Over the past few weeks, we’ve noted how each of the different Gospels draw our attention to different characters within the Christmas story. For example, Matthew draws our attention to the wisemen and King Herod – whereas Luke draws our attention to the shepherds and the angels. Both Gospels are telling the same true story of Jesus’ birth, but they each draw your attention to different aspects of the story.
The same is true even concerning Jesus’ parents. We see that Matthew writes his story from the viewpoint of Joseph and Luke writes his story from the viewpoint of Mary. It’s the same story – but we see it play out from totally different perspectives.
And so for the last three weeks, we’ve approached the Christmas story from three different angles – we’ve read from three different Gospels which have focused on three different characters – Mary, Joseph, and of course, Jesus Himself.
We started by looking at Jesus as he is introduced in the Gospel of John. And John doesn’t spend much time talking about Jesus’ birth, per se, but he focuses on how Jesus existed before he was even born! He talks about how Jesus has existed eternally as the second person of the Godhead and how He is our Creator. What’s more, out of his great love for us, Jesus choose to become one of us, born as a human being, so that He might live a human life and one day die a human death in our place so that we could be saved from our sin. We don’t always focus on that aspect of the story at Christmas time, but that’s really what Christmas is about!
From there, we turned to the Gospel of Matthew who focused on the character of Joseph. We saw that, while Joseph was indeed a descendant of King David, he did not live a life of royalty. He was just a regular guy – working in the trades, doing his best to provide for his family. But what’s impressive about Joseph is His godly character! Even when he believed that his fiancé Mary had been unfaithful to him and had committed adultery – because she was now pregnant and Joseph knew that child wasn’t his – but even then, Joseph determined to do what was right and to act in a loving way towards Mary even when it seemed that she had been unloving to Him.
Furthermore, we were impressed by Joseph’s immediate and constant obedience to God. Every time God gave him some instructions – even ones that were pretty difficult follow – Joseph did it immediately and without arguing or complaining or anything. All we see from Joseph was immediate obedience to God. What a great example for us!
And then last week, we looked at the Gospel of Luke to see things from Mary’s perspective! And Mary is another impressive character! Even though she would have been very young at the time – probably 13-16 years old – she displayed some incredible spiritual maturity when God revealed to her that she was going to be the mother of the Messiah. I’m sure Mary realized the negative social consequences of having a child out of wedlock and that having this baby now would completely change the course of her life – but like Joseph, all we see from Mary is immediate submission to the will of God.
Luke 1:38 sums it up well:
38 Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” Luke 1:38a
Mary’s willing submission to God was clear evidence that she knew the character of God – and if God was going to ask her to do this very difficult thing, then she could trust Him. Even though she didn’t fully understand what God was up to, she could trust that God was doing something good – because that’s just who God is.
Again, what a great example for each of us. As I said last week, it is no wonder that God chose this couple to raise His son Jesus.
And so that’s a brief summary of what we’ve been going through for these last few weeks. Now today, I want to continue looking at the different characters of the Christmas story – specially, I’d like us to look today at the shepherds.
Now the shepherds may not be ‘essential characters’ in the Christmas story – after all, Matthew, Mark, and John all leave them out of their Gospels entirely – but yet, Luke does include them – and their part of the story has been recorded for us in the pages of Scriptures, so there is obviously something important about them. There is something that God wants to communicate to us through the story of the shepherds, and so today we’re going to see if we can dig some of that out!
So the story of the shepherds is found in Luke chapter 2 – starting at verse 8, but we’re going to start right at verse 1 because that gives us the background and setting for what is about to happen. This is a very familiar passage for most of us – I’m sure some of us probably even memorized it for a Christmas pageant sometime in our childhood. Or if you were with us on Friday for our Christmas Eve service, this will be doubly familiar to you since this is exactly what the Mike read and what the kids acted out for us that evening.
It goes like this:
At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. 2 (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. 4 And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. 5 He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.
6 And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. 7 She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.
As I said, these are very familiar verses to us. These are the verses that we read every single Christmas – and probably several times, at that! And because they are so familiar, I think sometimes we forget to actually think about what we’re reading. We already know how the story goes, so our minds kinda pops into neutral and we just coast along without thinking much of it.
But this week, I thought about it! I tried to read it as if I had never read it before.
And what I noticed is that Luke really doesn’t tell us much about the actual birth of Jesus. I mean, Luke is quite a detailed historian and you would think he might give us a bit more to the story. But really, we get 5 verses about how Joseph and Mary ended up in Bethlehem in the first place because of this census and then just two verse to say that Mary’s baby was born and laid in a manger – and that’s about all the details Luke gives us. From there he goes on to talk about the shepherds.
