Thanksgiving is gone and Advent is upon us! Our friends are posting pictures of their decked halls and illuminated houses on Facebook. We can now listen to our Christmas Carols and holiday jingles with abandon. But do we have a Christmas witness?
“Of course we do,” you insist as you point to the kneeling shepherd positioned just behind Joseph in the crèche scene you recently set out on the buffet table. And next to him is Balthazar the Wise Man with his gift of myrrh. Yes, they were witnesses to the Advent, more or less (the magi didn’t actually make their appearance until Jesus was a toddler). But those aren’t the kind of witness we need.
Christmas requires a witness. Not a porcelain rendering of an historical witness, but a living, breathing testimony to what you yourself know.
This is a key theme in the account of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke. The unlikely heroes are those shepherds in your crèche. Although there are scholars who are hesitant to fully embrace the idea, it is generally believed that in first century Palestine the shepherd was a figure who occupied the outer edge of respectable society. He was possibly a dangerous man – at least an ambiguous one in his moral qualities. He was to be dealt with cautiously. And not at all on dark streets.
Perhaps the more cautious historians are correct and these men were not the dregs of Bethlehem. But they certainly lacked any rank among their class when it came to getting a good shift! Here they are in the dead of the night, confronted first by one angel and then by a mighty army of them. They are told of the long expected messiah’s birth, are given a sign by which they will recognize him, and they set off to find this Savior hailed by the hosts of heaven.
Hurrying off, they found him. And they fell down and worshipped him. No, wait. It doesn’t say that does it! That is what the Magi do when they find him. But the shepherds do not stop and worship. In Luke’s gospel we read exactly what they did:
“When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them… [then] the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” (Luke 2:17-20)
These men are the first gospel evangelists mentioned in the New Testament. They leave the manger and tell their neighbors that the Son of David who is the Savior of his people has been born. They share what they heard the angels chant: God has been glorified and in the Messiah men can have peace.
It is fitting that these men be the first evangelists. God came in the person of Christ – in a human body which “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2). And so the first missionaries were men who likewise had no lofty credentials or social qualifications. These would not have been men we would have found attractive – or wanted to have pounding on our front door at midnight.
And consider what this unattractive Savior with a dodgy set of promoters would do. This Jesus would redeem lost sinners for all eternity. And these shepherds would win an enduring place in the hearts of God’s people everywhere.
With whom will you share what you have seen and heard about the Savior’s birth? Who lives in your Bethlehem who needs a Christmas witness?
N.B. The painting is a seventeenth century oil by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo c. 1657 – Adoración de los pastores.