Somewhere amidst all the Christmas music and advent readings over the last several weeks the story of the shepherds in Luke 2:8-20 has gotten lodged in my mind. We hear this story every year, so we tend to take it for granted (think about all the Christmas hymns that reference angels appearing to shepherds … its a ton when you think about it). But this year it struck me: why do shepherds need to be involved at all? Christ’s birth narrative has a lot of drama already—angelic visits (Matthew 1:20, 2:13, 19), Herod’s threat (2:3, 16), the journey to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-6), etc. And if you need outside characters to come worship Jesus, boom, you’ve already got the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12).
So what are shepherds doing in the story? Not only does one angel come to them to announce Jesus’ birth (depicted above in Thomas Cole painting), but then “a multitude of the heavenly host” also appear, proclaiming:
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (2:13-14).
It’s pretty rare in the Bible to find a whole multitude of angels. And their statement here is a pretty good summation of redemptive history, inspiring the famous hymn Gloria in Excelsis Deo. This is obviously a significant event, and yet no one sees it but a couple of poor, uneducated, rural shepherds. Why does God manifest his glory and reveal the meaning of Jesus’ birth to these shepherds, and not the political or religious leaders of the day—or at least a greater sheer number of people?
The Humility of Bethlehem
The more I reflect on the Christmas story, the more I find that divine humility shines out in its every detail. The incarnation itself is already an act of infinite humility and condescension. For the Son of God to be “born in the likeness of men” is to “[empty] himself” (Philippians 2:7). But as if that is not enough, when the Son of God comes a man, he does so under humble circumstances. He not only stoops down to the lowest place, but he does so quietly, meekly. Consider:
- He could have come as a full-grown man; instead He came as a baby.
- He could have stayed in a palace; instead He stayed in a dirty manger.
- He could have been rich, or a prince; instead He was born into poverty, to become a carpenter.
- He could have been born in a city (like Jerusalem); instead He was born in rural Bethlehem.
- And—as I reflect more upon this year—He could have sent angels to tell everybody what was happening; instead He just told some shepherds.
Amazing. The most important moment in history, the event that triggers the new creation, the union of Creator and creation—and nobody knows. God limits the revelation of angelic rejoicing to a couple shepherds, while the newspapers cover other events, and all the important people of the world go about their business. “The world was made through him, yet the world did not know him” (John 1:10).
Keep in mind, the one who is sleeping among the donkeys is the same one who “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3); even while he nurses at Mary’s breast it remains true that “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). The 16th century theologian John Calvin put it like this:
Here is something marvelous: the Son of God descended from heaven in such a way that, without leaving heaven, he willed to be borne in the virgin’s womb, to go about the earth, and to hang upon the cross; yet he continuously filled the world even as he had done from the beginning! (Institutes 2.13.4).
Back in the 4th century, Athanasius put it like this:
The Word was not hedged in by His body, nor did His presence in the body prevent His being present elsewhere as well. When He moved His body He did not cease also to direct the universe by His Mind and might…. At one and the same time—this is the wonder—as Man He was living a human life, and as Word He was sustaining the life of the universe.” (On the Incarnation of the Word III.17).
The juxtapositions are mind-boggling: filling the heavens, yet swaddled tightly; holding every atom in place, yet clinging to his mother; sustaining the stars, yet crying and cranky; adored by the angels, yet sleeping amongst the donkeys. One thinks of the line in The Last Battle: “in our world too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.”
When I think about how non-pretentious Bethlehem is, I am ashamed of times I try to be noticed. Who am I to draw attention to myself when God Himself has taken the hidden road? Carl Henry famously asked, “How on earth can anyone be arrogant when standing beside the cross?” Yes, and how can anyone be self-important when standing next to the manger?
Bethlehem also makes me ask: who are the shepherds in the world today? What are the mangers in my life? This is God’s pattern: He often shows up in a package that is all-too-easy to reject, to despise, to overlook. What causes behind-the-scenes angelic rejoicing is often quiet, obscure, passed over by the world. Do I have eyes to see God’s work around me? Am I paying attention?
Finally, Lord, thank you for coming to serve, not to conquer. Thank you for revealing your glory through humility, not power. Shape our lives according to your example.