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Advent Week 2: The Emperor and the Shepherds

Last week we sung an old Christmas/Advent Hymn, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”. In the song, there’s a line that describes Jesus, “Born they people to deliver, born a child and yet a king”. One of the things we celebrate about Jesus is that though He is the King of the Universe, he came humbly as a child. Luke 2 records one of the most contrasting images of the birth narrative of Jesus.

If one were to consider where power and authority resided in first century Mediterranean ancient world the average person would likely very quickly answer Rome. At the time one of the most iconic rulers of Rome was in power: Augustus Caesar. His name and title embodied that sense of power. Caesar held sway and power over one of the most powerful empires of the time. What he commanded happened. At the time, Luke tells us that a decree was put out by Caesar Augustus, “all the world should be registered” in a census. This was likely for tax purposes and for many a demonstration of the power of Rome. Luke also tells us of a specific time in history, when “Quirinius was governor of Syria”.

This decree affected everyone in the Empire, not least of all a lowly peasant family living in the backward corner of the Empire named Galilee. Luke tells us that Jesus was born at the time when the registration was taking place. It likely inconvenienced many, as they had to travel long distances to their hometowns to be registered for taxes.

But while the Emperor of Rome was demonstrating his power over his subjects, God, the true King of the world, was demonstrating His power in another way. God the Father didn’t demonstrate his power by sending armies or holding sieges or building an empire. Instead, God the Father sent His Son to be born into the world in obscurity and in humility.

Bethlehem, the town where Jesus was born was a small village, far from the major metropolis areas of influence. The Messiah wasn’t even born in the comfort of the home of his parents. His first bed was the feeding trough for animals. His mother swaddled him. There was no fanfare among the citizens of the Empire for his arrival. His birth wasn’t announced with heralds throughout the land. The Son of God came relatively obscurely.

There was however, an exception. Outside Bethlehem, a brilliant chorus of angels appeared to shepherds keeping watch over their sheep. They announced and sung praises about God’s gift to the world. It was as if heaven’s joyful of the Messiah’s birth spilled over the hills of Galilee but the only people to witness the angel’s celebration were shepherds. Why shepherds?Shepherds were nobodies. They were not elite. They smelled like animals. They performed menial tasks. Why would God choose to announce such a momentous event to shepherds?

Luke’s account doesn’t explicitly say why, but there’s some good theological reasons and reasons that we can surmise from the text. First, many of Israel’s ancient heroes and leaders were shepherds. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David were all shepherds. Shepherds were used in prophetic speech as shorthand for leaders. God is also referred to as “shepherd of Israel (Ps. 80:1, Ez. 34:15). Jesus himself would describe himself as “the Good Shepherd). The picture of a shepherd caring for his flock is one that is rife with meaning because it is a reflection of what God does for his people. He cares, provides, knows and protects his people.

Second, the announcement came upon common people to show Christ’s identifying with all people. Jesus chose the humblest of situations so that we may know that all people can come to know God. Luke contrasts Jesus’ humble birth, the situation of the shepherds with the actions of the high and mighty. God is able to use the decrees of the powerful to bring about His plan. Christ came and identified with the lowest.

In Christ’s coming we see the extent of God’s reach. Jesus, though he was the Great King, humbled himself so that lowly shepherds could know Him. This advent season, let us remember the depths of which God was willing to search out his people and become one with us. This shouldn’t be used to elevate our position, but rather to show the depth’s of God’s love to reach even the lowliest of people. May this knowledge bring you comfort this season.