Every December since I was a child in between televised scenes of the Grinch slithering around Whoville, and Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer running around the North Pole with Herbie (an elf who wants to be a dentist), we have Linus’ famous speech in the Charlie Brown Christmas. It is Linus, who uncovers the true meaning of Christmas in Luke, chapter 2.
Now, it’s certainly a welcome change of pace this December to hear the Bible being quoted on television. My concern is that with all the annual repetitions, the familiarity of the story of the shepherds can cause us to take it for granted – to overlook just how amazing this incident really is. It’s not just a story of God’s love for some shepherds. It’s a story about God’s love for us. And if we consider this story carefully, we’ll see that it has a message of love and hope for each one of us.
Let’s start by looking at the most obvious feature of the story. Who does God announce the birth of His Son to? Who does he invite to come and see the new baby? A ragtag collection of shepherds! There is only one announcement of Christ’s birth recorded in the Scriptures, only one invitation from God to anyone to come visit Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus. And that one invitation goes to a bunch of uneducated, smelly, low-class, social and religious outcasts, a bunch of shepherds.
Let me tell you a bit about shepherds. They were the last people you’d expect God to take notice of. First of all, they were religious outcasts. According to Jewish religious law, these men were unclean. Their line of work prevented them from participating in the feasts and holy days that made up the Jewish religious calendar. Why? Well, somebody had to watch the sheep. When everyone else was making the trip to Jerusalem to make sacrifices at the temple, or to participate in one of the annual feasts, they were out in the fields, watching over the sheep. A modern day example might be a trucker or a shift worker, whose job keeps them from regularly attending church. It wasn’t really their fault. But they were looked down on, from a religious point of view. Whatever might have been in their hearts, they weren’t able to participate fully in the religious life of the community.
Not only that, but shepherds were borderline social outcasts. Since they were constantly on the move to find new pasture for their flocks, they were looked on with suspicion. Kind of the way people today might look at gypsies, or carnival workers. They were often accused of being thieves. If something came up missing “it must have been those shepherds.” They were not permitted to give testimony in a legal proceeding, because their word wasn’t considered trustworthy. And on top of all that, they really didn’t have much contact with other people. Most of the time, they were “living out in the fields” (v. 8). This was not a 40-hour a week job. They didn’t come home at night. They were with the sheep 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. During the day, they led the sheep to grass and water. They watched while the sheep grazed. They kept an eye out for predators like wolves. And at night, they actually slept in the sheep pen with the sheep to guard against theft and animal attack. A good shepherd could identify each one of his sheep by sight. He knew his sheep and they knew him.
“The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.” – John 10:2-4 (NIV)
Being a shepherd was lonely, wearisome, usually very boring and tedious, and sometimes extremely dangerous. It gave them a lot of contact with sheep, but very little exposure to people. No wonder that David in the Old Testament, the shepherd who became king of Israel, was such an accomplished musician. Many shepherds learned to play the flute or some other instrument, because they had hours and hours with nothing to do but watch sheep eat grass. Does that make you feel any better about your job? Shepherds just didn’t have much social contact. Put it this way – you probably wouldn’t want your daughter to marry one.
Now, step back for a moment. Imagine you’re God and you want to announce the most amazing, incredible, joyous news ever; an event which will literally change the course of history – the birth of your only Son, Jesus Christ. The birth of the One who will be the Savior of the whole world. The One for whom the nation of Israel has been waiting and hoping and praying for thousands of years. Finally, He has come! Who do you announce it to? Who do you tell? Who do you invite to come and see?
When a child is born to a member of British royalty; for instance, when Princess Diana’s sons Harry and William were born, they didn’t send a messenger down to the docks to break the news first to the longshoremen and the fishmongers. They didn’t issue personal invitations to the cab drivers of London to come visit Diana and her new infant in Windsor castle. I’m guessing that if any announcements or invitations were sent out, they were printed in gold leaf and hand delivered to political leaders and foreign heads of state.
The point is that you would expect an event like the birth of Christ to be announced to the most important people in the nation. Political leaders – kings, governors, magistrates, even Caesar – might be invited to come and pay homage to the future ruler. Religious leaders – Priests, rabbis, synagogue officials, the head of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin – they would all be invited to worship their Messiah. Military leaders. Wealthy merchants. Men and women of distinction. The news media. But none of them got the word. None of them were invited, some foreign officials figured it out by following the star to Bethlehem, and they informed Herod. But they didn’t get an angelic messenger, or angel choir, or a verbal invitation. Only these few, poor, shepherds, these social and religious outcasts, received the announcement. Can you imagine the conductor of the angel choir announcing this to them? It’s as if a Broadway Production Company were to rehearse all year to perform Handel’s Messiah, but then give the concert for just the eight guys on the building’s maintenance crew.
