Twelve Meditations for Christmas

(Originally published at during December, 2009)
I'm going to do my best to focus for the next few days on Luke 2 -- what we so often call "the Christmas Story." It isn't really, it's much more than that. But that gets us started.
"In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled." Christianity is firmly rooted in history. Unlike eastern religions that have a casual, even incidental relationship with historical events, Christianity is completely tied to the specific historical events of Jesus birth, life, death, and resurrection. Christianity is not about eternal principles. It is about an eternal person, Jesus. Over and over again the Bible connects Jesus to the specific historical times in which he lived. Caesar Augustus is a well known, well documented person in the history of the Roman Empire, and his presence in Luke's account roots us firmly at a specific time in history.
Be wary of those who want to ignore the person of Jesus in favor of his teachings. Yes, Jesus' teachings are hugely valuable. There is no greater teaching in all of human history than the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). But if we choose to focus on Jesus' teaching rather than on Jesus himself, we miss the point. "Love God" and "Love your neighbor" -- Jesus' two great commandments -- are not a summary of Christianity. Why not? Even Jesus said "On these hang all the law and the prophets." (See Matthew 22:36-40) Exactly. The Law and the Prophets, the Old Covenant, is summed up in these two verses. But Jesus also makes clear that it is only he, himself, who fulfills that Old Covenant (See, for example, Matthew 5:17). In ourselves we strive in vain to fulfill these eternal commands to love God and love our neighbor. Jesus, at a specific time in history, took our futility on himself and did what we cannot do. First he lived a life totally devoted to God and totally available to the neighbor -- in other words, he lived in fulfillment of the specifics of the Law. More than that, however, he fulfilled the covenant of which the Law was one part. God gave the Law -- Torah -- to his people at Sinai (Exodus 19-20) in order that they might know how to have a relationship with him. This relationship was carefully bounded with regulations and sacrifices to keep the people from dishonoring God either by neglect or by easy familiarity. Jesus takes that relationship and fulfills it, as the book of Hebrews carefully explains. In Jesus' life we see what our relationship with God should be -- intimate, total devotion to a loving Father who delights in giving us abundant life through his Spirit. (By the way, this is the essence of the Trinity -- a relationship in which, through Jesus, we experience the abundant life the Father longs to give us by the presence of the Spirit in our lives. You can't explain the Trinity, you have to experience it. See Romans 8:11.) Jesus fulfills the Covenant God made with his people at Sinai. We cannot live in total love for God and our neighbor. It's beyond us. But when Jesus fulfills the covenant in his own life, death and resurrection, he sets us free to respond to him in total freedom, total devotion, total worship. In that wholehearted response to God's glorious mercy, we are turned with new eyes, new life, back into the lives of our neighbors, serving them and inviting them to come and know this holy, awesome, intimate, personal God.
All this is implied when Luke says, "In those days ..." Jesus did not come to preach eternal principles. He came, himself. The child in the manger is God's breaking in to our history, invading the reality -- not the lofty principles, but the daily details -- of our lives. He came not so we could learn how to live, but so that we might become alive. This life that the Father desires for us is not an eternal truth, but daily experience. That is why the Christian life has never been about escaping from the world, but rather being transformed by the presence of Jesus and then released back into the world.
"As the Father has sent me, so I send you" Jesus said (John 20:21). Just as he was sent into a specific time in history, a specific context, so are you. The details of your life are not an accident. Rather, God has placed you at this specific time and place in history for a reason -- to live out the abundant life he gives with these people, at this time, in this place. Even Caesar had a role to play in making God's plan a reality, though he probably didn't know it. Thank God you are living right here, right now -- and then ask him how he wants to use you!
Does it matter if the Bible is historically accurate?
Of course it does, unless we're going to say that Jesus is indeed about the eternal principles involved (Christianity = "be nice" in some form) rather than the specific events of his life, death, and resurrection. If the historical event of the crucifixion and resurrection are not critical to Christianity, then it is just another non-historical religion teaching people how to get to God, rather than God taking on human flesh and giving his life for his beloved creation.
So the historicity matters. But what about the accuracy of small details along the way? The issue is trust. Can you trust what the Bible says?
This is not idle speculation, for hard on the heels of Caesar Augustus and his proclamation that all the world should be enrolled we find a difficult turn of phrase. Normally this would be a straightforward verse to translate; all the most popular English translations include some form of the words, "This was the first enrollment, and took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria." We've heard it on Christmas Eve over and over again.
