A Call to Witness
Shepherds, Advent, Christmas, Luke 2
As most of you know, La Harpe put on a fireworks display on the 4th of July the last two years. I was eager to see what the La Harpe fireworks show would look like. When they started to explode in the air I smiled. There was a slight pause and I honestly thought the show was over, but then it resumed. This happened several times! It was one of the best shows I have ever seen! It was amazing.
As great as that show was, what the Shepherds saw in the field on the night Jesus was born, made that fireworks display seem like one of those party poppers where you pull the string and streamers shoot out. The night Jesus was born was a night like no other.
At that moment, all of history seemed to converge on the little town of Bethlehem. The scholars knew that the Bible said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. However, Mary and Joseph did not go to Bethlehem to fulfill the prophecy. They went because Caesar Augustus required them to go so that a census could be taken so the tax rolls could be updated. What looked like the power of man making someone do what they did not want to do, was God moving the chess pieces of history to bring about the salvation He had promised in the very way He said it would happen. The details are important.
Let me pause here and suggest that God is still working in the events of history and in the events of your life to bring about His purposes. Don’t despair because of the circumstances of your life! Continue to trust that God is at work.
The coming of Christ was not the way we would have done things. We would have had Him come in power and with great fanfare. Instead God chose to bring Him into the world as a baby to a young unknown couple who wasn’t even married. He ws born in a stable and the first announcement is made, to of all people, SHEPHERDS. They were considered low in class and untrustworthy in character. They were “unclean” for worship. Why would God announce the birth of the Redeemer to them?
I think God did it this way because God knew there were going to be people like you and me who could relate more to the Shepherds than we could to the Magi. Many of us feel cast off by the world. We feel unclean and often forgotten or overlooked. By coming to the shepherds the Lord announces to us and anyone else who will listen: I CAME FOR PEOPLE LIKE YOU!
The Call to the Shepherds
We are not told how many shepherds were involved in the appearance of the angels. These guys were doing their job, caring for their flock, when an angel appeared and “the Lord’s glory surrounded them.” Did they see the angel or only light? We don’t know.
The Shepherds were terrified, which was the common reaction to the appearance of an angel or some other manifestation of God’s presence. The angels surprised them (which causes fear). They knew they were overmatched and had no way to defend themselves. Fear is a reaction to the holiness of God. God is pure and unstained by sin. He is also Light in the world. Anytime we are near brilliant light our dirt, called sin, is exposed.
The Shepherds were afraid, the angel addressed this immediately,
“Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)
The Shepherds were told that the angel was bringing good news . . . not just for the Shepherds but for everyone. The angel explains that the Messiah had been born and then tells them where He is! Then note the next words, “And you will recognize him . . .“ What is implied in these words? They were supposed to go and find this child! They were called to witness the truth of what had happened.
The angels did not simply announce the birth of the Messiah, they invited the Shepherds to come and testify to the truthfulness of what was being said.
The Response of the Shepherds
15 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. 17 After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. 18 All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, 19 but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. 20 The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them.
Notice two things that the Shepherds did. First, they went to Bethlehem to witness the birth of the Messiah. They found Mary, Joseph and the baby. We can only imagine what took place in this meeting. I suspect the Shepherds somewhat tentatively entered the stable. Then I imagine them telling the story of the angels to Mary and Joseph. Did they ask to hold the baby? Did they bow in worship? Did they weep with joy? We just don’t know.
What we do know is the second thing that they did: they told everyone they saw about what had happened. In effect, they were the very first missionaries!
Imagine the responses they got in return. Shepherds were not the most socially acceptable people to start with. Imagine someone (anyone) running up to you and saying, “the Messiah is born! An angel told us to come and see him and another group of angels praised God.” Be honest, you would think these men had to be crazy or high. We would likely dismiss that person as quickly as we could. This resistance would just multiply with the Shepherds.
