I could have chosen any number of paragraphs in Luke 1 and 2 or Matthew 1 and 2 as a text for the sermon I am about to preach. The particular fact and its implication lie on the face of the Christmas narrative in both Gospels. But this glorious climax of that narrative, perhaps the most famous paragraph in all the Bible, will certainly serve my purpose as well as any if not better.
- It is a point of the greatest conceivable importance that the narrative of the birth of Jesus is rooted in history as it is: during the reign of Augustus and while Quirinius was governor. This will continue throughout the gospels and, indeed, to the end of the New Testament. These wonderful things happened in those days, under those governments. Later the same point will be made: Jesus died during the reign of Tiberius, during the governorship of Pontius Pilate, while Caiaphas was high priest. Whatever others may sometimes think or say, this is not mythology in any accepted sense of the word. The authors of the Gospels were writing what everyone understands to be history. People will make their judgments about whether these reports faithfully reproduce what happened, but there can be no mistaking the fact that the Gospel writers intend their readers to understand that these events occurred in precisely the same way that Augustus’ reign or Quirinius’ governorship occurred. Christ’s birth was a real event in the real world in the same way that taxes are real! And we all know how real taxes are! Into the everyday world of that time, into its population, its politics, and into its social currents, came suddenly and unexpectedly from heaven this mighty and wonderful interruption.
- ‘Bethlehem.’ Luke never actually says in this passage that any OT prophecy is here being fulfilled. But, just as Malachi 3 and 4 lay behind Gabriel’s message to Zechariah and Isaiah 7 lay beneath his message to Mary, without Luke actually saying so, so Micah 5:2‑5 lies unmistakably beneath the history he is reporting here, and the lesson is all the more effective for his understatement of that fact.
Events conspire to ensure that the birth will occur in Bethlehem – even a pagan emperor’s need for revenue is made to contribute to the unfolding of God’s salvation – and, in Bethlehem, a mother gives birth to a prince of ancient lineage who will shepherd the scattered flock of Israel and extend his authority to the ends of the earth, proclaiming peace! That pretty well wraps up Micah’s prediction!
- The fields today identified as “Shepherds’ Fields” are some two miles from Bethlehem, toward the Dead Sea, and below the snow line. It is wonderful to imagine David as a young man, centuries before, walking over these same fields, tending to his father’s flocks, fighting off the lion and the bear. The text does not say that Jesus was born at night; that thought is taken over from the time of the appearance of the angels to the shepherds, which could have been hours or even a few days after the Lord’s birth.
- “The Lord” The shepherds instinctively realized the significance of a word spoken or sung by angels. God had spoken to them.
I want to reflect with you, this Christmas Eve, on the simple fact, obvious to any observant reader of the Christmas narrative in Matthew and Luke, that the participants in this high drama and this incomparable history were simple people; ordinary, unremarkable, and unknown outside the small circles of their personal acquaintance. In this history we encounter people of substance, to be sure. The name of the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, begins the account of the Lord’s birth and shortly after that the name of one of his governors, Quirinius. Everyone in the world knew the name, Caesar Augustus, and everyone in the Levant would have known who Quirinius was. In Matthew chapter 2, Rome’s client king, Herod, is mentioned along with the chief priests and the theologians of Jerusalem. These were all important people, well-known people, at least to the Jews in the capital. None of these people, however, had any real interest in what was transpiring at that time. They were either utterly ignorant – as the Roman emperor and the Roman governor –carelessly indifferent – as the priests and theologians of Jerusalem – or irrationally and bitterly fearful – as the paranoid King Herod. The role these people play in the unfolding drama of the incarnation of God the Son is entirely unintentional. Their unbelief reduces them to pawns who, quite unaware and unwitting, serve the interests of the coming King.
The only people of real consequence, as the world measures such a thing, who play a willing role in this history are the unnamed Magi who travel from the East to offer their worship to the newborn King of Kings. They beautifully portend the faith, love, and loyalty that would soon be given to this same Jesus by men and women of every tongue, tribe, and nation of the earth. But much as we are meant to admire them and as important as their appearance in Bethlehem is, we don’t know their names, we don’t know from what country they came, we don’t even know how many of them there were. There were three gifts, but the Bible does not say that there were three wise men, still less that their names were Balthasar, Melchior, and Caspar. What is more, they appear after the fact, after Jesus was already born, perhaps weeks, even months after he was born.
