The Shepherds Rejoiced

(Please read Luke 2:8-20.  The following remarks are based on the NIV.)

MESSAGE: God pointed the shepherds to their Savior and they rejoiced.  We should do the same.

A Domino’s Pizza delivery driver was left in tears when an Ohio church tipped her more than $1000 after she delivered a $5.99 pizza.  Natasha Boyer woke up Oct. 4 to find an eviction notice on her door. Then she headed off to her job as a pizza delivery driver for Domino’s, little knowing a “miracle” was about to come her way.

The 21-year-old single mother was on the receiving end of a random act of kindness performed by the congregants of Sycamore Creek Church in Pickerington, Ohio.  “Our church has been pushing congregants to do more acts of kindness, but this is the first time we did it together as a collective group,” pastor Steve Markle said.

When Boyer arrived at the church, the pastor called her up front and asked her the size of the biggest tip she’d ever received. Ten dollars, she replied.  Markle responded by giving her a $9 tip — followed by $1,046.

“I had no idea what was happening,” Boyer said. “They told me to wait 15 minutes because I was going to have to walk up on stage. I was in total shock.”

Markle had just finished giving a sermon about a financial miracle, not expecting to make one happen himself. “I called Domino’s ahead of time and asked them to pick a delivery driver that wouldn’t mind coming up on stage. That’s all I knew about her,” he told TODAY. “It was cool to see my sermon come to life.”

Boyer’s eyes filled with tears as she hugged Markle and thanked the congregation. Markle then said a prayer for her and everyone cheered.  Boyer now has enough money to pay her rent plus the late fee. “They saved me. They saved my son,” she said. “I’m forever grateful.”

<Retrieved from http://www.today.com/kindness/deliver-us-eviction-church-gives-pizza-deliverer-1-000-tip-t52161 on 11/27/15.>

I offer this story to you as an example of grace.  Grace is extravagant, seemingly random, frequently illogical.  It is free and undeserved.  When it comes from God it always redeems.

  1. A promise is made to the shepherds (8-14).

Verse eight tells us that the first recipients of the Good News were at work; they were KEEPING WATCH OVER THEIR FLOCKS.  WHY the birth of the Messiah was first announced to shepherds is something about which we can only speculate.  What is more clear is WHEN the announcement came to them.

LIVING OUT IN THE FIELDS implies a springtime scene, not a winter one.  In the winter, the sheep were penned up at night.  One commentator speculated that Jesus’ birth happened close to the Passover.  This appeals to me as it provides a second linkage between Jesus and the most important Jewish Holy Day.  In 1 Corinthians 5:7, Paul referred to Jesus as our PASSOVER LAMB, a reference to His sacrifice for our sins.  But He may be our PASSOVER LAMB in both His birth and His death.

The traditional December 25th date was established by the Church in the fourth century for reasons other than strict biblical scholarship.  Since then, scholars have literally argued for the birth of Christ occurring in each month of the year.

The second clue for timing is the phrase AT NIGHT.  These people observed four “watches” during the night.  Shepherds of many different flocks would cooperate in watching the sheep by taking different watches.  The significance of this clue is subtle:  The first Passover occurred at night and the Jews expected that their Messiah would arrive at night.  Even this detail has some significance, so wonderful is the Word!

In verse nine the promise of GREAT JOY is announced: AN ANGEL OF THE LORD APPEARED.  In the Greek, this language conveys a sudden, surprising appearance.  (Isn’t that how they always come?)  The phrase OF THE LORD is used to denote God’s actual presence OR it can denote something that is especially great.  OF THE LORD is always the BEST.  As Luke uses the word APPEARED, it means to stand by.  The angels do not appear overhead, but right among the shepherds.

THE GLORY OF THE LORD SHONE.  In the Bible, GLORY indicates the presence of God, His spiritual presence manifest in physical light.  This isn’t just a bright light, but an intense emotional and spiritual experience of God’s power and holiness; this is proved by the shepherd’s reaction.

