Formations 12.20.2015: A Disturbing Story of Peace

Luke 2:8-14

“Adoration of the Shepherds,” Ukrainian religious painting, c. 1650–1700

“Adoration of the Shepherds,” Ukrainian religious painting, c. 1650–1700

It was a Wednesday-night Bible study in December. I was walking my parishioners through the Christmas story in Luke, making a point of how Jesus entered our world in lowly, unassuming, even harsh surroundings. When I finished, a very sweet lady approached me, not to argue but to register her discomfort with some of the things I said.

Apparently, the thing that pushed her past her comfort zone was that I called the place where Jesus lay not a “manger” but a “feed trough.” Surely she knew that was what a manger was, didn’t she?

“Well, yes,” she said. “But that’s not how I want to think of the Christmas story.”

I don’t write this to belittle that wonderful saint in any way. This was a moment of growth for her as she wrestled with the mystery of the incarnation.

But Christian orthodoxy demands we use “feed trough” language—at least occasionally. If the incarnation means anything, it must mean that Jesus entered our world as it is, in all its dirt and messiness. In discussing the birth of Christ, Saint Jerome wrote,

He was found in no Holy of Holies that shone with gold, precious stones, pure silk and silver. He was not born in the midst of gold and riches, but in the midst of dung, in a stable where our sins were filthier than the dung. (Just, 39)

Today’s text presents a strange alignment of elements. On the one hand, there are feed troughs and poverty and dung. On the other, there are angels and glory and a Savior born in the city of David. These elements come together when angels—angels!—appear to announce the birth of Christ not to kings or holy men but to shepherds: the hard-living folks on the bottom rung of society’s ladder.

That’s the kind of story that will agitate lifelong church folk if they think about it deeply enough. How ironic that a story so unsettling and disturbing would end with the promise of peace. In the words of the Gloria in excelsis, the angelic host gives glory to God and announces the coming of peace among those whom God favors.

Arthur A. Just Jr., ed., Luke, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downer’s Grove IL: InterVarsity, 2003).


• How might conventional renditions of the Christmas story hide the full impact of its shocking message?
• What in the Christmas story makes you uncomfortable? (For example, how do you feel about Jesus being born “in the midst of dung” or attended by impoverished shepherds?)
• In what sense was this story good news for the shepherds?
• How can it be good news for believers today—especially if we are so familiar with this story that it may lack some of its original luster?

Reference Shelf


An angel (angelos, “messenger”) is a supernatural, spiritual being who serves as God’s messenger or agent to do his will on earth. The term translates a Hebrew as well as a Greek word which literally means “messenger.”

Angels appear throughout the NT, but are most prominent in Matthew, Luke–Acts, Hebrews, and Revelation. They function in much the same fashion as their counter parts in the OT and late B.C.E. writings. The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah promising the birth of a son, John the Baptist, to him and his wife Elizabeth in their old age (Luke 1:5-23). Gabriel also appears to Mary to announce the birth of Jesus with the words, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28). According to Matthew, an unnamed angel speaks to Joseph three times in dreams, telling him to take Mary as his wife, and then telling him when to flee to Egypt and when to return (Matt 1:18-25; 2:13, 19). The shepherds see a multitude of angels who praise God in chorus in honor of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2: 13-14).

Joseph L. Trafton, “Angel,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 29–30.

The Baby Announced

Birth stories of famous people are supposed to
 be predictive. The infant Heracles strangled a
python with his bare baby hands when it
appeared in his crib. When Alexander the Great
 was born, according to Plutarch, a new star appeared in the heavens. “When John Henry was a little baby, sitting on his daddy’s knee/ he picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel/ said This hammer’s going to be the death of me, Lord, Lord.” You get the picture—what does Jesus’ birth tell us about who he would be?

Part of the answer may come when the scene shifts to shepherds on nightly guard duty. “Shepherd” is rich with nuances: David was a shepherd who became a king, so the new baby born in David’s city should rightly be acclaimed first to and then by shepherds. Ezekiel prophesied against the false shepherds of the flock of Israel, warning that when the true shepherd came, he would protect the flock and punish the false shepherds who harmed it. Shepherds were peasants, performing unskilled labor, and were on the other end of the power scale from Emperor Godly. The message comes to the shepherds, rather than to Augustus or to any other person of power, because Jesus’ destiny is to unseat the powerful. The baby born in unsettled circumstances is the real Savior, the bringer of peace, rather than Augustus or any subsequent emperor.

The angel calls the baby’s birth “a great joy to all the people” and calls the child “a Savior, who is the Lord Christ.” Gabriel predicted great joy at John’s birth, so this announcement brings the two in line. “Savior,” as noted above, was used for Augustus and for other emperors. It was applied to gods such as Asclepius, god of healing, and to “personalities who are active in the world’s affairs,” such as philosophers and generals. “Savior,” in other words, marks Jesus as a doer of good, but does not specify what form that good will take. “Lord Christ” or “Christ the Lord” is an unusual form. Christ, or Messiah, refers to the person from David’s line who would restore the fortunes of Israel. “Lord” denotes superior rank, and was used by slaves for masters, wives and children for husbands and fathers, lower-born for nobility, and everyone for God. Since this is the only place in the New Testament where the two nouns are stuck together like this, it would appear that Luke is contrasting this baby with the divine Augustus; whereas Octavian got his title of “revered Emperor” by Senate decree, Jesus was acclaimed “Lord Christ” by God’s angels at his birth and by God’s act of resurrection after his death (Acts 2:36).

The angel tells the shepherds how they will pick Jesus out from any other infant in Bethlehem: he will be the one in the feed trough. When they arrive, they find it just as the angel has predicted. This seems to have been enough to convince them that the baby was worth talking about, so like Elizabeth’s relatives, they spread the word around. But unlike the relatives, who speak about what they do not know, the shepherds praise God for what they have seen and heard. The narrator describes them imitating the angels, who likewise give glory and praise to God. Contrary to our usual tableaux, the shepherds do not linger over the manger; they come in haste, and then leave to go spread the news. Like Mary, they seem more than a little unlikely to have been chosen to be first recipients and then bearers of God’s good news, but they take to their job with enthusiasm.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008) 61–62.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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