Pastor Scott Andrews | December 25, 2022
The very first shepherd to ever walk the face of the earth was despised by a quarter of the world’s population. True, the world’s population was only 4 at that time, but Cain, the farmer, despised his brother, Abel, the shepherd, so much so that he murdered him. You remember the story. One day, both Cain and Abel brought sacrifices to God from the fruit of their labors. The Scripture tells us that God looked with favor upon Abel’s sacrifice, but He rejected Cain’s offering. And so, Cain became angry and murdered his shepherd brother.
And that one act seemed to set the DNA for all future shepherds. As a class, through the centuries, for one reason or another, shepherds have been despised. Say the word shepherd, and what adjective comes to mind? Lowly. Lowly shepherds. Think about it. Even in our own country, we don’t have much room for shepherds. Through the years, ranchers and farmers have always been at odds with dirty sheep herders – shepherds – because of what sheep do to the land. Go to some college campuses today and you can join a club called the FFA – Future Farmers of America. Have you ever heard of FSA – Future Shepherds of America? Of course not. No one would admit that.
How many little boys have you known who wanted to grow up to be a cowboy? Go west, ride their trusty steeds on a cattle drive – sit around a campfire, eat beans, and do everything else that comes with men sitting around a campfire eating beans. But how many little boys have you ever known who said, “When I grow up, I want to be a shepherd – I want to take care of sheep”? Not too glamorous, is it?
Go to the nation of Israel with me. Early in its history, the nation was a family of shepherds. That’s what Abraham was, that’s what Isaac was, that’s what Jacob was, and that’s what Jacob’s twelve sons became – shepherds. But, do you remember what happened when Jacob and his family were forced to move to Egypt because of a famine? Even though Joseph, one of the brothers, was prime minister of all Egypt, this family of shepherds had to live in Goshen, a region far removed from the Egyptians. Why? Because Genesis 46 tells us that [quote] “every shepherd is loathsome to the Egyptians.” You see, the world despised shepherds. But that’s what the Israelites were. They were shepherds. They took care of sheep.
And through the first few centuries of Israel’s history, shepherding remained an important occupation for this nation. Leaders came from the ranks of the shepherds. Moses, highly revered in Jewish history, spent many years of his life as a shepherd. David, arguably the greatest king Israel ever saw, had his training as a shepherd. And remember, he penned the words of the 23rd Psalm where he said, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Apparently, God didn’t have a problem with the job.
But now, roll the clock forward a few more hundred years. We find ourselves in the midst of the powerful Roman Empire. Caesar Augustus has established his control – he even rules Palestine from his throne in Rome. The Jews despised that Gentile control. They hated their Roman oppressors, but we find that they also despised something else – shepherds. That’s how they’d started, but my, how far they’d come.
Shepherds at this time in Israel, were grouped with prostitutes and tax collectors. As a class, they had a bad reputation. The nature of their occupation kept them from observing the ceremonial law, and for a religious people, that was unacceptable. Oh, it’s true, the sheep they tended right outside of Bethlehem were for temple sacrifices, but they couldn’t observe the sacrifices themselves – dirty, lowly shepherds. They were outcasts from the nation’s religious life. They had few possessions, and in fact, they had trouble keeping their sheep off other people’s lands. Therefore, many saw them as thieves. They were considered unreliable – they weren’t even allowed to testify in a court of law. They were indeed viewed as a despicable lot. Necessary, but no one liked them.
Sounds to me like they would make good candidates for the kingdom of God. You see, God has a way of pursuing those the world despises. I Corinthians 1 says:
26 For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble;
27 but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong,
28 and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are,
29 so that no man may boast before God.
The story of Christmas is the story of God coming to despised, undeserving, broken people. Now, I say this almost every year, but we have turned Christmas totally on its head. We think it’s for the good – after all, Santa’s making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice. But the truth is, we’re all on the naughty list – but that’s okay – Jesus came for sinners – and those who know they’re sinners.
You know the story of Christmas. It was during the reign of Caesar Augustus that he issued a decree that all the Roman world would be taxed. Joseph and his pregnant wife, Mary, made their way on the 90-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the place of Joseph’s ancestral birth, to register for the tax. Apparently knowing that the time for her to give birth to the long-awaited Messiah was at hand, Mary packed strips of cloths, swaddling clothes, for the journey. As there was no room for them to stay in the inn, tradition has it that they stayed in a nearby stable – very possibly, a cave. There, the virgin Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, and laid Him in a manger, quite the crib for the creator of the world. They named Him Jesus, just as the angel had instructed them, because He would save His people from their sins.
Think about it – this was the birth of the Savior of the world. God incarnate. But instead of making their way to Rome or Jerusalem, the angels sent to announce the birth made their way to the fields surrounding Bethlehem. Instead of announcing His birth in the temple courts to the religious of the day, instead of announcing His birth in the palace of Herod the Great, instead of announcing His birth to the Emperor of Rome named Octavias but self-proclaimed Augustus, the angels announced His birth to a lowly lot of people called shepherds.
