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 form 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 the 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 which 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.
Few readings from the Bible are so full of joy as this annunciation of the birth of Jesus. From the beginning the verses are a kaleidoscope of theological significance. They are interwoven with allusions to the prophets, especially Micah and Isaiah. The census serves God’s purposes. It brings Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, the little town which was traditionally associated with the coming of the messiah (see Micah 5:2). And there Jesus is born. But strikingly, Luke seems less interested in the birth of Jesus than in the manger! It is mentioned three times in this passage. He refers to it as a “sign”. But of what? The prophet Isaiah had mourned the fact that whereas “the ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib… Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isa.1:3). Perhaps Luke is hinting that now God’s people are beginning to know that the messiah is born, they have begun to understand! The saviour of the world is there, lying in a manger. He is also wrapped in swaddling clothes – he is properly received and cared for. So Jesus is born in the city of David, not in lodgings like a stranger, but swaddled in a manger where God is sustaining his people.
The scene then shifts to the hills outside Bethlehem. Shepherds are minding their sheep. Suddenly the dark is illuminated by a blaze of light and in the intense brightness of God’s glory, an angel announces the joyful news of Jesus’s birth to the terrified shepherds. Then the refrain is picked up by the heavenly host, the purest expression of heavenly bliss, angels so light, so free from the discords of human conflict, praising God and proclaiming peace and good-will on earth. The rhythm flickers downwards and upwards. As the shepherds go to Bethlehem to see for themselves, they find Mary and Joseph and the baby and return, echoing the chorus of praise. They anticipate future believers who will glorify God for what they have heard or seen or understood. So the praises of God on earth echo the praises of the heavenly host. Angels and human beings celebrate together in one great chorus of joy. For the saviour of the world is born.
Son of God,
light that shines in the dark
Child of joy and peace,
Be born again in us today.
That the world may know
the wonder of your love.
The Rev’d Fleur Houston is a retired minister and member of Macclesfield & Bollington URC.