Part 2 – Luke 2:8-14

The second part (vv. 8-14) interprets this birth. Using the form of an announcement story Luke tells of (1) the appearance of an angel, of the fear of the shepherds, of the message they were given, and of the sign which confirmed it (2) Added to the announcement is a canticle. A heavenly host joins the angels in offering praise to God for this event and proclaims peace to people with whom God is pleased.(3)

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

The Shepherds

Luke is the only gospel writer who shares with us that marvelous encounter of the angels visiting the shepherds at night and singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 

  1. “Now there were in the same country shepherds.” Bethlehem’s shepherds were known to care for the temple flock. These men may have been protecting and caring for the sacrificial lambs.
  2. “Living out in the fields.” Many have said that a late December date is impossible, because shepherds would not have been out at night at that time of year. Nevertheless, warm winters are not unknown in Judea, which has a climate remarkably like Southern California.

The fields now shown as “Shepherds’ Fields” are some two miles from Bethlehem, toward the Dead Sea, below the snow line. Those who regard the Lucan information as historical have tried to date the birth of Jesus between March and November when the shepherds would be out in the fields.

Already by the time of Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200) there were theories that Jesus was born on May 20 (25 Pachon) or April 20-21 (24-25 Pharmuth), as he mentions in the Stromata I 21 (~~145-46). It is most unlikely that any reliable tradition about the exact date of birth would have survived.

Who are they ?

While shepherds could be romanticized (as was King David), they were usually ranked with ass drivers, tanners, sailors, butchers, camel drivers, and other despised occupations. Being away from home at night they were unable to protect their women, hence considered dishonorable. In addition, they often were considered thieves because they grazed their flocks on other people’s property.  Their lifestyle and schedule did not allow them to go to the synagogue and so they were outcasts from religious life.

In the first century, shepherds were people who had few skills, no resources, and little family.

The testimony of shepherds was not admissible in court, and many towns had ordinances barring shepherds from their city limits. The religious establishment took a particularly dim view of shepherds since the regular exercise of shepherds’ duties kept them from observing the Sabbath and rendered them ritually unclean. The Pharisees classed shepherds with tax collectors and prostitutes, persons who were “sinners” by virtue of their vocation.           

Lutheran Minister, David Lose – “I think that by playing out this redemptive story on the fringe of things, just where you’d least expect God to be, God is telling us that the way things usually are just isn’t good enough.”  God didn’t come in Jesus to make things a little better, a little more bearable. God came to turn over the tables, to create a whole new system, to resurrect and redeem us rather than merely rehabilitate us.”

However, if one remembers that the Lucan shepherds are linked very closely with Bethlehem, the city of David the shepherd, it is far more likely that the primary symbolism is to be sought in the Jewish background.

In Mishnah Shekalim 7:4 we are told that animals found between Jerusalem and Migdal Eder (near Bethlehem) were used for Temple sacrifice, and this tradition has been invoked as support for the idea that the Lucan shepherds in the region near Bethlehem were especially sacred shepherds.  Migdal Eder is mentioned twice in the OT, Gen 35:21 and Micah 4:8, both times in proximity to a mention of Bethlehem (Gen 35:19 and Micah 5:1).

They shift the scene from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and City of David – Luke’s reference to shepherds pasturing their flock in the region of Bethlehem (2:8) may reflect his understanding that Migdal Eder, the Tower of the Flock of Micah 4:8, is in the environs of Bethlehem rather than at Jerusalem.

The birth of the Messiah, according to Luke, has the power to lift up the lowly, the despised, and the violent (1:52). And these shepherds, whose vocation for the authorial audience at first conjures up an image of a despised and potentially violent group, by their actions—finding the child and “glorifying and praising God”—align themselves with the more positive portrait of the good shepherd, an image already evoked by the mention of the city of  David, who was, of course, himself a shepherd before becoming king. The very form of the story reinforces the final positive impression of the shepherds.

God always does things upside down, backwards to the front and reverse to forward.

Both the setting and the characters would alert the audience that God had chosen to disclose the birth of the Messiah in a dangerous place to a violence prone  group. Sparsely populated countrysides throughout the Roman Empire were havens for vagabonds and thieves, a motif developed fully by Luke.

It parallels a connection to the marginalized, the lowly, and the common and often unacceptable people of first century Judea that will be present throughout Jesus’ life and ministry.

