Walk Like a Shepherd Luke 2:1-20 · December 25, 2016January 5, 2017
Today we’re celebrating Jesus’ birth. How many times have you heard this story from Luke 2? At least once a year? Twice a year if you watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Have you ever wondered why God would send a company of angels to a bunch of shepherds to announce that the Messiah had been born? Why shepherds? That’s the question that stood out to me as I read the Christmas story this year.
I couldn’t find any other incident in the Bible where a large number of angels communicated with people like they do in Luke 2. There are times when God communicated with people by sending one or two angels to talk with them. It’s not an everyday thing but there are a decent number of angelic encounters mentioned in the Bible. There are visions of heaven recorded in the Bible where a person witnessed the angels of heaven praising God. But I could not find any incident that comes close to what the shepherds experienced, where a company of angels appeared to a group of people, to deliver a message from God. This is a one of a kind event.
This tells us how special the birth of Jesus was. There would never be another birth like this one. The person being born was someone unique. There is only one Jesus. This is a turning point in human history. From this point on, all humanity will be able to relate to God in a new way because God has become human. The divide between a sinful humanity and a holy God is being bridged in this baby who has been born. The good news has to be told and it is so good that a whole company of angels delivers the message. Humans won’t see an angelic host like this again until Jesus comes back.
But why shepherds? What was so special about these shepherds that God would send a company of angels to them to announce Jesus’ birth? One reason could be to remind those who would hear their story that God is fulfilling His promise to another shepherd of Bethlehem – King David. In 1 Samuel 16 God choses David, son of Jesse of Bethlehem, to be king over Israel and he is called in from tending his father’s sheep to be anointed as the next king. In 2 Samuel 7, God says to King David “I took you from the pasture and from following the flock to be ruler over my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you have gone, and I have cut off all your enemies from before you. Now I will make your name great…The Lord himself will establish a house for you…I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father and he will be my son…Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.”
The shepherds of Bethlehem were the first to hear that God had fulfilled His promise to one of their own, that David’s heir had been born. The good news wasn’t just for the shepherds, it was for everyone. But they were the first to hear it. The good news was that a savior had been born to them, Christ the Lord, the Anointed One of God. Not just a king to inherit David’s throne, but a savior, the Messiah. The Messiah builds the true temple. In 1 Peter this theme is picked up when he writes “As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” So why God didn’t send these angels to the Temple to announce the news to all the religious leaders. The people had been waiting for this news for hundreds of years. Surely the religious leaders would be the best ones to get the word out to the rest of the people. But that was not God’s way.
The good news that the Savior had been born was announced by the angels to ordinary shepherds staying out in the hills around Bethlehem, guarding their flocks. They were ordinary people, going about their work. There was nothing special about them that would make us think they should be the first to hear the good news. But this shows us how God works. Just as David was the most unlikely of Jesse’s sons to be chosen as king, so these shepherds are the most unlikely of people to be the first to hear the good news. God often works among the least likely by human standards. The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims and demonstrates is one that does not work according to human standards of greatness. It’s not measured by military success, economic progress, or educational standards. David wanted to build God a great house of cedar, something that would show the world the glory of God and the glory of Israel. But God told him that He did not dwell in houses. His glory cannot be contained in a house. Instead God’s glory is shown in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and in the lives of those who follow him. God’s glory is shown in the sick, blind and lame who are made well. It’s shown in those suffering with chronic sickness, mental problems, demonic possession, being set free from their chains. It is shown when people struggling with not enough, are provided for in abundant ways. It is shown when the grieving and hurting are given comfort. Even with the birth announcement, Messianic expectations are being challenged.
Calenthia Dowdy wrote an Advent devotion for The Mennonite this week and she wrote “The Jews were waiting for a king they could serve, but they got a poor suffering servant who the state sanctioned violence upon. And therein lies the mystery and the beauty of the gospel, God coming to earth, born in flesh to save a created and violent humanity…” These shepherds were raising flocks that would be taken to Jerusalem to be used in Temple sacrifices. The fact that they were raising sacrificial sheep foreshadows Jesus serving as the final sacrifice for sin.
Bethlehem is close to Jerusalem with lots of hills around it so there was plenty of room to raise the sheep needed by the Temple. These shepherds would have been careful with their sheep, breeding them carefully to make sure they had the best sheep to meet the standards for the sacrifice. They would have kept a close watch over the sheep to make sure they stayed healthy and well, making sure they had good pasture and water. This is why the shepherds were out in the hills with them, to keep them safe from wild animals or perhaps from poachers. These sheep represented their wealth as the income from these flocks would provide for their families. These sheep were very valuable to the shepherds. If this was their entire flock it would have included their breeding stock as well as the sheep they intended to sell and those they intended to keep for personal use.
Yet, when they hear the good news that Jesus has been born, they leave their flocks in the hills and go to Bethlehem to find the baby in the manger. They leave their entire livelihood and go. That is an incredible thing. But I think I would do the same thing if a company of angels appeared before me with such an extraordinary announcement and singing praises to God. Their response reminds us of the times Jesus invited people to follow him. Peter, Andrew, James and John left their boats and their fishing businesses and followed Jesus. But others made excuses. In Luke 9, Jesus says to a man, “Follow me.” And the man says “Lord, first let me go and bury my father,” most likely meaning “let me wait until my father dies someday and I’ve settled all his affairs, and then I’ll follow you.” The shepherds weren’t like that. They didn’t let anything keep them from going after Jesus. They left their flocks and went to Bethlehem, trusting that God would keep the sheep safe until they returned.
