8 And there were shepherds in the same region, living out of doors and keeping watch, guarding over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord stood near them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terribly frightened. 10 And the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring good news to you of great joy which will be for all the people: 11 that today a Savior, who is Christ the Lord, was born for you in the city of David. 12 And this will be the sign for you: you will find the baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peaceLuke 2:8-14
among people with whom he is pleased!”
“The Angels’ Song: How Did God Come? (Part 2)”
by Alistair Begg
The God of Surprises
But [God becoming flesh and dwelling among us] is not the only surprise. The place where God’s Son was born is also a surprise, and the people to whom God sent the angels is a third surprise. And they show us something of what God is like.
First, look where the God-child is. “You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” It was not unusual to have a baby in swaddling cloths. It was unusual to lay a baby in a food trough.
In human terms, the reason why Mary had her child in a shack (or very possibly a cave) used for sheltering animals was straightforward. In distant Rome the emperor, Caesar Augustus, had ordered that a census be taken, obliging Mary and Joseph to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and there was no room for them to stay anywhere else. Augustus meant “worthy of adoration.” According to an inscription on a stone carved in around 9 BC and found in a marketplace in what is now Turkey, Augustus’ birth “gave the whole world a new aspect.” He was regarded as a “Savior.” He encouraged the worship of his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, as a god, and allowed himself to be styled as “the son of God.” So great was his power and his impact that the inscription continued that “from his birth a new reckoning of time must begin.”
And so the shepherds must surely have been struck by how vastly different this child in a manger was from the power and majesty of the Roman Emperor, from this Caesar Augustus figure—from the person who established the glory of his name and the might of his empire at the head of his armies, and who could move his subject peoples around at the stroke of a pen. And yet here in this food trough lay the one who really is worthy of adoration, whose birth changes everything, who came as Savior and who really is the Son of God—and whose birth-date is the way we still reckon our time 2,000 years later.
He was not born to a queen, in a palace. He was born to a girl, in a cave, and his cradle was a food trough. The Son of God came to be just like us, among us, rather than to lord it over us. If you have known poverty, so has he. If you have known what it feels like to be an outsider, so has he. His was not a gilded, protected existence. He knows what life is like. As Jesus himself put it when he had grown up, he “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10 v 45).
The second surprise is where the announcement was made. God did not make his announcement to Augustus. It came to a group of poor shepherds. We might expect that God would be most interested in those who had status, those who were powerful, those who were mighty. In actual fact, throughout Luke’s Gospel, we discover that again and again he goes for the least and last and the left out. He works in a way that we might not anticipate him working. And we have to allow him to surprise us: to be different than a god we would make up, and to work differently than how we would if we were God. This is the real God, and you and I are not him. People find it perfectly easy to tolerate Jesus just to the point where he contravenes their expectations—and then they tend to have a very different response.
So that’s the message of the angel—but no sooner have the shepherds picked themselves up off the ground than the reinforcements appear. The Redeemer has come and the angels of heaven are there to announce it for him.
And the choir declares what this baby will achieve: “On earth peace.” Augustus had established what was known as the “Pax Romana”—an empire at peace and guaranteeing safety (unless you happened to be a slave or a rebel). But the peace of Rome was about to be dwarfed by the peace of God. Epictetus, a first-century philosopher, observed rightly that:
“While the emperor may give peace from war on land and sea, he is unable to give peace from passion, grief and envy; he cannot give peace of heart, for which man yearns for more than even outward peace.”
Caesar Augustus could not transform any of his subjects’ hearts or change any of their eternal futures.
But, the angels say, this baby could. Here is an announcement of a peace that goes deep within, and lasts beyond the grave—the peace “for which man yearns.” The peace of God that invades a life is based on the discovery of peace with God.
Today, our newspapers are filled with all kinds of attempts at peace. Peace between husbands and wives, between family members, between nations, and so on. But Epictetus is still right—peace of heart proves elusive. No matter how well we do at trying to establish peace with each other, until we discover what it is to have peace with God, we’re not going to discover the peace of God.
And, since we are separated from God—since we have declared independence and rebelled against our rightful Ruler—this is a peace that can only be brought about by the intervention of God himself. We may try to find peace without God in our own way—peace through owning stuff; peace at the bottom of a bottle. We may try to find peace with God in our own strength—peace through obeying religious rules or through being “good people.” But the truth is that only God can give us peace with himself. The angels tell us where his offer of peace was made. This is a peace that isn’t found in something. It’s a peace that is found in someone. And it is a peace that pursues us, seeks us, comes knocking on the door of our lives.
But it’s a peace that so many miss out on because they fail to make room for the one who brings it. Remember why Jesus was lying in a manger in the first place? Why was the God of heaven in a feeding trough? Because there was no room anywhere else. No one had made room for him. He made the entire universe. He came into his universe. And there wasn’t a place for him. Let’s be honest; in the lives of many of us, it’s no different. We have no room for him either—not if it makes life in any way uncomfortable for us, not if his presence brings any inconvenience to us, not when his actions and words surprise us. But our response does not change the truth. God has visited this world. He has come as one of us, to bring peace to us by redeeming us from our sins. Will you say to him, “No room?”
 Alistair Begg, Christmas Playlist: Four Songs That Bring You to the Heart of Christmas (The Good Book Company, 2016), 45–49.