Does Christmas hold out something special for you? A time to be with family, Covid permitting? A joyful celebration? Or is it nothing but fake news and a season of stress? Let me touch on two scenes in the biblical narrative in Luke chapter 2.

But first, let’s remember who the writer is – Luke, the physician. Trained in medicine he understood the principles of research. Indeed, at the outset of his narrative he assures us that he has carefully researched his account of the Jesus story and verified it with eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-3). Furthermore, like all good historians, he identifies the time of the events. At the beginning of chapter 2 he writes: In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered (Luke 2:1).

As we look back at this, we see that Augustus’s mandate requiring a census of the people set in motion events that resulted in the fulfilment of God’s promises. It’s worth noting that the God who exists beyond time, works out his own purposes in the course of human decisions and affairs.

The birth. The time came for her (Mary) to deliver her child, Luke continues (2:6b, 7). And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

The word inn is not an accurate translation of the original word. The usual word for inn is found in the story of the good Samaritan where the Samaritan generously provides for a victim of terrorism at an inn (Luke 10:34). The word in Luke 2 is another word, katalyma which literally means a place to stay or guest room. It is the same word Luke uses to refer to a guest room in a private house in Jerusalem where Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples (Luke 22:11).

In Jesus’ day poorer families lived in homes with one large extended room, for living and for sleeping. And at one end there was always a small area at ground level, but under the same roof, where the family animals were kept at night to keep them secure.

Luke is telling us that in the home where Jesus was born there was literally no guest room. Mary had to make do for the birth of Jesus at the end of the living room, near the animals. What’s more, she used the cattle feeding-trough, a manger, for Jesus’s crib.

Shepherds. Luke again surprises us when he reports that an angel announced the birth to shepherds who were working on a hillside near Bethlehem: … In the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them and said: “To you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:8, 9a, 11).

At the time of Jesus’ birth, shepherds were at the bottom of the social order. They were the lost, the outsiders. Why did the angel announce the birth to them?  Given the resources of heaven they could have pulled off one very spectacular announcement in Bethlehem or, better still, in Jerusalem.

To begin to appreciate the reason the angel spoke to the shepherds we need to consider a back-story we find in the Book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel spoke of the kings of Israel as shepherds, but he knew that many of them were self-indulgent, power-hungry exploiters. In Ezekiel’s day God’s people had been conquered by the Babylonians – Jerusalem was in ruins and its people were in exile. Ezekiel 34 tells us it was the fault of the kings, the shepherds.

But Ezekiel’s news is not all negative. He speaks of a day when God would raise up a new and perfect king, a shepherd-king in the line of king David –a king whose power and glory was far beyond what anyone dreamed.

The king. With the angel’s announcement to the shepherds, we see that Jesus’ birth is the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s promise. God himself would raise up a king to do things Israel’s kings hadn’t done— restore the weak and gather the lost, offer an amnesty and open up his rule of justice and peace for the world, for ever. “Then they will know that I the Lord their God am with them” Ezekiel had said (Ezekiel 34:30). Jesus’ birth is indeed the very best news the world has known.

In fulfillment of his promise, the creator God himself has reached down from the glory of highest heaven to rescue and transform the lives of all people, even the lowliest, including the outcasts. No wonder the heavenly choir of angels broke into song: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, ‘shalom’, ‘peace’.

In her Christmas Broadcast in 2012, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II said, “The carol, In The Bleak Midwinter, ends by asking a question of all of us who know the Christmas story, of how God gave himself to us in humble service: “What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man, I would do my part”. The carol gives the answer “Yet what I can I give him – give my heart”.”

How right this is: Jesus wants us to turn to him, our savior-king, and to give him our heart in true repentance, love and loyalty.

Indeed, it is when we give our hearts to Jesus that we can truly sing: O Holy Night… it is the night of the dear Savior’s birth;…

© John G. Mason

Note: My comments on Luke 2:1-14 are drawn from my book, Luke: An Unexpected God, 2nd Edition, Aquila: 2019.

O holy night: the stars are brightly shining, it is the night of the dear Savior’s birth;

long lay the world in sin and error pining, till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!

O night divine, O night, when Christ was born! O night divine, O night, O night divine!

Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!

O night divine, O night, when Christ was born! O night divine, O night, O night divine!

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming, with glowing hearts by his cradle we stand.

So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming, here come the wise men from the Orient land.

The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger; in all our trials born to be our friend.

He knows our need, to our weaknesses no stranger, behold your King!

Before him lowly bend! Behold your King! Your King, before him bend!

Truly He taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace.

Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother; and in his name all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we, let all within us praise his holy Name.

Christ is the Lord! O praise his Name forever, His power and glory evermore proclaim!

His power and glory evermore proclaim! Christ is the Lord! O praise his Name forever.

His power and glory evermore proclaim! His power and glory evermore proclaim!