Formations 12.24.2023: The Problem with Mighty Kings

MAGI BEFORE HEROD. Illuminated miniature from late 12th-early 13th century, French

Luke 2:8-20

I’m afraid I’m going to have to offend some of you with what I’m about to share, but it can’t be helped. Are you ready?

I don’t care for the song “Do You Hear What I Hear?”

Personifying the Night Wind and the Little Lamb doesn’t bother me a bit. No, the wind can’t speak, and neither can livestock. But if a songwriter wants to give them speaking parts, that’s fine with me. Chalk it up to the wonder of Christmas, the magic of the season, or whatever.

Obviously, the Shepherd Boy causes me no problems. Nothing in the Gospel of Luke requires the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks to have included a Shepherd Boy, but his presence is not out of place. To be honest, the Shepherd Boy is the most biblically accurate part of the entire song.

My sticking point is the Mighty King.

There are two Mighty Kings in the Christmas narratives. One is King Herod, who Matthew tells us directed a massacre of all the male infants in Bethlehem when he learned that one was born there who was the King of the Jews.

Bronze statue of Caesar Augustus

The other Mighty King is Caesar Augustus. His decree that all the world be registered sets in motion the fateful journey to Bethlehem and all its attendant fears and aggravations. Caesar Augustus is not necessarily a “bad guy” in the story, but he moves his subjects around like checkers on a game board to suit his whims, and he’s powerful enough that they have no choice but to comply.

In the song, however, it is the Mighty King who delivers a message of peace to the People Everywhere. In the Bible, that’s the job of the shepherds. After leaving the manger, Luke tells us, “they made known what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them” (2:17-18).

Isn’t it just like a Mighty King to hog the credit for himself? Sure, it would have been wonderful if even one of the Mighty Kings in the Christmas narratives had welcomed the news of the Messiah’s birth with such hope and humility. Wouldn’t it have been something if there had been a Mighty King who actually listened to the Shepherd Boy?

Luke tells the story differently. The high point in his telling is not when word reaches up the king, but when it reaches down the shepherds: powerless people on the lowest rungs of society, people used to being pushed around by kings and everybody else.

That the angels sing to shepherds, not kings, underscores the wonder of the incarnation: God is born amid humble surroundings and laid in a manger. And that is good news for us all. Indeed, it is a song with a voice as big as the trees.

Discussion

• Why do shepherds receive such a central part in Luke’s Christmas story?
• What marginalized, scorned, or outcast people might be today’s equivalent of Luke’s shepherds?
• What would it take for you to identify more closely with people like that?
• When have you heard good news that transformed the way you look at God, the world, and your own life?

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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