The problem is that if Luke 1:5 is accurate, and if Matthew's account involving Herod the Great is accurate, we have a problem. Because Herod the Great died in 4 BC, while Quirinius didn't become governor of Syria until 6 AD. There was indeed a well documented census in 6-7 AD (Luke even refers to it in Acts 5:37) but if we believe this is the census mentioned in Luke 2, it creates other problems. (If you're looking for an in-depth discussion of the issues, here is a good summary.)
There was also a census in 8 BC that might serve our needs nicely, but Quirinius wasn't governor at that time. Some have suggested that perhaps Quirinius oversaw the census and only later was appointed governor, and that Luke simply identifies him by the title he had later, since that is the way people knew him. Others believe that Quirinius served twice as governor, once during the reign of Herod and later during the census of 6-7 AD. Still others -- and Wikipedia is quick to point out this option -- say that Luke just got it wrong.
What difference does it make?
I'm always hesitant to say that the Bible is mistaken. Not just because I want it to be accurate. Let me offer a couple examples, specifically from Luke. In Luke 3:1-5, Luke lists a whole array of rulers. He's obviously anchoring his story firmly in history. The trouble is, Lysanias whom we know from the writings of Josephus did not serve as tetrarch of Abilene while all these other rulers were in power. He was executed by Mark Antony about 70 years earlier. So for a long time it was considered a simple fact that Luke made a mistake. Then an inscription was found dating to the reign of Tiberius, the correct time, referring to Lysanias, the tetrarch of Abilene. Apparently there was a second Lysanias, perhaps a son who inherited part of his father's lands, and governed precisely during the time when these other rulers were in power. Luke had it right. (See this article which includes a nice summary of this issue.)
Another example: In Acts 17:1-9 we read the story of Paul and his companions in Thessalonica. Luke uses a term for the city officials here -- in Greek, "politarchs." For years scholars made fun of Luke for making up a word. No other reference was known in any of the Greek-speaking world to an official called a "politarch." Scholars thought it was like a kindergartner making up words, since it is a simple cobbling together of "polis" or "city" and "archus" or "ruler," thus, "city-ruler" or city official, as the NIV has it. Luke obviously had no first hand knowledge of Thessalonica and just made up what he thought was an official sounding term. Then archaeologists found an inscription over the gateway into the city (Thessaloniki in modern Greece) that listed the names of the -- you guessed it -- politarchs. This is a term that was apparently not used in the rest of the empire but was specific to this community, and Luke uses it exactly right.
So I'm hesitant to say Luke is wrong about Quirinius, because he's been right before when all modern scholars were convinced he was wrong.
Does it matter? Maybe not. Even if Luke was wrong about Quirinius, it wouldn't change the overall historical reliability of the Bible. But what is our assumption? Modern scholars have been trained from their earliest days to treat the Bible as great mythology, but lousy history. Is this a reasonable assumption for scholars to bring to their work? More important, is this a good assumption for a follower of Jesus to carry?
On Christmas Eve when I hear Luke 2 read, I don't think I'll be wrestling with the problem of Quirinius. Instead I'll be marveling at the way God set the whole business up so that Jesus could be born. But when the candles are extinguished and the last strains of Silent Night have faded, when the fluorescent lights come on and our rationality reasserts itself, it's nice to be able to trust that even if I don't know the answers to the problems in Luke 2:2, there's a good chance that someone will find a document, or an inscription, or a historical record of some sort and a hundred years from now Bible teachers will be saying, "Scholars used to think that Luke just made a mistake in describing the census under Quirinius, but now we know ..."
For those who are intrigued by the vagaries of biblical history, here are a couple more pieces dealing with the historicity of Quirinius:
And for those with way too much time on their hands, here is another article, but this time one trying to prove that the seeming contradiction between Luke and Matthew on the dating of the Nativity proves, once and for all, that the Bible is not trustworthy.
Now, I am NOT saying these pages' conclusions prove the matter once and for all. There are serious scholarly arguments about the archaeology involved and questions about what is possible and what is proven about a census that took place toward the end of Herod's life. Biblical archaeology can be a tremendously frustrating pursuit because archaeology does not prove the Bible as solidly as we would sometimes like. More often than not, the believer tends to see what is possible and the skeptic deals only with what is proven. It can make for difficult conversations.
