I did preach the Sunday morning sermon on Easter 2001, but I’ve never preached a Sunday morning sermon on Christmas. I will not be preaching on Christmas morning in 2011 either, though part of me wishes I were. Luke’s version of the Nativity has been part of my imagination since I can remember, certainly before I was baptized. I wish I could say that I was an avid Bible-reader as a youngster, but like many my age, I come to Luke’s version of Christ’s birth first through Charlie Brown and only later through the New International Version.
When Luke sets about telling the Nativity story, he frames the whole act in a series of sent messages. Caesar issues a decree, then God sends angels, then the shepherds go and make known. I have little desire to revisit debates about early Imperial census-taking practices; enough ink has been spilled there. What’s far more interesting is the movement from messenger to messenger. The people carrying Caesar’s decree never appear in Luke’s text, though certainly most readers can imagine the official agents of power as they declare in the provinces that life as the people know it must cease so that Caesar can exert and display and bolster his own power. The Empire’s message finds the people as they are and declares, under penalty of Rome’s harsh wrath, that those who hear must go.
When the angels come, their message relies far more on the compelling grandeur of the message itself: they do not command the shepherds to do anything. Instead the angelic decree declares that the Christ, the Lord, is born to all people, for all people. The angels tell the shepherds that when they come to the city of David they will see certain things, but the shepherds go there on their own, compelled by hope rather than coerced by fear. Though they fill the field (or the sky, if you’re going with traditional iconography), the Heavenly Host themselves remain secondary to the proclamation. The shepherds do not talk of angels but of kings when they depart; the young Messiah is himself enough warrant for them to get on the move.
The shepherds themselves are the perfect third element of Luke’s tale of tidings: with no power to coerce and without the splendor of the angels of Heaven, the shepherds, as Luke tells the story, simply make known what they had witnessed. Foreshadowing what the resurrected Jesus says of his disciples in the opening of Acts, the shepherds go and become witnesses. And despite the shepherds’ own social standing, people are amazed by the things to which they bear witness. Thus in microcosm, the Nativity in Luke takes the shape of the whole of Luke-Acts: the powers of the world exert their might to move people by fear, then an act of Heaven strikes the lowly and inspires them to bear witness, and in the end, the true wonder and marvel of it all lies not with the might of Rome or even with the splendor of the angels but with the lowly witnesses, telling stories not of their own heroic might but of the wonderful salvation of God which, entirely by grace, they’ve been able to see.
As Advent gives way to Christmas and winter to the growing light of day, may our own lives as witnesses to the gospel bring wonder to all those who have ears to hear.