Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ December 25, 2011 ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’
13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’
16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Nearby there were shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. This is the very first thing Luke tells us in his Gospel after he announces the birth of the Christ child. It’s what we expect to hear next. We’ve heard it so many times. It’s just part of the Christmas story. The baby is born; immediately the angels go announce it to the shepherds.
The shock that Luke’s original audience would have felt over this segue has been completely lost on us. They would have wondered, why would anybody take the spotlight off of the incarnation of the holy and righteous Son of the Living God and move it, even for a moment, to a bunch of shepherds?
You see, in contrast to our modern, pastoral, positive images of shepherds, these sorts of men were despised by the orthodox good people in those days who considered them to be generally untrustworthy and uniformly impure. Because of the dirty nature of their work, it was nearly impossible for shepherds to keep themselves ceremonially clean. In other words, they weren’t welcome at church. And because these men had to be so subservient to their lowly sheep, most people looked down on them. They were common, ordinary rabble. Nope, nothing particularly pleasant or exceptional about a shepherd.
You might say, in fact, that the life of a shepherd in those days was characterized by one thing and one thing alone. Shepherds spent their entire lives waiting.
What did shepherds do all day and all night? They waited. Waited for the sheep to finish grazing. Waited for predators or thieves to show up. Waited for the sun to finally rise on the horizon and cut the night chill.
On top of that, what did shepherds do their whole lives? They waited. Waited to be trusted and accepted by the rest of society. Waited to be included. Waited to be made clean. Waited to be seen as people favored by God.
It’s interesting to me that when God sends out the very first announcement of the birth of the Messiah he sends it out to a group of people whose lives are characterized by waiting.
Now, when God comes to shepherds, it’s not subtle. Luke tells us that all at once that night an angel from heaven appears and stands among these men. Immediately, the glory of the Lord blazed all around them. Naturally, the shepherds were terrified. But right away the angel comforts them, “Don’t be afraid,” the angel says. “I’ve come with good news. I’ve come to announce that a great and joyful event has just occurred, an event that is meant for everybody. It’s even meant for people like you. This very night, nearby in the town ofBethlehem, a Savior has been born, a Savior who is both Messiah and Master.”
“If you don’t believe me,” the angel went on, “then I invite you to go and see for yourselves. Go toBethlehemthis very hour. Go, and you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a feeding trough. That is the one of whom I speak.”
Then, all at once, the angel is joined by a whole choir of other angels who praised God, saying, “Glory to God in the heavenly heights. Peace to all men and women on whom his favor rests.”
Well, immediately the shepherds did exactly what you and I would probably do. They dropped everything and rushed off toBethlehemto find the baby. As they went, however, what do you think they expected to find when they got there? Have you ever thought about that? Other than a baby in a feeding tough, what do you think they expected to find? Do you think they expected to find what it was they found?
And Mary, doesn’t she look exactly like a woman who has just gone through labor. Isn’t that how all you mom’s out there looked immediately after you’d given birth? Hair perfectly in place. Cheeks flushed with a beautiful pink hue. Perfectly comfortable as she squats in the hay.Contemporary portrayals of the nativity scene typically mislead us. In fact, I bet you received at least one nativity scene Christmas card this season like this one. The stable is clean and well-lit, just like we might expect a 1st century Palestinian stable to look. And it’s well-lit because the baby Jesus is, apparently, radioactive. He’s glowing like a campfire as Mary and Joseph wrap him up in, what appears to be, a spare tablecloth. The animals, of course, are fully aware of what is taking place. In each case, their eyes are transfixed on the child. The camel even got all dressed up in his holiday best.
Of course not. This, like most contemporary artistic portrayals of that night, is woefully inaccurate. The only accurate thing in the whole image is Joseph. There he is doing what every other man would naturally do, unselfishly and tenderly caring for his beautiful bride and infant son.
If the shepherds had come across this scene, there would have been no doubts. “This must be the place! That must be the Savior! Look at how the animals adore him! Look at his mother, she’s like an angel come down from heaven! Look at the shine off that baby.”
