In the fourth Part of Luther’s Christmas Book, we take up the shepherds’ task to hear and proclaim God’s message. So passé; menial work for menial workers, one is inclined to think, considering the urgency of the politicised buzz that preoccupies the Christian life in the present. Oh to be bedazzled by God’s word and its proclamation!
It was shocking for Luther to ponder God’s wisdom in choosing the meanest of them all. The shepherds may have been “regarded as trash,” but their vocation set them apart from the self-aggrandised religious and royal folk. God saw in these workers faithfulness: “They stayed in their station and did the work of their calling.” Luther was bedazzled. Not by the angel and its message, but by God’s wisdom to choose people such as these: “Caiaphas, Herod, and the high priests were not deemed worthy.” Indeed, “Who would have thought that men whose job was tending unreasoning animals would be so praised that not a pope or a bishop is worthy to hand them a cup of water?”
The stunning glory of the angel lit up the field, but why was the temple not lit up? “Why did not the angel go to Jerusalem?” After all, it was God who established Jerusalem as the place of worship and religious observance. To be frank, even Bethlehem would have been a safer bet to light up than a field with a couple of shepherds and a few dozen sheep. But then God always had an affinity for the lowly.
Understandably, the appearance of an angel terrified the shepherds, and most probably the sheep. The angel quickly spoke words of comfort: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” Luther is not slow to critique: such joy is not to be kept to the shepherds or reserved for the elite, righteous, or worthy, “but to you,” Luther proclaims, “Come, see the baby Jesus.”
Here, in the cold soggy field, the great news is revealed to the world through some smelly lowly shepherds. It is of no cosmic significance that a baby has been born, but that a baby who “is Christ the Lord” has been born, requires our attention. Bring no gift, don’t kiss his hand, don’t try to make him smile. Simply go, find him, and receive this baby as your saviour. This baby who is our joy and peace must touch our heart: “if you hear that this Child is yours, that takes root, and a man becomes suddenly so strong that to him death and life are the same.”
The rural light show became even more intense. Now a host of angels appear, singing, praising, and proclaiming the news: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.” How can this news not rouse our hearts from slumber, or prick us to move our preoccupied hearts to dwell on that which brings true joy and peace? Luther’s no hypocrite on this front: “I hate myself because when I see him laid in a manger or in the lap of his mother and hear the angels sing, my heart does not leap into flame… we remain so cold when this word is spoken to us, over which all men should dance and leap and burn for joy.” Such is the frigidity of our hearts at this time of year. This is no mere historical fact, “as if someone were merely relating that the sultan has a crown of gold.” Here, in this manger, is God with us, our saviour.
This is the news to be proclaimed. This is the news that was revealed to the shepherds in the field that night. Their faithfulness to the task of watching over their sheep was to be redeployed for the task of proclaiming this news. The Kingdom is at hand without one sword being lifted, or one political party being lobbied. In the field we learn that this baby “rules with the gracious preaching of peace.” It is for our ears to hear, “that this Lord Christ does not build castles, towns, and villages like an emperor, king, or elector of Saxony, or even like me in my own household, but he saves his people from their sins.” How often this joy is lost in our wrangling with the world in an effort to build a world that we desire or that we think God desires.
We are fooled if we think we can worship God rightly without hearing, believing, and proclaiming the message that this baby is our joy, this world’s saviour. God passed over a whole nation to choose a couple of shepherds to believe and proclaim this news: “Our God begins with angels and ends with shepherds.” But I must contest such a statement, Martin. Our God begins with angels, moves on to shepherds, and ends with a baby.
No doubt, we would have forgiven the shepherds if their common senses had revolted against the preposterous thing in the sky that night, but their faith to act on what they heard is commendable and now worthy of the tradition on which we pause to reflect at this time each year. Through weakness and the lowly, God not only reveals his message, but fulfils it.
“God is amazing. The Babe in a manger, not worthy of a cradle or a nappy, and yet he is called a Saviour and Lord.” Let us not sing or preach in vain this Christmas, but take up the outrageous good news delivered to the shepherds that night, which was vindicated three decades later when Jesus would commit himself to God’s desire to save the world through his death and resurrection, rather than taking matters into his own hands to bring about the Kingdom of God in more common sense ways and with self-preservation in mind.
Along with Luther, we look forward to the day when we “see nothing but sheer blackness except for this light, ‘Unto you is born this day… a Saviour.’ The Saviour will help me when all else fails. When the heaven, the stars, and all the creatures glower, I see nothing in earth and heaven but this Child.”