THEY WERE TERRIFIED (a sensible reaction).  The experience of God’s holiness and power is so intense that smart people become aware of their own sin and shrink back in fear (i.e., Isaiah in Isaiah 6).  Think about it – how should you feel when you are suddenly in the presence of someone who knows you completely and can do anything to you?

Fortunately, there is no reason for their terror; the angels have appeared to bring a positive message, not condemnation.  In verse ten it is written: “I BRING YOU GOOD NEWS.”  The message breaks down into three parts.

“DO NOT BE AFRAID.”  This is often the first thing angels say when they appear.  It shows that the perfect love of God should cast out the fear we naturally feel (see 1 John 4:18).

“GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY.”  Notice the two qualifiers: GOOD news of GREAT joy.  The appearance of angels is extraordinary enough, but the occasion is not for them; the message is more important than the messengers and it is a VERY GOOD message.  Don’t let the three-letter word escape your notice; it is the focus of our Advent preparations.  JOY is what this season is all about.  We must share the shepherds’ JOY.

“FOR ALL THE PEOPLE.”  One of the understated themes of the Old Testament is that the nation of Israel was supposed to draw all people to God.  The original statement of God’s plan was that Israel should be a LIGHT TO THE GENTILES (see Isaiah 42:6) and that all the nations would be gathered for worship on Zion, the mountain of the LORD (see Isaiah 2:2).  Here’s an important part of the Good News: God has made salvation available to ALL PEOPLE in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Nationality no longer matters.

The specifics begin in verse eleven: “A SAVIOR HAS BEEN BORN TO YOU.”

“IN THE TOWN OF DAVID.” (Bethlehem) Hundreds of years earlier, King David, as a boy, worked these very same fields as a shepherd.  The child would inherit his throne and so God is keeping His promises with perfect continuity by appearing to the Bethlehem shepherds.

“A SAVIOR HAS BEEN BORN TO YOU.”  All human beings stand in need of a Savior.  Sin is a universal problem with deadly consequences.  We cannot solve it on our own.  Jesus is the solution to our sin.  So the YOU here is obviously not just the shepherds.  The birth of the Savior is a joy to all of us.

“HE IS CHRIST THE LORD.”  CHRIST is the Gk version of the Hebrew word “Messiah.”  It means “Anointed One” and refers to God’s promise to send a Savior.  This is clear in the Old Testament.  To be “anointed” is to be set apart for God’s service.  The person or object was dedicated to God’s exclusive use by putting oil on them in a ceremony.  The shepherds would be familiar enough with the Bible of their time to know this.  They likely understood the significance of this GOOD NEWS.

In verse twelve the shepherds received specific instructions on how to recognize Him: “A SIGN.”  In the Bible, a SIGN is always an earthly reality that points to (symbolizes) a heavenly reality.  In this case, the SIGN is the unique aspects of this special child’s birth.  The word can also be used to refer to a miracle as miracles always serve as pointers to God.  Jesus’ birth to a virgin and many other aspects of this story point to all kinds of miraculous circumstances.

They were instructed to look for “A BABY WRAPPED IN CLOTHS AND LYING IN A MANGER.”  This is a self-contradictory description; an oxymoron.  How could both these things be true?  A baby WRAPPED IN CLOTHS is obviously wanted and well cared-for.   A baby left LYING IN A MANGER is evidently abandoned and unwanted.  It is a particularly odd choice of places to set the heir of David’s throne, who ought to be in a palace cradle.  Paul expanded on this amazing contrast in 2 Corinthians 8:9; FOR YOU KNOW THE GRACE OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST, THAT THOUGH HE WAS RICH, YET FOR YOUR SAKES HE BECAME POOR, SO THAT YOU THROUGH HIS POVERTY MIGHT BECOME RICH.