This may have been what they expected. This is not what they found. (take picture away) If you’ve ever been in a third-world stable, you know what they found. They found a dark, dirty shelter that reeked of animals waste. If you’ve ever watched childbirth, you know what they found. They found an exhausted mother, a bewildered father, and a very helpless and ordinary looking newborn. No halos. No glow. No adoring donkeys. No angels singing. The only thing that would have even tipped them off that they were in the right place was the only thing the angel told them would tip them off – the baby was wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Other than that, the whole scene must have looked quite run of the mill.
In fact, I’m afraid that had I been one of the shepherds I would have looked in at that baby and said to myself, “This is it? This is the one who is going to save us? This is the great Messiah? This is the Lord? I’m not sure how good I feel about his chances.”
As we just read, however, that is not how the shepherds respond. How do these men respond to what they find? The text tells us that when they had seen the baby, they went and told everybody they could find what the angel had said about him. And they must have shared the news with such genuine enthusiasm for we’re told that everyone who heard the news was amazed. Then, Luke tells us, as the shepherds went back to their post in the fields, they went glorifying and praising God for all that they had just seen and heard.
To me, all this really is quite extraordinary. Because I find myself asking, “What, really, had changed for these guys?” Sure, they’d found the baby just like the angels said they would. But now, what was different?
Did the baby look all that special? No. Did Mary and Joseph look like the sorts of people you might expect to be parents to the Son of God? No. Because they had now met Jesus, were the lives of these shepherds really all that different now? No. They were still just as poor, just as despised, just as mistrusted as they had been the day before. And it’s not like they could just quit their jobs and go celebrate. We hear for ourselves, they had to go right back out into the cold dark night and watch those dumb, pathetic sheep just like before. They probably spent every night the rest of their lives out waiting in the cold with those sheep.
I ask again, what changed for these guys? What did they have now that they did not have before? Really, all they had was the promise of God delivered in a supernatural way. That’s all they had. Well, other than faith, of course. They had God’s promise and they had faith. Which was, apparently, enough.
To be honest, the more I study this story the less surprised I am that God made the first announcement of the Savior’s birth to these shepherds. Clearly, God knew the hearts of these men. These were men of faith. These were men God knew would receive the Word of the Lord and trust it simply because it was the Word of the Lord. That’s why God sent the angel their way, because God doesn’t waste his breath on people who aren’t going to believe what he tells them in the first place. God knew that the shepherds were going to believe what he told them. For some reason, God knew the shepherds would take him at his word.
Even so, I still have to wonder what it must have been like in the days that followed. We never hear about the shepherds again. This is their last scene in the movie. In fact, it’s safe to say that the shepherds didn’t even get to see the rest of the movie. It’s unlikely that they even heard about Jesus again. After all, Joseph and Mary were just passing through their neighborhood. Jesus never lived inBethlehem. He grew up 80 miles to the north inNazareth, a huge distance in those days. And it was a full thirty years before anybody in the region ofBethlehemwould hear anything else about Jesus again. Thirty years is a long time. When you’re doing the physically taxing work of a shepherd, thirty years is a lifetime.
Though they probably never heard whatever happened to the baby they met in the manger that night, we can safely assume that these shepherds kept on being shepherds. What else were they going to do? Which means that over the course of many years sitting night after night out in those same fields, there surely must have been some nights when they thought back on this one night and wondered, “Did that really happen? Did we really see an angel here in this field? Did the angel really tell us that the Messiah had come? Maybe we were dreaming. Maybe we imagined it. Maybe it was a pot of bad stew. At the time it seemed so real. At the time it seemed like such good news. But all these years later, here we are in the very same place. Still cold. Still poor. Still rejected. Still out here waiting in the dark.”