It reminds us that these are the very people who Jesus will invite to be part of the Kingdom of God. These are the very people Jesus wants at a banquet of the Kingdom of God (14:13, 21). What a glimpse into his future life this birth story provides.

Yet—in a detail recounted only in Luke’s gospel—the angel who announced Jesus’s birth came to these lowly and unwanted people, not just to accept them, but to honor them and rejoice with them. Notably, they were also the only witnesses of Jesus’s birth. As for Mary, although she is clearly the central figure in the scene, she remained silent throughout, as she had during her pregnancy, holding her experience “in her heart.”

Perhaps the shepherds could receive the news of God’s reign with pure hearts. Jesus will later thank God (Luke 10:21) for having “hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to infants.

And Luke gives no hint that Jesus is anything special: there is no angel over the stable because the angels are over in the field with the shepherds. In fact, Mary and Joseph only hear of angelic activity because the shepherds tell them.

But then again, perhaps it is precisely the despised and the disreputable who are most in need of – and receptive to – the Good News of peace on earth and God’s good will. To Luke they probably represented the common people, the lowly, the persons loved and befriended by Luke’s Jesus (cf. Luke 19:10).

Spend enough time in the field, shunned by decent and religious folk, disappointed by God, or overwhelmed by grief, and we stop caring that we are outsiders. We give up trying to get inside religion, or even on God, to get on with life. But God does not give up on us. God sends angels to people who have given up on God. How would you respond to God sending angels to you when you’d given up on God? Like the shepherds, I’d be terrified.

The image of the shepherd also is a reminder that King David, soon to be mentioned yet again, was also a shepherd. Shepherds–lowly, unpretentious shepherds–have found the chief shepherd–the shepherd who seeks lost sheep until he finds them.

The climax of the story is the response of the shepherds.  Upon hearing this news, decide among themselves to go to  Bethlehem to see “this thing which has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us” (2:15). 

Why as the Angel’s message be a shock to them? Three reasons:

1 An infant?

Who expected the Messiah would have to “grow up?

2 In Bethlehem?

Yes, the prophets had foretold that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, but even the greatest religious minds of Jerusalem did not figure that out until after the magi had arrived from the east.

We don’t expect “big things” to come by unassuming means and from humble circumstances; yet that is another antecedent to understanding the Messiah’s intrinsic character.

3 Defenseless and vulnerable, unassuming and humble. Do we see why we often miss the “Real Jesus” not just at Christmas but throughout our entire lives?

There it is, the angels turn their commission over to “mere shepherds.” These are the first evangelicals of the Good News. These shepherds – with no religious training – innately take the intentional action that many of us  “in the religious trade” neglect (or prefer to forget).

Now their human voices were added to the heavenly host, glorifying and praising God.

This is the ultimate response to divine action. The shepherds, being Jewish, worshiped God rather than the infant in the manger. The idea that Jesus himself as Son of God was also worthy of worship became clearer after his resurrection. The Magi, on the other hand, who were Gentile, were more at ease to worship the child Jesus (Matthew 2:11).

They were familiar from their Scriptures with the biblical stories of David, the shepherd from Bethlehem (I Sam. 16:11); and they  knew the prophetic expectation that out of Bethlehem would come forth a ruler of Israel (Micah 5:2,4). Also as denizens of the Hellenistic world, they would have known that shepherds commonly were present at the births of heroes and gods.

The shepherds share what they have learned.  Already, we get signs of the mutuality and reciprocity of the kingdom of God.  The shepherds share with each other, and with Joseph and Mary–no privileged information here.  The words of the shepherds stir “all” who hear them.  They return praising God.

-Shepherds hear the word, believe and praise God.

-Symbolize an Israel that has at least recognized its Lord (know at last the manger of their Lord).

-Hearers who are astonished at the news (2:18).

-Astonishment not necessarily belief.

-Like those in the Parable of the Seed (Luke 8:13) who “hear the word, receive it with joy, but have no root.”

Luke’s account of this angelic utterance ends with the reaction of the shepherds. At first, they probably stood in amazement, asking themselves, What next?

Yet they did choose to take the short journey to the stable, and after seeing the Child in the manger just as they had been promised, and spreading the word to all who would listen, they return to their fields praising and glorifying God, probably singing the same Gloria they had just heard from the angels. The shepherds’ impulse to sing emerged from the realization that God was completely for them.

Mention of their flocks may be intended to evoke memories of the Migdal Eder, “Tower of the Flock,” in Micah, identified as where the kingdom would be restored and fulfilled (Micah identifies it with Jersusalem.)

