Shepherds and Emperors

At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.

And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in highest heaven,
    and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

15 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. 17 After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. 18 All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, 19 but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. 20 The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them. – Luke 2:1-20

River Oaks Christmas Lights | Houston, Texas | December 2018

Wikipedia is not by any means infallible, but this information about Caesar Augustus seems to be fairly accurate:

Caesar Augustus (23 September 63 BC – 19 August AD 14) was the first Roman emperor, reigning from 27 BC until his death in AD 14. His status as the founder of the Roman Principate (the first phase of the Roman Empire) has consolidated an enduring legacy as one of the most effective and controversial leaders in human history. The reign of Augustus initiated an era of relative peace known as the Pax Romana. The Roman world was largely free from large-scale conflict for more than two centuries, despite continuous wars of imperial expansion on the Empire’s frontiers and the year-long civil war known as the “Year of the Four Emperors” over the imperial succession.

There is no Wikipedia post about Christmas shepherds. A quick google search will turn up a number of links to stories and articles about these shepherds. One has it that they were most certainly priestly shepherds, and therefore not merely rag-tag everyday ordinary shepherds. The research I’ve done does not dismiss that idea. But I am not convinced that to be the case. I would rather go with historian and Professor Paul Meyer who states: “the shepherds stood for the cross-sectional, average Judean — quite literally, ‘the man on the night shift.’” I found this article about these shepherds quite enlightening and much in keeping with the nature of the Christmas story itself of God becoming a baby.

Whether they were charged with tending the flocks that would be sacrificed in the temple at some future date, or simply “the men on the night shift,” they were going about their duties when the angel appears to them, they become terrified, and after being urged to “fear not,” they were the audience of a spectacular angel choir, and the first to visit the newborn Babe. Then they become the first ambassadors for Christ as they leave the manger and tell everyone what they had seen and heard.

The honor and rise in status would be unnoticed by Caesar. The religious leaders would never know. But the people who heard the shepherds marveled at their message. 

Kings and Caesars reign from their thrones. They travel in an entourage. Philip Yancey in his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, tells of a visit Queen Elizabeth II made to the United States. He says that reporters delighted in spelling out the logistics involved: for example, “her four thousand pounds of luggage included two outfits for every occasion” . . . For some reason she carried along “forty pints of plasma.” Most unusual of all, the list included “white kid leather toilet seat covers. She [also] brought along her own hairdresser, two valets, and a host of other attendants. A brief visit of royalty to a foreign country,” says Yancey, “can easily cost twenty million dollars.”

I do not wish to make light of the queen’s travel arrangements, but I do wish to make a comparison. Queen Elizabeth II brought 4000 pounds of luggage. Jesus brought nothing. He made a longer trip. He stayed a longer time. He endured harsher conditions right from the start. He did that to save us. He did that to reach down to the depths of our being and rescue people who would have no hope apart from God’s mercy and grace. 

Emperors rarely take note of Jesus. Religious leaders too easily lose sight of their desperate need for him. But he took note of us. He never lost sight of his mission, steeped in the love of the Father, his love for us, and his absolute rule over all things – even if for a time it appeared completely abandoned. 

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