When I was a boy, every time my family would ask my father what he wanted for Christmas his response was always the same, ‘I just want some peace and quiet,’ he’d say. ‘Just some peace and quiet.’ I’m confident that for my physician father with 3 young children, what he was hoping for, what he was waiting to experience, was for things to settle down and be less chaotic… at work AND at home… and now that I am older, I understand what he meant when he said he was waiting to find some peace. Our series this Christmas season is focused on the concept of waiting… waiting expectantly for good things. In the first week of our series Barry talked about Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, and how he was waiting for salvation… and last week Dave talked about Mary and how she was waiting to see justice… and this week we will be talking about waiting for peace… But exactly what sort of ‘peace’ so many of us are waiting to find can be hard to pin down because peace is a word that can mean a multitude of different things: peace can be, as my father wanted, simply some quiet in the midst of life’s confusions… but peace can also mean the absence of actual fighting, as in the end of a war or a family feud; we even use the word peace to speak of something that happens inside of our soul… we call it inner peace. And with today’s world offering us so many opportunities to be overwhelmed or confused or confronted by violence and hostility, it’s easy to understand why every December a longing for ‘peace,’ no matter how peace might be defined, breaks out. In fact, I’m of the opinion that the entire world is, in some way, waiting for peace.
Today we are going to look at the Biblical passage that is primarily responsible for connecting Christmas time to mankind’s desire for peace: The story of Jesus’ birth found in Luke 2:1-20.
One thing I must bring up before we look at this story today, is that the world into which Jesus was born had about as many differing ideas about what ‘peace’ meant as ours does. For the Greeks, “eranay,” (i-rai-ney) the Greek word that is always translated as peace, generally meant the brief interludes between, what in the ancient world, was the constant reality of war. Nations, not individuals, knew times of peace. Individuals would benefit from times of peace, but nations experienced ‘eranay.’ And for the Romans, Pax, the Latin word we translate as peace, was more of an, how do I say it, an international relations term. We often hear about ‘The Pax Romana,’ the Peace of Rome; and yes, the Romans did bring an end to most of the ethnic and political conflicts in their world, but they did so by imposing their superior military power on everyone. In other words, the peace that Rome sought for the world had nothing to do with two sides working out their differences and seeking reconciliation. Not on your life! Peace to the Romans was forcing everyone to settle down! But for the Jews, shalom, a familiar Hebrew word that we also translate as peace, had almost nothing to do with Greek or Roman ideas about peace. Jewish shalom was an all-encompassing word that spoke to life being as full as it could possibly be… it was a word associated with individual well-being, individual dignity, personal safety, and material abundance and prosperity. And not only was shalom a very different concept from the Greek and the Roman notions of peace, it was and still is, very different in many ways from our English understandings of peace. I don’t feel that I can emphasize enough how important it is that this Jewish concept of Shalom should inform our thinking as we approach today’s passage. You see, today’s passage is a very Jewish story… and the desire for this sort of Jewish shalom would have dominated the hearts and minds of every character in this story. And if we fail to read this Hebrew understanding of peace… of overall flourishing and bounty, into this story, I fear we’ll miss most of what this story has to tell us.
All of this said, today’s passage, may be, after possibly only the 23rd Psalm, the most quoted, read and/or recognized passage in the Bible. This passage is read, especially in the King James version, so often during the Christmas season that almost everyone, even the most secular of people, has at least some sense of this story. Let’s read it. At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. 2 (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. 4 And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. 5 He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. 7 She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them. 8 That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. 9 Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” 15 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.” 16 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. 17 After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. 18 All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, 19 but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. 20 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.
