Chrysalis Bible study 4: 26/02/2016 Luke 2: 1 – 20
Refs: NIV Bible
L Morris (Tyndale Commentaries) Luke
M Wilcock (The Bible Speaks Today) Luke
T Wright Luke for everyone
B. M. Metzger (Ed) The Oxford Companion to the Bible
Having set the scene in the opening chapter of his Gospel Luke reaches the main event – the birth of Jesus. Somehow, familiarity with the story and the commercialisation of aspects of the events may have diminished the impact of these verses, so let’s try to enliven them!
Scholars have debated the accuracy of Luke’s reference to a census, there being no direct record of one having taken place at this time in this province, but there is ample evidence of similar procedures elsewhere at other times and according to some experts it is quite likely that changes in the administration of the Roman Empire around this time would have called for the creation of such a record and it is far from inconceivable that one did take place.
So once again we sense the unseen hand putting in place the pieces of the jigsaw – a decree from far off Rome causing Joseph to return to his tribal seat. But in a patriarchal society why would a heavily pregnant Mary have had to go too? (Tax reasons? Neighbours vicious tongues?) whatever the reason, it ensures the fulfilment of the prophecy in Micah (5:2) that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
The squalor into which the Christ child was born has been unforgivably sanitised by our immediate ancestors and by the more recent depictions on Christmas cards.
The reality was far different – our tradition says the birth took place in a stable, early Christians believed it to have been a cave. It may even have been the lower story of a house where the animals would have been kept, possibly alongside their human owners as a source of warmth – but whatever the exact details this was the last place any women would have wished to give birth. In the midst of filth and apparently unaided (She wrapped him in cloths, no mention is made of a mid-wife or female family member being there). She puts her baby in a manger – filled with hay it would have been warm, but perhaps more importantly above the level where the rats were likely to sniff about at night? But there is another less obvious reason, as we are about to see.
For on the hillside outside the town some shepherds are guarding their flocks, when an angel appears – I wonder if it was Gabriel? Our studies may have made angelic appearances seem commonplace by now, but the shepherds didn’t know the story. They would have been terrified.
The angel tells them about the new baby and that he is in the town, but how will they know they have the right one? How many are likely to be being cradled in manger? The pieces of the jigsaw again.
Then, just in case they were in any doubt – how many angels? An army! Tens of thousands!
And no wonder, this is the greatest event in history – God breaks into His own creation bringing the salvation He has promised for so long – but who does He pick to be told about it? Shepherds! Shepherds of all people.
David was a shepherd who became a king, but the reputation of shepherds had slipped a long way since those days. They were reviled because their work meant they couldn’t adhere to the strict religious observances demanded by the Pharisees and animal husbandry is a 24/7 occupation meaning they couldn’t keep the laws regarding the Sabbath. By the time of Jesus birth they were generally viewed like modern day travellers – living on the fringe of the law, at best, their testimony invalid in Court. But who else would have been out at night to tell?
Jewish legend had it that the news of the coming of the Messiah would be announced from the Tower of the Flocks – which stood by the road from Jerusalem, just outside Bethlehem.
And these weren’t ordinary shepherds. Leviticus lays down the sacrifices to be offered in atonement for sins, often this took the form of a ram or a lamb – and special ones at that, Leviticus 7:3 speaks of the treatment of “the fat tail” of sheep specially bred for this purpose.
These were almost certainly flocks of sheep bred for sacrifice, was it not appropriate that it was to their carers that the news of the birth of the lamb who would for once and for all take away the sins of the world was revealed?