Second Reformed Church

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

"The Faith of the Shepherds" Sermon: Luke 2:1-20

“The Faith of the Shepherds”

[Luke 2:1-20]

December 24, 2013 Second Reformed Church

            “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’ (Luke 2:8-14, ESV).

            I have a friend who is from Scotland, and he has shown me pictures of his homeland, including some of shepherds – guiding their sheep in beautiful pastures – very relaxing and pastoral.  Some of you may think of shepherds like that…but the shepherds we read about in the Gospel of Luke did not live in twenty-first century Scotland…

            God called Abraham to be the father of God’s people, and Abraham was a shepherd.  In the early years of Israel, they were a nomadic people and they were largely shepherds.  It was a position of esteem – providing food and sacrifices.

            However, once the people were in Egypt, they found themselves among an agricultural culture and people, who looked down on shepherds, because the sheep and the goats ate the crops, and the Egyptians did not consider sheep worthy to be sacrificed to their gods.

            After four hundred years in Egypt, Israel also adopted the view that shepherds were the lowest of the low – on the level of tax collectors and waste collectors – that was the view that was in place in first century Israel – shepherds were dirty bums, untrustworthy, people you wanted to stay away from. 

            It was assumed that shepherds were thieves – you didn’t buy things from them – they were dirty, uneducated, and underpaid.  They were also afforded no civil rights – shepherds were not allowed to hold public office or to be witnesses in court.

            Given this to be true, we might wonder why in the world God gave the Good News to the shepherds.  Why did they receive the revelation of the birth of Jesus?  Why were they the primary people to whom God revealed the birth of the Son of God – the Savior?  Why didn’t God reveal the Incarnation to the kings and prophets and priests of the land – people who would have been believed?

            As we review the text in Luke, one thing stands out to us:  the shepherds received the Word of God by faith – and we see this in at least six ways:

            First, the shepherds received the Word of God by faith in that they immediately went to Bethlehem: “When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened,” (Luke 2:15a, ESV).

            The shepherds heard the Word of God given by the angels that the Savior had been born in Bethlehem, and they received it by faith, and they went immediately to Bethlehem.  They didn’t debate the meaning of what the angels said.  They didn’t discuss whether it was true or not.  They didn’t think about the meaning of the words that were spoken.  They didn’t seek out officials to justify their faith in what they had heard.  They heard the Word of God by faith and any thought of who they were in the hierarchy of society was left behind, and they went immediately to Bethlehem.

            Would we have immediately left our work – our lives – and gone?  Perhaps we are thinking that it would never happen to us – we are too insignificant, but shepherds were the bottom of the barrel!  Surely, each one of us has or can be called up for jury duty – they could not, because they were so low in society.  Are we so quick to heard the Word of God and receive it by faith and go?  If we read or hear read or preached something from God’s Word, would we receive it by faith and go – willing to leave everything behind and not worry about ourselves or our previous understandings or our feelings, but just go, because God has spoken?

            Second, the shepherds received the Word of God by faith and confessed that the Lord God had revealed the Good News to them:  “which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:15b).

            They shepherds immediately recognized that what the angels were telling them was the Word of God Himself.  Even in their low station, they knew the Word of God well enough that when it was spoken; they knew it was none other than the Word of God Himself.

            Do we recognize the Word of God?  Do we recognize when something has been read or preached from the Bible?  Do we know that it is the Word of the One Holy God, Who cannot change; the Only One Who can make us right with God and save us from His Wrath?  Or do we debate it?  Do we argue that these are modern times and we can’t believe God’s Word?  Do we argue that the Word of God must change for changing times?  Do we have more faith in Social Security than in the Word of God?

            Third, the shepherds received the Word of God by faith and went quickly:  “And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger” (Luke 2:16, ESV).

            They shepherds heard the Word of God and received it by faith and they left immediately and they went quickly!  They ran to the stable door.  They were so excited that the Savior had come that they ran and burst in to see – they had to see!  God has come to earth!

