…for out of Bethlehem will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.
–Matthew 2:6, echoing Micah 5:2
The above promise of a Davidic king from Bethlehem is a familiar one for Christians. We rejoice in this season of Christmas at the promised Messiah, but in a few paragraphs I’d like to synchronize some Biblical connections that may help us see the pastoral significance of the Incarnation as the coming of the Shepherd King to shepherds tending their flocks by night.
First, a bit of helpful context. This newborn King appeared in an age of pretenders to power, in a time when alternate claims to rule were common. Consider the two major opponents in the first chapters of Luke’s Gospel. In the immediate vicinity of Jesus’ birth was the genocidal, paranoid, and arrogant ruler Herod, posturing as Israel’s king; even more threatening in the account is Caesar Augustus, who ordered a census taken of the whole world (Luke 2:1), the Emperor who was styled as the “divine savior who brought peace.” In the midst of this imperial marketing blitz of false peace came the angelic announcement to the shepherds: “I bring you good news of great joy…on earth, peace among those with whom he is pleased” (Luke 2:10, 14).
We modern believers live in a similar marketplace of competing rulers, who use even our own senses to claim our loyalty and allegiance. Take as a minor example the use of aroma marketing in stores this month: Henry County is known neither for its booming peppermint industry nor its bustling pine evergreens, yet you can find all these scents and more in your local Bath & Body Works (and at my house.) Each of them promises a longing, a feel, and makes you want to stay a bit longer and buy the product. Like Caesar’s census was to Joseph and Mary, they appear harmless, yet unobtrusively mark and form our habits and desires. As one marketing professor put it: “Be aware of your environment, if you don’t want to be manipulated by it.” Part of the solution to being sucked in by ads and appeals is to return to the grandeur of the Incarnation.
We sing about Immanuel, God with us, yet need to take more time to see how this God actually comes among us. The announcement of the birth of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel is first given to shepherds (2:8-12) who are keeping their flocks by night. Shepherds who lived in the fields were probably hired hands, rather than owners, even more unlikely recipients of the Gospel news. But Luke is not just a historian interested in first-century facts. He is also a reader of the Old Testament, one who knows that the royal and the rustic go together in the biography of David. An unheralded part of the Christmas story is this connection between the shepherd lad of Jesse and the anointed king of Israel.
For it is in Luke’s nativity scene that the strands of ancient prophecy are intertwined. God has sprinkled hints of the coming Messianic birth throughout the prophetic writings: only Ezekiel uses swaddling cloths in his parable of Israel’s birth (Ezekiel 16:4), while the opening lines of Isaiah speak of the donkey who knows his own manger. We may know of the significance of Bethlehem for the Christ-child’s birth, but fail to grasp other links between David and the “inn” which had no vacancy for Mary and Joseph. Recall the statement in 2 Samuel 7:6 where God says he was content to live in a tent and a tabernacle. The Gentile readers of Luke’s Gospel would have heard this verse in Greek (which uses “inn” for tabernacle) and immediately connected with the no housing policy in Luke’s nativity account. Truly, Jesus came to his own, but his own—even the homeowners association and the innkeepers—rejected him.
So when we return to the familiar narrative in Luke 2, we can see the birth of another ‘servant’ of the Lord, from the house of God’s servant David, the light of the world, who would eventually show himself as the good shepherd who has come for the lost sheep, for shepherds too poor to go home at night, who makes a guest room his home. This king is castle and farmhouse together, royalty and rustic meet in the king who does not lead astray his flock, but (as Matthew 18:14 notes) cares for them so much it is his will that none should be lost.
The joy of a pasture and the privilege of a pastor meet in Christ, so as we consider Mary and Joseph and the shepherds this December, do not forget the great model for a Christian and a pastor is the infant himself. God condescending, willing to be with us so that we might be found. Pray for your pastor, pray for one another, encourage one another with these truths.
As Christians, remember that we were once lost sheep, needing rescue. But in our lonely nighttime vigil, the Lord came down, in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. God is with us in our lowly condition.