Note: It is not questioned that Caesar Augustus took a census of Roman citizens starting in 8 BC. This census would have taken 2-3 years to complete and could very well provide the background for Luke 2:1-3. It is also fairly well established that Quirinius was in Syria around that time in some military role, though quite possibly not as governor. What is questioned by some is whether Palestine would have been included in this census, whether the census also counted non-Roman citizens like Joseph and Mary, whether the census would have required people to go to their hometowns, and whether Quirinius was in some way involved in this census. The links listed above provide the possibility that each of these questions could be answered in a way that makes Luke's account feasible.
Obedience and submission are two dirty words in our culture today. If you obey someone else, the conventional wisdom goes, you must have checked your brain at the door. If you submit to someone else, you must be weak. The conventional wisdom is wrong.
Joseph obeyed Caesar's proclamation, submitted his will to Caesar's, and traveled to Bethlehem. Why would he do this? We know from other historians of the period that a census was enough to cause rebellious feelings in most Jews of the time. The Jews knew from the stories of King David that a census was a bad thing (see 1 Chronicles 21). The census a few years later, in 6-7 AD led to an uprising. No doubt there were many of Joseph's fellow Jews who hid, who ignored the census, or who went along with it but rebelled every step of the way. Yet Joseph not only goes, he takes his soon-to-be wife, already "great with child" (you've got to love the King James sometimes) and submits to the Roman census.
Let's be clear -- Joseph did not do this because he thought Augustus was so cool. Though some cultures annexed by Rome did recognize Caesar as a god because he brought relative peace, the Jewish commoners always saw Rome as a tyrant, an overlord, a false god. The Jews didn't love Herod the Great much, either, though he was at least a home-grown tyrant. Herod was corrupt in every way. He was an Idumean, meaning he was from a people rooted east of the Dead Sea who were descended from Esau, the chief rival of Jacob, who received God's blessing and became the father of the nation of Israel. Talk about old family baggage. Herod was guilty of every vice imaginable from too much ambition to too little honesty. He killed his sons and wives and rivals of all kinds. Even Caesar made jokes about Herod's greed and violence. And Herod must have had some role in the census that led Joseph to Bethlehem.
No, Joseph didn't support the authorities and submit to their requirements because they deserved it. But he did submit. "And Joseph also went up ..." Joseph was still close enough to his Bethlehem roots that he considered Bethlehem his hometown, or at least the hometown of his line. Maybe he had relocated to Galilee to be part of the developing construction industry in the city of Sepphoris, a Greco-Roman city four miles from Nazareth. Or maybe his family had been in Galilee for a few generations, we don't know. But we know that Joseph obeyed the decree, took Mary, and went to Bethlehem.
God used Joseph's obedience to bring about the birth of the Messiah. A couple generations later, Paul would write to Christians at Rome, advising them to "be subject to the governing authorities" (Romans 13:1). Many Christians struggle with this. Does it mean I have to be totally honest on my tax returns? Drive the speed limit? Obey the zoning laws? Clean up after my dog? Register the deer I tag, and be sure I tag them in accordance with the DNR's tangle of regulations? Only use one coupon per household?
Short answer? Yes. That kind of integrity is the expectation. God is not going to smite you if you don't obey in every detail, but he might let you deal with the consequences of your disobedience. (I could tell stories about speeding tickets, but I'll spare you.) The other side of the coin is that your obedience in these seemingly trivial details makes room for God to 1) bless you, and 2) use you for his purposes. As God drilled into my head a few years back on this issue, "There is joy in obedience." Living in submission to authority allows God to bring a tangible, deep, peaceful joy into our lives. Constant rebellion takes its toll, and the first victim is joy. We sometimes mistake an adrenaline rush for joy, but they're different.
Learn from Joseph. If you set your heart to live in submission to the legitimate authorities God has placed over you, God will bless that submission and you will eventually experience greater freedom because of your obedience.
I was looking at a photo from 1907, from a wedding held in the front yard of the home where I grew up. The bride and groom sit in the foreground with about a hundred guests and family standing around behind them, and in the back is my house. I'd always wondered why the bride was scowling in her wedding photo. A year or so before my father died, I asked him about that. Dad was born in 1921, but apparently this had been a family story that got handed down somehow among those closed-mouthed Norwegians. "Morning sickness" was his terse reply. I was shocked. "I thought things like that didn't happen back then!" I chided. He didn't even look up from his newspaper. "Happened a lot more back then than today," was all he said.
Pregnancy in a small town. Everyone gets involved -- the aunts, the uncles, the gossips, the guardians of public morality. A small town woman once told me that pregnancy is funny. "Seems like the first child can show up anytime," she said, "but after that they usually take about nine months."
