Luke chapter 2 has stories very familiar through Christmas carols and pageants, but other stories rarely noticed.
The message behind them all is almost never considered. Luke very firmly anchors these stories in historical reality, ‘the real world’, and then goes on to suggest that in this world there is hope and good news for the oppressed, the little people. Not in some other world, but just at hand, a new reality is emerging.
Chapter 2 begins with idea of a census ordered by Caesar. Historians cast doubt on whether a ‘universal’ census was held at this time. The list of governors and power brokers, right there at the beginning, is also questioned. Apparently, Quirinius was not governor at the time Luke says.
What do we make of these doubts or discrepancies?
Again, we have to think about Luke’s purpose. It is not about a modern sense of historical record. Rather, his purpose here, and in Chapter 3, is to give us a list of who is who, to indicate very firmly that he is talking about the real world of power, political intrigue and the questions of what we can really hope for in this world. It is not in some mystical miasma that we will know God’s presence, it is in the world of governors and census forms, of babies and battles. Here, we are engaged with a God story.
Whereas Matthew’s Gospel has Mary’s story, Luke tells us about Joseph. Matthew has the ‘wise men’; Luke has the shepherds.
These accounts are complementary, but each has its purpose. Having firmly stated that Jesus is to be conceived of the Holy Spirit, nonetheless Luke identifies a human father. The two things are not opposed to one another. Jesus will live in the real world where he has a Mum and a Dad. He is no freak.
The shepherds are amongst the most unlikely of Jewish believers. As a social grouping, they were probably not often seen in the courts of the Temple. But they are present in the panoply of angelic witness. They hear and believe. Already a contrast is set up between the fringe dwellers and the centre of religious power.
The shepherds hear of ‘good news for all the people’. A saviour or liberator is born; he is connected with David, the historic champion of the people, and is called ‘Christos’, the annointed one, and he is called Lord. This is not what he will be: this is what he is. The sign of this is a baby in a manger.
What kind of liberator and lord is this? ‘This shall be a sign’: what does it signify?
Something ‘up-side-down’ is going on here. The silent baby, in a manger!, is the sign of God’s new deal.
These shepherds are the witnesses.
Glory to God: on earth, peace: ‘to those on whom God’s favour rests’. The sense from verse 10 is that these, on whom God looks with affection, is ‘all the people’. It is peace and hope for all.
The shepherds go to see, ‘because of what the Lord has made known to them’. They are the very image of Luke’s purpose. They already know what Luke wants his readers to know. And the response is to move, to go, to journey, in order to ‘see’. This will be the next level of knowing, for those who are willing to receive this up-side-down news. This will be God’s way: hope at the margins, giving power to the powerless, to move into the new reality.
There much more to come, in this amazing chapter.