20221218 The Shepherds’ Story
Luke 2:8-21 NET
Last week, we put on our congregation’s annual Christmas play. While we were observing the spectacle of all the angels, sheep, shepherds, wise men, and the odd King Herod, I was struck by the reality that this story has been told so often by so many. This is not a story that will die unnoticed. If the Lord gives us another thousand years to testify of his grace and to share his gospel, we will be telling the story of the Bethlehem shepherds even then.
Why do we tell this story? What is the significance of the fact that angels visited shepherds that night, and that the shepherds visited Mary and Joseph and saw a little boy asleep in a manger? Those are the questions that I want to address this morning.
Dr. Luke himself told us part of the answer when he introduced his biography. He told his friend Theophilus that “many have undertaken to compile an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, like the accounts passed on to us by those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning. So it seemed good to me as well, because I have followed all things carefully from the beginning, to write an orderly account for you” (Luke 1:1-3). He did this so that Theophilus would “know for certain” the things he was taught (1:4). All of the stories in the Bible are there for us to read, to listen to, to study — so that we can understand what God wants us to know.
God chose lowly shepherds for the important ministry of passing on the good news (8-10).
8 Now there were shepherds nearby living out in the field, keeping guard over their flock at night.
9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were absolutely terrified.
10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! Listen carefully, for I proclaim to you good news that brings great joy to all the people:
Suppose you were living in the town of Bethlem back then. What if you had a letter with important news in it. Would you give that letter to a shepherd? No, you would not. You have to understand something about shepherds in first-century Palestine. The shepherds were considered the lowest of the low. Because they had to keep watch over their sheep 24/7, they did not participate in any religious activities. They didn’t attend worship in the local synagogues. Because they did not participate in religious activities, they were considered unholy. Shepherding was not considered a noble profession — far from it.
Luke tells us that this group of shepherds was nearby — that is, nearby the town of Bethlehem. They were not in the town, they lived out in the field where the sheep were. They camped out with the animals. If they had business in town, people could see them coming a mile away. They could probably smell them coming two miles away.
Because of the nature of their work, and how they had to perform it, shepherds were not the most trusted. Even though king David himself had been a shepherd, there were no shepherd politicians in Bethlehem in the first century. So, my question is, why would God choose to reveal his good news to these shepherds. Why did he choose lowly shepherds for the important ministry of passing on that good news?
He chose them because they were lowly. He chose Zechariah and Elizabeth because they were old. He chose Mary because she was a virgin. He chose Joseph because he was a mere builder. God chooses to bless the poor to show us that his gospel is for everyone.
The angel who appears to the shepherds tells them that he has good news that can bring great joy to all the people. I want you to stop and think about that phrase “all the people.” Notice how comprehensive that phrase is. It includes everyone you will ever meet. It includes millions and billions of people you will never meet. You will not be able to reach all the people. But you can reach some. The shepherds were not able to reach all the people. But they tried to reach as many as they could.
Before the shepherds could serve, they had to see Jesus for themselves (11-16).
11 Today your Savior is born in the city of David. He is Christ the Lord.
12 This will be a sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a vast, heavenly army appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased!”
15 When the angels left them and went back to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, that the Lord has made known to us.”
16 So they hurried off and located Mary and Joseph, and found the baby lying in a manger.
The shepherds did not immediately begin telling the inhabitants of Bethlehem about the presence of the newborn king. Notice the three things the angels said about this infant. They said he was the Savior. They said he was the Christ. They said he was the Lord.
Two of those terms were very familiar to everyone living in Bethlehem — in fact, everyone in the whole Roman empire. Caesar Augustus used the title Savior (Greek, Soter) of himself. He also used the title, Lord. People were used to saying “Caesar is Lord.” So, the titles Savior and Lord were political statements. They were slogans that identified the people who said them as political rebels, and traitors against the established government.
But these titles were even worse than that. Each of these titles was a religious designation.
Listen to Psalm 65:5. “You answer our prayers by performing awesome acts of deliverance, O God, our savior. All the ends of the earth trust in you, as well as those living across the wide seas.” This angel did not use the name, Jesus. That had been revealed by Gabriel earlier. Jesus in Hebrew is Yeshua — short for Yehoshua — and means Yahveh is salvation. Established religion had taught that God alone is the savior. So, to call this baby the Savior is to say that he had a unique standing before God.
The title Christ was even more specific. It was the Greek term that corresponded to the Hebrew Messiah, which means anointed one. It was a political term as well, but one that specifically identified the hope of a Jewish deliverer who would overthrow God’s enemies and rescue the Jews.
The title Lord was so specifically religious that when the Jews translated their Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, they used the term Lord (Greek Kurios) in place of the name of God.
What I am saying is that before these shepherds go spouting off all these things about a newborn, they had to see if it was true themselves. Is this child all that the angel had said about him? They went to see him. Before the shepherds could serve, they had to see Jesus for themselves. They saw him, and just seeing him was enough.
Brothers and sisters, you and I are called to tell the world about who Jesus really is. Don’t try to do this without coming to Jesus yourself. You need an experience with Jesus before you can tell anyone about who he is. You need a relationship before you can be a witness.
The shepherds’ ministry was testimony and worship (17-21).
17 When they saw him, they related what they had been told about this child,
18 and all who heard it were astonished at what the shepherds said.
19 But Mary treasured up all these words, pondering in her heart what they might mean.
20 So the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen; everything was just as they had been told.
21 At the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was named Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
Once they saw that baby in the manger, they believed everything that they had been told about him. Their experience was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They did not have to go to Sunday School for twenty years in order to share their faith in Christ. They didn’t need to go to Bible college and seminary. All it took was one look.
As a result of their experience with Christ, they set out to share the good news of his existence with everyone in the town. It did not matter that they were low on the totem pole. Their status as lowly shepherds was irrelevant. They were not in Bethlehem to draw attention to themselves. Their message was all about that boy. That boy in the manger was the Savior. He is the Christ. He is the Lord.
The shepherds’ job was to get the message out. They related what they had been told about this child, and all who heard it were astonished at what the shepherds said. Luke does not say that everyone in Bethlehem believed what the shepherds told them. No doubt, some did believe. But the mission of the shepherds was to get the word out. The same is true of you and me. Our mission is to get the word out. Some will believe because of what we say. Others will not. Our task is to testify.
Notice that the shepherds ministered to Mary. They shared their testimony about Christ with her, and she pondered their words and added them to her own experience. Their testimony helped her to understand what the Lord was doing in her life.
The shepherds testified but they also did something else. On their way back to the fields, they were glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. These lowly shepherds, who could not participate in worship in the synagogues because of their job — were now worshiping God. They not only got the message of the gospel out to others, but that message changed them.
The message of the gospel is designed to change us as well. We come to Jesus because of something someone else has said about him. We meet Jesus and discover that what the witness has said is true. But when we return to our fields, we discover that we are different people. We might keep on watching our flocks by night, but we do so with a praise song that wasn’t there before.
The shepherds’ story is our story.