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Shepherds or Wise Men?: The Birth of Jesus

The Rev. Rainey Dankel
December 17, 2015

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Memory Verse

“But the angel said to [the shepherds], ‘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 Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord." (Luke 2:10-11)



Luke 1:26-56, 2:1-7 (The Annunciation to Mary and the Birth of Jesus)
Luke 2:8-20 (The Shepherd’s Visit)  
Matthew 1:18-25 (The Annunciation to Joseph and the Birth of Jesus)  
Matthew 2:1-12 (The Magi Visit) 


Luke 1:26-56, 2:1-7 (The Annunciation to Mary and the Birth of Jesus)
Luke 2:8-20 (The Shepherd’s Visit)

In the passages for this week, we will notice some important distinctions between Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth and that of Matthew. Luke’s story focuses on Mary and shepherds, whereas Matthew’s focus is on Joseph and Magi. One of the key notes of Luke’s Gospel is the favored role that women play throughout the Gospel, beginning with the signal role played by Mary. Mary is declared “favored one” (or in the old translation “full of grace”). Note the number of times that the word “favor” appears in Luke’s stories in these opening chapters. Mary is God’s favored one (1:28), and she has found favor (1:30) with God. But note that God’s favor is not restricted to Mary. It extends to the unlikely as well—the low-life shepherds out in the fields, whom people in Jesus’ day would have regarded as something like the way we regard garbage collectors or workers in sewage plants: perpetually unclean. And so the angels extend peace to the shepherds and all others whom God favors (2:14), breaking open our expectations that favor is only for the “special ones” like Mary. In Luke’s Gospel, it is not enough that the favor of God has come to Mary, or even that it has extended to the “unwashed” keepers of sheep. In Luke’s view this favor of God—grace—has come into the world for everyone: Jew and Gentile, clean and unwashed, the righteous and the sinful alike. And so when Jesus preaches his first sermon, he concludes it by saying that the year of the Lord’s favor has begun to be fulfilled in the hearing of all those who listen to him. (4:19)

Matthew 1:18-25 (The Annunciation to Joseph and the Birth of Jesus)  
Matthew 2:1-12 (The Magi Visit)

It is commonplace to speak about Luke’s account of the visit of the Angel Gabriel to Mary as the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary. But it is less commonplace, though no less true, to say that there is an angelic annunciation to the Virgin Joseph in Matthew’s Gospel. Just as Luke places his early emphasis on Mary’s role in Jesus’ coming into the world, so Matthew places his emphasis on the role that Joseph plays. In a dream, an angel visits Joseph to reassure him that it is good and right for him to take Mary as his wife, though she is pregnant before they have come together in marriage. And the angel explicitly tells Joseph that he is to remain a virgin, having no marital relations with Mary, until after Jesus is born. There are no shepherds in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth. Matthew is the most Jewish of the four Gospels, and it would no doubt have shocked Matthew’s community to hear that the privileged first visitors to Israel’s Messiah were ritually unclean shepherds. (Shepherds, because of their mucking about with sheep and sheep dung were considered ritually unclean, incapable of visiting the Temple in Jerusalem to make the appointed sacrifices.) But there is an equally startling surprise in those who are chosen to be the first visitors to Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel: “unwashed” Gentile Magi, who don’t even worship the God of Israel! Thus it would seem that, despite the differences in emphasis and main characters in Luke’s and Matthew’s birth stories, one central point made by these two Evangelists about Jesus and his birth is the same: this Messiah will be a surprising one, turning upside down many of the expectations of his fellow Jews, as he is welcomed and celebrated by—and will himself welcome and celebrate—“ritually unclean” Jews (the shepherds of Luke) and “unbelieving” Gentiles (the Magi of Matthew). This Jesus will show God’s favor, God’s love, God’s peace, and bring God’s healing to anyone willing to come to him: Jew or Gentile, ritually unclean or the ones who have not even believed in Israel’s God.

- Bill Rich

 Questions for Reflection

1. Do you find yourself drawn more to Luke’s stories of Jesus’ birth or Matthew’s? Can you put your finger on what it is that draws you to one Gospel more than the other?

2. God’s favor comes into the world through Mary’s cooperation with the angelic message she receives from God, despite her doubts/uncertainties. What doubts/uncertainties do you need to overcome to receive God’s favor?

3. Many people find the emphasis on the virgin birth difficult. Do you? Would it help to think of virginity as more about uncluttered (by previous or present distracting commitments) openness to receive what God gives?

4. Jesus’ first visitors are “unwashed” Jews and unbelieving Gentiles. What part of you feels “unwashed” and unacceptable, or unbelieving? How does it change things for you to imagine God inviting whatever you regard as unwashed in you to a close encounter with Jesus? How does it change things for you to realize that God wants to visit even the unbelieving parts of you? How does it change things if you accept that God wants to declare you—including your unwashed and unbelieving parts—divinely favored?



"The Journey of the Magi" – T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

‘A cold coming we had of it, 
Just the worst time of the year 
For a journey, and such a long journey: 
The ways deep and the weather sharp, 
The very dead of winter.’ 
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory, 
Lying down in the melting snow. 
There were times we regretted 
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, 
And the silken girls bringing sherbet. 
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling 
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women, 
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters, 
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly 
And the villages dirty and charging high prices: 
A hard time we had of it. 
At the end we preferred to travel all night, 
Sleeping in snatches, 
With the voices singing in our ears, saying 
That this was all folly. 
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley, 
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation; 
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness, 
And three trees on the low sky, 
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow. 
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel, 
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver, 
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins. 
But there was no information, and so we continued 
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon 
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory. 
All this was a long time ago, I remember, 
And I would do it again, but set down 
This set down 
This: were we led all that way for 
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly 
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, 
But had thought they were different; this Birth was 
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. 
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, 
With an alien people clutching their gods. 
I should be glad of another death.



"Amahl and the Night Visitors" – opera by Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007)



"Adoration of the Magi" – Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)

COM 2015 12 17 Durer

"Adoration of the Shepherds" – Giorgione (1477/78-1510) - See Above 





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