Do you ever feel that way? Are there times in your life when you feel like we imagine the shepherds must have felt? God, in Christ, has promised so much. And God’s promises came to us in such miraculous ways. God promised salvation. Resurrection. Healing. Boundless joy. Deep inner peace. Abundant life. Restored relationships. Freedom from guilt and shame. Victory over sin and addiction. A new creation. Living water to quench thirsty souls. Bread from heaven that satisfies hungry hearts. In Christ, God has promised all this to those who believe. God has promised his very presence. Emmanuel. God with us.
God has promised that all this came into the world when Christ, through his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection, ushered in theKingdomofHeaven. It’s supposed to already be here. The Kingdom is already here. So why is it that so much of the time it feels like we are still waiting? It’s already here but, at the same time, somehow not yet here?
Do you ever feel this way? My children feel this way today. You see, today is a hard day to be the pastor’s kid. In fact, a couple of weeks ago when my children realized that Christmas day fell on a Sunday this year, let’s just say that they were less than enthusiastic. Honestly, I can’t say I blame them.
You see, normally on Christmas day at this time my kids, like your kids, would have already had an opportunity to enjoy their Christmas presents. By this time of the morning they would already have put on new clothes, tossed around a new football, tried out a new video game.
Not today. You see, my kids have a dad who has some important engagements all morning when Christmas falls on a Sunday. That means that our family will be opening presents this afternoon. It’s just tradition. Nobody opens presents until everybody is there to open presents.
So, you want to know where my kids’ Christmas presents are right now? They’re right here. I brought them with me early this morning, just to be safe. Presents for all four of my children are right here. I would have brought Esther’s along too but it was too hard to squeeze a new ironing board in my little car. Won’t she be surprised!
We all can imagine what it’s like to know that Christmas Day has come and there are promised gifts under the tree, gifts you can even see, and hold, and shake, but you can’t fully enjoy quite yet. Sure, the anticipation is fun for awhile, but eventually you get tired of waiting.
Is this not the Christian faith? It’s Christmas morning, and we have all these gifts that God has promised us. Life. Joy. Peace. Righteousness. Harmony. Are these gifts you are fully enjoying in your life right now? If we are honest, many of us have to say no, not fully. We celebrate the fact that the Messiah has already come into our world, and rightly so. We’ve tasted life, and joy, and peace, and the rest. And yet, at the same time, don’t we find ourselves still wanting more? Waiting, and watching, and longing, and hoping.
God, in Christ, has promised us the gift of truth. Truth about ourselves, about our lives, about our futures, about our God. And we do already possess a great deal of truth. We hold the gift in our hands. And yet we haven’t been able to fully tear it open. There is still so much that we don’t understand, so much that we can’t understand.
God, in Christ, has promised us the gift healing. And many of us, in Christ, have already experienced healing. Healing in our hearts, our minds, even our bodies. And yet, many of us are still sick. All of us are getting older and will, in time, get weaker and sicker. All of us eventually will die.
God, in Christ, has promised us victory over sin. And many of us have, in Christ, experienced deep grace in our lives. We know we are forgiven. And yet we still wrestle mightily with sin. Addictive and destructive behaviors and attitudes haunt us daily.
God, in Christ, has promised us himself. And many of us, by the Spirit of Christ, experience Jesus in real ways and in real time. And yet, there are also times when Jesus seems distant, or silent, even absent.
All these gifts and more are under the tree. We’ve been able to tear the paper at the corners of some of them and peek inside. Just knowing that they are there is, in itself, wonderful. The anticipation of receiving them fully brings great joy. Still, when will we be able to just rip them open?
Do you know what I pray for? I pray for faith. I pray for the faith of shepherds. Here were these men who trusted the Word of the Lord simply because it was the Word of the Lord. God told them that he had sent to the world a Savior, a Savior who had come for everybody, even them. God told them that peace had come to earth. God told them that his favor was resting upon them. God told them all this had already happened, and even through the helpless baby in the feeding trough gave the impression that, actually, none of this had yet happened, they still went home telling the news to anybody who would listen and glorifying and praising God that they had been included in it.
I pray for faith like that. Don’t you?
Writer Fredrick Buechner puts it this way. “Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. It is on-again-off-again, rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you’re going but going anyway.”