Again, shepherds were outcasts in society. Dregs – lowlifes. They fit right in with prostitutes, Centurions, Gentiles, women, tax collectors, and other sinners. But you see, they would welcome the news of a savior – they, above all others, knew they needed a savior – their culture reminded that of them every day of their lives. It’s a common message in Scripture – the gospel is for the broken of the world. And it started when Jesus was just a few hours old – in bed of hay, in a manger, in Bethlehem. The kingdom is for broken people who know they’re broken – who know they need a savior.
Remember what happened when Jesus called Matthew to Himself? Matthew, the tax collector, was so excited – so thankful – that he threw a party. You see, he knew he needed a savior, too. Who does a tax collector invite to his party? Other tax collectors – other sinners. You remember, the religious were on the outside looking in, and condemning Jesus for eating with dirty sinners. Jesus said to them, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Oh, so does that mean there are righteous people – good people who make it on the good list? Who actually have no need of forgiveness? Not exactly. The gospel is for everyone, but it is only received by those who know they need it. Which is why shepherds were the perfect recipients of the good news. Some of you have never given your life to Jesus, because you don’t think you need Him. You so. Well, let’s read the story in Luke 2:8-20.
Despised by men, this class of people, though undeserving, was chosen to be the recipients of the good news of great joy that would be for all people. I’ve read this to you before, but let me read to you the words of Donald Shelby from his work entitled “Christmas on Tiptoe”:
“Why did God not use a few special effects when Jesus was born, and let loose a miracle or two like those that occurred at the dawn of Creation, or with Moses and the Exodus? Why did He not go for maximum exposure by choosing Athens, Rome, Alexandria – even Jerusalem – for Christ’s birth? And if the prophet Isaiah had announced that the coming of the Messiah King, the virgin’s child, would finally sit in royal splendor on David’s throne, why a stable as the setting for His birth?”
“True, a star appeared, but not many knew why or for whom. And an angelic chorus heralded the event, but none but a few poor shepherds heard the announcement. Surely this was not the auspicious beginning one would expect for the birth of the world’s Savior.”
“This working-class couple, Joseph and Mary, welcomed their first child in a stable with its pungent odors, among animals whose moist eyes reflected the flickering light of the oil lamps brought in for the birth. There was no sounding of trumpets, no jubilant display, no marching of armies, no retinue of servants; perhaps just the quiet rustle of animals, the familiar sounds heard at any birth, and the wail of a new baby who was then laid in a manger as His first crib. And only a few poor shepherds attended the event.” There’s another adjective for you that goes with shepherds – poor shepherds – at the top of the naughty list.
Why? What was God attempting to communicate to us through this Christmas story? The whole setting of that first Christmas is a picture of the gospel, and to whom it would come. Why shepherds? Because Jesus came, and still comes only to the lowly – He does not come to the proud, the arrogant, the self-sufficient, those who think they have need of nothing.
As we talked about last week, when the magi came from the east, they went to Jerusalem and inquired of the religious, those who knew the word of God – the preachers of the day – “where is He who is born King of the Jews, for we have seen His star in the east?” The religious knew the answer – in Bethlehem of Judea – but they didn’t even bother to go look. The Savior of the world had come, but they were religious – they were good – they didn’t realize, understand or at least admit they needed a savior, too.
And it is still true today. Jesus comes to those who realize they have need of a savior – those who understand that they have nothing to offer but themselves – those who bow at His feet and worship Him. Jesus, my only hope is you. Jesus said it this way one day when He was out on a mountainside with the crowds gathered around, no doubt many shepherds among them, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What is the poor in spirit? Blessed are the spiritually destitute, the lowly, those who realize they have nothing and have need of all things, for theirs, and theirs alone, is the kingdom of heaven. That is the story of Christmas – that Jesus came to save the needy, the lowly – to give gifts to those who would accept them.
So, for just a few moments, let’s take a closer look at that story to see three gifts Jesus came to give.
Look at it again with me. “In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened.” Literally, they feared a great fear. Stop right there. These shepherds were terrified.
You say, wait just a minute. This was Christmas. These were the first people on the planet to celebrate Christmas. And they were terrified? What do you think of when you think of Christmas? The tree, lights, Jesus, Santa, gifts, snow, but…terror? Terror and Christmas just don’t go together. And yet, that’s exactly what these shepherds experienced that first Christmas. Outside of Joseph and Mary, these were the first to know Christmas, and it scared them to death.
Why? Well, here’s the scene. It was night – and the shepherds were out keeping watch over their flocks. Earlier in the evening, they had led their sheep into the sheepfold. We don’t know if it was a permanent sheepfold, made of stone walls with thorn bushes on the top to keep out lions and jackals and bears. Or whether it was a more temporary structure – maybe just an outcropping of rocks, around which the shepherds would sleep that night.
