Christmas: ‘Let us now go and see this…’ and ‘they made widely known the saying’ (v.15-16). Having personally experience this joy, they realised they were now chosen to share abroad the message that this Christ Child was indeed Saviour of the world. First, they accepted the facts of Christmas: a babe born in Bethlehem, next they analysed their findings: a Saviour had come, then they announced their faith, publicly and praise-fully. The wondrous sign was for them but the gospel is ‘for all people’. The shepherds returned to their ordinary lives, now transformed into an extraordinary mission to go, tell it on the mountains and everywhere and be peacemakers themselves. Their so-called secular job is deemed as sacred . As Jowett puts it: ‘When the angel went to the shepherds, common work was encircled with an immortal crown’.
May we receive the Christmas message by faith, respond to it with obedience and report it with joy. There was celebration that first Christmas nevertheless in the context of evangelisation – the Saviour had come and these common shepherds were ‘sent’ (missions). After we come to experience God’s salvation in Christ, we must with excitement go and share this message of forgiveness, peace and hope with others. Happiness comes from happenings; real joy is found in Jesu’ – this ‘Joy of all the earth’ shared is a joy multiplied!