They were told they would find a baby wrapped in cloths lying in a manger. It’s doubtful that there were an abundance of newborns lying in mangers in Bethlehem. But Mary and Joseph had not been in Bethlehem that long and weren’t staying in their own house. They had to come to Bethlehem to register for this census and most likely, were staying in the home of distant relatives or friends of friends. They didn’t have the means to set up a proper nursery. When I was in Bethlehem and toured the Church of the Nativity, our guide explained to us how the houses in those days were carved like caves into the hillsides and the animals were kept at the back of the caves. There would be rooms build onto the front of the cave and the guestroom would be in the front. But the guestroom up front was full, so Mary and Joseph were given the back. This allowed privacy for Mary to give birth, away from the hustle and bustle of the main house, and it was a place for her and the baby to remain undisturbed while she waited out her 40 days of purification after childbirth. The best place to lay Jesus was in the manger. He wouldn’t fall out, he wouldn’t be rolled on or stepped on in the dark, and it could be filled with straw to keep him comfortable and warm. But it wasn’t the normal place for a newborn.
The manger was a sign for the shepherds. They could go to the houses in Bethlehem asking if there was a newborn being kept in a manger. When they found Jesus, and told Mary and Joseph about the angels, this was a further confirmation to them that their son was the Messiah, the true King of Israel. The shepherds are the first “outsiders” to see the Messiah. When Bethannie was born, the hospital had a policy that the parents had to approve any visitors. You couldn’t just walk in the maternity wing and go look at the babies in the nursery. This is to protect babies from being taken. It can mean that people outside the immediate family don’t get to see the new baby as soon as it is born. But from what Luke describes, the shepherds saw Jesus quite soon after he was born. They were outsiders who were brought in to the inner circle of Mary and Joseph’s family through Jesus.
You get the picture. Jesus brings the outsiders in. This is a big part of the gospel message, that good news has come for all the people. A savior has been born for all the people. This is a hallmark of Luke’s gospel. He tells story after story of Jesus bringing in people who have been on the margins. The very first story in his gospel is of Zechariah and Elizabeth, an older couple who never had children, and so were not the norm in their society and bore the disgrace of being barren. Yet they are the very first ones to hear that God is up to something and the Messiah will be coming soon. Now the shepherds, another group of outsiders, are the first ones to hear that the Messiah has been born. Our God works out on the margins and those on the margins have good news to share. Too often we think we are the ones with the inside scoop on Jesus. One thing I remember from the African American Mennonite Pastor’s conference that was held here in September, is the comment that God speaks from among the marginalized. Calenthia also wrote in her Advent devotion “God often takes the form of the least of these, identifying with those who are usually pushed and held at the bottom rungs of society…The weak shames the strong. God scatters the prideful and lifts up the humble. Women. Elderly. Barren. Virgin. Poor. Refugee. Black.” We all benefit from hearing the gospel message as told from the margins.
Once the shepherds had seen Jesus, they went out and told everyone what had happened and what the angel had told them about this child. Everyone who heard it was amazed. These shepherds had a story to tell. They really are the first evangelists, telling everyone what they know about Jesus. Now Jesus hadn’t done anything yet except be born. But the shepherds are telling people! I remember growing up in the Pentecostal church, people would testify. And there were people who could testify a whole sermon about the fact that they were able to get out of bed that morning. They could take the simplest, most ordinary thing, and turn it into a testimony of God’s goodness to them and at the end of that testimony, everyone was up shouting praises to God. The point is that the shepherds give us an example of telling others our story about Jesus, even if our story seems very simple to us. It may turn out to be quite profound to the person listening to us.
We can learn a lot from these shepherds. They remind us that God has fulfilled His promise to David in sending the one who is King forever over all. He has sent us a Savior who delivers us from all our enemies and brings peace. The shepherds told everyone they saw everything they knew about Jesus. We need to be telling people what we know about Jesus. Sometimes we don’t because we don’t think we know enough. But that doesn’t excuse us from sharing what we do know. We just need to tell the story we have.
The shepherds left everything to go find Jesus. I think sometimes we bring our junk with us when we come to find Jesus. The question that challenged me when I was thinking about this was “What is it that I need to leave behind in order to be fully present with Jesus? What worries, what thoughts, what emotions need to be left behind so that I can focus completely on Jesus? What ideas about Jesus, or what preconceived notions about him do I need to leave behind in order to be completely open to what He wants to reveal to me about Himself? The shepherds were looking for a baby in a manger, which isn’t where anyone would have thought the newborn Messiah would be. Am I willing to be with Jesus where He really is and to see Him as He really is? Or do I want to hold on to an image of him and not see the real Jesus?
I want to invite the worship team up and as we transition into communion, that is the question I want us to consider. What do I need to leave behind in order to be fully present with Jesus this morning? We are being invited to see Jesus this morning, just as the shepherds were. But we have an advantage in that they only saw the baby in the manger. We see the man who lived and died and rose again for us. And as we come to the Lord’s table, we remember his death. Jesus left everything behind to go to the cross. What do we need to leave behind in order to be fully present with him?