Either way, when the sheep were safe for the night, the shepherds had no doubt kindled a fire, and reached into their leather scrips hanging on their shoulders for a crude meal of bread and wine. After an evening sharing stories about sheep and exploits long past, they all settled down to sleep on the uneven ground, surrounded by their wool mantles.
All but one would sleep – the watchman would stay awake, perhaps pacing back and forth by the gate to the sheepfold – listening, watching, waiting, protecting, until his watch was over and it was his time to sleep. Listen to the words of Paul Brand from his book, Jesus, Meet Him Again…for the First Time:
“He [the watchman – the shepherd on duty] had heard, or rather felt, the silence that surrounded him many times before. But this time was different. This seemed to be the silence of expectancy, as if all nature were holding its breath and every ear were turned upward in anticipation, waiting for a word—the Word—for which all creation had waited since the dawn of time. A chill ran through his body. He had the uncanny feeling he was not alone. Though he was no coward, he shuddered at the thought of an unseen enemy stalking him in the darkness. Instinctively backing toward the fire and the company of his friends, he suddenly cried out in terror, for there before him, in a place occupied by nothing more than a rocky outcropping only a moment earlier, stood a man—but such a man!”
You see, suddenly before him, an angel of the Lord appeared. Now, how did these shepherds know it was an angel? Was he dressed in white? Did he have wings? A halo? A harp? The text doesn’t say. An angel was simply a messenger from God.
But notice also, when the angel of the Lord stood before them, the glory of the Lord shone around them – that is, the shepherds. There was no electricity, there were no flood lights to explain this phenomenon – as if anything man-made could explain the glory of God anyway. The glory of the Lord, the evidence of His presence that caused Old Testament saints to quake with fear, suddenly shone around them. And they were terrified. Of course, they were.
Who wouldn’t be terrified at the visible glory of God? Anyone with any common sense would tremble. It’s not like those angel shows and movies we see on television. There, angels are treated with familiarity or contempt, sometimes with wonder. But this was a being from the very presence of God surrounded with the glory of God and with a message from God, and it brought great fear. How could men, lowly shepherds, stand before God or even an angel of God? And yet, listen to what the angel said to these shepherds: (Read 2:10-12).
That’s good news, isn’t it? Don’t be afraid – you don’t have to be terrified at Christmas. And you say, “News Flash, Scott, none of us are.” But why? Is it because your family is here for the holidays? Is it because you’re off work or out of school? Is it because of the presents under the tree? Is that it? No.
It’s because the angel brought good news. And that’s the first gift I want to unwrap for you this morning – I bring you good news – the word is euangelizo – gospel – I bring you the good news of the gospel. Today, on that first Christmas, in the city of David there was born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. The good news – the gospel – is that Jesus was born on Christmas – and He was Emmanuel, God with us, and He was named Jesus because He would save His people from their sins. So, the first gift to unwrap is the truth that a Savior came so that you can know the forgiveness of sin. That is, unless you’re like the religious and think you have no sin – you’ve made it on the good list. I have some bad news for you, you haven’t. But that’s actually good news, because there is a remedy – a rescue.
The second gift is in that same verse – I bring you good news of great joy. Joy. We can experience the joy of Christmas. Why? Because we can actually avoid the terror of coming face to face with God wrapped in sin, because of a baby wrapped in strips of cloth, and lying in a manger. With the knowledge of sins forgiven, we can stand before God clean, clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and with great joy.
And you know what? It goes beyond that. Not only can we have joy, the third gift is this: we can have peace. After this one angel spoke, a whole multitude of the heavenly host – that means an angelic army – began praising God, and this is what they said, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”
Not only do we not have to experience terror like they did on that first Christmas, not only can we experience joy, we can also know peace. Real peace. What did they mean by peace? No wars? No fighting? No quarreling in your homes? Apparently not. No – the peace of God is much more than just an absence of conflict. By this, the angelic choir spoke of the Savior saving us from our sin and therefore reconciling us to God. Making us to be at peace with God. Paul said it this way in Romans 5:1, “Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…” It is through our faith in Jesus Christ – this baby who was born who would die for the sins of humanity – that we can have peace with God.
From terror to joy. From terror to peace. Notice, the angel said that joy was for all people – the multitude of the heavenly host spoke of peace on earth to men. The idea is that anyone and everyone can know joy; anyone and everyone can know peace. It wasn’t just for the shepherds. It wasn’t just for the Jews. And it isn’t just the momentary joy that comes at Christmas and is gone when the bills come due. It’s for all people for all time. It’s for anyone and everyone who understands and accepts by faith that Jesus came to be the Savior of the world – that Jesus came to be your Savior.
That is the true Christmas story – that we need not fear a great fear at the thought of standing before God. Because through the birth of Jesus, the Christ, we can know the gift of grace – the gift of eternal life. And in that, we rejoice. My hope is that this Christmas, today, above all else, we rejoice together that Jesus the Christ came as a lowly babe in a manger. Born to low class parents. Revealed to lowly shepherds. Revealed to lowly people, like us. And we, like Paul, can exclaim, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift.”