George Booker
To Us A Child Is Born

(7) “Good News of Great Joy” (Luke 2:8-20)

They were men of the outdoors, men of the fields, quiet men. Nothing much ever happened to disturb the sameness (should we say the monotony?) of their lives. Occasionally, a rustle among their flocks signaled an intruder, a thief or perhaps a wolf. Then they acted quickly and decisively. But, when the danger was past, then they played softly on their harps, and the sheep became calm once more. And the shepherds of Bethlehem returned to their vigil by the fire, to their reminiscences, and to the stories of their fathers, and their fathers before them.

They were a simple folk, but in a sense they were God’s favorite people. From the ranks of men such as these He had called Moses and Amos. He had led Abraham out of cosmopolitan and wealthy Ur to follow the nomadic life of a shepherd in this land. Perhaps it was on these very hills that the youthful shepherd David composed his eternal songs — his first audience the silent, obedient sheep.

With such a glorious heritage in Israel, it seems strange that such shepherds were accorded little respect by the nation’s elite. But when Israel had become a nation, then not only had the people desired a king “such as all the other nations have” (1 Sam. 8:5), but they had also desired a religion like their neighbors’. And God had given them one. Religion in Israel had become formalized, encased and choked in rituals that grew more meaningless with each successive generation. Once, men of free and open spirits had talked with God on mountainsides, in secluded caves, and by living streams. Now God no longer spoke openly, and meanspirited men in long robes argued about legal technicalities and called it religion. Shepherds of the hills, who ignored their stilted advice, had small part in that sort of religion. They were “sinners”.

“Watchtower of the flock”

Close by Bethlehem, on the road to Jerusalem, was a tower, called Migdal Eder: the “watchtower of the flock” (Gen. 35:21; Mic. 4:8). Here was the station where shepherds watched the flocks destined for sacrifices in the temple. It seems likely — and it would be a striking fulfillment of prophecy — that these were the very shepherds to whom the glory of the Lord appeared:

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified” (Luke 2:8,9).

The whole passage in Micah (4:8-5:5) alluded to above is illuminating as a prophecy of the shepherds’ vision:

“And thou, O watchtower of the flock... the former dominion will be restored to you; kingship will come to the Daughter of Jerusalem.”

The first place on earth where the dominion of “Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11) was proclaimed was the hills of Bethlehem. The angels sang of the birth of one in whom God would dwell in fullness, one who was the “kingdom of God” upon earth in its initial form. Christ would proclaim “glory to God” and “peace ... toward men” (the true “peace” of sins forgiven, and reconciliation) (v. 14). And he will finally bring that glory and peace in its consummate fullness when the true Kingdom comes at last to the “daughter of Zion”.

“Have you no king? Has your counselor perished?” asks Micah (4:9). There was no king but Herod, and there were no counselors worthy of the name. But the true king of Israel, the true counselor, had now come. At that very moment he was being born:

“Writhe in agony, O Daughter of Zion, like a woman in labor... out of you [Bethlehem] will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” (4:10; 5:2).

He will gather the scattered remnant of his brethren (Mic. 5:3), and he will stand and “shepherd his flock” in the strength of the Lord (v. 4) (Like them, he will be a shepherd too!) And he will “be the peace” (v. 5; Luke 2:14) for his “flock” when their enemies, like the “lion”, the “bear” or the “wolf”, fall upon them.

“Do not be afraid”

“And they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid’ ” (Luke 2:9,10).

Always, it seems, fear was the natural first reaction to an angelic visitation (1:12, 29). When the angel appears to us, to take us away to judgment, will we fear? It is a great comfort to see that the all-too-human fear is so often met with the Divine message: “Do not be afraid” (1:13,30). May it be so with us!

Every phrase of the majestic proclamation (vv. 10,11) deserves the closest attention:

“Do not be afraid”: So much of our lives is taken up with fears: fears for our families or our livelihood, fears of violence or of disease; sometimes, perhaps, nameless fears that paralyze action and even prayer. How often we need the reminder of the angel’s words: “Do not be afraid.” God is for us, so who can be against us? “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

“I bring you good news”: The gospel itself.

Of great joy”: Joy is the perfect opposite of fear. The joy of the gospel will cast out fear. We can know this joy, even in the monotony of daily life, or the “valleys” of trial and suffering. This joy can enable us to transcend the vague worries of the moment, because it is the foretaste of the Kingdom. It is all a matter of letting our minds feed upon the wonderful realities of the “good tidings” of Jesus.

“Today”: The angelic message has a great immediacy, which is echoed in other passages: “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5); “I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2); and again, Paul cried to the Athenians, “But now (God) commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).

“In the town of David”: This links the child with the prophecies of the great king of David’s line, and the glories of his kingdom.

“A Savior... who is Christ the Lord”: When the angel was speaking to Mary, only the kingly aspect of Jesus was mentioned (1:32,33). When Joseph was being assured that all was well, only the Savior aspect was mentioned (Matt. 1:21). But now both are combined when the angel speaks to the shepherds.

“...Has been born to you...”: There is a universal appeal about this announcement. “Christ is born to you,” the angel said. Not necessarily or especially or particularly to the wise, the powerful, and the wealthy — although it would only be their own wisdom, power, and wealth that might impede them from accepting him! But to you the shepherds, to you the outcasts, and to you — any man or woman — no matter how lowly or how poor — who will receive him. “Whosoever will”, let him come and partake of the blessing found in this baby. Christ is born to you!

Suddenly the angel was not alone. There was with him a multitude of angels, praising God. This heavenly choir was singing:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).

It was as though the humble shepherds of Bethlehem were present at the Creation, when the foundations of the earth were laid, and the cornerstone, and “the morning stars sang together, and all the angels [literally, sons of God] shouted for joy” (Job 38:6,7).

It was, in fact, another “creation”. That day, in Bethlehem, God was laying the foundation for a new world order. The babe in the manger was to be the “cornerstone” of His new spiritual temple (1 Pet. 2:6; Eph. 2:20). One day even the angels would bow down before him (Heb. 1:4-6).

The first missionaries

“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (Luke 2:15-18).

These lowly shepherds of “Migdal Eder” would, in the course of their duties, soon be in the temple precincts to deliver their flocks. There they would tell the worshipers of the birth of one who would fulfill the promises embedded in all their sacrifices, who would truly be the “Lamb of God”.

Many, no doubt, would not believe them at all. But certainly some, like Simeon and Anna, would “lift up their heads” in eager anticipation.

“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told” (v. 20).

After bringing their flocks to the temple, the shepherds would return to their own homes, and carry with them tidings of the great salvation to come. Here are the very first Christian “missionaries”.

“But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (v. 19).

Mary seems more a spectator than a participant in these dramatic events. Though herself intimately involved in these happenings, Mary could adopt a detached, contemplative view, which sees single incidents as part of the grand design of God. Let us, like this young woman, ponder the ways of God. Each event in our lives is like a single thread woven into a fabric. Each event is part of the final pattern. Some of the threads are gold, while others are dark. But one day it will all fit together just as the ‘Master Weaver’ planned, and we will thrill at the beauty of God’s handiwork in our lives.

We must not pass on without noting another, and rather obscure, Old Testament prophecy which is distinctly fitting at this time. Almost every phrase finds an echo in these scenes of Bethlehem. It needs no comment.

“Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. On that day they will say to Jerusalem, ‘Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing’ ” (Zeph. 3:14-17).

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