They needed a SIGN this specific and unusual to avoid a case of mistaken identity.  Even in a village as small as Bethlehem, there might’ve been more than one baby that looked like a newborn to the shepherd’s eyes.  Would you trust the average man to tell the difference between one newborn baby and another?

In verses thirteen and fourteen a whole HOST of angels affirm this message.  A GREAT COMPANY OF THE HEAVENLY HOST.  Luke declares this fact in such understated language, it must be true.  A made-up story would be more descriptive and sensational.  The sole messenger is supported by an unnumbered throng of the angelic race.

The angelic host was PRAISING GOD.  GOOD NEWS should always result in praise to God.  Here the angels set a good example for us to follow.  One of the tasks God assigns to His angels is to deliver messages; the Greek word means “messenger.”  Another of their roles is to worship Him.  We see both of these functions in this passage.

Their hymn of praise? “GLORY TO GOD…PEACE TO MEN…FAVOR”  These two reasons they have for praising God have come into being because of the birth of the Christ Child.  As Jesus later said of Himself, glorifying God and bringing peace to men is why He came.  HIGHEST and ON EARTH are a contrast of places that describe the origin of this action and its recipients.

  1. The shepherds rejoiced when the promise was kept (15-20).

In verse fifteen the shepherds resolve; “LET’S GO TO BETHLEHEM.”  The angels returned to heaven, their message delivered and their worship offered.  The shepherds were given a SIGN, not a command.  Though it was certainly assumed in the SIGN they were given the shepherds were not commanded to go to Bethlehem; they decided on their own to go.

Though our English translations do not convey the emotion of the Greek words, you can still hear the eagerness in their voices as they discuss it and decide to go immediately to the village.  Their willingness to go is another indication of their faithfulness.

“WHICH THE LORD HAS TOLD US ABOUT.”  This shows the shepherds understood the angelic message.  By faith they accepted it and made immediate plans to act upon it.  We should all demonstrate this kind of trust in the word of God.

Making the trip, they found God’s word true (v. 16).  THEY HURRIED OFF is a detail that justifies our earlier interpretation of the shepherds’ eagerness.  Perhaps they had been particularly godly men who had been waiting eagerly for the arrival of the Messiah and now He’d come.

They FOUND MARY, JOSEPH AND THE BABY, WHO WAS LYING IN A MANGER, just as the angel had announced!  Seeing with their own eyes, they understood the reason for the child appearing at the same time cared-for and abandoned.

The joyous shepherds could not help themselves; they shared the reason for their joy with all who would listen (vs. 17-18 & 20).  WHEN THEY HAD SEEN HIM.  This is an important point.  The shepherds acted by faith and went to Bethlehem.  Then faith became sight – literally.   This is the way it’s supposed to work for all of us.  God never intended faith to be perpetually unseen.  It starts out that way, but it is supposed to become a personal experience after that.  How sad would it be if faith were only ever a theory.  Faith that is not confirmed in experience is a faith that is not yet realized.  This is the relationship between faith and works.  Doing godly works moves faith from spiritual to physical.  One of the godly works that confirms true faith is telling others about it and that happens in two contexts.

In vs. 17+18, we see the shepherds WITNESSING to the truth; telling others about their experience.  They SPREAD THE WORD = “gave exact information” (Greek).   Similarly, our witnessing needs to follow the “Joe Friday” method: “just the facts.”  the truth that we have to share is so wonderful it needs no embellishment.

Part of what this means is that we need to resist the temptation to attach our personal views and politics to the Gospel.  Don’t misuse the truth to propagate our stuff.  People know instinctively know the difference between the truth and a sales pitch.  We have nothing to sell, but the truth to give away joyously and generously!!

The reaction to the shepherd’s message was surprisingly positive: ALL WHO HEARD IT WERE AMAZED.  We’re so used to being lied to that the truth has an effect of causing amazement.  People want to hear the truth and most will respond positively when they hear it.  In the culture of that time, shepherds were near the bottom of the social ladder.  They were popularly believed to be habitual liars and thieves.  So it’s almost miraculous that they were believed enough for people to be AMAZED.  I think their witness must have been so powerful, they were so fully convinced, that their witness overwhelmed people’s prejudice and they earned a hearing.  No one is more persuasive than an eyewitness.

