And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
Luke is the only gospel writer to situate Jesus’ birth on the Greco-Roman calendar. Thanks to Luke, we know that Caesar Augustus was emperor at the time of Jesus' birth, Rome's census was in process, and Quirinius was Rome's governor of the region of Syria (Luke 2:1).
In part, these details make sense in the story as some have described the writer of Luke’s gospel as “the great historian” among the gospel writers. But Luke’s motives for adding a cast of Roman characters and calendars to Jesus’ birth story are far more theological than they are historical.
If you do a little research with your study Bible, you’ll quickly realize that the dates in Luke gives for Jesus’ birth in relation to the census taken by Quirinus are off by about a decade. Which begs the question, if Luke isn’t trying to get the history correct, why include the information at all?
On the one hand, I think the presence of the Greco-Roman players in Luke’s story is a reminder that Jesus was not born in a vacuum but real, tangible human history. Jesus was born in a world just like ours—a world shaped by politics and power, religion, emperors and governors. This also means it is a world that knows as much soul-wearying life as we do
On the other hand, I cannot help but wonder if it is a reminder that Jesus shows up where we least expect. While the story starts with emperors and governors, the “good news of great joy” is offered not to those in the halls of power but before a few random shepherds in a field somewhere.
By the time of Jesus, shepherding was a profession most likely filled by those on the bottom rung of the ladder, people who could not find decent work. Society stereotyped shepherds as liars, degenerates, and thieves. The testimony of shepherds was not admissible in court, and many towns had ordinances barring shepherds from their city limits. The religious establishment took a particularly dim view of shepherds since the regular exercise of shepherds' duties kept them from observing the Sabbath and rendered them ritually unclean. The Pharisees classed shepherds with tax collectors and prostitutes, who were "sinners" by virtue of their vocation.
This unsavory place and these unlikely people are where and to whom Luke says that angels announce the good news of God’s presence for all people. The good news of Jesus' birth comes not to Caesar, Herod, or Quirinius first, but to a group of lowly, the isolated, disenfranchised, and forgotten shepherds.
Now, I imagine most of us have never tended sheep. But I would bet that almost all of us know what it is like to spend time in the fields of isolation, tend the flocks of loneliness, or in our painful places of spiritual wilderness where God seems absent or far away. I wonder where that place is for you these days?
This year, we won't spend time in the expected glow of a tree-lit sanctuary or lifting congregational candles together as we usually do. Still, we can rejoice to know that Jesus is not born there anyway. Jesus is being born, as he always is, anywhere and everywhere where people need him most.
And that is good news worth rejoicing in.