Today is the third Sunday of Advent. The candle on the Advent wreath marking the occasion signifies joy. But why? Perhaps it has something to do with this candle being called the “Shepherd’s Candle.” After all, the candle signifies the shepherds’ joy at the news of the Lord Jesus’ birth.
How striking it is that God’s angel and heavenly host go first to these humble and hungry shepherds, according to Luke’s Gospel. No matter how striking, it should not be surprising, if you are an avid reader of Luke’s work. As is evident from Luke’s account of the Beatitudes, God blesses the poor, the hungry, and those who weep, and fills those with joy who align themselves with Jesus the Messiah (Luke 6:20-23). The birth narrative in Luke 2 manifests these same themes.
The shepherds went from being filled with fear to being filled with joy at the appearance of the angel who announced Jesus’ birth to them. In fact, the angel exhorted them not to fear and assured them that he brought them “good news of great joy”:
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:8-12; ESV).
If these shepherds had been afraid and then filled with joy at the angel’s appearance and announcement, just think how they must have felt when a heavenly multitude appeared with the angel and declared the good news of the Messiah’s birth:
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13-14; ESV)
If I had been one of these shepherds, I might have been paralyzed by awe. But somehow or other, the shepherds had enough composure and wits about them to act upon the angel’s announcement. Upon hearing the angel’s report and then the declaration of the heavenly host, the shepherds went with haste to see the baby. Then they shared with anyone who would listen that the Messiah had been born in Bethlehem. The shepherds marveled, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard:
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them…And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard (Luke 2:15-18, 20; ESV).
In between the wonderment of those who heard the shepherds’ report and the shepherds’ ongoing amazement, we find Mary treasuring and pondering all that she herself witnessed:
But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart (Luke 2:19; ESV).
Perhaps Mary remembered what she herself uttered when an angel announced to her that she would be the mother of the Messiah:
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty (Luke 1:51-53; ESV).
Just as Mary had been chosen to be the mother of the Messiah, so, too, these shepherds were the first people on record to greet the Messiah and his parents. Who would have thought that Mary or the shepherds would have been chosen? But as Mary declared earlier, he exalts those of “humble estate.” God brings down the mighty, including the rulers and the rich, and raises up those who are weak and of no account by the established order’s standards.
Joel Green puts the shepherds in their literary and historical context, showing that it is no coincidence that Luke’s Gospel would highlight them. Here’s Green:
Shepherds in an agrarian society may have small landholdings, but these would be inadequate to meet the demands of their own families, the needs of their own agricultural pursuits, and the burden of taxation. As a result, they may hire themselves out to work for wages. There were, then, peasants, located toward the bottom of the scale of power and privilege. That they are here cast in this dress is unmistakable, for the same contrast introduced in Mary’s son—the enthroned versus the lowly (1:52)—is represented here: Augustus the Emperor and Quirinius [Governor] on the one hand (2:1-2), the shepherds on the other.
Luke wanted to bring home this stark contrast to his readers. Does it come home to us today? If we are not careful, we can turn Luke’s Gospel account into a Hallmark card that goes on the shelf, and then gets discarded after Christmas Day has passed. To guard against that possibility, let’s let Mary and the shepherds guide us on how to respond. What did they do? Mary treasured and pondered all that occurred. The shepherds got up and went to see the child. Then they went away praising God and making the good news known to everyone they encountered.
What did Mary treasure and ponder? What did the shepherds declare? Perhaps it was a sense of wonder over God exalting the weak, the lowly, and insignificant. What do we treasure, ponder, and declare? The angelic host and the author Luke (a doctor by trade) think and talk differently than the world system, which elevates the rich and powerful. The angels’ and this angelic doctor’s highlight reel of events surrounding the Messiah’s birth include lowly shepherds and this blessed maiden of little account by most standards. In contrast to the world system both then and now, the angelic host discerned God’s heart. They knew that Mary, her husband Joseph, and these shepherds are the ones whom God has chosen, with whom he is pleased, and upon whom his favor rests (Luke 2:14).
So, what will you and I declare this third Sunday of Advent, when we light the third candle—a candle of joy? What serves as the basis for the joy with which we celebrate this Advent season? The joy that Mary and the shepherds experienced was not a temporary aura of Christmas lights that come down after the holidays, nor Christmas wrap that gets thrown away (sometimes with the presents) not long after Christmas Day. Rather, the joy is the result of “the glory of the Lord” that “shone around them” (2:9). This joy is in response to the baby born in the manger, whose eternal reign will remove the haughty and oppressive and lift up the humble and oppressed, like the shepherds of old. If you belong to this class of shepherds, make haste to Bethlehem to see the wondrous child and to declare his birth.
Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), pages 130-131.