In verse 20, we see the shepherds WORSHIPING because of the truth.  They were GLORIFYING AND PRAISING GOD FOR ALL THE THINGS THEY HAD HEARD AND SEEN.  Do you suppose the shepherds went about singing the same song the angels had sung in praising God (v. 14)?  A reason for their exuberance is that things WERE JUST AS THEY HAD BEEN TOLD.

The context of their worship was not in the temple, but amidst their everyday lives: we read THE SHEPHERDS RETURNED.  They went home and back to work.  They worshiped God in the midst of their daily lives and among their regular community.  Similarly, we must take our joy into everyday life.  In our individual contexts of home, work, and community, we are to worship and witness just as the shepherds did.

Mary’s response is private and quiet in contrast to the shepherds’: she quietly considered their witness (v. 19).  Note the two things it says about her.

MARY TREASURED UP ALL THESE THINGS = “guarded.”  They became sacred memories to her.  Isn’t this something most parents do?  As we get older, we hold the best memories and let the others go.  But this is an absolutely unique situation, so Mary’s treasure-house included statements by Gabriel, her cousin Elizabeth, and now the testimony of the shepherds.  She put all these statements about Jesus together and considered their meaning.  No one on earth knew as much about the destiny of baby Jesus as Mary did.  She was justifiably awestruck by the role she was playing in the history of God and His people.

She PONDERED THEM IN HER HEART; they became points of prayer, meditation, and consideration.  In the original language, to “ponder” means to weigh, examine mentally, think about.

Is it fair to say that most of us live out our faith following Mary’s example than following the shepherds’?  We prefer to keep our faith a “private matter;” we treasure and ponder our faith, but we don’t get excited and we don’t carry it out into public.

The thing is, this passage does not condemn either approach.  Instead, it offers both Mary and the shepherds as examples for us to follow.  I want to say that we should be both at various times and as various opportunities present themselves.  We should have private and public expressions of faith.

A janitor who heard a baby crying in an empty New York City church was astonished to find a real newborn baby in the church’s Nativity scene with its umbilical cord still attached.  Jose Moran said that he found the baby after returning from his lunch break on Monday, only about an hour after the manger was set up in the Holy Child Jesus Church in Queens.

Police say the baby boy, who was found wrapped in a blanket, was brought to a hospital and found to be in good health. “At least whoever abandoned him brought him to a safe place and didn’t leave him to die,” Moran says. “I hope he finds the right home. He’s a miracle baby.” Police are trying to track down the newborn’s mother.

New York has a “safe haven” law allowing people to drop off unwanted newborns at places like churches, hospitals, and fire stations, but the mother could still face charges because the law requires authorities to be immediately informed of the baby’s whereabouts. One of the church’s parishioners has already offered to adopt the boy. “God works in mysterious ways,” Father Christopher Heanue said. The infant was “a kind of gift to the church in a poetic way, so we’d love to see it stay in the community,” he says. <Retrieved from http://www.newser.com/story/216601/real-newborn-found-in-church-nativityscene.html?utm_source=8at8&utm_medium=email&utm_content=1696368&utm_campaign=20151125 on 11/27/15.>

That’s an amazing story too, another example of grace. This baby’s mother gave her child the gift of life and a chance to be saved.  The law charges her with a criminal act, but God is gracious enough to redeem any action, turning even tragic events into praiseworthy times.

Grace is the thing we must cherish like Mary and proclaim like the shepherds.  There are plenty of legalists in the world, but too few gracious people.  Grace brings joy. What better time of year to be extravagantly joyous than this season of Advent, leading up to Christmas?  Let me challenge you to follow the examples of Mary AND the shepherds.

 

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