“There are no small roles, only small actors” or so said the director who got her name in lights and on the front page of every program. But I was no fool even when I was a wee little lad. While others got to be Joseph or King Herod or the nefarious Innkeeper in the Christmas play, I got stuck playing a talking donkey in the stable while the pastor’s kid got to play an angel (which was quite the acting performance given his less-than-angelic behavior offstage). But I made the most of it. I made an ass of myself by impersonating Eyore perfectly to the thunderous applause and laughter of the audience as I sat behind a painted donkey used as a prop for the manger scene. I stole the scene (I think Baby Jesus didn’t mind) and I learned a valuable lesson that day. While many actors are given their roles based on talent or looks and politics or irony, the roles played even by bit characters in the story of Jesus’ birth, life, and even death were not given by accident.
One such “bit” role is the one played by the shepherds the day Jesus was born. Oftentimes these mysterious men are overshadowed as the story is told each year includes the wise men (who actually came two years later), the Innkeeper (who isn’t actually in the text at all), and even the Little Drummer Boy who miraculously causes a newborn baby to smile rather than scream in terror while oxen and lambs conduct him during his royal performance. A closer examination, however, reveals the shepherds played an important role as they were the first to hear about the birth of a savior and are the model for what our reaction should be to hearing and believing the good news.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
From Darkness Shrouded in Mystery to the Light of Revelation
Immediately after describing the humble circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus, Luke turns his attention to the lowly shepherds who were just outside of town in the fields. Luke gives no reason why the shepherds were chosen, but it certainly goes along well with his theme, which will continue to develop throughout Luke and Acts: though the world which seeks power, money, and fame may reject Jesus, God reaches out to the lowly, the humble, the oppressed, and beat-down to proclaim peace and salvation. “The twin motifs of the rejection of Jesus by the world and of God’s acceptance of ordinary humble and needy folk, to whom he chooses to reveal his salvation, thus come to expression in the story at the outset, and remain of decisive significance throughout the gospel.” (I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke NIGTC, p. 96-97) As low as the shepherds were in status and reputation in those days, God saw fit to announce the good news first to them.
And what a way to announce it! It was pitch black. The shepherds probably felt like they were living a parody of their own lives as they counted sheep trying to stay awake. Suddenly light filled the sky and an angel appeared proclaiming what was formerly a mystery shrouded in darkness: a savior had been born in secret in the smallest of towns in the back room where the animals were kept. The world would no longer be in darkness. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. (John 1:9)
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:13)
Praising God and Singing Too
Hark the herald angels sang…or did they? We get such a nice serene picture of angelic choirs singing Christmas carols, putting on a concert for the shepherds, but none of that is in the text. “Heavenly host” is not the best translation given how “host” is used these days. These were not hosts for a party making sure everyone was entertained and fed well. They were not talk show hosts like Oprah or game show hosts like Wink Martindale. The Greek word often translated “hosts” is almost always translated “armies” in the Bible and other Greek texts. The shepherds would not “fear with great fear” a choir director no matter how bright white his choir robe might have been; they would fear a warrior of the heavenly armies.
The text says the heavenly army was “praising God,” but that does not necessarily mean they sang songs. The shepherds are seen glorifying and praising God later in verse 20, but no Christmas carols are written about them singing. Luke states the heavenly army was “praising God and saying” – not praising God and singing. There are several Greek words used in the Bible for singing and Luke even uses one of them in Acts 16:25. I believe Luke intentionally uses a Greek word which cannot be translated “singing” because the heavenly armies praised God in other ways which may have included singing as well as shouting and jumping and encouraging others and telling stories of what they had seen throughout history that was now coming to fruition in the birth of a savior. This was not choir practice; this was a declaration of war on evil and everything that separates mankind from God.
The Glory of God Now Come To Earth
When the angel first appeared, “the glory of the Lord shone around them.” The heavenly army then declares the glory of God, which was reserved for heaven was now being shown on earth – not just in a brief appearance to the shepherds, but beginning that very day with the shepherds, who would be the first evangelists, spreading the good news around town after they found Jesus. 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 2:17-18)
Peace On Earth and In Our Hearts
World peace has been elusive and the hope for peace for some may fade, but peace cannot be bought in a store or negotiated in a treaty; peace can only come from God. And is not an individual experience. Peace “is not simply an inner disposition or the absence of war, but evokes a whole social order of well-being and prosperity, security and harmony” (John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20 WBC, p. 108) In Hebrew it is shalom: “peace with justice, universal healing” (Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke NICNT p.137) Peace has to do with healing, with making us whole again, with bringing wholesomeness to a world going to pieces without Him.
So who can have this peace? Only “those on whom His favor rests.” This is not an exclusive group based on lineage or salary or birthplace. As the theme of this story and message of the heavenly army shows, peace is available to ALL PEOPLE including the humblest of shepherds, who became the first to experience the benefit from being favored or the “People of God’s good pleasure,” who are “in a favored relationship with Him in which His mercy and power are experienced through His faithfulness” (Nolland p. 109).
Think of it! Peace in the midst of chaos, in the midst of darkness and confusion. We speak of the dead finally getting to rest in peace. But no one announced peace to the world upon someone’s death. A multitude of angels made such an announcement upon the birth of the kings of kings as He lay in a feeding trough for common animals. Peace isn’t for the dead. It is for today. It is for ALL people. As we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, may we find new birth as our hearts find rest in Him.
Other relevant articles: