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The Actors of Advent: Shepherds
Luke 2:8 - 2:20
December 24, 2021
Reverend Jason Harris
In the final sermon of our series, “The Actors of Advent,” we look at the shepherds and how their actions provide us with a model for what it means to be a Christian.
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Merry Christmas! We're so glad that you could join us on this holy night as we celebrate the birth of Jesus. I suspect that after the year that many of us have had, we need Christmas more than ever. Christmas captures so much of the beauty, the wonder, and the consolation of the Christian message. What does Christmas tell us? Christmas tells us that the creator God did not abandon us to the struggle of being a human in a complex and challenging world. No, instead, God has entered our world as one of us. He drew close, and therefore, he has experienced everything that we do and more. God knows what it's like to hunger and thirst, to experience joy and sorrow, pain and loss, as well as even suffering and death. But more than merely being able to sympathize with us in our weaknesses, and in the midst of our suffering, God became a human being in the person of Jesus to rescue us—to rescue us from the down drag of human sin, the devastation of human suffering, and the continual threat of persistent evil. He lived the life that we should have lived. He died the death that we should have died so that we might find new life in him. In other words, Jesus became a human being in order to reconcile us in relationship to God, and to deliver us from everything that is ugly, and sad, and broken, and unjust. To put it simply, the message of Christmas is that God became one of us in order to rescue us because he loves us.
The problem, however, is that to many of us the message of Christmas seems like nothing more than a fairy tale. Some people might say it's a beautiful story, but we all know that it isn't true. Think about what we're being asked to believe. We're being asked to believe that there is a supernatural realm beyond the one that we can see and touch, and this supernatural reality is filled with angelic messengers and a personal God who loves us. This God is no mere life force or divine principle of rationality. No, this God became a real, live human being in the womb of an unwed teenage girl, and was born not in a palace fit for a king, but in a room reserved for animals. Many would say this is the stuff of fairy tales. It's beautiful, but it can't possibly be true. It stretches the limits of our human imagination, especially given our modern sensibilities. But if that's true of you, then I would like to commend to you the shepherds.
I love the shepherds, and the role that they play in the Christian narrative. We might have a quaint view of shepherds. We might think of them as gentle country folk, who were as soft and kind as the lambs that they helped raise, but actually, in the first century, the shepherds had quite a different kind of reputation. They were viewed with suspicion. Most people thought of them as cowboys. They lived a rough and tumble life. They were uneducated and illiterate. Most people consider them to be grifters and con men because shepherds had a bad habit of taking things that didn't belong to them when they roamed through the countryside. As a result of that, shepherds were not allowed to testify in a court of law. Did you know that? Their testimony was not admissible in court because shepherds were notoriously untrustworthy. And yet, amazingly, the news of Jesus' birth is first delivered, not to important dignitaries living in Jerusalem, but rather to common, ordinary shepherds. I'd like to commend the shepherds to you because I believe that they model for us how to become and how to live as a Christian. We don't know their names. We don't even know how many of them there were, but I think that's because they are meant to represent all of us. They provide us with a model of what it means to be a Christian. From my point of view, if you were to walk out of here tonight and say, You know what? I think I want to be a little bit more like those shepherds, then I would be more than satisfied. What I would like to do is zero in on Luke's account of the birth of Jesus, specifically Luke 2:8-20, and during our time together, I would like us to consider the shepherds’ notification, the shepherds' investigation and the shepherds’ transformation. In other words, let's look at the news that they receive, let's look at the investigation that they make, and then let's look at the transformation that they experience.
The Shepherds’ Notification
First off, Luke's gospel tells us that when Mary gives birth to her son, Jesus, the shepherds were out in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night, and an angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them. The glory of the Lord refers to a physical manifestation of God's presence. In the Old Testament we see the glory of the Lord show up in a number of different places. When God rescues his people from their bondage in Egypt, he leads them through a physical manifestation of his presence—a pillar of cloud and fire. When Solomon builds a temple for God in Jerusalem as his dwelling place, the glory of the Lord fills the temple. But now Luke tells us that the glory of the Lord lit up the night sky with its radiant brilliance. The shepherds, of course, were terrified, but the angel tells them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” So the angel announces this news of Jesus' birth to—of all people—the shepherds.
The first mistake that the shepherds could have made was to assume that the angel was talking to somebody else. But notice the shepherds don't turn to one another and say, Is he talking to you? That's the same mistake that we also could make. We could assume that the message of the angel is for somebody else. It's intended for somebody else, perhaps somebody living in a different time or place. But notice that the angel does not say to the shepherds, I bring good news. No, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Notice the angel doesn't say a child has been born. No, “Unto you is born this day … a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” So for them, so for you. This message is for you. It's not for somebody else. It's for you. “Unto you is born this day … a Savior, who is Christ the Lord”. This message, the message that the shepherds receive won't do you any good if you assume that it's intended for someone else. It was intended for them, and by extension, it's intended for all of us. It's good news for all people. The angel understands, of course, that this news is a little hard to believe, so the angel provides a sign to confirm that what he is saying is true. In v.12 the angel says, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” There's nothing surprising about finding a baby swaddled on the night that it has been born, but you don't expect to find a baby in a feeding trough. That's why this will be the confirming sign that everything that the angel has told the shepherds is true.
The Shepherds’ Investigation
If the first mistake is that the shepherds could assume that the message was intended for someone else rather than them, the second mistake that they could make is to fail to follow the evidence wherever it leads. This is why I love the shepherds. They don't just take the angel's word for it. No, they receive this news, and then they act upon it. They resolve to do something about it. They check it out for themselves. They don't turn to one another and say, Hmm, that was strange as soon as the angels disappear from the night sky, and then go back to whatever they were doing before. No, they resolve to do something. Something has just happened to them that has punctured a hole in their preconceived way of thinking about things. Suddenly, they realize that the world is stranger, more complex, more mysterious than they had ever thought, so they say to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”
How I wish there were more people like those shepherds. You too might experience a life event that punctures a hole in your preconceived way of thinking about things. Something might happen to you and you realize that your view of the world is too simple, too small, too self-contained. You might experience something positive like the wonder of new birth, or the thrill of love. Or you might experience something negative, like the devastating pain of loss, or the sting of death. All of a sudden you're reeling because you realize that you don't have the categories, the mental categories, to make sense of your own experience, nor do you have the resources to help you cope with what you're now facing in life. So like the shepherds in those moments, I wish that more and more people would actually investigate—as the shepherds do—the reality of the world in which we live. You might begin to wonder whether or not a veil has been drawn over this world. Maybe there is something more, something transcendent just beyond your reach, but you have not yet been able to put your finger on it. It may just be that, to your own surprise, you might need something spiritual in your life, and perhaps Jesus actually has something to offer. But if so, how might we engage in an investigation of our own? You can't go to Bethlehem. Or you could, but you're not going to find Christ there wrapped up in swaddling clothes. So where will you find Christ? The place where you will find Jesus today is not wrapped in swaddling clothes but wrapped in the pages of Scripture.
The Bible is actually the cradle that contains Jesus. That's the place where we can meet him now. If we were to engage in an investigation, what I would encourage you to do this Christmas is to read the gospels for yourself. Have you ever stopped to do that—to read them straight through then perhaps again, more slowly? Could you read through the Gospel of Luke or perhaps the Gospel of John? So many people have dismissed Jesus regarding him as nothing more than a myth, without actually taking the time to read about his life or hear what it is that he had to say. I believe that if you were to read the Scriptures without pride or prejudice, but with humility and an open mind, you might be surprised by what you find. From the outset, you don't have to read the Bible as Christians do. Christians read the Scriptures as God's inspired word to us, but you don't need to read it as such. You can read the Scriptures as first century historical documents—that's what they are—which recount for us the life and the teaching of Jesus. There's no reason to assume that the authors of the New Testament were any less trustworthy or honest than anyone else. They simply share their recollections of Jesus with us. And the fact is, from a historic point of view, they provide us with the most accurate portrait that we have access to, of who Jesus was, what he had to say, and how he lived his life. So this Christmas, might you read the gospels for yourself? Might you read through the Gospel of Luke or the Gospel of John?
The Shepherds’ Transformation
Let me give you three reasons why billions of people down through the centuries have found the person of Jesus to be so compelling. I'll give you three good reasons why you should at least engage in an investigation of your own. I'm not even going to get into questions of miracles or Jesus' resurrection. You can leave that aside for a moment. But instead, I want to give you three reasons why people find Jesus compelling and magnetic. Number one is the clarity of his teaching. Number two is the curious nature of his claims. Number three is the consistency of his character.
First of all, Jesus is so compelling because of the clarity of his teaching. Even after 2,000 years, his teaching has not lost its appeal. Jesus was famous for saying "judge not so that you may not be judged." "Let the one who is without sin throw the first stone." "Beware of practicing your piety before other people in order to be seen by them." "Don't be like the hypocrites." "Don't sound your own trumpet before you." "Don't worry about your life." "What you will eat or what you will wear?" "Today's own trouble is sufficient for today." "Turn the other cheek." "Love your enemies." "Do you onto others as you would have them do to you." There's something about the teaching of Jesus that resonates; it rings true. It seems to us when we hear it that it just makes sense. This is the way that we should live life. This is what an authentic fully human life would look like if we only followed the teachings of Jesus.
What's perhaps even more interesting is not only what Jesus had to say, but the direct way in which he said it. Jesus never hesitated or apologized. He never contradicted himself. He never had to withdraw or modify one of his previous statements. When people heard him speak, they marveled at his wisdom. They never heard anything like it before. They didn't know where he got it. They don't know how he spoke with such authority. He wasn't like the scholars of the first century, who would back up their own appeals by quoting tradition. Jesus wasn't like the prophets who would say, Thus says the Lord." No, instead Jesus would say, You have heard people say this, but I say to you.
He claimed to speak on his own authority, and that, of course, brings me then to the curious nature of his claims. He claimed to speak on his own authority. He claimed to be the Messiah. He claimed to form the center of God's purpose. He claimed to be the very Son of God. He said that entrance into God's kingdom is dependent upon one's relationship to him. Most spiritual leaders are self-effacing, but Jesus was self-advancing. Almost every other founder of a major religious movement would say something like, This is the truth as far as I can perceive it. Follow it. But Jesus said, I am the truth. Follow me. He claimed to be the truth itself—truth incarnate. He claimed to be able to forgive sins. It's one thing if you punch me in the face, and I say, "I forgive you." It's another thing if you punch someone else in the face, and I say, "I forgive you." That's what Jesus claimed to do. He claimed to be able to forgive the sins of others. Then perhaps the most audacious claim of all, he claimed that he would be the one who would judge the world. He said, at the end of time, there would be a final day of reckoning in which every human being who has ever lived will stand before him. Can you imagine the audacity of saying something like that? Imagine I said to you, Look, one day, I'm going to judge the entire world. I'm not only going to judge the thoughts and the intentions of every human heart, but your eternal destiny. Your eternal destiny hangs on whether or not you acknowledge me in your life. Now, you would conclude rightly, that I'm a megalomaniac. But that's not the impression that people got of Jesus. They did not think that Jesus was a megalomaniac. They did not think that he was crazy, and the reason is because of the consistency of his character.
