Ah, the familiar shepherd story of Luke 2. Not at all the stuff of our children’s books, but a statement of treason and the foreshadowing of the upending of all things. It tells the tale of Jesus when Jesus is barely on the scene.
There was this thing called the Priene Inscription. They have actually found it. Caesar Augustus had become the official object of worship as he ruled the world. He was called “The Savior of the World.” He was worshipped for bringing peace to the world. The Priene Inscription reads, “The birthday of the god [meaning Caesar] has marked the beginning of the gospel of the good news for the world.” It talks about Augustus making wars cease, and creating order everywhere. You can already see where this is going.
When the angels showed up that night, they basically quoted the Priene Inscription, but Augustus was not the subject of it—Jesus was. Here we have a set-up for what’s coming: from the most insignificant beginnings possible: a country priest and his wife, an unwed girl and her carpenter husband in an insignificant town in a dirty corner of the empire, heralded by a bunch of shepherds (who got as much respect in their society as truck drivers do in ours) comes a challenge to the throne of Rome and everything it stands for, as a symbol of the world. Women were not allowed to testify in a court of law. Shepherds were despised because their work kept them from participation in the religious activities of their communities, and they were not allowed to testify in court either. And these are the people God picks to have good news to share???
“I bring you the gospel of good news for the world. Today in the city of the Jewish throne, the Savior of the World has been born. He is the new Anointed Lord, the new Emperor.” You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to shudder with fear at such an announcement. Luke is contrasting the gospel of Rome with the gospel of Jesus. The point of the shepherd story of Luke 2 is the complete undoing of the systems of this world. Politically, Jesus is the TRUE savior who brings TRUE peace. Ultimately, as we know, all governments and rulers will bow to him (Ps. 2). Religiously, the message comes to the outcasts, not the religious leaders. Religion will cave in to the truth. And philosophically, or theologically, we see that all things will be upended: the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.
And then an army of angels shows up, an obvious contrast to the earthly choirs used in worship of Caesar, and he had armies at his beck and call. They would sing, “Caesar has inaugurated world peace!” And what do these angels proclaim? Sheesh — Glory to God in the highest (that ain’t Caesar, buddy) and HE will bring peace.
Already, with Jesus barely on the scene, we are finding out the Jesus is the one who lifts up the poor and the humble. We are finding that Jesus intends to upend the world and turn it inside out, not with an army but with the poor and the plain who live on the edges of society. He uses people for whom it is illegal for them to testify to be his first witnesses.
It’s as if a court official has knocked on the door of the earth and served notice that everything we know is being challenged by the arrival of the baby. “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” This announcement is both the greatest love song and a blatant declaration of war.
Let the games begin!