The first Christmas starts as if this is an important historical event, but quickly becomes a downward spiral of little-known or unknown guests.
Measuring the date of an event in regard to an important emperor gives credibility (vv. 1-2). However, the very next sentence, if it were printed in one of the key documents of the time would look out of place. We go from the emperor to Joseph – a little known Jewish carpenter (v.4). He is of the line of David, but other than that, he has no significance in the community at the time. Mary is mentioned, too (v. 5), of course. Her importance to the story, including the unlikely nature of her calling to be the mother of the Messiah has already been highlighted by Luke. She herself was “greatly troubled” with word that she (of all people!) would be chosen (1:26).
The journey Joseph is on does not involve a key metropolitan area of the Roman Empire of his day. Rather, the journey is from little known Nazareth to lesser-known Bethlehem.
The apparent downward spiral continues. Besides the earthly parents of Jesus, the first people to get a special angelic invitation from God through the angels about the birth of the Messiah are shepherds. In the economic, political, and social hierarchy of the time, the barrel could not be more scraped, so to speak. No wonder they are so afraid. Nothing remotely like this had ever happened to them, nor would it have been expected to happen to people like them in their lifetime.
When this unlikely troop of unlikely royal guests arrive, they do not find expensive and lavish surroundings. The downward spiral continues: “She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them” (v. 7).
It turns out this apparent downward spiral in regard to guests at the arrival of the King of Kings is no accident. It is an intentional emphasis of the “underdog Gospel” of Luke. It is a demonstration that the apparent downward path – the path of the neglected, the underappreciated, and even the abused – is a direct path to a front row seat for the coming of the Kingdom of God.
The unlikely first visitors to the holy birth, the shepherds, became early evangelists: “…they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child” (v. 17). The amazement of the people who heard was likely twofold. First, the message of the angel announcement and the coming of the Messiah certainly qualifies as big news. Also, the fact that lowly shepherds, people who were considered “add-ons” at best in polite society, were given such personalized access from God Himself.
The presence of the angels throughout this account demonstrates the need for extra convincing and extra assistance in making sure these unlikely participants know that they are in the right place. They are no longer outsiders. In fact, they are the first faces of this upside down kingdom that brings rulers low (according to Mary’s song in Luke 1) and fills the hungry with good things.