(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on December 11, 2015)
“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger” (Luke 2:15-16, NRSV).
Each gospel tells the story differently about the beginning of Jesus’ life and/or ministry. Mark and John include nothing about his early years. Only Matthew and Mark include a birth narrative, but each of them accentuates something different about what it means to say that a savior has come into the world. Matthew, for example, emphasizes the rightful place of Jesus as Lord and messiah placed within the Jewish tradition (hence the many ‘according to [Hebrew] scripture’ passages). Luke, however, focuses on God’s special concern for the poor and marginalized, showing Jesus as the one who came to be the salvation for all: Jew, Gentile, slave, free, man and woman.
Take notice of how Luke describes the birth of Jesus. First we have Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the ancient world, marriage customs were quite different than they are in our culture. While the text does not give her age, it is safe to assume that Mary was a teenager. Girls became engaged to be married—an arrangement between the girl’s father and the prospective husband—between about the ages of 13-15 years old. So that means the mother of Jesus was an unwed, pregnant teenager. Let that sink in. Think about the first few thoughts that run through our minds when we see an unwed, pregnant 14 year old. Does society today look favorably upon pregnant teenagers as role models for our children? Of course not. Well, in the ancient world, to become pregnant while engaged to another man would have been a very serious and scandalous affair. In addition to that, young girls such as Mary were legally considered to be property of the head of household, with very little voice or power in the culture of that day, which is to say that Mary would have been pretty far down the hierarchy of her community, likely subject to scorn in the eyes of others.
Then consider where Jesus was born. Because Mary and Joseph could not find any room at an inn (a shameful failure of hospitality to this desperate couple), Jesus was born in a barn. Perhaps you have been in a 21st century barns and you know that they can be dark, dirty, smelly and dangerous. Believe me, a 1st century Palestinian barn was probably even further away from the comforts of a Hilton.
And finally, look at who are the first people to hear the good news brought to them: shepherds. We don’t have a lot of shepherds hanging around today, but at this time and place in history, there were plenty of them and they had quite a reputation. Shepherds were considered lazy, shiftless, untrustworthy and dull. Basically, if you couldn’t manage to do anything, you could at least herd sheep. In 1 Samuel 16:11, the prophet asks Jesse, “Don’t you have any more sons for me to consider?” Since God had chosen none of the 7 strapping young men Jesse paraded in front of him. Jesse says, “Well, yeah, there’s David. He’s out tending my sheep right now. He possibly couldn’t be the one God has chosen to be the king.” In Exodus, Moses is found living in obscurity and exile by God tending his father-in-law’s sheep. The point of these stories, what gives them their punch, are the unexpected people that God chooses to lead. The reader would have thought, “A shepherd? A shepherd couldn’t possibly be the one!”
So what does this all mean? Well, if I were to make up the story of how God saves the world, I think it would only be natural to choose some powerful queen to be the mother of the savior. That’s how ancient hero stories usually worked, at least. I would probably have the messiah born into a five-star palace resort among riches and adoring kings. It only makes sense. And I would think that the first recipients of the news of his arrival would be dudes like Caesar Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, King Herod Antipas, Annas and Caiaphas, not a bunch of minimum wage shepherds!
But not God. When God saves the world, he chooses a nasty barn. When God save the world, he chooses the biggest nobody (in the eyes of society) he can find to carry him for nine months and give birth. And then he sends angels to go tell the kind of people you and I would roll up the windows and lock the car doors if we pulled up alongside them at the street corner. That’s how, where and with whom God shows up.
And here is the good news of Luke’s gospel depiction of Jesus’ arrival: you and I are going to find ourselves in the barn sooner or later. You and I are going to find ourselves in the shoes of the despised. That is, of course, if you haven’t been (or are) there already. Furthermore, if we are lucky, you and I are going to have the opportunity to go to the nastiest places you can think of to serve the wretched of the world. And when we do, let us remember that we are on holy ground. Because that is where God likes to be.