One of the most popular parts of the Christmas story each year, and one that is included in every Nativity Play and manger scene, is the appearance of the angels to the shepherds: “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night”. This is so familiar to us now that the revolutionary aspect that Luke writes about is quite lost on us.
The religious establishment at that time considered shepherds to be outcasts, unclean, because their work and way of life meant that they could not keep to the rigorous regulations laid down by the authorities for ritual washing, attendance at services, and so on. So, the fact that they were chosen to be the first people to hear about the birth of Jesus is remarkable. Just as women were the first to be told about his coming birth and his resurrection, so these poor and despised shepherds were granted a magnificent visit from the angelic hosts, hearing those words which had been longed for down the long generations before them: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” [Luke 2.10-11]
Judaism had become an exclusive religion, one which looked down on Gentiles, non-Jews, and praised God every day that they were the Chosen People. Every observant Jewish man prayed daily, thanking God that he had not made them “a Gentile, a slave or a woman”. But the long lists of regulations and laws, which had been added to the Ten Commandments given to Moses, had made their religion one which focussed on what was done and not done, rather than one of faith and heart. The birth of Jesus marked the revolution from old to new, from law to grace, and what was displayed at his birth would be continued throughout his life and in the church to come.
The announcement by angelic hosts of the birth of the longed-for Messiah and Saviour did not come to the priests in their Temple in Jerusalem. It didn’t come to Herod the Great in his palaces, or to the ruling council of the Jews, the Sanhedrin. It came to women and shepherds in the course of their daily lives, in the homes and in the fields. But that was not the end of the revolutionary events.
Matthew, in his shorter account of the first Christmas, adds another remarkable episode, and one with which we are also very familiar: the Three Wise Men, as it often called. “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” [Matthew 2.1-2]
The Magi were Zoroastrians, astronomers and astrologers, and their appearance in the Christmas story is astonishing. Gentiles, guided by a star which they observed, coming from the east, around Iran and Iraq in today’s geography, were led to Jesus and worshipped him with gifts, before being warned in a dream to return home by another route, so as to avoid Herod. Something is happening here that completely transcends the boundaries and expectation of the Messiah as the Jews imagined him.
The official expectation at the time was that the Messiah would come as a powerful political figure who would gather the people together, overthrow the foreign Roman oppressors, and restore the Kingdom of David and Solomon. But the events surrounding that first Christmas showed that something very different was coming into the world, something that would change it forever. The role played by women, the outcasts, the poor and the Gentiles indicated that the coming Messiah, Jesus born in Bethlehem, was not going to abide by the expectations of the authorities. John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus, may have been the one sent as “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him”, but John would be the last and greatest prophet of the Old, announcing the coming of the revolutionary New. “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” [Luke 7.28]
The Revolution may have started at that first Christmas, but it was not going to end there.