            The holidays can be a great time – having family around, but not everyone believes, and some families are fractured.  Presents are nice – especially books – but they don’t last eternity.  There’s a lot of traffic this time of year – what are we running to?  Have we found Something – like the shepherds – that is Eternal – exciting to the point of everlasting joy?  Are we afraid to say, “Merry Christmas!”?  Is He enough for us to run to?

            Fourth, the shepherds received the Word of God by faith and they testified to what had happened.  “And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child” (Luke 2:17, ESV).

            Can we imagine the scene?  Mary has given birth.  Joseph is with her, comforting her, and rejoicing in the birth of their Son, the One Who is called, “God with us.”  All of a sudden, the door flies open and these shepherds – these dirty, sheep-smelling guys, burst into the room – we have no idea how many there were.

            “This is Him!  This is the One the angels told us about!  We were in the fields, watching over our flocks – protecting them – and suddenly, the sky burst open, and the Glory of the Lord God shown down on us – we fell to the ground in fear – God had come into the presence of we humble shepherds!   But then, an angel told us not to be afraid – God was not coming to strike us down, but to reveal the arrival of the Savior to us, of all people.  He told us that the Baby had been born – God had come to earth in the person of a baby – your Son – the joy of all peoples.  He told us that the Savior had been born in Bethlehem – the Savior, the Christ, the Lord – our God – and he gave us the sign that He would be here – in a manger – in swaddling cloths.  Look!  The Savior has been born!  And we dropped everything and ran here, because we had to see – the Savior – the Savior – and the angel was joined with a great multitude, praising God for His Gift of the Savior.  And here we are.”

            The shepherds must have been about to burst – have you experienced that immense joy – where you could do nothing less than tell someone?  Have you ever just had to tell someone that Jesus has come – the Savior has come – there is hope for all those who believe in Jesus!?

            I fear that we don’t think we have the right words to say – that we won’t be convincing enough – that we’ll get ourselves into a conversation we won’t know all the answers to.  Perhaps you feel like a first century shepherd.  You know, those guys who ran to the manger and told what they had heard to Mary and Joseph.  Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will bring to our remembrance the Word that we have heard – that we would tell what we know and have heard.

            Fifth, the shepherds received the Word of God by faith and they were believed by the people they told.  “And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:18-19, ESV).

            The shepherds told Mary and Joseph – and they told everybody else.  We’re not told who the people are that they told, but we can imagine that with such great news, they told everyone they came in contact with – certainly on the way back from Bethlehem and from that day forth.  What they heard and believed by faith had a life-changing impact on them – as it does on all believers – does it not?

            We’re told that all those who heard the shepherds’ story “wondered.”  Did you ever wonder what that means?  Did the people hear the story and wonder what the shepherds had been drinking?  Did the people hear the story and wonder if the shepherds had been out in the fields too long?  The word means that they were amazed – they were filled with awe – the people who heard the Word of God related by the shepherds received it and were filled with awe – they couldn’t believe it – the Promise had come – salvation was being made for all those who would believe – the Evangel had come – the Good News had come – the Savior had come.  Amazing – worthy is our God to be worshipped!

            A willing heart that hears the Good News of Jesus Christ will be filled with awe – it will be led to worship.  Let’s not close our mouths when someone rolls their eyes or looks at us like we have finally gone over the edge.  Have you ever had the privilege of talking with someone about Jesus and seeing the Glory of God in their eyes as their heart receives Him by faith and rejoices?

            We’re told that Mary “pondered” what the shepherds said.  Have you ever pondered what that might mean?  Of course she did not doubt their message – she had received the Word of God by faith and believed and humbly received the Work of the Holy Spirit in her that she would bear the Son of God.  Here, what we are being told is that she preserved what the shepherds said in her mind – she memorized their account of the angels’ visit and announcement.   What an amazing story she had to tell Jesus as He grew up – the creatures of Heaven announced His Birth and revealed it to shepherds who came and visited Him as a baby.

            Sixth, the shepherds received the Word of God by faith and gave thanks and praised God.  “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20, ESV).

