Shocking Shepherd Ironies
In his clasic text, How to Read the Bible as Literature, Leland Ryken says dramatic irony is the “most predictably effective way of eliciting reader involvement in a story.” In the Bible such moments force us to reflect on God’s beautiful orchestration. Take Luke chapter 2. After writing of the birth of Christ (2:1–7), Luke abruptly stated, “And there were shepherds.” Notice at least three ironies:
Irony #1: Sinful People
Prostitutes, tanners, and shepherds were all placed in the same class of the Jewish social structure because they couldn’t observe the customary laws of ceremonial purification. How could they be candidates to receive the news of Messiah’s birth? Ironically the first announcement was made to outcasts, and it would be with such people that Jesus would spend most of His ministry.
Irony #2: Sacred Creatures
Like good shepherds, these were tending the flocks at night—watching for evening enemies. But these were not normal flocks. The Mishnah records that the sheep around Bethlehem were the ones worthy of the Passover offerings. They were sacred to the religious community. Ironically “Bethlehem’s baby” would be the greatest sacrificial lamb of all—“Mary’s little lamb” would take away “the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
Irony #3: Glorious Presence
As the angels appeared to the shepherds, Luke recorded that the “glory of the Lord” shone (Luke 2:9). His phrasing is reminiscent of the “glory” that appeared in the tabernacle (Exod. 40:34–35) and in the temple (1 Kings 8:11). For over five hundred years Israel had been without the symbol of God’s presence. As Dr. Dwight Pentecost says, “Now the glory for which Israel had waited was revealed to the shepherds in the field, not to the priests in the temple.” Ironically the visible sign was now revealed in a baby—not to privileged priests, but to wandering shepherds.
We can identify with those shepherds, can’t we? It’s ironic that God would save and use us. As sinners, we were outcasts. Yet He has now entrusted us with a sacred possession—Jesus. And “in Christ” we have a new position. His glory indwells us as a deposit of what is to come. Interestingly we are ironic miracles!
When you see a nativity scene this Christmas, remember why the shepherds are there. They reflect God’s irony, and so do we.