Let’s all admit that when we hear this familiar story, we see some very traditional images in our minds: images that often define what Christmas is for us. We may see a cresh: a manger in a three-sided stable full of animals outside of a busy inn. We might envision a bright, shinning angel choir singing to the shepherds. And I don’t suppose there is anything wrong with these images. They give life to this story. Sometimes though, I do worry that these images can inform our understanding of what Christmas is about even more so than do the words of Luke. In fact, I’ve often wondered if it wouldn’t be best for us to only study this passage sometime during, say, July. Or at least at a time when we are able to separate ourselves from all of our traditional images of Christmas. That way we could be more objective with the passage and separate Luke’s intended message from our traditions. I say this because one thing we can be confident about is that Luke had some very specific things in mind when he wrote this passage and every detail Luke included in his Gospel, even the smallest of details, is important. You see, Luke had 2 primary purposes in writing his gospel: first, he wanted to show the world why Jesus is worthy of great honor. And secondly, he wanted to prove to Theophilus, the gentile man who commissioned Luke to write his gospel, that Jesus came for all people… Jews and Gentiles! And every detail in this gospel is purposed to do these two things! And speaking of details, there are a tremendous number of details we could discuss in these 20 verses. Such as: We could discuss how good of an historian Luke was since it’s obvious that Luke was clearly attempting to root his story in history. Or, with all we know from history about Roman census taking, we could discuss why in this instance did Joseph take a very-pregnant Mary with him when he traveled those 3 difficult days from Nazareth to Bethlehem? Or we could talk about whether a village as tiny as Bethlehem would have had an inn. Now, I’m going to leave discussing these details until some summer series, but I do want to assure you though, that if you carefully examine these details, you will find Luke saying some very specific things about why Jesus is worthy of honor and proof that Jesus came for all people. But today, I want to focus primarily on the shepherds because Luke’s inclusion of these shepherds gives us proof beyond measure that Jesus is worthy of honor and that he came to bring peace to all people.
In verse 8 Luke says there were “shepherds staying in the fields.” I have carefully looked at the debate over whether shepherds were untrustworthy, filthy, field hands whose very interaction with sheep made them ceremonially unclean or if shepherds were the gentle, respected overseers of sheep. And though I understand why some hold the second opinion, the position that says the shepherds were considered to be untrustworthy, filthy, field hands whose very interaction with sheep made them ceremonially unclean, is the position that agrees with history and ties all the details of this story together… and it also gives me a picture of people who were certainly waiting to find dignity and bounty and belonging… waiting to find shalom. And I can say this with confidence because we can even find a long history of condescension towards shepherds in the scriptures. The first evidence of this is in Genesis 46 when the Israelites were first living in Egypt, even before they were slaves. There we find Joseph saying to his brothers, “When Pharaoh calls you in and asks, 'What is your occupation?' you should answer, 'Your servants have tended livestock from our boyhood on, just as our fathers did.' Then you will be allowed to settle in the region of Goshen, for all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians." And it didn’t get much better throughout Biblical history for shepherds. Over and over, we see the occupation being looked down upon. There were a number of things about handling sheep and having to constantly work outside in the elements, that caused shepherds to be held at arms-length even by their fellow Jews. Luke’s actual language here says that these shepherds lived in some sort of an enclosure in a field. These were rough boys living somewhere near the bottom rung of the Jewish social ladder.
Yet, verse 9 says something that would have been unthinkable to the religious Jews of that day. It says an angel of the Lord appeared to these shepherds and the Glory of the Lord shown around them. The Greek word translated here as angel, angelos, simply means ‘a messenger.’ We now think of this word as meaning ‘a shinning creature from heaven.’ And that’s okay since this messenger was a creature from heaven. But what this angel was doing was something very earthly… This messenger of the Lord was doing exactly what any 1st Century messenger would have done to announce the arrival of an important, royal dignitary: they would declare the coming arrival of the high-ranking person in very glowing terms. And you can’t get much more glowing than, “I bring good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people. A savior is born in The City of David!” Now, I’m certain this angel’s appearance to the shepherds would have been surprising enough to scare them and this announcement, made to these lowly shepherds, would have been completely unexpected, but I’m unsure that these things alone would have ‘terrified’ them. When Luke says that they were terrified, he literally says, they were “fearfully full of fear.” And what I believe overwhelmed them was that accompanying the angel was what Luke calls ‘The Glory of the Lord.’ This wasn’t just some spotlight shining around them. What the shepherds found was that they were suddenly surrounded by the literal physical presence of God: his glory. God’s glory had always been a huge aspect of the relationship between the Jews and God. God’s glory was the fire that led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt; God’s glory was the fiery glow that shined in the holiest part of the Tabernacle and later in the temple. In fact, one of the primary reasons that the Pharisees at the time of Jesus’ birth were working so hard at trying to make everyone obey all the rules of the Law, was they believed that if they could somehow “clean up” Israel enough, the Glory of the Lord would once again return to the temple in fiery splendor! And yet here it was, God’s glory, his physical presence, shinning around a group of certainly filthy, probably ceremonially unclean, shepherds in a field, on a hillside near the meaningless village of Bethlehem. And I also think I understand why God brought an angel, a messenger, with him to announce Jesus’ arrival. Had God spoken to the shepherds directly from within his Glory, like he occasionally had done in the past, they would have never recovered. But even in this overwhelming expression of God’s presence, the angel’s words were comforting "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” If you listen carefully to these words you can begin to see how they speak to God’s intentions to bring peace, shalom, to these lowly shepherds. “I bring to YOU good news of great joy… Today in the town of David a savior has been born to YOU. This will be a sign to YOU. YOU will find the baby…” It’s all so personal, so narrowly directed to these few shepherds. We can begin to sense in this message how the heart of God is drawn to the downcast, the poor and the oppressed. Later, in this same book Jesus would say, "When you give a luncheon or dinner, don’t invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” And Jesus’ father had done exactly this when he celebrated the birth of his son. He’d invited poor shepherds to join him in Bethlehem.