Jesus' life of love has been an inspiration to the world. We all know how people have had enough of religion, organized religion, or Christianity, or the church. More often than not, it's because of the ways in which people have been mistreated, especially by religious leaders—because they say one thing, and then they do another. But that's not the kind of person that Jesus was. Jesus practiced what he preached, and there was a consistency between his words and his actions. That's all the more remarkable when you consider the contrast between the claims that he made about himself, and the way in which he actually lived his life. The British Pastor John Stott puts it like this. He says,
“Above all, [Jesus] was unselfish. Nothing is more striking than this. Although believing himself to be divine, he did not put on airs or stand on his dignity. He was never pompous. There was no touch of self-importance about Jesus. He was humble. It is this paradox which is so baffling, this combination of the self-centeredness of his teaching and the unself-centeredness of his behavior. In thought he put himself first, in deed last…He knew himself to be the Lord of all, but he became their servant. He said he was going to judge the world, but he washed his apostles’ feet…This utter disregard of self in the service of God and man is what the Bible calls love. There is no self-interest in love. The essence of love is self-sacrifice. The worst of men is adorned by an occasional flash of such nobility, but the life of Jesus irradiated it with a never-fading incandescent glow. Jesus was sinless because he was selfless. Such selflessness is love. And God is love.”
Of course, the place where God has supremely revealed his love to us is on the cross. Jesus goes to the cross and dies in your place as your substitute in order to rescue you because he loves you. Most people are born in order to live. Jesus was born in order to die. That was his legacy, and that was his mission. This Christmas, I'd encourage you then to be like the shepherds. Engage in an investigation of your own. Don't take my word for it. Consider for yourself the clarity of Jesus's teaching, the curious nature of his claims and the consistency of his character, and it just might change your life because that's precisely what happens to the shepherds. They hear. They see. They tell. That's why I say the shepherds provide a model for us for what it means to be a Christian. They hear. They see. They tell. They hear the message of the angels. They go, and check it out, and see it for themselves. Then they tell others about what they have seen and heard. If God has become one of us in order to rescue us because he loves us, then that message cannot be kept to ourselves. It has to be shared. It's the greatest news the world has ever known. It has to be shared. When we share it with others, then we give them the opportunity to discover the true story—not a fairy tale—the true story of which their lives are also a part. And that's what the shepherds do. When they saw it, “They made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.” When they saw it with their own eyes, when they experienced it for themselves, “They made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. All who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.” I love that. Everyone who heard it wondered.
That doesn't mean that they believed it on the spot. No, but they started thinking. They start thinking that maybe their pre-existing view of the world was too small, and maybe the possibilities for something more were greater. It made them start to wonder about what's possible. If I could get you to start thinking, not to leave your brain at the door, but to start thinking about what might actually be possible if Jesus really is the person that he claimed to be, then that would be more than enough.
After it was all over, the shepherds returned. Luke tells us they, “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” In other words, they had to go back. They had to go back to their same old job, keeping watch over their flocks by night. They went back to their same old job, but they did not go back the same old way. No, they went back changed. They experienced a transformation. Because of what they had seen and heard, they glorify and praise God.
In a similar way, we can't stay here tonight. We've got to go back. We've got to return. We have to return to our homes or families or friends. After our holiday breaks, we have to go back to our schools and our work. We have to go back. We don't have to go back the same old way. No, we can go back changed because of what we have seen and heard and experienced. We can go back changed and transformed because of the investigation that we ourselves make of these claims. As we return, as we go back to our lives, let's go back glorifying and praising God for all that we've seen, and heard, and witnessed.
Let me pray for us.
Father God, we thank you for Christmas. We thank you for this message that you did not remain at a safe, comfortable distance, but you became one of us in order to rescue us because you love us. We pray that like the shepherds, we would receive this news for ourselves, that we would know that it's not for someone else. It's intended for us, that we too are included in this notification. Help us, Father, to have the courage not to just take the angels' word for it, but to engage in an investigation of our own, so that we might discover these truths for ourselves. We pray that as we do so we also might experience a transformation, that we too might be changed in our whole view of the world and what is possible, and that we too might engage in a relationship with you so that we might glorify and praise you for what you've done for us by your grace. We ask this in Jesus' name, Amen.