Eternity in a feeding trough.
The drum of Scripture continually beats a theme that, unless consciously and carefully observed, will go largely unnoticed. Some portions of the inspired Word speak to this theme louder than others. Others require a vigilant reading between-the-lines interpretation to decipher what the Lord’s telling us. I am, of course, referring to the theme of God’s upside-down economy. You know, the one in which the first are last and the last are first. (Mt 19:30) The one in which the hard laborer and the eleventh-hour drunk are paid the same wage. (Mt 20:1–16) The one in which the winners lose and losers win. (Mk 8:35) I trust you are familiar with this divine paradigm. And even if you aren’t, I believe that the most famous Advent chapter provides for us the clearest picture of God’s capsized economics.
For better or worse, Luke 2 has been pigeon-holed as the “Christmas chapter.” So much so that it’s used for Christmas readings and Christmas-themed entertainment, even if it’s not wholly Christian or evangelical or Protestant, or what have you. Subsequently, a scene near the middle of this famous portion of God’s holy writ is mostly glossed over. As Linus begins his reading of Luke 2 in A Charlie Brown Christmas, is your mind tending towards God’s upturned gospel? If not, it should.
In the same region, shepherds were staying out in the fields and keeping watch at night over their flock. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today in the city of David a Savior was born for you, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be the sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped tightly in cloth and lying in a manger.” Suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people he favors! When the angels had left them and returned to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go straight to Bethlehem and see what has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” They hurried off and found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby who was lying in the manger. (Lk 2:8–16)
I’d invite you to read those verses again. Read them slowly. Try and read them without Linus’s voice in your head. To truly catch the message, savor each word. This supremely familiar portion of Scripture isn’t the commercialized tale you probably know. This is the first pronouncement of the gospel after four centuries of divine silence. It’s the inaugural herald of the “good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” (Lk 2:10) And who’s the audience for such a message? Who are the first to hear this good news? Shepherds.
Again, try and remove the nativity-scene-figurine image out of your head. The fact that the first sermon regarding the birth of the world’s Savior would come to shepherds is precisely in line with the Scripture’s method of upturning our preconceived notions regarding religion and kingdom economics. It’s exactly the way a God who loves the least, the little, the last, and the lost would operate.1 The birth of Christ and subsequent announcement thereof completely reverse the script on how we think about God.
You see, in ancient times, shepherds were drifters. Nomads. Itinerant livestock herders that were generally regarded as thieves and vagabonds. No one was clamoring to become a shepherd. Young boys weren’t dreaming about being shepherds one day. This was the job you took if you had to scrape by, just to make ends meet. And even then, no one respected you. Nor would they trust you. Your reputation was nothing more than a derelict wanderer whose closest friends were the grungy sheep you spent all your days and nights with. And so it goes that if you were announcing the birth of your firstborn, shepherds were the last class of people you would tell.
Much like our modern-day gender reveal parties for expecting mothers, which are plastered all over social media soon thereafter (or even live-streamed), publicizing the birth of a son was done with much fanfare. The higher your social status, the greater your wealth, the louder and more well-known the broadcast of such news. If the mother and father had any means whatsoever, the newborn son’s arrival would be met with a heralding of his birth equal to measure of the family’s socioeconomic status. And so it is here, that the divine herald comes to shepherds. Jesus wasn’t born into royalty or affluence, he was born into poverty and grief. This, I’d say, is the most evocative picture of God’s upside-down Kingdom. The least likeliest group gets the first gospel sermon and become the first evangelists. Shepherd preachers. Reject swindlers are entrusted with the news of mankind’s salvation. Thereby, again, proving that God is unafraid of the “lowliness of human beings.”
And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly . . . God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.2
On a cold night in Bethlehem, the God of the universe began his mission of reclamation and redemption, not as a warrior bent on retribution, but as an infant bent on forgiveness. The Creator invaded creation as a babe. He intruded upon our world, unafraid of all our vileness, badness, and filthiness. The God of Christmas is the God who’s not afraid to get dirty to make us clean.
What’s more, he came into this world willing to take all of that upon himself so that you and I might be reunited with the Father. He chose to reveal himself in such a way as to make incontrovertible the fact that his ways are not our ways. (Is 55:8–9) Indeed, the very manner in which Christ comes to earth is the greatest proof that God’s economy is completely upside down compared to ours. He chose to announce his birth not to the morally upright and religious elite but to the morally broken and those altogether hopeless.
The good news that came to these shepherds is the same good news that comes you and I. It’s the news of grace coming to us, for us. (1 Pt 1:10) It’s the news that the King is here, for you! “A Savior was born for you.” (Lk 2:11) The Son of God in a stall. The Messiah in a manger. Eternity in a feeding trough. The Lord of all coming to be the lowest of all, for you! As the church father Irenaeus puts it:
Our Lord Jesus Christ, through his transcendent love, became what we are, that he might bring us to be what he is himself.
The God of Christmas is the God of Creation, occupying our realm, our ruin for the sole purpose of our redemption. He made the ultimate condescension, manifesting himself on the absolute bottom rung of a very lowly ladder. He entered the world surrounded by sheep and swine. He came and dwelt among the beasts of the field and the dust of the earth. He came for the very worst of sinners. Shepherds. Drunks. Addicts. Adulterers. Murderers. Thieves. You name it, he came to die for it. Christ the Lord took upon himself our just death that he might give us his righteous life. He came into a land of thirst and hunger and proclaimed that he was the true and better Bread of Heaven. (Jn 6:33) “No one who comes to me will ever be hungry, and no one who believes in me will ever be thirsty again.” (Jn 6:35) The God of Christmas came “to seek and to save the lost.” (Lk 19:10) He came for you!
Robert Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 35.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 22.