But I guess, really, Jesus birth probably wasn’t all that unusual. His conception was – that was an amazing miracle! But his actual birth was probably not much different than all the other births that happened back then! I mean sure, being born in barn was probably a little unusual, but I’ve heard of babies being born in much stranger places than that even today!
So really, the fact that a baby was born in a barn in Bethlehem was nothing really amazing! But who this baby was – that was the amazing part! And that’s why Luke goes on to tell the story of the Shepherds… His focus is not so much that a baby was born, but the big news was who this baby was!
Let’s take a look at what Luke writes starting in verse 8 now…
8 That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. 9 Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”Luke 2:8-12
You can see in these verses that the emphasis is on who this baby is that was just born. The angel says “The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem.” The angel makes it very clear that this wasn’t just another baby – this baby was something special! He was the long awaited Messiah that God had been promising through the prophets for the last several hundred years! He would be the Saviour of Israel!
And what seems amazing to me in all of this, is that of all the people that God could have chosen to receive this incredible announcement, God chose to tell these shepherds before anyone else!
Why them, of all people, to be the first to hear this amazing news?
Of course to us, who have heard this story over and over again, we’re not surprised that God would choose to tell the shepherds! After all, we’ve see that happen in almost every Christmas pageant we ever watched! We’re just so used to the idea, that anything else would seem odd to us. In fact, in Christian circles, this is what shepherds have become known for. Christmas and shepherds just go together. So in our minds, shepherds have become kinda an elite group. They’re kinda cool. Every kid wants to be a shepherd in the Christmas pageant!
But the fact is, back then, shepherds were not cool. They were not even liked very much! Shepherds were dirty and smelly and were kinda thought of as the bottom rung of society!
Actually, as I was reading up on the shepherds in preparation for this message, I read that in those days, shepherds were not even allowed to give testimony in court. Why? Because they were thought of as being dishonest!
One old commentary I read said that Shepherds had a reputation “for confusing thine with mine.” In other words, they tended to have sticky fingers! So as you might imagine, shepherds were not thought of very highly at all! To put them in a modern context, they probably had about the same social status as a drug addict living on the streets of Vancouver – not exactly your most respected citizens of society!
And yet, God chose these shepherds to be the first ones to hear that the Messiah – the Saviour of Israel – had been born!
The angels didn’t announce it to the mayor of Bethlehem or to the priests, or any of the Levites who worked at the temple. Instead, God sent an angel to tell a bunch of shepherds that the eternally existing second person of the Godhead had just been born into the world as a human baby.
And you know, the more I think about it, the more than makes perfect sense. Of course, God would announce the arrival of his Son to the least in society! That’s been God’s target audience all along! As you continue to read the Gospels we see that Jesus spent most of his time ministering to exactly those kinds of people. Take a look at Mark 2:15 for example…
15 Later, Levi invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. (There were many people of this kind among Jesus’ followers.) 16 But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with such scum?”
17 When Jesus heard this, he told them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”
Isn’t that the character of Jesus? To be drawn to those in need? To love those who have been rejected by everyone else?
And you know, we’re not really told much about the personal lives of these particular shepherds – but I suspect that none of them believed they were righteous – they probably knew full well that they were sinners. (I imagine society reminded them of that frequently!) But they were exactly the kind of people that Jesus came to save! Jesus came to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners. He didn’t come for the healthy – He for the sick!
The Apostle Paul would later write in 1 Timothy 1:15….
15 This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them all. 1 Timothy 1:15
Isn’t that great news for us? Don’t think for a minute that you have to be “good enough” to come to Christ! Because none of us are! Paul wasn’t. The shepherds weren’t. I’m certainly not. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. We can never do enough good things to make up for the sin in our lives. We can never earn our forgiveness.
But thankfully we don’t have to! Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners! He earned our forgiveness for us. That baby that was born in Bethlehem would grow up and he would live the sinless life that we could never live. And though he was the only person in world who never sinned, he was falsely accused and put to death on a cross, and God raised him to life three days later! But in doing that, Jesus’ death paid the price for us – for our sin. He took our sin upon Himself and in exchange, offered us his record of perfect righteousness.
All we have to do is believe it and accept it.
In that way, we’re kinda like those shepherds. They had just heard the most amazing news of the century! But they had to choose whether or not they would believe it and accept it!