In Targum Pseudo-Jonathan translation of Genesis 35:21, identified as where the King Messiah will be revealed at the end of day.”

Luke may be trying to identify the Tower of the Flock with Bethlehem.

The Angels

Luke is telling us that the angels of heaven recognized at the beginning of Jesus’ life what the disciples came to know only at the end, namely, the presence of the Messiah King who comes in the name of the Lord.

Angels sing out of the darkness and light shines in the darkness, where Shepherds live.

How do they respond to Jesus ? They worship him, they serve and obey him, they proclaim him as savior.

Luke’s idea of introducing an angelic hymn in praise of what God had done at Bethlehem corresponds to the idea found in roughly contemporary Jewish literature that, when the angels saw what God had done in creation, they sang a hymn of praise

After the single angel’s announcement, a whole group of angels appeared. This was a heavenly host (a band of soldiers) that proclaimed peace. The world needed them and needs now peace.

The Song of the Angels has great historical significance and contemporary meaning for us. Gloria in Excelsis the title taken from the first line in the Latin Vulgate of this canticle, means “Glory to God in the highest.” This angelic utterance has become one of the most sacred texts of Christian liturgy.

Certainly, part of the attraction to the Gloria over the centuries has to do with the fact that it is indeed a song of the angels. 

An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.

And angels played a most important role in the Christmas story visiting significant characters like Joseph and Mary, Zechariah and the shepherds. The word “angel” simply means “messenger.”

Angels in the Old Testament often appeared as human beings (Genesis 18:1-2). Jewish belief in angels as supernatural beings developed sometime between 400 B.C. and the time of Jesus.

In the Bible God’s presence is often symbolized by intense light, fire, or lightning. The glory of God is often associated with the tabernacle or the temple in the Old Testament (Exodus 40:35). Luke connects the birth of Jesus with the Old Testament by using its language and imagery.

In the Christmas story they are Gods messengers, representing God to the people. In other words, they give to us a further glimpse of who God is and what God intends to do.

This is why the usual reaction to angels in the Christmas story includes an element of fear. Hence the first words of the angel to shepherds standing in the fields were, “Do not be afraid.”

The same thing happened earlier with Zechariah and Mary (1:11-13, 28-30). This was also the case in the Old Testament (Judges 12:22). Luke was following a familiar pattern.

11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.

Luke’s three favorite titles for Jesus appear in this verse: Savior, Christ, and Lord. In Luke 1:47 Mary calls God her Savior. But now the angel applies that title to Jesus, thus attributing to Jesus the same qualities that belong to God. It is ironic that Roman emperors and other rulers were also called saviors.

In Acts 2:36, Peter says that God made Jesus both Lord and Christ by raising him from the dead. But Luke wants to make it clear that Jesus was destined to be Christ and Lord even at his birth.

Originally, Christ was the Greek word for the Hebrew term Messiah, which meant anointed. In the Old Testament, David was anointed as king. Later kings usurped the royal throne without bothering with a divine anointing. Israelite prophets longed for a king who would be truly anointed of God to do His bidding.

Jesus identified himself as the anointed of the Lord when he quoted the words of Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:17-21).

The third title given to Jesus is Lord. In the OT this title was used for Yahweh, the almighty God. But now this new-born, helpless infant is called the Lord. What a paradox! The irony of it all is that the mighty Roman emperors were also given the title Lord.

The angel told the shepherds that this Baby was born in the town of David. As descendant of David, Jesus was to be a king. Here is another link between the story of Jesus and the Old Testament.

The angel went on to say that the message he was bringing from God was “good news of great joy”—not bad news of impending disaster. Indeed, many Jewish people at that time believed that the appearance of spirits during the night foreshadowed disaster, so the angel immediately reassures the shepherds that nothing could be further from the truth.

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Heard Glory from Angels

Glory is certainly the theme of this nativity experience of the shepherds. As Paul -Gordon Chandler relates in Songs in Waiting , “This theme is most magnificently captured by Rembrandt in an etching and engraving he did of this scene. There, in the middle of a Judean night, the darkness was shattered, as if the light were a hundred suns; the night sky came alive with the radiance of angels, in full view of the shepherds tending to their flocks in the darkness. What had been a silent night for those shepherds was suddenly resounding with the beating of thousands and thousands of the bright wings of angels, and also sound of their voices, like trumpets, singing a hymn of praise.”

