Gaius Octavius - Caesar Augustus - was the most powerful man in the world. As the first Roman emperor, he conquered Egypt, Dalmatia, Spain, and territories in Africa; his reign ushered in the era of Pax Romana. After being adopted as son and heir of Julius Caesar, he founded the Temple of Caesar, and was hailed as Imperator Caesar, divi filius - Commander Caesar, divine son (son of a god).
Quite a guy.
In the Bible, he and his mighty legate governor, Quirinius, are a thirty-three word footnote in Luke 2. In God's plans, the mightiest person is only relevant insofar as they are a small part of the story in which God arranges the events to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.
Isn't that great?
God is in control of empires and emperors - indeed the whole of history – in order to bless the world with his Christ. The biblical writers’ focus is not on the powerful, but on the little people, like the holy family and the shepherds. Later on, Simeon and Anna, two seemingly insignificant people, take pride of place. History, viewed from his perspective, isn't about the impressive-looking people.
It’s about the little people.
During this Covid-dominated Christmas period, it is perfectly understandable to ask whether God is actually in control of world events. But that is precisely what Luke tells us. He oversees the entirety of human events, in order to move the characters in the story around. The big picture serves the storyline, ensuring that the events in the Christmas story take place according to his perfect plan. It’s a plan, a storyline, which is centuries in the making. Here’s the prophet, Micah, writing hundreds of years before the birth of Christ:
In that day, declares the Lord, I will gather the lame and the exiles and those I have brought to grief . . . but you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty and name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace. (Micah 4.6; 5.2; 4-5a)
The exiles and the lame – the small people – will be given an incomparably great king by God. And this king will be for them and with them.
But you’d be forgiven for having some doubts.
If God is supposed to be in control, why send a pregnant young woman eighty miles to Bethlehem? Or couldn't he have at least pre-booked them a room at the Travelodge? Or its equivalent, an inn, perhaps? And, honestly, if you want to proclaim the birth of the Son of God, the King of Israel, why do it to smelly illiterate nobody shepherds? We can be so familiar with the story that we no longer pause over these strange details.
Bethlehem was Sheep-Town. It produced livestock for the temple sacrifice industry. On its nearby hills, many years before, a young boy called David was looking after sheep, when Samuel, led by the Spirit of God, came to anoint him as King over Israel. Luke is well aware of this connection, and he wants his readers to see it too. Here is how he records the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary:
Your child will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end. (Luke 1.31-32)
The baby born in David's town, Luke is telling us, is the greater David. He will occupy the throne not just of Israel, but of the universe, and he will rule in righteousness and justice for ever. He is the Prince of Peace foretold by Micah and Isaiah.
But why be born of the little people, and with the little people?
Well that really is the whole point.
From God's perspective, everyone is little - and greatly loved. Nobody is mighty. The Incarnation is about God being for all people, and especially for those who are often considered non-entities. St. Paul writes,
You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich (2 Cor. 8.9).
Jesus embraced poverty in order to make the unfathomable riches of God's grace available to everyone. If God had come as a wealthy person, then grace would be out of reach to all but the wealthy. Instead, he chose to come as a refugee, a child born into poverty. Therefore what he has to give is accessible to anyone who is prepared to come on his terms.
The King comes to the King’s town and he has the rights of the King, but he doesn’t take them.
For your sake. And for mine.
It’s interesting that shepherds were considered ceremonially unclean. God came to people who couldn't participate in the religious life of the nation. Later on, the Magi, who were Gentiles of course, they too were unclean. God was breaking down every barrier through his Christ, and did so most decisively thirty-three years later when we are told that his crucifixion ‘tore down the dividing wall of hostility.’ (Eph. 2.4b)
We hear much more about the shepherds than we do about the emperor. An angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them. This is God's great messenger, a mighty figure, who featured in the Old Testament, accompanied now by the Shekinah glory from the tabernacle and temple. God's mighty presence, his glory, had departed from Israel at the exile, and it had not been seen for six hundred years.
Now his glory returns.
On a hillside at night. With nobodies for an audience.
It is not a nice Christmas card scene. It is a fall-on-the-ground-eviscerated-by-the-presence-of-God moment. This is the breaking-in of Heaven, with a demonstration of the glory that Jesus had with the Father before the creation of the world. The shepherds were right to be terrified. So should we be. Why aren't they just plain annihilated? Because he says,
Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that shall be for all the people. Today in the town of David a saviour has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord (Luke 2.10-11).
Jesus is why.
He is the one who takes us, without fear, into the very throne room of God. Into the heart of glory. He is our king. We are in him. He has won the victory over judgement, sin, and death, and he carries us with him in his triumph.
So as we think about outcasts and little people this Christmas - shepherds, a teenage peasant girl, and most of all a helpless babe – will you share in the angel’s song? Will you give ‘glory to God in the highest?’ Will you join with those unnamed shepherds in worship, glorifying God and praising him for all that you too have seen and heard?
He is worthy. So very worthy.