A few years ago Bruce Hornsby recorded a song that captures a little bit of the shame that used to go with Mary's condition:
Out in the hall they were talking in a whisper
Everybody noticed she was gone awhile
Somebody said she's gone to her sister's
But everybody knew what they were talking about
The Bible doesn't go into painful detail about Mary's embarrassment, but if you know small towns the clues are there. This young woman travels far from home in dangerous territory to the hill country of Judea to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, and stays with her three months. She comes back to Nazareth and almost immediately turns around and leaves for Bethlehem with Joseph. Why would her parents allow these journeys? I have a fourteen year old daughter -- probably about Mary's age at this time -- and I can't imagine letting her do these things. In our day of cars and cell phones, we can't conceive this kind of a journey. It would be about like letting her drive from here to Alaska. No way. Not unless there was some other consideration, some other factor that outweighed my concern for her personal safety. Though cable TV and the internet have brought huge changes even in small towns, there is still a sense there that nothing could be worse than being shamed before your neighbors. Mary needed to get away from the gossips.
Some critics of the Christmas story object to Mary traveling to Bethlehem, saying it's not plausible that Joseph would take Mary -- not yet his wife, and not required to accompany him -- along for the arduous journey under this census. But imagine what life might have been like in Nazareth for Mary. Maybe she was shunned. Certainly she was the subject of gossip. The recent movie, "The Nativity" (a great Christmas ritual, by the way, to watch this with people you love) captures this -- all the village wags look down their noses at Mary & Joseph, who used to be the delight of the whole town. As they leave Nazareth with their neighbors scowling and frowning at them, Joseph whispers in sardonic tones to Mary, "They're going to miss us." It's finally a relief for them to get out of town, to leave their home, to be on the road to a strange place.
Luke doesn't say too much about Mary joining Joseph on the journey:
"He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child" (Luke 2:5).
Then very quickly we're on to her giving birth to her firstborn, a son, and the manger and all that. But we don't often recognize what Mary's submission meant for her. "Behold, I am the Lord's handmaiden; let it be with me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). Yes, Mary, even if it costs you your standing among your peers? Your status in the community? Your dignity? Your home? Are you willing to look like a fool for your claim that you were visited by an angel telling outlandish stories?
As a man, I have a difficult time understanding the submission a woman goes through in pregnancy. This tiny glob of cells inside her immediately becomes the ruling tyrant of her life, demanding much of her, and more as it grows into a baby -- much of her energy, her eating habits, her stomach, her lungs, her sense of beauty and her balance and sometimes her mental stability are sacrificed for this new life. Mary submits to Jesus in a way that leads us all.
May we all have that same kind of focus, that same submission to Jesus no matter what the cost!
You'd think the Messiah would descend in fire and smoke on the temple mount in Jerusalem, wouldn't you? The Old Testament is full of prophecies about the things that will happen on Zion (Jerusalem) when the "day of the Lord" comes. You can't shake the earth from a place like Bethlehem. Can you?
In the Old Testament, we first hear of Bethlehem in Genesis 35 when Jacob's wife Rachel dies and is buried near there. A few times in the book of Judges the town is named as the home of various bit players. The first real drama around Bethlehem happens in the book of Ruth, when Naomi and her daughter in law Ruth return there in grief to make a home. Ruth winds up being the great-grandmother of King David, and suddenly in 1 Samuel 16 Bethlehem breaks out as the home town of King David, whose shadow looms large over the rest of the Old Testament.
David's shadow looms especially large over Israel's hope for a deliverer, a "Messiah", the one God will choose to lead his people. The pinnacle of David's reign as king was God's promise to him that "When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever" (see 2 Samuel 7). This prophecy was partly fulfilled in David's son Solomon, who built the Temple in Jerusalem. But Solomon was not faithful to God and after his reign David's descendants were a pretty motley crew, some better, some worse. But this prophecy finds its fulfillment in Jesus, the heir of David ("Son of David" was a common title for Jesus) and the one who fulfills what God had promised. Thus it is fitting that Jesus, the heir of David, should be born in David's hometown, Bethlehem, even though it was small, out of the way, and more known for shepherds than for kings. In fact, God had promised that this chosen ruler would come from Bethlehem. (See a prophecy about Bethlehem in Micah 5.)
What does this mean for you and me?
