And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.
This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria.
So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child.
So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered.
And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid.
Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!”
So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.”
And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.
Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.
Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.
- Luke 2:1-20, New King James Bible
The Christmas story is one of the most beautiful texts in the entire Bible. When a story is so lovely and so familiar, I can’t add much. I just want to talk for a minute about a couple of things that stand out for me.
The story says, “in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” This reminds us that Jesus was born in a country occupied by Rome, a foreign power.
And it tells us more. "All the world should be registered." The story joins the census of the whole world to the birth of Jesus. Jesus has come to be the saviour of all the world. It’s important to know that in the Roman Empire there was already someone called the Saviour of the world and the Son of God – that was the Emperor Augustus himself. There was a cult of the emperor. But the angels announce that the titles of God’s Son, Saviour, Lord don’t really belong to the Roman emperor, or any other ruler – they belong to Jesus, for in him alone God and humanity are joined, and real salvation, real peace, for the whole world, can only come from him.
The other thing that stands out for me is who is told about this wonderful birth. Who do God’s angels come to with this news of great joy for all people? Not the emperor in Rome. Not the king the Romans put in place over the region. This news isn’t announced in a palace or temple or mansion. It is proclaimed in a field, to shepherds at their jobs outside a little village in a backwater province on the fringe of the empire, far from the centre of power.
Now, we tend to be very sentimental about these Christmas card shepherds. But shepherds were simple, rural, working people, like a lot of folks here. They were rough around the edges, maybe like some folks here. But there’s more. They were poor. They had a bad reputation. Shepherds were what today might be scorned as white trash. Respectable people looked down on them. You could even say people despised them. Being a shepherd was not an honourable way to make a living. Staying out on the hills, they were unable to carry out the religious obligations of good, observant Jews. They couldn’t do what society expected of the heads of households. And they were seen as thieves, because they grazed their sheep on land belonging to other people. That shepherds - poor, powerless, dishonourable - would be the first to receive the good news of the Saviour and come to worship him shows God’s concern for the outcasts of society.
That the shepherds are so privileged is a way of showing us that the birth of Jesus is for all people, including, even especially for, those who are on the margins, outside the elite, those who are shunned and excluded. The news of Christmas joy is for everyone. For everyone. For you and me. If you here tonight are country people, working people, if you are unpolished, if you have a bit of a bad reputation, if you have been in trouble, if you don’t have much, if you feel left out –the angels are trusting you first with the Christmas news that there is born to you this day a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And then remember that the shepherds were changed by what they had heard and seen, and they spread the news.
There is a prayer about the shepherds, from Christians in Uganda.
Blessed are you, O Christ child,
That shepherds, poorest and simplest of earthly people,
Could yet kneel beside you,
And look, level-eyed, into the face of God.