Faith, he goes on, is not something you can prove. “I have faith that my friend is my friend. It is possible that all his motives are ulterior. It is possible that what he is secretly drawn to is not me but my wife or my money. But there’s something about the way I feel when he’s around, about the way he looks me in the eye, about the way we can talk to each other without pretense and be silent together without embarrassment, that makes me willing to put my life in his hands as I do each time I call him friend…Almost nothing that makes any real difference can be proved.”
The writer of Hebrews encourages us in Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not [yet] see.”
Paul, in First Corinthians 13, put it like this, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; [but] then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” For Paul, holding on to this confidence was the essence of faith.
This sort of faith has always been required by God’s people. It’s why they have been called people of faith.
God promised Abraham, “I know your wife is as old as the hills, but I am going to conceive in her womb an entire nation.”
God promised Noah, “I know the forecast calls for sunshine, but you better build a boat because I am going to rain on this earth for 40 days.”
God promised Moses, “I know you can’t even talk in complete sentences, but I will speak words though you that are going to free an entire nation.”
God promised David, “I know that Philistine soldier is one big dude, but you are going to cut off his head today.”
God promised Peter and his fishing buddies, “I know you only know how to catch net-fulls of perch and bass, but I am going to use you to catch a kingdom full of people.”
God promised Paul, “I know you have spent your life trying to shut down message, but I am going to use you to promote my message across the world.”
And God promised the shepherds, “I know he just looks like a helpless infant, but trust me, he is the Savior of the world. He is the Messiah. That little baby is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.”
Christmas morning is here. We’ve waited and it has come. And I believe that on this morning, God is saying to us, “I know that life, in so many ways, continues to be difficult. I know sometimes I am hard to hear, hard to find, hard to understand. I know sometimes it is nearly impossible to sing Joy to the World in church when your heart is so heavy. I know the pain right now seems more than you can bear. I know your sin seems too great for anybody to forgive. I know you have no idea what tomorrow will bring. I know that so much of what I have promised is not yet come to pass. I know. I know all this and a whole lot more.”
“But,” God says to us, in Christ, “have faith. Like Mary, treasure these promises of mine. Ponder this Word of mine in your heart. Have faith because I, your God, am faithful. I will bring all things to pass. In time you will experience the fullness of joy, and depth of peace, and the eternity of life. Have faith, and you can know that my favor truly does rest on you today. Have faith, healing will be yours. Have faith. In spite of the way things seem to be, have faith.”
Brothers and sisters, though we have not yet seen it in all its fullness, theKingdomofHeaventruly has come into our world. The gift of God has already been given, the Savior of the world all wrapped up and lying in a manger. May we, like the shepherds of old, return home today, glorifying and praising God for all that we have seen and all that we have heard.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
~ Did Christmas fulfill all your expectations this year? Why or why not?
~ Read Luke 2:8-20 again. What strikes you here?
~ Of all the people to which God could have sent the angel, why do you think God chose shepherds?
~ After all this happened, Luke tells us that, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” What do you think that means? (By the way, how do you think Luke knew what Mary treasured in her heart?)
~ Do you believe that God will eventually do everything that God has promised in his Word that he will do? If so, how do you know?
~ What promise are you most longing for God to fulfill?
~ Author Fredrick Buechner writes, “Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. It is on-again-off-again, rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you’re going but going anyway.” What do you think this means? Do you agree?
~ How would you describe your faith these days? Are you a person of great faith or a person of little faith?
~ How are you finding it hard to have faith these days? Which part of God’s Word are you finding it hard to trust? How can others pray for you in this respect?
Further Scripture Readings for the Week:
Monday: Hebrews 11:1-40 – The Hall of Faith
Tuesday: Hebrews 12:1-13 – Eyes fixed on Jesus
Wednesday: Romans 13:8-14 – The day is near!
Thursday: Matthew 11:25-30 – Rest for the weary
Friday: Psalm 145 – The Lord is faithful
Saturday : Philippians 3:12-4:1 – Press on!