In the Gospel of Luke, the Christmas story begins with the Holy Family traveling south from Nazareth to Bethlehem due to an imperial census. Although there's lots of historical red flags raised by this suggestion, the point is, Luke needs to get the Holy Family to Bethlehem, because as successor to David, that's where he must be born. According to Luke, Jesus is born in some kind of structure where the animals take shelter, for he is laid in a manger.
From the manger the scene shifts to nearby fields, where shepherds gather to guard their sheep in the night. An angel of the Lord appears to them, and of often happens, they're terrified. The angel's first words seek to calm the situation, so that the angel might deliver the Euangelion – the good news (KJV has Great Tidings).
What is this good news? The shepherds learn of a birth in the City of David – The savior, Christ the Lord has been born. This is joyous news not only for the shepherds, but for all people, for this messianic message holds out hope for all the people in the nation. For Luke Jesus is the rightful claimant of David's long vacant throne, and the re-establishment of the Davidic line was seen as the key to Israel regaining its place in the world. What a great honor for these shepherds to be the first to hear the news. But that's God for you-- God always does the unexpected.
You see, the choice of shepherds is important. Unlike Matthew, who envisions wealthy magi from the east coming to present grand gifts to honor Jesus' birth, Luke's shepherds lack this kind of stature. These men represent the working poor -- you know the ones who work hard all day, but don't make enough to feed the family. As Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock note: “The story of the shepherds and angels emphasizes God’s affirmation of the poor and despised. In contrast to their positive image in the Old Testament, shepherds in first-century Hellenistic world were regarded as belonging to the lower class, irresponsible thieves who grazed their sheep on the land of other people, somewhat as gypsies are regarded in some countries today.”[i]
There is a sign for them to look for – the baby is wrapped up snugly and lying in the manger. And as this news is being delivered, a grand choir of the heavenly hosts (forces), who praise God with this song: “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” (v. 14). It’s important to note the connection between God’s glory in heaven and peace on earth. God’s vision is not an either/or heaven or earth one. God’s concern is focused on transforming the situation on earth, and this baby is the key. There is, of course, the question of whom God favors. Is it just Israel? Or is it the entirety of creation? What do you think?
The shepherds decide to confirm this message for themselves -- this is important for Luke's presentation of his gospel as rooted in history -- and they find Mary, Joseph, and the baby just as the angels had proclaimed. In making this visit, however, the shepherds not only confirm the good news for themselves, they help confirm the promise made to Mary as well. Consider Luke's statement that “Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully.” What is Luke’s meaning here? The suggestion has been made that Luke heard these stories from Mary herself.
There is another element to all of this. It is connected to the good news present in the story. A different king – a Davidic king, the Messiah – has arisen. He will reign in quite different ways from Caesar, the one who ordered this census or tax enrollment.
Allen Culpepper makes this helpful comment on the contrast that Luke is beginning to develop:
The Christmas story tells of the birth of a new king. This child would be given the throne of his father, David. The world was moving according to the orders of Caesar Augustus, but although he was hailed as the great bringer of peace, real peace on earth would be realized through the sovereignty of the child born in Bethlehem. This is the story of the birth of a new kind of King. The birth reveals a new world order, a word not under Caesar but under the direction of God’s design for the redemption of all peoples. In this world God’s Word is heard by the humble. There is a place even for shepherds. There is hope for the oppressed, and those who heard what God is doing were filled with joy. God has not forgotten us or abandoned us to the brokenness we have created. The story of Christmas, therefore, is both an announcement of hope and a call to humility.[ii]
And with this, the Shepherds return home, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told” (vs. 20). They had received witness and borne witness that God was at work turning the world upside down!!