This is the third in a series of posts which summarize the main points of the Advent 2012 sermon series “Christmas Questions” I delivered at Bethel. This sermon/post was based on Luke 2:8-20:
Last Sunday, shoppers at a Toronto area IKEA were surprised to see a seven-month-old Rhesus monkey wearing a miniature shearling jacket wandering through the store, looking for his owners. When you’re looking for good prices on build-it-yourself Swedish furniture, the last thing you expect to see is a baby monkey in a wool jacket looking for his human mother. I’m sure you would do a double-take and ask, “What is he doing here?”
Most of us have heard the Christmas story so many times that we aren’t surprised anymore by some of the details that perhaps should make us do a double-take. That’s why I’m stopping to ask some of the obvious questions that maybe you’ve never asked before. (see previous posts for ‘Why a Virgin?’ and ‘Why a Baby?’)
Today: “Why shepherds?”
The birth of Jesus Christ was the birth of the Messiah, the promised King, God-in-the-flesh… shouldn’t there have been dignitaries and crowds and paparazzi? Instead, the only ones there were a group of working class guys in the middle of their shift. Like seeing a lost but well-dressed baby monkey in the midst of your search for a new dresser, the presence of the shepherds at the birth of the Christ child should make us look twice and ask, “What are they doing here?”
1. The shepherds remind us that the good news come to the undeserving and the unexpected.
Shepherds were despised by the conservative and orthodox Jews of that time, because they were unable to obey all of the strict Temple laws about hand washing. They were unclean. They were also socially unimpressive. You didn’t go out of your way to invite them to you dinner party, and you didn’t associate with them except for business when necessary.
Yet these are the men to whom the angels first appeared, and they were the only ones to see Jesus the night of his birth. (Matthew’s gospel records the visit of the magi, or wise men, but that didn’t happen till Jesus was probably almost two years old.) Why were the first people summoned to the courtroom of the King of Kings not more impressive? Why not rich, famous, beautiful celebrities?
Because that’s not the way God often works. Paul puts it like this (1 Corinthians 1:26-30): “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many of you were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.’”
This is not to say that God never calls wise, influential, or noble people to be his people. He often does. But it means that he did not call them because of those things.
You haven’t heard the good news because of your inherent worth or connections or resources or abilities. You have heard the good news because of God’s grace and good pleasure.
This is what we see with the shepherds, and it is what we see later when Jesus calls his disciples. God often chooses those whom we would pass by because he displays his wisdom, power, and glory more deeply and thoroughly that way.
Why shepherds? Because it shows us once again that God’s good news comes to the undeserving and to the unexpected. That’s what it reveals about us, on our end of things. But the shepherds also point to something profound about God, on his end of things.
2. The shepherds reveal more fully the identity of the child.
This is so obvious it should go without saying, but shepherds take care of sheep. We know that some of the flocks outside of Bethlehem were specifically used to raise the lambs used by the priests at the Temple in Jerusalem, which means it is a very real possibility that these shepherds were responsible for raising the lambs that were used to offer sacrifices for sin at the Temple.
When John sees Jesus publicly, in John 1:29, he cries out: “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” It is a powerful thought to consider that the shepherds who were responsible for raising the lambs to be offered as sacrifices for sin at the Temple were the first to see “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.
Not only is Jesus the true and eternal Lamb, however, he is also the true and eternal Shepherd.
The Old Testament frequently uses imagery related to shepherds and sheep to describe the relationship between the LORD and Israel (e.g. Psalm 23, “The LORD is my shepherd…”; Ezekiel 34, “I myself will care for them and rescue them and keep them safe…”), and the New Testament picks up on this and applies it specifically to Jesus Christ (e.g. John 10, “I am the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep…”; 1 Peter 2, 5, “Shepherd and Overseer of your souls…the chief shepherd…”)
This, too, is powerful imagery because of the function of shepherds. Their job was to guide, lead, protect, and provide nourishment for the flock.
Because Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God and also the true and eternal Shepherd, he is announced as the Savior, Christ the Lord, by the angels (v. 11). This is why we can say, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me. Your rod and staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. My cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” It is why we be assured that he goes with us and before us, that we can never be separated from him, and that he will lead us safely into the arms of eternal rest, whenever and however that time may come.
It is only because Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who is also the Good Shepherd that we can confidently and continually call on him as the Savior, who is Christ the Lord. The shepherds heard the very first notes in this new melody sung by the angels.
Why shepherds? To remind us yet again that the good news comes to the undeserving and unexpected. To help reveal to us that the child whom they visited is not only the Lamb of God but also the Good Shepherd. But there is one more brief observation to be made about what the shepherds did.
3. The shepherds prove that the power is in the message, and not the messenger.
The angels came announcing “good news of great joy that will be for all the people…” This group of shepherds, roused from their sleepy vigilance by the host of heaven and overwhelmed with the glory of the Most High, could have responded in any number of ways. They could have sat around and tried to figure out what just happened to them. They could have pretended like it didn’t happen, that it was all a mass hallucination brought about by some bad stew. They could have made a pact not to talk about it with anyone who might call them crazy.
They could have…but they didn’t What they did do, however, is all that anyone can do who has been encountered by God’s disruptive grace. The trajectory goes like this: Come, see the One of whom the angels sing, and go, telling of His glory.
When they heard about the Savior, they sought Christ with all haste (v. 16). They didn’t go back to sleep and wait for morning. They went because they believed, they believed because they heard it from someone (see Romans 10:11-17).
Then, they made known to others the announcement of the Gospel (v. 17). Having heard and seen the good news, they went out telling others. As they glorified and praised God, others joined in. This is how it has always worked. It’s not as complicated as we sometimes make it.
If the shepherds reacted with such reverence and worship upon seeing the just-born baby, how are we to react upon seeing that baby as the risen and victorious Lord who is seated in glory at the right hand of the Father?
Come, see and hear what God has done…then go and tell others what you saw and heard. On that holy night, words of announcement and grace were found on the lips of the heavenly host, and words of testimony and praise were found on the lips of the shepherds, words that proclaimed the glorious birth of the Savior-child, the Christ, the King.
Do you know who James W. Marshall is or why he’s famous? I didn’t think so. On January 24, 1848, Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in California. He sparked the California Gold Rush, bringing some 300,000 people to the western seaboard and causing a little town of 200 people called San Francisco to boom into a massive city by the standards of the day.
None of those people came to see James Marshall. They came to see what he found. They told others, and they came, too.
Why did God choose shepherds to be the welcoming committee for the birth of his beloved Son? Because it wasn’t about how special they were. It was about how special what they found was.
Why shepherds? To remind us that God’s good news comes to the unexpected and undeserving. To reveal to us that the child in the manger is the Lamb of God who is also the Good and Chief Shepherd. To make it clear that it is not about the messenger, but about the message—not about the one who finds the gold, but about the gold that they find.
These shepherds, these proto-disciples, provide us with the model response to the angelic announcement that “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” has been born. The glory and grace of God had irrupted into their lives, and their response was to make these things known to others. And so we announce the arrival of a Savior, we announce Christ the Lord. We rush to see Him, telling others of the good news we have heard, and we go out, glorifying and praising God, taking the message of His Son throughout His world.
Come, see the One of whom the angels sing, and go, telling of His glory.