I’m not certain that the angels knew exactly what was going on that night as they said, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom God’s favor rests.” But there were two things the angels must have known: one, that whatever God was doing, it deserved their praise and so they praised him. Secondly, the angels knew these shepherds were, for some reason, men with whom God was pleased! I feel the angels knew this because the details of their message were fashioned to bring shalom to the shepherds. Here is what I mean: Had the angel said you will find the baby in the temple, or in a synagogue, or even in someone’s home, the shepherds wouldn’t have been welcomed into any of those places to see Jesus until they had first gone through a tremendous amount of ceremonial cleansing. But Jesus was in a manger, in a place where animals were kept. The shepherds were told they would find their messiah in the one place where filthy, unclean shepherds were always welcome. Again, how like the message of the adult Jesus we meet later in the gospels: reaching out to the lepers, foreigners, the outcast and saying, “Come unto me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” To every other citizen in Bethlehem, Jesus was simply a poor baby wrapped in clothes, lying in a manger. But to the shepherds, finding this wrapped up baby in a manger was the sign that God had indeed spoken to them, of all people, and had led them to their savior, their messiah, their Lord. And knowing this surely gave them a new sense of peace.
Another interesting detail connected to the shepherds coming to Bethlehem is that Mary, herself, would have been ceremonially unclean that night due to the regulations surrounding childbirth. Yet, she and the shepherds were given the joy of being allowed into God’s presence at a time when the religious laws would have kept them as far away as possible. They alone knew that they were literally standing in the presence of God’s anointed one. Even in birth Jesus chose to surround himself with those others would have avoided. How like Jesus! It’s no wonder Mary kept all these things in her heart.
So, with all these details in mind, let’s step back a moment and ask what effect did Jesus’ coming to earth have on the shepherds? First, they were given a completely new understanding of how fully God accepted them. I’m sure that they had some notion of being children of God simply by being Jewish, but I’m also sure that they figured God had favorites and they didn’t include shepherds. But God had come to them. God had shown them his Glory! God had accepted them just as they were. Talk about the end of a time of waiting to find a new sense of self-worth. Secondly, God had entrusted them with his message that the Messiah had come. This message ended a time of waiting to find dignity in the eyes of others. They alone could speak as eyewitnesses with first-hand knowledge about events that Luke says left everyone else amazed and wondering. Thirdly, they were given the shalom, the peace they had been waiting for, for much their lives… How like Jesus that even as he was entering the world as a baby, he gave dignity, acceptance, well-being, self-worth, understanding, and salvation, in other words, shalom, peace, to a group of unclean, lowly shepherds.
And this is exactly what Jesus still offers us today. This is why Jesus is our peace. Luke’s gospel is filled with story after story of Jesus giving unexpected and unlikely people this same kind of dignity, this same kind of acceptance, and well-being, and understanding, and self-worth, and salvation… in other words, shalom, peace. And I’m sure there are many in this room today who are waiting to find this kind of peace… you long to be seen and given dignity and understanding… but, I am also as confident that there are many in this room who can, with the shepherds tell us the story of how Jesus came into your lives and brought you new-found dignity, acceptance, well-being, understanding, self-worth, and salvation, in other words, shalom, real peace.
This is why the news of Jesus’ coming is, “good news of great joy that will be for all people.” Jesus’ coming offers each one of us, no matter who we are or where we’ve come from or what we’ve done, an end to our waiting for peace… Jesus offers each one of us the opportunity to be surrounded by the presence of God, to bask in the confidence that he accepts us just as we are and then rest in the knowledge that in him our waiting for shalom is over. The details of Jesus’ coming, even from the moment of his birth, were purposed to show you that God’s eternal intention was to give you peace. Jesus would say so clearly later when he said, Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. So, do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. And so, Christmas, the celebration of the coming of Jesus, is also the celebration of the beginning of Jesus’ mission to be your savior, your Messiah, your Lord, and your peace. And my prayer today is that you will let him untrouble your heart and end your waiting… and accept that perfect peace that only Jesus can give.