THE CHARACTERS OF CHRISTMAS: Shepherds - "Sharing the Incredible"
Pastor Terry Inman
Almost every musical I've seen portrays the shepherds as the Christmas clowns. For some reason they seem to be the most down to earth characters of the season. Sort of like the Duck Dynasty of the Nativity!
Really that’s not all that far off. The sheepherding career though very common was not viewed with a lot of respect. Jewish mothers would not be telling their friends, “I’m so proud of my little Jonny you know he’s going to be a shepherd.”
It reminds me of a time when we were ministering in Hungary right after they gained independence from the former Soviet Union. As we drove across the pastoral landscapes I couldn't help but notice fields full of sheep. Occasionally we would even spot a colorfully dressed shepherd.
Like most tourists I had my camera. I asked our driver to stop. I jumped out of the car and headed across and open pasture toward the flock. A rather surprised older shepherd welcomed my intrusion and willingly submitted to my photo request.
He had some shepherding help. Besides the long smoking pipe shaped like his staff, He had a couple sheep dogs and a donkey. I’m not sure what the donkey was doing there but when I got ready to go the sheep held by the dogs stayed put, but the curious donkey followed me back to the car!
The moral of this story…Sheep according to the bible will only follow their shepherd’s voice but apparently donkeys will follow just about anybody!
Today’s Christmas Characters are the Shepherds. They had an incredible story to share and they were pretty excited about sharing it!
Luke a physician who is very sensitive to all the human interest in the Nativity story is the only gospel writer to feature the shepherds. They were the only invited guests to the makeshift neo-natal animal shelter. They went home very excited with something incredible to share!
“When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. Luke 2.17-18 (NIV)
Now before we delve further into the Doctor’s detailed account of this biblical story let’s let our imaginations run with another creative sketch of this week’s Christmas Character.
Can you imagine going from near homelessness to the guest list of the White House. That’s not even close to sleeping with smelly sheep, and waking up to an aerial stage of celestial beings with a spectacular invite.
Talk about going from obscurity to significance! Their incredible experience didn't change their occupation but it really changed their life.
At the time shepherds were typically not educated or skilled people. It was like a minimum wage job for hired hands. Many shepherds didn't have the best reputation and many were considered suspicious scoundrels.
Some historians suggest that these particular shepherds from the Bethlehem hillside may have been doing mandated community service, tending sheep awaiting ritual sacrifice in the Temple ceremonies.
The point should be obvious, the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords was not announced in the rotunda of Caesars Palace or in the Temple’s Holy of Holies. It was in a sheep pasture.
What makes the birth of Jesus Christ; “good news of great joy for all people” is the fact that the first folks to hear this incredible announcement were infamous shepherds very much in need of a savior.
God delights in revealing his grace, his goodness and his glory in the simple, the weak and the common of his creation. This brings to mind the thoughts of Amos the ancient shepherd turned prophet.
“I was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. But the LORD took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” Amos 7.14
Luke’s historical account is more than an astonishing heaven and earth encounter of lowly shepherds and holy angels. Every word of the birth announcement is carefully crafted to make the simple point that the gift of God’s son, Jesus Christ is for everyone.
Luke chapter two opens with Joseph who makes several relocations, leaving his home in Nazareth for Bethlehem to re-register as a Jewish citizen in a Roman world. Caesar wanted to keep track of his tax base.
Joseph pledged but not fully married yet takes is pregnant bride-to-be Mary along. She had been staying with her relative Elizabeth for three months, now they would probably be with Joseph’s family or friends for the final trimester of her pregnancy.
Now I’m sorry if you were waiting for the long ride on a donkey and no room in the inn story the night of the birth. First there is no donkey mentioned in the biblical account and the trip to Bethlehem probably happened at least two or three months before the baby’s arrival.
Luke simply says, “While they were there, (living in Bethlehem) the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Luke 2.6-7 (NIV)
It was in their best interest, to have the baby, finalize the marriage and start their new life together somewhere shielded from the small talk of their hometown in Nazareth.
The inn was most likely a community hostel where there wasn't much privacy. We don’t really need the innkeeper holding the no vacancy sign to be our villain. We already have Herod who is bent on murder. There was just no good delivery room in this overcrowded floor space.
A private animal shelter was actually much more accommodating and certainly would be more familiar to shepherds who had experienced many lambing seasons in sheds or caves like this.
In the first recorded meeting of Jesus and his forerunner, John introduces Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Baby Lambs are cute and cuddly but John was predicting Jesus sacrificial death for the sin and salvation of humanity.
The shepherds very familiar with sacrificial lambs get a sneak preview of God’s perfect lamb born to die for our imperfection.
Why wouldn't God reveal his incredible plan of salvation to simple sinful shepherds? The visitation comes in two phases. First, a solo appearance by the angel of the Lord, then a backup troupe of heavenly messengers.
Here’s Luke description. “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” Luke 2.8-9 (NIV)
Pre-Christmas angels had already appeared in the Temple to Zachariah the priest, then to Mary the expectant Mother. They appeared in dreams to Joseph before and after the birth, but this is the first time the brilliant glory of the Lord shrouded overwhelmed human spectators.
These not-so-pure, not-so-bright shepherds were ablaze with God’s glory. No wonder they were terrified. Most people that encounter the holiness of God in the bible are woefully aware of their own un-holiness.
God wasn't coming on with a fire and brimstone message of judgment. He was about to announce the best news ever given to man. Listen to the angels’ hopeful and joyful message.
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Luke 2.10-12 (NIV)
Wow what great news! No reason for fear, no reason to for quilt, a very familiar sign to shepherds, a baby boy covered and coddled like a lamb in feeding crib. What could be more comforting than that!
Then heaven’s curtain opened and amplified the message. Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” Luke 2.13-14 (NIV)
This really fits the job description of angels. In heaven they are always praising God. Because of what they see and know they are in awe of God. On earth they are assigned to bring God’s peace and God’s favor to men.
Angles in heaven are very happy. “You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly” Heb. 12.22 (NIV) Angels on earth are very helpful. “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” Heb. 1.14 (NIV)
So let me take you to this scene in heaven being played out on earth for the shepherds. God’s son has just arrived to a poor Palestinian couple, in a sheep shed near the birthplace of David the first shepherd to be a king.
The angles are ecstatic the plan of God to redeem sinful man from Satan’s death trap has been executed. The baby is born! The angels are simply declaring the Glory of God. They are singing His praises. It was catching.
In the middle of the night these bewildered guys talked it over probably to make sure they weren't just hallucinating, then left the flocks and rushed off to Bethlehem for a first look at God’s baby savior and king.
Luke says, “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” Luke 2.16 -18 (NIV)
The natural thing for these shepherds to do was to tell their incredible story. They shepherded everybody they knew with the good news they had heard and experienced. They were the first evangelists!
People would typically not be amazed by anything shepherds had to say. But these shepherds had personally experienced God’s peace, his grace and his favor. They were changed. There was something credible, compelling, and contagious about their story.
They didn't talk about themselves or even the incredible angel visitation; they simply spread the word, about this unique child. They talked about Jesus the Messiah. Can I suggest to you today the simplicity of this story? This is a wonderful season to just spread the word about Jesus.
Luke concludes with this sort of happy-ever-after ending. “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” Luke 2.20 (NIV)