An angel tells the startled shepherds not to fear, for his message is full of joy: “a Savior has been born to you.” And suddenly the angel is joined by thousands more, all praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace.” The universe seems to provide a stage, with Jesus as the drama.

An outstanding storyteller who knew how to use words to “paint the scenes” of Jesus’ life in vivid detail And in the same portrait Luke gives us the most popular of the songs sung in honor of the Christ Child’s birth, the Gloria, the song of the angels to the shepherds.

The Advent and Christmas seasons remind us that singing is an integral part of our own celebration. Today this is nowhere more evident than on Christmas Eve just outside the eastern part of Bethlehem, when carols are sung at a twilight service held on the Shepherds’ Fields

Luke’s idea of introducing an angelic hymn in praise of what God had done at Bethlehem corresponds to the idea found in roughly contemporary Jewish literature that, when the angels saw what God had done in creation, they sang a hymn of praise

Author Raymond Brown “The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke” – “It seems feasible that this canticle was originally composed by a community of Jewish Christian Anawim. If the Qumran Anawim could compose hymns for the angels to sing, so could a Christian community of similar piety and liturgical interest (§ 12, footnote 47). The Gloria  is so brief that one can scarcely compare it to the Magnificat and the Benedictus, although like them it begins on the theme of the praise of God  -an occupation of the Jerusalem community described in Acts 2:47.”

Brown’s thesis is this was an addition originally applied to a moment later in Jesus career

For the Christians that election and favor centered around the revelation to them that Jesus was the Messiah. In Luke/Acts the closest parallel to the Gloria is the liturgical acclamation at the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Only in the Lucan account (19:38) does the multitude of the disciples praise the king who comes in the name of the Lord by shouting aloud:

“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.”

It is a fascinating touch that the multitude of the heavenly host proclaims peace on earth, while a multitude of the earthly disciples proclaims peace in heaven-the passages could constitute antiphonal responses.

Glory represents two characteristics:

  1. The Goodness of God

->The word “glory” in Hebrew comes from a root word that means “weighty/’ indicating that their message was of tremendous importance. 

->”Glory” was a word used by the Jews at that time as an attempt to describe the very nature of God. Throughout the Scriptures “glory” largely refers to the “display of God’s character,” implying a disclosure by God of who God is: an expression of God’s active presence. Therefore, when the angels sing the Gloria, they are saying that Christ’s birth is ultimately about revealing God’s character, demonstrating the very heart of the Divine.

->” The angels are singing that Christ’s birth is fundamentally about the goodwill of God, meaning divine pleasure —God’s favor toward us, God’s grace among us.

->Jesus embodied a divine affirmation: an affirmation that God embraces us all. The core message of Christmas, of Christ s birth, what we call the Incarnation, is that God is all about being for us. This affirmation stands against a commonly held view still today that God is a God of punishment and reprimand, a God who looks down more in anger and displeasure than in love.

And it must be said that there are many passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that would seem to uphold such a mistaken view of God, for the experience of suffering by the Jewish people often led them to believe that God was punishing them for their sins. Yet in the same Scriptures there are also many moments when the loving nature of God was glimpsed and understood. When Moses, standing on Mount Sinai in asked to see Gods “glory,” for example, the Lord replied, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you” (Exodus 33:19). In other words, “the glory of God,” meaning the “character of God,” is fundamentally total goodness: Gods deepest desire is goodwill toward us, his creation.

Glory – honor that men and angels apply to God

  1. Shalaam for All

10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.

Use of the definite article “the” makes this a reference to Israel. However, Gentiles are also included in God’s salvation. Simeon will make that point a little later in 2:32.

Luke is fond of the word today and uses it repeatedly to mean the present period of salvation brought about by Jesus (4:21; 5:26). Salvation is not something to be expected only in the future at the second coming of Jesus or in heaven after death. It can be experienced here and now. “Today salvation has come to this house,” says Jesus to Zacchaeus (Luke 19:9).

After praising God’s glory the angels go on to sing of peace on earth, emphasizing that God’s desire for all people is peace. The heart of God, demonstrated in the giving of Christ, is that we all experience God’s peace, what is called in Hebrew ohalom and in Arabic Balaam.