Now I guess in their case, they had a pretty convincing presentation. I mean, imagine if you were in their shoes. You’re out in the field after dark, kinda camping out in the hills next to your sheep. Maybe you’ve got a campfire going to keep warm – you’re just sitting around the fire talking and laughing with your buddies when suddenly, this angel just shows up and the whole place is lite up with the glory of the Lord. Of course, you’re terrified! But the angel says…
“Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
Now I ask you, would you believe and accept that message? I would think so!
I think these guys would have been crazy to just sit back and say to each other – “You know, I’m not really convinced….” Or “Wow, that was a crazy dream that we all just had simultaneously together!”
That would be insane for them to ignore or try to brush off what had just happened! A message like this demanded a response! Which is exactly what we see in verse 15…
15 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger.
Unsurprisingly, the shepherds decided to act on what they had just seen and heard and they went to Bethlehem and found Mary, Joseph, and Jesus – just as the angels had said.
And you know, the message of the angels is not all that different from the message that I’ve been sharing with you this morning. Now of course, the angel’s presentation was probably a little more impressive, but the basic message is the same – and that is that your Saviour was born in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago. The question now is, how will you respond to that information?
Will you, like the shepherds, believe and accept that message – and then put that belief into action? Of course, our course of action isn’t to go and see Jesus lying in a manger, but if we believe that Jesus is who the Bible says he is, then that certainly demands some action.
If we truly believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that he came to earth as a man (born as a human baby) and if we believe that he died and rose again from the grave to forgive our sin and offer us eternal life – we would be insane not to act on that information! We would be fools just to brush it off or ignore it and just keep living life the way we always have.
This is life-changing news and it demands a decision. I would just encourage you this morning, that if you believe this message, then you really need to start thinking through the implications of all this. If this is true, what actions do you need to take in your life? What decisions do you need to make today? What changes do you need to make to the direction of your life?
And if you’re really not sure if all this is true or if you’re not sure what steps you might need to take, I’d love to sit down and have a conversation with you and help you along in that process. That’s what I’m here for!
As for the shepherds, when they believe the message of the angels and they acted upon that information – they found Jesus and were never the same again. Let me read what happened next: Verse 17…
17 After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. 18 All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, 19 but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. 20 The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them.
There are two key things that the Shepherds did after meeting Jesus.
First of all, they told everyone what had happened!
To anyone who would listen to them, they told their story of how the angels brought them this incredible message about a baby who was born in Bethlehem and who would be the Saviour! Then they explained how they went and found the baby and saw him for themselves and how it was all true. It was just as the angels had told them.
And I think that’s our natural reaction too when we meet Jesus. We want to let everyone know about this incredible message about a Savior who loves us like crazy and was willing to die for us so that we could be with Him forever! It seems amazing, but it’s true! We’ve experienced it for ourselves! We know what it’s like to be forgive and to have a personal relationship with the God of the universe! It’s all true – its just as the Bible say it is!
And like the shepherds, we want to tell everyone what we have seen and heard and experienced for ourselves! We’ve had a personal encounter with our Saviour and Lord – and we want everyone else to meet Him as well.
And I would just encourage you, that if you’ve never experienced that for yourself – you can! God came to be your Saviour and Lord too. He wants you to experience forgiveness and all the joy and peace that He came to give us! You can experience that today! And again, if you’re not sure how to experience that for yourself, come talk to me or any of these other folks here – we would love to help you do exactly that.
The second thing that the shepherds did after meeting Jesus is that they returned to their sheep, glorifying and praising God for everything they had seen and heard.
The shepherds were so grateful to God for… well, for a number of things: First of all, for caring about them enough to send a Savior in the first place… For choosing them to be the first to hear this incredible news… For being faithful to the His promises that God had made to Israel over the centuries regarding the Messiah! There was just so much to praise and glorify God for! And so these shepherds, even as they went back to their regular work – all along the way, they kept glorifying and praising God for everything they had seen and heard.
And that’s exactly what we want to do too! As we leave this place today, and get back to our regular routines of live, there is just so much that we can praise and glorify God for!
We can praise God for caring enough about us to send us a Saviour!
We can praise God for choosing us to hear the message of Salvation!
We can praise God for being faithful to all of his promises!
And certainly, in this Christmas season, we can praise God for sending Jesus to be born as a baby, to live a sinless life, to die on cross, and to rise again from the grave – all so that we have forgiveness and life! Praise the Lord for his kindness to us.