We'll find the story in the gospel of Luke.
That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep.
Alright. Before we go on, we've got to talk about what the life of a shepherd would have been back then, because it matters a lot to this story.
In general, being a shepherd was not a very glamorous job. In fact, it was considered a pretty low-class profession, and only those on the lower rungs of society would do it.
For one thing, it was pretty uncomfortable. You might be picturing a few white-robed shepherds gazing down rolling green hills at their tidy flock of sheep.
But I lived in Bethlehem for a month several years ago, and I can tell you that the surrounding area is made up of steep, rocky hills with grass peeking up from boulders. It's very dry. I quickly lost my flannel graph mental images.
To keep a flock of sheep fed with such meager food, these shepherds would have had to be on the move a lot. Their feet would have been covered by dust and sheep droppings.
And they would have had to sleep outdoors night after night in temperatures regularly in the low 40's, all while keeping regular watch for dangerous wild predators and sheep thieves trying to make off with their flock.
(Can you imagine trying to get a good night's sleep in those conditions?)
But shepherds didn't just face physical challenges. They also faced financial ones. Any sheep they lost would have cut into their already razor thin financial margins. You may think taxes are high now, but back then, they were insane.
Not only did the Jewish law demand everyone contribute a portion of their resources to the temple and local synagogue, but now that the Roman Empire was occupying Judea, they had to pay exorbitant taxes to the government as well.
On top of all this, tax collectors further added to people's suffering by taking their own cut on top of what Rome and the temple took home.
It was a world where the rich got richer while the poor got poorer.
In fact, it's likely that many shepherds back then may have actually been so poor they had no choice but to work for rich landowners and watch their sheep for them for meager pay. They could have even been debt slaves.
So, put all of that together and try to imagine the scene. This group of tired, cold, dirty, downtrodden shepherds are up late at night watching someone else's sheep and hoping they don't get attacked by wolves...
These guys are nobodies. They're at the bottom of the social ladder. In the eyes of the ancient world, they don't matter at all. Their day to day life is a struggle.
And yet, something crazy is about to happen to them. Let's keep reading.
Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord's glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. ""Don't be afraid!"" he said. ""I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior--yes, the Messiah, the Lord--has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger."" Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others--the armies of heaven--praising God and saying, ""Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.""
Let's stop here for a moment and look at what just happened. Thanks to Charlie Brown, the passage is pretty familiar so it's easy to miss how incredible this moment is.
Look at verse 9. It says ""the radiance of the Lord's glory surrounded them.""
Glory in the Bible is a kind of shiny heaviness which indicates God's presence. In the Exodus, it was the glory of the Lord which led the people away from Egypt. Throughout the Old Testament, God's glory filled the tabernacle or the temple to show that he was with the people.
Once a year, just one person - the high priest - would enter the holiest place in the temple and encounter God's glory.
But now, rather than being confined to the temple, God's glory is radiating out on some random hillside. And not to priests but to a bunch of bedraggled shepherds!
In other words, all of a sudden God's presence - his glory - is spreading into this world in completely unexpected ways. Well, not completely unexpected. You see, Israel's prophets spoke about this moment. There are a bunch of key words in the passage which point to that:
""I bring you good news"" (gospel)
""Great joy to all people.""
""The City of David""
The armies of heaven
""Peace on earth""
Not to mention the bright glory of God shining on a dark hillside to shepherds under the heavy burden of poverty.
All of these are hints that these ancient prophecies were being fulfilled. See if any of this sounds familiar from the prophet Isaiah:
Isaiah 9:2, 4, 6-7
The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine... For you will break the yoke of their slavery and lift the heavy burden from their shoulders... For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David for all eternity. The passionate commitment of the LORD of Heaven's Armies will make this happen!
This is just one prophecy Luke 2 is hinting at. I could give you a dozen others.
The point is that the people of Israel have been suffering a kind of exile for many, many generations. A spiritual one, yes. But also an economic one. A political one. Being under the thumb of Rome was debilitating in every way.
Israel has longed to hear the good news - the gospel - that their true king - the messiah - would finally come and usher in an eternal kingdom: A kingdom of peace - shalom - not just an absence of war, but wholeness, justice, abundance.
A kingdom where God would come to dwell with his people once more.
And the angel of the Lord here is basically saying: ""This is it. It's happening. The king you've been waiting for has been born.""
Well, needless to say, the shepherds are pretty pumped about this. Let's keep reading to see how they respond.
THE FIRST EVANGELISTS
When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, ""Let's go to Bethlehem! Let's see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."" They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. All who heard the shepherds' story were astonished, but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them. I love how quickly the shepherds respond. In Greek it says ""Let's go now."" ""They hurried to the village."" They're not messing around.
They get to Bethlehem, they do a quick search (presumably a baby lying in an animal feed trough would have been relatively easy to find in a small village), and start to tell them what happened.
(I imagine them arriving super winded)
They manage to tell everyone what the angels had said about Jesus. And it says in verse 18, ""All who heard the shepherds' story were astonished.""