The dramatis personae in the story of the birth of the Savior of the world, the cast of this drama, all the major players who are named in the biblical account, are otherwise insignificant people. No one would have ever imagined that they should have played the key roles in the greatest events that ever occurred in the history of mankind. They themselves were living altogether ordinary lives, expecting nothing but more of the same, when into their daily round came fearfully, suddenly, utterly unexpectedly, the voice of God. Had they not been taken up into the coming of the King no one would ever have known of any of these people, their names would have disappeared from history as soon as their lives ended, and during their lives they would have been known only by a small circle of acquaintances.
We begin with Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. It was to Zechariah that the angel Gabriel appeared and broke the four hundred year silence. It had been four centuries since the Lord had last spoken directly and immediately to a human being – the prophet Malachi – that day when Zechariah entered the Holy Place to burn incense and received the news that his old and barren wife was to bear the forerunner of the Messiah. Four hundred years is a long time. The pilgrims had not yet set foot on Plymouth Rock four hundred years ago! But why should God have at last spoken to such a small man as Zechariah?
Zechariah was a rural priest. He lived in a village in the hill country of Judea. He didn’t live in Jerusalem. On the occasion of Gabriel’s appearance he was there because his division had rotated into service at the temple and he himself had been chosen by lot to offer incense. There were many priests and none was ever offered this honor twice; many never were given the privilege to offer incense. So it was an old man’s lucky day! Had the angel not appeared, he would have gone home happy that at least once in his life he had been able to enter the Holy Place of the temple and burn incense in that sacred room. His wife was an older woman by this time as well. They were a dear couple, but unremarkable; like many others in the church of God who have lived with sorrow. Their sorrow was that they had no children. They were godly people, representative of that holiness which, in a time of spiritual deadness, still survives in the church. But, nobody knew who these people were outside their village. They came to Jerusalem and they left for home and no one in the capital was the wiser. Little people like them came and went all the time.
And so with Joseph and Mary. From Nazareth: a town so inconsequential that it is not mentioned in the Old Testament, in the Apocrypha, in the writings of Josephus, or in the Talmud. Joseph was a tradesman. Whether it would be correct to call him a poor man is a question, but he certainly was not a man of means. When it came time for him to consecrate his firstborn son to the Lord in the temple, he qualified to offer the sacrifice of two birds rather than the much more expensive lamb. Mary was his fiancée; from the same town, a maiden among the thousands of other Jewish maidens dreaming of a home and family of her own. No doubt Joseph and Mary had no other plans but of making a life together in Nazareth, raising their children and waiting, like the other faithful people of the land, for the consolation of Israel. They belong most emphatically to that vast multitude of people of whom we would know absolutely nothing were it not for their having been chosen to participate in the arrival of the King of Kings.
How inconsequential and unremarkable these people in fact were is powerfully attested by how little attention the New Testament pays to them after the birth of Jesus. Jesus is several times identified in the Gospels as the son of Joseph, but otherwise, after the birth narratives themselves, Joseph is mentioned in his own right not once again in the New Testament. Apparently he died a comparatively young man, after he and Mary had had a number of children, because the silence of the Gospels concerning him is most naturally explained by the fact that by the time Jesus began his ministry Joseph was already dead. The fact that mention is made of Mary on a number of occasions in the Gospels makes that conclusion even more certain. She was a widow and that accounts for her being mentioned but not her husband.
But, fact is, not much is made of her either. She appears on a few occasions during the ministry of the Lord Jesus, usually in a group of others, but we hear nothing really of her life, of what sort of woman she was, even very little of what she thought about her firstborn son. She is mentioned in Acts 1 as being among the disciples in Jerusalem waiting for the descent of the Holy Spirit, but she is not mentioned again in the New Testament. Despite the emphasis some would later place upon her, the New Testament itself makes nothing of Mary in its teaching about the Christian faith and life. Her great service was to bear the Savior of the world. Otherwise she was and continued to be an ordinary, unremarkable believing woman. Like every other Christian her life takes on its significance solely from her connection to Jesus.