So why? Why did God do this? Why did He send His angels to announce the birth of Christ to these shepherds, to invite them, and them only, to come and see the child?
Were the shepherds especially pious, unusually holy? In spite of the fact they couldn’t participate in organized religion, were they just outstanding believers in God? It’s doubtful, although the passage does say that when they got the news they believed what the angels said, and did what the angels told them to do. But there’s nothing in the text to indicate that they were more religious than anyone else.
Were they perhaps expecting this, were they looking to God to visit them? Could they have anticipated this in any way? No. In fact, if I’m a shepherd, I’m probably convinced God has no idea who I even am. I don’t sacrifice at the temple, I don’t show up for the feasts, I don’t go to synagogue; and my deepest theological discussions are with a bunch of stupid, snot-nosed sheep. If God does know who I am, he can’t think much of me.
So why did God send the angels first to the shepherds? Several possible answers have been proposed, such as the fact that Jesus Himself is later called the Good Shepherd, caring for us as His flock. But I prefer a simpler explanation. God wanted to show that His love does not discriminate on the basis of class, or wealth, or social standing. He does not respect kings and princes more than hourly laborers, he does not value priests and pastors above the people in the pews. God does not show favoritism; He does not give preferential treatment to one group of people over another. His love is available to all on the same basis – faith in Jesus Christ, and faith alone. So, what does all this mean to me? Well, if you identify with the shepherds, it should be very encouraging.
I May Feel Undeserving of God’s Love
8 That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Luke 2:8
Perhaps you see yourself as kind of on the outside looking in. I imagine that many nights, as the shepherds sat out in those cold, lonely fields, with nothing but dumb animals to keep them company, they looked over at the village, saw the lights of the homes and heard the faint sound of families, people laughing, and wished they could be a part of that. Maybe you’ve felt that way too. Not one of the “beautiful people,” not especially wealthy or powerful or influential. Not likely to ever see your name in the paper for some great accomplishment, on the fringes socially. Maybe when you compare your level of religious observance to others, the comparison isn’t favorable, spotty church attendance, little Bible reading, and infrequent prayer. You think that if God is even aware you exist which He probably isn’t, He probably doesn’t have a very favorable opinion of you. And you know what? A lot of people, deep down, secretly feel like that. Even people you would think of as “having it all together”. On the surface, everything is going great. But on the inside, you feel like you don’t fit in. You feel like God doesn’t really care, couldn’t care, about someone like you.
If any of that description strikes a chord with you, then I have good news, great news, the best news possible. God loves you. Just like He loved those shepherds. And you are special to Him. Just like those shepherds were special to Him, so special that He gave them the incredible privilege of being the first to hear of Christ’s birth, being the first people other than Joseph and Mary to lay eyes on the Son of God, being the first to tell others about Christ. He didn’t give those privileges to the Roman Caesar or to the Jewish high priest; he gave it to the shepherds. Not in spite of who they were, but because of who they were – humble, ordinary people with no high opinions of themselves. Simple people who were willing to simply believe what God told them and to simply do what God commanded them
I May Feel Afraid of God
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. Luke 2: 9-10
The stunning display of God’s glory and the appearance of the angel naturally terrified these shepherds. The presence of angels was frightening, for on occasion they came in judgment. But here they spoke words of reassurance. The angelic messenger knew the bad news—humankind has sinned and is lost. But this heavenly being had come to tell the world that God was doing something about its fallen state. And here we have an early hint of the scope of this message. God’s embrace would include both Jew and Gentile; grace was to be expanded to include, not simply the people of one nation, but the whole world, not just the righteous but also the ordinary, the common, the broken, the outcast.
Perhaps you are thinking, “There is so much brokenness, so much sin in my life, surely God does not love me any more.” Good news once again – if God blessed the shepherds and they rejoiced, what then would stop God from blessing you? Even though their human reputation is a total washout, God revealed Messiah to them of all the groups of people in the world. Don’t fear Him embrace Him. Ask in prayer to God to accept you as you really are. The message of “Don’t be afraid” is for you!
The Truth About God
He loves you and me enough to offer us forgiveness
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: 11-12
Watch Messages: YouTube-Upwards Church