This is cool, because back in verse 10 the angel declared the ""good news"" - the gospel - that the savior has been born. That the kingdom had been restored. So when these shepherds share that good news with others, they technically become the first evangelists.
Think about that. These smelly, sweaty, dirty, impoverished shepherds become the first heralds of the king. The bearers of good news.
These nobodies had been given leading roles in seeing the promises of God coming true.
And this, right here, is what makes this story so crazy: This is the most important news that has ever been shared, right? The world is about to change. And the angels entrusted this news... to some no-name shepherds?!?
Why didn't the angels go to the powerful aristocracy in Jerusalem? Why didn't they tell Quirinius, the governor of Syria, or for that matter the Roman Emperor Augustus who was basically king of the world at the time? Luke mentions both of them just a few verses before.
Why did they give this epic news... to people on the lowest rung of society's ladder?
Well, that is an excellent question. And I believe it's precisely the point of this story.
You see, God is up to something here. And Luke is totally tuned into it as he's writing about it.
From the very beginning of Luke's gospel, he sets up all these juxtapositions. We've been talking about them all month:
A powerful prophet is born to an elderly, childless couple.
The long-awaited messiah is born to a teenage peasant girl.
In a world where powerful men like Caesar Augustus and Quirinius and Herod rule from golden palaces, the king of all humanity is laid in an animal's food trough.
And as we just saw, the announcement of the inauguration of his new kingdom - the end of Israel's spiritual exile and the final return of God's presence to his people - is given... to a band of dirty, impoverished shepherds.
Do you see the pattern here? Huge, royal, historic, powerful, epic, world-changing things are happening... Things that will change the fabric of reality itself. But they're all happening to nobodies.
THE UPSIDE DOWN KINGDOM
Why? Because this new kingdom is upside down.
This is just the first of many examples in the Bible that in Christ's kingdom the last and lost and least are given prestige and honor. The poor find justice and hope. The sick find healing. Orphans find families.
In the upside-down kingdom of God, humility is power. This is why our king came as a baby in a manger. This is why angels went to shepherds.
If you really stop to think about this, it's a scandalous idea. It may not seem that way because it's familiar, but it is. It's scandalous!
We live in a world that values wealth and success and status. If you don't have those things, you don't matter, right?
Wealth, success, and status. That's our value system. And it's exactly the kind of value system the kingdom of God upends. That the Christmas story - the birth of Jesus - calls into question.
What makes this so ironic, though, is that these cultural values of wealth and success and status are never more apparent than at Christmas, which has become a season of excess, of prosperity flaunting, of clenched-jaw mandatory happiness...
Being wealthy, successful, and happy? At Christmas we're almost not allowed to be anything but.
""It's better to give than receive."" Yeah, but what if you just lost your job and don't have the money to buy presents?
""It's the most wonderful time of the year."" Yeah, but what if you're grieving the loss of someone you love?
""May your days be merry and bright."" And if you're struggling with anxiety or depression or addiction?
At Christmas time our social media feeds are filled with happy, smiling people, surrounded by friends and family, and seemingly without a care in the world.
And it can be really, really hard to see all that if you're lonely or in chronic pain or you hate your body or you're facing some kind of abuse or injustice. The expectation is always there for you to just cover over your brokenness and - for a few weeks at least - pretend that everything is ok.
Wealth, success, status... If you don't have those things, it can feel like Christmas is not for you. Like you're just a fraud.
Well if that's how you feel this Christmas season, I've got news for you. Good news.
Jesus wasn't born to kings and queens. His royal messengers weren't trained in a palace. His entourage was not wealthy or successful or high status. This is what we see when we look at a nativity scene...
Jesus came to nobodies. He came to give hope to the hopeless. Joy to the downtrodden. And he brought ""peace on earth,"" as the angels said to the shepherds in verse 14, ""to those with whom God is pleased.""
And who are those people? Who is God pleased with? Well, listen to these words from the mouth of that baby himself when he grew up:
God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted. God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth. God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied.
Yes, the real Christmas story does bring ""tidings of comfort and joy."" But it's not just the comfort of hot chocolate by a roaring fire. It's the comfort of knowing that our savior meets us right where we are.
That our king became one of us. Not to cover over our pain, but to bear it with us, to heal us, and to spread hope that he is making all things new. That he is starting a new kind of community where all the old divisions between people fall away.
Where the pursuit of wealth, success, and status is replaced by the pursuit of generosity, humility, and self-giving love.
That is the good news of Christmas.
I want to show you one final detail about this story I find important to remember.
Verse 20 says ""the shepherds went back to their flocks."" In other words, their earthly status didn't change. They didn't suddenly become elite royalty. No. They still had to sit up at night shivering and keeping a lookout for wolves.
But now, they were messengers of light in a dark world. They were witnesses to the glory of God and the first to taste the hope of a world about to be transformed.
This Christmas, I hope you can share the joy of these shepherds. I hope you can know in your heart that despite your circumstances, you are not alone.
Your king, your savior is born.