One phrase from a sermon that often rings through my thoughts says, "Do not despise the day of small things." Nearly five hundred years after David's time, the temple his son Solomon built was destroyed and his people were taken into exile. When they returned many years later, they rebuilt the temple but on a much smaller scale. In Zechariah 4:10 God tells them that those who have despised the day of small things -- i.e., this little temple -- will be proven wrong. This is a word that goes hand in hand with the Christmas story. What smaller beginning could there be than a baby laid in a borrowed feed trough in backwater Bethlehem, adored by shepherds while his peasant parents look on? Yet in the plan of God, this humble beginning is the way the Messiah arrives. Those who have eyes to see can recognize that God is in these small details!
What are the "small beginnings" where God is at work in your life? What are the places where, if you only have eyes to see, God is at work? Have you dismissed these little things because you believe them insignificant? The brief conversation, the unseen change of heart, the decision to turn here instead of there, to write the note, to make the phone call, to forgive, to leave the television off, to open your heart -- these are the small things that lead to life change. Where is God at work in your life, in whatever minor way? Do not despise this small beginning, but nurture and cherish it, bathe it in prayer, invite God to create more and more space for his work in you and through you.
I was remembering this morning the image of my grandmother, eyes nearly blinded by cataracts and tears, sitting in the back pew of the sanctuary when I was ten. I tried to hold the hymnbook so she could see the words, but she shook her head and whispered, "I don't need it." Then she proceeded to sing every word from memory:
Thou didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown
When thou camest to earth for me;
But in Bethlehem's home there was found no room
For thy holy nativity
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus,
There is room in my heart for thee.
I grew up feeding cattle. I remember December nights walking into the barn where the calves huddled together, steam rising from their nostrils and frost on their curly backs, the temperature inside a good twenty degrees warmer than outside. Up the ladder to the haymow, toss down a bale, cut the twines and distribute the hay throughout the long manger that ran the whole length of the middle aisle of the barn. The calves crowded forward, champing and blowing and butting heads to get at the alfalfa. Eating was serious business, and within minutes the manger was empty, with just a few forlorn stalks of hay in the corners. The calves eventually drifted away into the straw-floored corners to bed down.
In Jesus' day, most village homes had a section where the animals were brought inside at night. Sheep, cattle, a donkey might have been bedded down in the house, though in a separate area from the people. The animals' presence in the house, just like in the barn of my youth, helped warm the place. In some homes excavated by archaeologists the animals' area is slightly lower than the human living areas, and a feed trough separates the two.
Luke says nothing about a stable or an innkeeper. Technically, he doesn't mention an inn either, though some English translations use that word. There were two kinds of places for travelers to stay in a place like Bethlehem. The true foreigner would likely stay in a "pandocheion" -- a Greek word meaning a place where you paid for a room, like the Samaritan did in Jesus' story in Luke 10. But in Luke 2:7 it says there was no room for Joseph and Mary in the "kataluma" or the "guest room" (see for example Luke 22:11). So Sunday School pageants notwithstanding, Joseph and Mary were probably welcomed into a home -- perhaps some of Joseph's extended family -- that was already hosting guests for the census. (For a sense of Middle Eastern hospitality practices, see Genesis 19:1-3 or Judges 19:10-21.) Since the guest room was already taken, they slept in the common area of the house up against the manger, and when Jesus was born they laid him in the feed trough. Or, it is possible that the tourist trade in Bethlehem today has it right, relying on some very old traditions, and Joseph and Mary took refuge in the cave where the Bethlehemites kept their livestock, and it was much more like the stable we imagine.
Either way, it's a humble place to put a baby. I met a man once who was the 19th child in his family, and he told me the story of being kept as an infant in a dresser drawer since his family was too poor to have a crib. His mother told him the story many times, he said, to give him a sense of what life was like when he was born.
Can you imagine Mary retelling these stories as Jesus grew older, remembering and pondering, turning the events over in her mind and many years later, relating them to Luke when he was researching this gospel? "When he was born we had to lay him in a manger -- the house was full, and there was no room in the guest room for us!" This would be a seriously humbling experience for any of us, but how much more for the Lord of the universe. Early Christians sang a hymn that says Jesus "though he was in his very nature God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant" (Philippians 2:5-11).
Yet it is possible that God was not as put off by the manger as you or I might be. There are clues in the Bible -- and especially in the Christmas story -- that indicate God delights in the dirt as much as fine crystal, in the trough as much as the goblet. From bottom to top, God's Spirit flows through the mess and miracle of his creation, brooding over it just as he brooded over the chaos at creation (see Genesis 1:1-2). God is no stranger to the low places, the dimly lit humble spaces, the feed troughs and the darkened rooms. The manger is not a temporary dislocation for Jesus. Instead it is a beacon to us, pointing to the heart of God that meets us in our lowest places.