            The shepherds received the Word of God by faith, they went to see the Baby, they told others about His Birth and they thanked God for revealing His birth to them – the lowest people of society – that they would be the first to know that God the Savior had come.  They praised God as worthy of all praise for His faithfulness in keeping His promise to send a Savior for all those who would believe.  They glorified God – telling all those they came in contact with about God and what He had done – revealing God for Who He is and praising Him for being God.

            And what about us this Christmas Eve?  Are we thanking and praising and glorifying God for Who He is and what He has done?  Are we unafraid to pray and to proclaim that Christ the Savior has come?  God is faithful.  God is merciful.  God is gracious.  God is good.  God is loving.  God is truthful.  God keeps His promises.

            But we still haven’t answered the question, have we?  Why did God reveal the birth of Jesus to shepherds – to people who would have been hard-pressed to find others that would believe them – especially anyone who mattered?  Wouldn’t it have made more sense for God to tell the kings and priests and prophets and have them come?  Wouldn’t the word have spread and been believed more readily if God had chosen someone important to reveal this Good News to?

            Paul gives us some insight into why as he writes:

            “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’  Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (I Corinthians 1:18-25, ESV).

            One reason that God revealed this message to the shepherds is that God wanted to put down the wisdom of humanity.  God wanted to show that salvation is by the wisdom of God and not by the wisdom of humans.  God wanted to reveal Himself in a way that would make no sense unless it was received by faith.

            And, if we’re thinking, “Well, wasn’t that a bad plan?  Wouldn’t God have achieved more by appealing to the wisdom of humans – by bringing His Son and Salvation into the world through a way that humans could naturally understand?”

            And there we prove Paul’s point:  the Incarnation is not the way that humans would naturally think would be the best way to make ourselves right with God, but God knew it was the best way – the only way – that would be acceptable – possible – in His Sight.

            Paul continues with more insight on this:

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (I Corinthians 1:26-31, ESV).

Another reason God revealed the Good News of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds is the same reason that God uses people like me – and you – God wanted it to be obvious that the message and the Salvation came from God and not from the shepherds – or us.  God wanted to receive all praise for the Incarnation and for Salvation, and God accomplishes that by usually using people that are small in the world’s eyes.

Paul writes, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you” (II Corinthians 4:7-12, ESV).

Just one point here, which we’ve noted before – it’s easier to find a specific diamond in a litter box than in a box of diamonds.  And so God uses people in whom the Gospel will be easier to see.  If the king of Israel brought the angels’ message to Mary and Joseph, it would have been obscured by the king being there, but it shown brightly coming from the shepherds.

So, if you believe you are inadequate to tell others the Gospel – for whatever reason – very good!  Tell others, and it will be easier to see.

And if you have not believed the Gospel because of the sins of the Church or individual Christians or because you don’t want to be associated with shepherds and other losers like me – look beyond the messenger to the message.  Consider if you are right with God, and if not, what you might do to be worthy of God’s acceptance.  And if you understand that the answer is nothing – you can do nothing to make yourself right with God, hear the message again – that on that first Christmas, God began to fulfill His Promise to provide salvation for all those who will believe through a savior – through Jesus, the Son of Mary, the Son of God.

As Calvin wrote, “If then we desire to come to Christ, let us not be ashamed to follow those whom the Lord, in order to cast down the pride of the world, has taken, from among the dung of cattle, to be our instructors” (Calvin’s Commentaries, Luke 2:8).

            Brothers and sisters, God has sent His Son, Jesus, to be the Promised Savior.  Receive the Word of God by faith, immediately and quickly come to Him in your heart, confess that this is the Word of God, and then tell others, and thank and praise and glorify God.

            Let us pray:

            Almighty God, we thank You for the faith of the shepherds.  We thank You for revealing the birth of Jesus to them.  We ask that we would not be ashamed of them for their low station in society, and that we would not be ashamed of our natural abilities, but seek to tell others what we have received – what we have believed – that they, too, might come to faith in the Only Savior.  And may we be quick to give voice to You in thanks and praise and by glorifying You.  For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen. 

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