And the same may be said of the shepherds, who are the first public to receive the news of the birth of the King. The Christmas narrative has cast such an aura of sanctity around this group of shepherds that we tend to idealize them and their occupation. We tend to think that the angels would, of course, have made their announcement to shepherds because nothing would be more appropriately beautiful, nor so fitting on a Christmas card, than that bucolic scene on a hillside outside Bethlehem: men in robes with staffs sitting around a fire, with cute sheep in the background. As a matter of fact, however, shepherds were not viewed generally in Judea at this time in such a positive light. Their manner of life made strict religious observance difficult or impossible, consequently they were looked down on by the more seriously religious, and, what is more, their profession did not have the best moral reputation. These men are the forerunners of the so-called “sinners” who would fill up Jesus’ congregations when he began to preach and who would hear him gladly when the upright folk found only reasons to criticize. We wonder about the future life of these shepherds – to whom they told their tale of that wonderful night – but they disappear from history once they leave the holy family that same night, never to be heard from again, no doubt having returned to their life, changed men but still as simple and ordinary as before.
And still we are not done. Simeon was an old man when he saw the Lord as a baby in the temple. He was a good man, a faithful man. It could be said of him what it can be said of every truly good man: his hopes in life would be fulfilled by the coming of the Messiah. But if he had been a priest or a theologian, Luke no doubt would have told us. If he had occupied some significant position in the government of Judea or if he had ever occupied such a position, no doubt that piece of information would have been given to us. Simeon was a common name among the Jews of that time. It was the name, you remember, of one of the tribes of Israel. It was a name like the four most common names given to American boys: Michael, Daniel, Joshua, and David. There were Simeons everywhere in those days. There are a number of other Simeons in the Bible, as you know. And, like the other actors in this drama, as soon as Simeon comes on stage and speaks his lines – his immortal Nunc Dimittis and his prophecy of the effect of Jesus’ life upon Israel and upon his mother – he quietly exits the stage never to reappear.
And after Simeon we have Anna, an old widow in her mid-eighties who had spent her long life alone in prayer and devotion. A godly woman, a beautiful woman, but, like most women of her time and of any time, an invisible woman; known to her loved ones and to a few friends – perhaps as well to some of the temple staff because she came to worship every day – but unknown and inconsequential in every other way. A woman and a widow in the ancient world, two reasons for no one to know who she was or to care. But she was given insight and understanding at that moment when she encountered the holy family in the temple and her name and her recognition of the Lord in his early infancy were enshrined forever in the book of God.
Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna. In our culture, even in the church and in our families, we tend to think of Christmas as a holiday supremely for children. But the historical narrative of the birth of Christ as we find it in Matthew and Luke is not about children. It is much more about old people with broken dreams and about God’s faithfulness to his ancient promises revealed to weary faith.
And of course the insignificance of the people chosen to participate in the story of the world’s salvation is an important theme in Holy Scripture. Why Israel in the first place? The Lord explains in Deut. 7 that it was certainly not because of Israel’s status or stature among the nations of the world, for she had none of that. It was not due to her goodness; for she had little of that either. It was because of his love for her. And why the tax collectors, the sinners, the ordinary people who populate the entourage of the Lord Jesus once his public ministry began? Well the proud and the self-satisfied had no need for Jesus, or so they thought. As Jesus himself said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” [Luke 5:31-32]
And the indifference and the outright hostility to the incarnate Son of God among the great people of this world has been a constant theme of human history ever since. A 19th century theologian wrote a book in defense of Christianity entitled: On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. And a book of that title could have been written in every age of church history and could be written today. The cultured despisers of our faith, the Jerusalem theologians, Herod the King, the Roman politicians, the comfortable well-to-do in Judea, exist in still larger numbers today; their identity has not changed. The surprise would be if we were to find that the high and mighty were suddenly as full of joy over the coming of the incarnate Son of God as the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna had been. But it has never been so. History has continued in the same way as it unfolded in those days in Jerusalem, Judea, and Bethlehem. The great folk show no interest or open hostility; the simple folk are drawn up into the salvation of God.
And so it would continue. Speaking to the congregation he founded in Corinth, Paul would later write:
“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.”
So it was at the first Christmas; so it has continued to be to this very day. To be sure, the Lord does not leave himself without a witness to the high and the mighty. Some of the world’s greatest kings, some of its greatest minds, some of its greatest warriors, some of its greatest artists, some of its most accomplished scientists and inventors and musicians and men of exploits have been followers of Jesus Christ. Lest there be any thought that the truth of Jesus Christ cannot satisfy a great mind or a great vision, there have always been Christians in the upper echelon of human society. But the vast majority of us have been Zechariahs and Elizabeths, Josephs and Marys, shepherds, Simeons, and Annas. We are of the sort who has little to boast of except our connection to him, to the baby, to the King, the Christ, the Savior, the Lord.