Standing in that barn one winter night years ago, I remember pondering this idea that God loves all of his creation -- the smells, the steam, the leaning timbers and cracked wood, the calves and me, all of us together. Blowing steam out my nostrils like the calves and watching the vapor fade into the cold air I realized that I was standing in a holy place, a place that God loved, a place that Jesus came to redeem. Not only that old barn, but the messy and miraculous places in my life and yours are beloved of God.
At the bottom line, Jesus spending the first night of his earthly life in a feed trough teaches us that we don't clean ourselves up in order to be acceptable to God; instead, he comes into the mess, meets us just the way we are and bottom to top his Spirit broods over our chaos. The best and wisest thing we can do is welcome him in.
The dictionary defines a paradox as "a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense yet is perhaps true." Christianity is full of paradoxes. Christmas is no exception, and one of the greatest paradoxes at Christmas happens just over the brow of the hill from Bethlehem where some shepherds were "keeping watch over their flocks by night." Some analysts say that this means that Jesus was probably born in the late winter, because the only time the sheep would be in the fields at night is during lambing time, which in Palestine takes place in February or March. Normally the sheep were enclosed in a sheepfold during the night, not out in the fields, and the shepherds got to sleep under a roof. But Luke tells us that the shepherds were in the fields at night.
Shepherding, both then and now, is not a prestigious job. My brothers and I were elk hunting in Colorado a couple years ago and found ourselves sharing the high country with (I'm not exaggerating) a million sheep and three shepherds. The shepherds lived either in little shacks on wheels (Minnesotans might think of a fish house) or under the open sky. They walked miles with the sheep, or some of them rode horses. They were paid a few dollars a day by the owner of the sheep, who deducted most of their wages for "room and board." They lived quiet lives with very little human contact, and very little hope of advancement.
The shepherds in Jesus' time also lived apart from the rhythms of human life. Their lives were governed by the sheep and their needs. In Jewish culture where the requirements of the Torah define who is "good" and who is not, shepherds didn't stand a chance. They couldn't very well leave the sheep alone to go observe the sabbath or make sacrifices. They couldn't follow the rules of ritual washings and changes of clothing in order to maintain purity. Shepherds were in every sense of the word "unclean."
Leave the shepherds on the hillside for a moment.
Knowing what is going to happen next, let's take a look at angels. Angels enter in, as Gabriel reminded Zechariah (see Luke 1:19), to the very presence of God. In Isaiah 6, Isaiah sees a powerful vision of God's throne room, with six-winged angels flying back and forth before God, singing praises to God, and purifying Isaiah's own sinfulness with a burning coal from the altar of the temple. The Bible doesn't give us a ton of information about angels, but we definitely get the sense that they are holy, powerful, and awe-inspiring. In Revelation 22:8-9, the apostle John is so awestruck by the angel God sends to him that he attempts to worship the angel.
Shepherds are dirty and outcast. Angels seem in every way to be the opposite. Shepherds sit lonely on the hillsides, mumbling with sheep and other shepherds. Angels sing in mighty chorus in the very throneroom of God. Shepherds are lucky to do laundry a couple times a year. The Bible describes angels as robed in dazzling white.
Yet this paradox of the mighty and the mumbling together outside Bethlehem feels right. One reason for this is that throughout the Old Testament God has been dealing with shepherds. Abraham had his flocks and herds. Jacob was in charge of his uncle Laban's livestock. Moses was tending sheep when he saw the burning bush. Gideon had a fleece handy to test God. David, of course, was nothing but a sheep-tender when God got a hold of him. God has chosen shepherds over and over again.
Maybe we have mistaken what holiness means. Maybe God is not high and lofty in the sense we think of high and lofty. Is it possible that God likes shepherds? That the smell of sheep, the lack of refined manners, the shepherd's wardrobe doesn't bother him? If this was true, the fact that God is high and lofty would come to mean something else. Maybe God's exaltation comes in the fact that he hobnobs with the lowly. Maybe God is great precisely because his love will know no exclusion. It is common in evangelical circles to say that sin cannot enter the presence of God -- this is almost a stipulation to define why Jesus had to die, the vicarious atonement, and all that. But Jesus himself seemed to enter the presence of sinners all the time. In fact he made friends of sinners and partied with them. Maybe God's mightiness is shown in the fact that he is near to sinners without being tainted by them. He enters into the world at every level, and he seems closest to those who are most broken by their sin.