Shalom does not primarily mean the cessation of conflict, but rather the experience of “complete wholeness.” It is a word that tells us that God’s deepest desire, embodying the heart of God, is to look after our total welfare. Throughout the Arab world the standard first greeting is Salaam aleikuum, a beautiful phrase that simply means “God’s peace be upon you,” but is widely understood as bestowing on the other God’s blessing

The angel’s pronouncement of peace to all stands in contrast to the peace offered at that time by the Roman emperor, a peace referred to as the Pax Romana. The Roman peace was imposed and kept by harsh military rule and required the submission of conquered peoples; here, the shepherds were being offered the peace of God.

We live in a world that is made up of hurting people, and God is in the business of healing, forgiving, restoring, giving new beginnings: making people whole

During the twenty centuries since the Christ Child was born, countless people have been transformed by their relationship with him, seeing in him the power of God to bring light into our darkness, and to give us a new kind of life.

The angels message to the shepherds was that “A Savior has been born”; a very special deliverer had come to them. We needed to be rescued from another dimension. So at Christmas we are reminded that God enters our world to bring salvation and wholeness. Or, as Simone Weil, the late French Jewish writer, expressed it so well, “God is longing to come down to those in affliction.” And further, the angels tell us this good news of peace, this promised wholeness, this goodwill of God toward us, is “for all the people.”

The message of the angels is that Gods love, demonstrated by the sending of the Christ Child, was for all people, not just for the Jews or the “religious,” as it was so often believed then. Luke continues throughout his gospel to emphasize that God’s love is for all equally, putting great emphasis on Jesus’ loving treatment of the poor, of women, the gentiles (non-Jews), and those considered “dishonorable” or “disreputable” in that society.

In Luke’s nativity story this all-encompassing love is symbolized by the fact that the Christ Child’s first visitors weren’t of high status; they weren’t powerful, religious, or wealthy. They were common laborers, shepherds to whom God had spoken in the middle of the night. At that time, shepherds were considered spiritually and religiously unclean, as they weren’t able to keep all the religious ceremonial laws due to their occupation, so they were despised and not even allowed into the temple.

As a result of the birth of the Christ Child, we understand that any and every dimension of life can become an arena of God’s extraordinary saving activity. This is why Christians celebrate Christmas as the single greatest moment in all of human history, as a character in C. S. Lewis’s novel Perelandra says, “What had happened on Earth when [GodJ was born a man at Bethlehem had altered the universe forever.”10 Not only did God come to us in Jesus to deliver us, God also came to share our lives, and all that life brings to us, the good and the bad, in a way that simply staggers the human imagination.

When Matthew, in writing his account of Christ s birth, searched for a way to distill the essence of that first Christmas, he reached back seven hundred years to borrow a single verse from the book of Isaiah, and captured its truth in a single Hebrew word. Matthew first quotes from Isaiah: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” Hebrew word which Matthew then translates for his readers, saying, “which means, ‘God with us.’” By quoting this verse from Isaiah in his nativity story Matthew thus tells us that “God with us” is not just a translation of a Hebrew word, but a translation of the display of the loving heart of God. In the birth of this Child we see that God does not abandon us, Matthew affirms, but instead is Immanuel— one with us, so that we may experience God s heart for us fully

In a divine descent, God entered our world to embrace and show us pure love. Therefore, regardless of whether we feel God’s presence or not, God is near. We don t climb our way to heaven or to God, but rather God comes down to us, moving among and within us, making our ordinary lives extraordinary by his presence.

The Christmas story is about God s commitment to us. Christmas is not our show, it is Gods. Christmas is a divine initiative, when God establishes a tangible relationship of love which Jesus represents. The secret to understanding the angels ‘ song, and therefore really the secret of Christmas, is that it isn’t about giving to God, but rather it is about receiving God most fully into our lives. The only one giving in this story is God. We have only to receive this holy miracle that breaks into the night, even in the darkest nights of our lives. God is the central character of this Christmas story, and therefore in all our stories. 

Luke’s account of this angelic utterance ends with the reaction of the shepherds. At first, they probably stood in amazement, asking themselves, What next?

Yet they did choose to take the short journey to the stable, and after seeing the Child in the manger just as they had been promised, and spreading the word to all who would listen, they return to their fields praising and glorifying God, probably singing the same Gloria they had just heard from the angels. The shepherds’ impulse to sing emerged from the realization that God was completely for them, m the deepest dimension.

As we prepare during Advent for our response to God this Christmas, perhaps “keeping Jesus warm, in our own lives and hearts is really what it is about.”

 

 

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