That truth lies on the face of the Christmas narrative in the Gospels, so clearly that he who runs may read. But we are not inclined to see it or to take the truth to heart. We do not glory in our weakness, our smallness, our insignificance as we should. We crave the limelight, we long for a name, a reputation, our fifteen minutes of fame, we want wealth and power, forgetting that it was, by and large, the great people who could not see the glory of God when it shone around them and it was the humble and the small folk who received the word with joy and became immortal as a result.
Jesus came into the world in lowliness and humility and so he remained invisible to the proud. Only those who were lowly themselves were able to see him. To be sure, there is an outward lowliness and an inward lowliness and those who are poor and whose condition in this world is very low are not necessarily lowly in heart. But it is still much easier for them and much more common for them to see Christ for who he is and what he has come to do than it is for the high and the mighty. And the reason is simple.
“Prosperity knits a man to the world. He feels that he is finding his place in it, while it is really finding its place in him.” [Screwtape Letters, xxviii]
Or, as the brilliant French Jewess, later Christian philosopher, Simone Weil, put it:
“A beautiful woman looking at her image in the mirror may very well believe the image is herself. An ugly woman knows it is not.”
[Waiting for God, 16]
You get the point. Wealthy people, powerful people, famous people, the beautiful people, are naturally more enamored of this world and of themselves in this world. They are distracted by its pleasures and preoccupied by their place in it. The world is their oyster and they spend their days thinking about what they have, and what more they might still obtain. Why think of the world to come when this world offers so much. Ordinary people are more conscious of what they do not have, will never have, and what they are not. This world does not have quite the grip on them because they are more conscious of the small place they occupy in the scheme of things. The message of eternal life, of salvation, of a Savior who will rescue them from this world makes much more sense to them and strikes them as much more important. The high and mighty do not want to be rescued; they are happy where they are.
Now what does all of this have to do with you and me? Well, thank God we are among the ordinary, simple people. We are not those who are so wealthy that it is harder for us to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. We are not the powerful and the famous, the men and women of consequence, who will so easily be beguiled into forgetting how little the world and its pleasures can mean when our lives are so short and when death is so rapidly approaching. We are the ordinary people out of whom, from the beginning of time, the Lord has built his church.
The question posed by this history and the whole challenge of the gospel of Christ and the Christian faith is simple enough after all: would you rather be Herod, the wealthy king – brilliant, powerful, successful, but now nearing death and genuinely insane – or one of those simple shepherds who heard the angelic choir that night outside Bethlehem and then went back to their flocks to spend the rest of their days and nights remembering what they saw and heard?
Would you rather be the satisfied, influential, comfortable clerics in Jerusalem, or Zechariah and Elizabeth, wending their way homeward from the capital, Zechariah mute and Elizabeth more than a little confused by what had happened to her husband and all unaware of what extraordinary things were still to come to pass through the life of their son-to-be, whom Gabriel, who stands at God’s right hand, had already named John? Would you rather be Caesar Augustus, at the height of his power, the most powerful individual man perhaps that the world has ever seen, though now more than 70 years of age and entering into the troubled final years of his life, years that would be darkened not only by family troubles but by a series of political and military setbacks; I say would you rather be Caesar or Joseph, the unknowing carpenter from Nazareth, who would sire a large family and then die a comparatively young man, but who in his youth was visited by an angel of God and became the father of the King of Kings? No emperor he! But, then, in the words of the old Latin prayer of St. Joseph and speaking of him as the father of his firstborn son:
Non solum videre et audire,
Sed portare, deosculari,
Vestire et custodire.
O felicem virum!
I think I know the answer to those questions and I know why you answer as you do! Who among those who understand the world, and who know God, and who look to the future, I say who among all of those would not want to be numbered with the Zechariahs and Elizabeths, the Josephs and Marys, the Simeons and the Annas of this world who, small and unimportant as they were, walked upon ground that was hallowed by the footsteps of the Almighty? Count it this Christmas the greatest of your blessings that you are found in that company and not, not, not in that company who are envied only by those who have no true knowledge of the baby who was born to be the Savior of the world.