These shepherds, some commentators say, were not tending just any sheep. Some say that the herds around Bethlehem were special, that these sheep were raised specifically to provide the lambs for the Passover sacrifice. If this is true, Jesus was born at the same time these sacrificial lambs were being born. The birth of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the perfect sacrifice, was announced to shepherds. The Good Shepherd who would lay down his life was born among the sheep. He himself would take the sin of these shepherds, and the rest of humanity, onto himself, giving his life, shedding his blood, that we might be pure and holy.
Thank you, Jesus.
When the wrapping paper shreds are in the garbage, the overeating has you contemplating a New Year's resolution, and the radio stations have gone back to pop, it must be December 26th. I love those in-between days after Christmas. There is usually a Sunday in there somewhere, and most years I have had the privilege of preaching on the Sunday after Christmas. So pretty much every year I have found myself asking the question, "What happens next?" Who is this baby and what will he change? How are things different now that Jesus came?
To answer those questions I don't think there's a better place to start than with the angels' proclamation.
"Fear not! For behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that shall be to all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior which is Christ, the Lord."
We live so much of our lives in fear. If we are not afflicted with fears for our next meal or our physical health, we worry that people won't like us, that the stock market will crash, that something somehow will go wrong. Plus each of us has a whole collection of fears leftover from our past -- fears that are rooted in old hurts and old judgments. We begin to isolate ourselves like Ebenezer Scrooge, building walls of indifference or bigotry or self-sufficiency. It takes a ghost showing up in the night to teach Scrooge that those defenses are just links in the chain that binds him.
But the angel declares, "Fear not!" It is the most common command from God in the Bible. Partly, I suppose, because when God shows up we're naturally terrified, especially if this is a new experience. I had a great conversation a few days before Christmas with a man who carries a Bible with him wherever he goes, but he's afraid to read it. He wants to get right with God but the idea of God actually speaking to him is a little too much.
The angel doesn't stop with a simple command, but gives background for why we don't need to be afraid. This Messiah is good news, contrary to the religion some have made Christianity to be that is full of "thou-shalt-not's" and contests to see who can be the holiest. He is not a fearful king but a baby laid in a manger. He is Savior. He is the heir of David, born in David's hometown.
Whatever fears plague you these in-between days, a child has been born for you. Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (see Isaiah 9:2-7) -- he is sufficient for all your fears and all your hopes. When the carol says, "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight" the key word is "met." It means not just "encountered" but "answered." Jesus is God's answer, God's solution, to the hopes and fears of this world. He is not sent to make us cower in fear but to be our Savior.
So what do we do now? If we are wise, like the shepherds we drop what we're doing and run to Jesus. "Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing which has happened, which the Lord has made known to us!"
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!
It's important to take the time to think. One of the things I enjoy about writing this blog is that it forces me to focus my thoughts enough to say something. Left to myself I often find that I've spent my requisite half hour in my recliner in the morning without direction. I've read something out of my Bible, but then I sit and stare out the window. My eyes and my mind go unfocused until I realize that it's time to get moving again. Lately that's been a good thing -- staring out the window watching snowflakes drift down in the pines is about as relaxing as it gets. But if every morning has that unfocused quality I find that the discipline of my early morning pondering doesn't do me -- or anyone else -- much good.
So I love to ponder in a focused way, and writing helps me to do that. In that practice, Mary is one of my best role models. Luke tells us repeatedly that Mary "treasured up all these things, and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19). As I've said before on this blog, I have a hunch Mary was one of Luke's best sources when he decided to write his gospel. My guess is that Mary was one of those people who recognized that it's hard to tell the meaning of events while they are happening. She treasured them up and pondered them, knowing that understanding often comes years later. So maybe at the time the shepherds' visit -- or even the angel's announcement about this baby's birth -- didn't make so much sense. We get a few of the relevant details that point directly to the meaning of Jesus' birth. What we don't hear about in Luke 1-2 is all the other stuff that happened. Mary's life without a doubt was cluttered with daily household management, conversations about a thousand different topics, the confusion and consternation of a first pregnancy, and who knows what else. But she stored up the details and pondered them until reflection began to make sense out of the events.
