In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 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 favours!’
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. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus is very familiar to us. We know of the census, the journey, the full inn, the angels and the shepherds. We know all the edited highlights of these opening verses of the second chapter of Luke’s gospel, but what about some of the details? And, what difference does our knowledge make to the way in which we live out our daily lives?
Luke’s account of the Nativity opens with some historical context. Whether or not we can make that work as we cast the historian’s eye over these details is irrelevant, however. The importance of Luke’s opening words lie in his mention of the Emperor Augustus. This was the Roman Emperor who first declared himself to be the ‘Son of God’. It was Augustus who started the cult of the divinity of those who ruled the greatest empire in the world. The mention of Augustus is important because it offers us a comparison. Augustus, the one who claimed to be the ‘Son of God’ sat in splendour in Rome, while the true Son of God, Jesus, was born in a lowly stable because there was no place for them in the inn.
As well as the contrast we see in the life of Augustus and the birth of Jesus, we are also offered something else to ponder in this respect. We can be certain that Augustus lived in great splendour as his favour was constantly courted by those who were rich and well-born. But, it was Jesus who was heralded by the heavenly host. Furthermore, they sang to the lowly shepherds as they were guarding their flocks from the dangers of the night. Access to the true Son of God was being offered to the lowliest of people, and not just to those with money and influence.
Then, Luke offers us one more detail that should give us pause for thought: The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. The lives of those lowly working men were changed for ever because they had known the presence of God. The splendour of heaven had been opened to them, the message of the Messiah’s birth had been proclaimed to them, they had journeyed to offer, not wealth, but faithful worship, and their lives would never be the same again.
Let us pray that we might never be deceived by the riches and power that are rooted in this world. Let us pray that we might not only hear, but also respond to the Good News of Christ’s presence in this world. Let us pray that our lives might be changed and that we might constantly glorify and praise God for all we have heard and seen.