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Here in these weeks leading up to Christmas, we are posting a series of meditations focused on the story of Jesus’ birth from the Gospels. For more on what Advent means and why many Christains observe it, here’s a short introduction. If you’d like to make a wreath of your own for your family or study group, here’s how. The text for this week’s reflection comes from Luke 2:8-15.
“8There were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14″Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
15When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” — Luke 2:8-15 (ESV)
The shepherd’s life was ironic.
Their job was to tend the animals that would be sacrificed to atone for the sins of the people. Yet because of their handling of the animals, they were ceremonially unclean and thus prevented from keeping the ceremonial law themselves. On top of that, because they were ceremonially unclean, they were often regarded as untrustworthy and irreligious.
However, it was also expected that one who did his job well, a good shepherd, would be willing to lay down his life for his sheep.
When you put all of that together, what you get is this: a good shepherd was one who cared deeply for the lambs under his watch that were appointed to die on the altar for the sins of the people who saw the shepherds themselves as unclean, irreligious and untrustworthy.
The shepherd’s lives were, in effect, sacrifices.
It was to shepherds that the angel of the Lord appeared one night outside Bethlehem. And what did the angel say?
In essence, he said “Go behold the end of your life as an outsider.”
The angel paints this glorious picture of the presence of the promised Messiah. But even more than that, he uses names to describe Jesus to these shepherds—names that would speak to His purpose. He calls Jesus the Savior, Christ the Lord. Savior means He will atone for the sins of the people, Christ identifies Him as their deliverer, or Messiah. And the name Lord here identifies Him as divine.
And there’s one more expression that the angel uses that would have meant the world to these shepherds. The angel says Christ the Lord is born “unto you.” (Lk 2:11) The divine Savior and Messiah is born unto them! Though they lived most of their lives on the outside looking in, they were not outsiders to this gift, but the recipients of it.
This was big news. Huge!
The shepherds sensed it, but the angels knew it, and the details of their encounter with these shepherds offers a glimpse into the cosmic weight of this announcement. At first, there is only one angel who appears to these men in Bethlehem’s fields. But as soon as he announces Jesus’ birth, “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.” (Lk 2:13)
It was as if there were millions of angels hiding just behind some celestial corner, and once they heard, “Unto you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!” they were unable to contain their joy any longer and all rushed in, praising God, singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.”
It is at this point that, if we are wise, we will defer to the angels and assume theirs is the response that fits the announcement of the coming of the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ.
But it only gets richer from here.
The glory of all glories has appeared to the lowest of the lows, and the angels give the shepherds a sign that would have left them speechless.
Their Messiah and Savior can be found, the angel tells them, where the young lambs are kept. He’ll be the one not covered in wool, but in a swaddling cloth.
Where the lambs are kept?
When they find Jesus in the manger as the angel said, the very location of his birth is drenched in significance. The Savior has been born into their unclean world in the same manner as a lamb. The symbolism was not lost on these men. When the shepherds see Jesus there, they see not only that he has come; they get a hint as to why.
He came to be the perfect lamb, the ultimate, lasting sacrifice. This baby’s coming was to accomplish and establish peace between the God of all creation and His image bearer’s who habitually reject Him.
From the manger in Bethlehem to the cross on Calvary, Jesus moved among the people, came into their homes, touched their blind eyes and permitted their unfaithful hands to touch him. He defended the defenseless and opposed the self-righteous. He taught them profound lessons from ordinary events. He ate at their tables, laughed with their children and wept over their grief.
But never, never, never did He abandon His purpose for coming, which was to die for a world of outsiders as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
The Apostle Paul later wrote, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that though He was rich, for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9) Jesus was born poor. And He lived poor. And He died poor for the sake of His people.
May that image of the manger, where young sacrificial lambs are kept, be a reminder that Jesus has come into this world in the same way he left it, out in the open, among the outcast, poor and despised, but singularly driven by one purpose—to ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel has come to you, O Israel.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).