Often people ask me why God was so obvious in the Bible but it seems so hard to hear him today. I think this matter is at the heart of the answer. With Moses, for instance, we hear about one twenty-minute conversation he had with God on the mountainside one day when this bush refused to burn up. We don't hear about all the other details of Moses' life that threatened to overwhelm the voice of God. The trouble is, in our own lives we have to deal with the details. So often the chaotic everyday stuff does overwhelm us and we fail to recognize God's voice. That's why Mary's habit of reflecting is such a good example for us. We need to learn to treasure up the times when God shows up, ponder them, and let the Spirit of God speak meaning into our lives.
Today is Monday. The Monday after Christmas. It's tough after I don't know how many days of family get-togethers, candlelight worship services, quiet times around the Christmas tree, and the endless parade of gift openings and cookie trays and all the rest, to face a Monday morning. In a few minutes I'll head back to work. The garbage needs to go out to the curb this morning. I have a snowblower that needs some work, I have a handful of bills that need to be paid today, and a lamp in one of my pickup taillights is burned out. It feels a little like a Monday.
The shepherds returned. They did not suddenly give up their important work of tending sheep. Yes, it was important. Though it made them into outcasts from the religious and social establishment in their culture, their work as shepherds was vital to both the religious and the economic life of their people. Without shepherds the sheep would be at risk. Without sheep the Jewish people in the time of Jesus would have been at risk. The shepherds returned.
However, Luke tells us more than that they simply went back to their sheep. They had met Jesus, and they had been changed. These outcast shepherds returned "glorifying and praising God." They had received the promise of God and it had begun its work of transforming them. Luke tells us (Luke 2:20) that the shepherds were praising God for all they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. They had heard God's promise from the angel, they had acted on that word, and they had experienced God's faithfulness.
What word from God have you heard? What promise have you received this Christmas? If there is no other word that has lodged in your heart these last days, I invite you to take this one from Romans 8:38-39:
38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
What a powerful post-Christmas promise! These words take God seriously that Jesus is "Emmanuel" -- God with us. That desire of God's heart to live among his people comes back again and again in the Bible. It is at the heart of what Christmas means.
Don't let yourself go back to Monday mornings after Christmas as though nothing had changed. Let yourself, like the shepherds, act on this promise and be changed by it! God has made his home in the midst of his creation, first with the birth of Jesus, and then with the coming of his Spirit at Pentecost. He resides in his people. He is present, near; "immanent" is the fancy theological word. He is here.
Simeon and Anna operated outside the conduits of power in Jerusalem. They were both old, which by itself didn't disqualify them from being powerful; but we read that they spent most of their time in the temple not working the political machine but praying. Prayer is the refuge of the weak. We do not cry out to God if we think we can solve our own problems. I'm always amazed how many people tell me they don't pray about their own issues because they figure God has more important things to do, and they should just solve it themselves. As if that was somehow noble! Instead what they're saying is that they can control their own lives just fine, but they might be willing to pray about the lives of others whom they cannot control. Keep your distance, God, I'm doing okay here, and I know you're just so busy. 
Do you hear what that says? God is busy, must feel overworked (we have completely misunderstood the nature of God) and so since he is to taxed to take care of me I will take care of myself. What we do in effect is we refuse to call him "Lord" (whether we use that word or not) and we like petulant three year olds say, "I can do it myself." Why would you not pray about your own concerns? 
Two reasons I can see, The first is that we don't trust God and we believe deep down that he will do things that are not in our best interest if we give him free reign. This is a hard belief to confront because our words, perhaps for decades, have talked about God's faithfulness and goodness but under that shell we have not believed it. It is refreshing for me to meet someone like the man I spoke to shortly before Christmas who said, "I'm not sure I can trust God." That kind of honesty opens the door for God to work.
The second reason is that we are just so terrified of giving up control, and prayer by its very nature demands that we let go of our problems, even if we scoop them right back up at the end of the prayer. So for us to resist prayer may mean we don't want to give up control. The flimsy excuse that we're trying to save God the trouble is just laughable when you think about it.
Simeon and Anna were people of prayer. Luke says this explicitly about Anna, and we know it about Simeon because he hears the voice of God, recognizes it as God's voice, and obeys it. That comes with long practice of listening prayer. They did not spend their time and energy trying to gain control or power -- the pursuit of politics, whether in religion or in governance. They spent their lives knowing God. What a different kind of ambition this is! Rather than seeking power or control, they see their own powerlessness and acknowledge that God is at work, as he has promised, sending Jesus. And because they have been seeking God rather than their own ends, they have eyes to see the Messiah when he comes.
May God grant us such hearts and such eyes!