They may not have been received warmly but it didn’t stop them from sharing the news. Great news and transforming news is meant to be shared with others. It is too good to keep to yourself. Tim Keller wrote,
In 1961 the Russians put the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin. Nikita Khrushchev was the Russian premier, and he said that when Gagarin went into space, the cosmonaut discovered that there was no God there. In response, C. S. Lewis wrote an article, “The Seeing Eye.” Lewis said if there is a God who created us, we could not discover him by going up into the air. God would not relate to human beings the way a man on the second floor relates to a man on the first floor. He would relate to us the way Shakespeare relates to Hamlet. Shakespeare is the creator of Hamlet’s world and of Hamlet himself. Hamlet can know about Shakespeare only if the author reveals information about himself in the play. So too the only way to know about God is if God has revealed himself. The claim of Christmas is infinitely more wonderful than that. God did not merely write us “information” about himself; he wrote himself into the drama of history. He came into our world as Jesus Christ to save us, to die for us.
This is the message of the gospel – God has come in person to rescue His creation. He has come in person to rescue you, me, and anyone else who will turn to Him. This is good news! It is the best news! It is news we can’t keep to ourselves.
What We Learn from the Shepherds
The story of the angel appearing to the Shepherds is a great story, another plot twist in the story of the birth of Christ. Let’s look at some of the things we can learn from the Shepherds.
The message of the gospel is for everyone. The social state of the Shepherds reminds us that God does not treat people differently, He sees all people as equally valuable. I think God uses surprising people because anyone who seemed good and successful would think they were being used because they were good or had somehow earned the privilege.
Here is the good news: if the good news of forgiveness and new life is available for everyone, then it is also available for you! Please hear this! There is a tendency for us to say that Christ died for the world and yet somehow we feel that we are excluded because of some preexisting condition! He died for your sin. He came to heal your life. He came to give you a new heart!
Before we can witness effectively we must see and experience Christ firsthand. The shepherds could not tell anyone about Jesus until they had personally encountered Him. It would be like me teaching home repair by telling you what I read in a book.
The Shepherds could have talked about the angels and their experience in the field but they could not share the life-changing message of forgiveness and new life until they had met Jesus personally. And neither can we.
Until you personally come the point of trusting Christ, until you are convicted about your own sin and turn to Him to forgive that sin and begin the process of changing your heart, your “witness” will only be historical facts rather than a personal eyewitness testimony.
Some believers don’t want to talk about their faith because they are afraid they can’t answer the objections that others have raised or might raise. Please understand something, the Lord is asking us to share what WE have learned about Christ in our own life. He is asking us to give firsthand testimony of the power of God to change a life. You don’t have to have all the answers. You can always say, “That’s a really good question. Let me ask some people who might have a good answer for you.
Do you remember the story of the man who was born blind? Jesus healed the man. The religious officials kept questioning the man about Jesus. The man kept saying the same thing: “this is what I know for sure, I was blind, and now I see.” That’s a clear and simple testimony!
When I sang in the college choir we took turns giving our testimony during our concerts when we were on tour. We lost focus and we began to preach more than testify (I was also guilty of this). Our Director said: Look, tell your story! Get up and talk about where you were before you had a relationship with Jesus; then tell what happened to bring you to a point of decision; and then how your life has changed because of that. Doc was a wise guy. It is great advice. Share what you KNOW is true from your own experience. Of course, you have nothing to share if your faith is purely academic.
The only way to find peace is to turn to Jesus. The angels said in a grand chorus,
““Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” (v.14)
Peace means the end of discord and warfare. The Bible tells us the most important peace is peace with God. It is the foundation of all other peace.
The problem we have is: the human heart does not want to submit to Christ’s rule in our lives. WE want to be in charge. We want to be King. And so, our kingdom and the Lord’s kingdom conflict with each other. We believe the only way we can be happy is if we are in complete control of our lives and our circumstances. This not only creates conflict with God . . . it also creates conflict with others who are also trying to be “king of over all things”. We cannot have peace in our world until we know peace with God. Or to put it another way, we cannot have peace until we acknowledge that Jesus alone is Lord.
Did you ever play “King of the Mountain” when you were a child? You find some hill and fight to stand alone on top of the hill where you would have to fend off all the other people who wanted to throw you down. It was a game that continued until exhaustion. You may never have played the game when you were a child but I am willing to be you have played it as an adult.
We see other people as competitors. We see them as obstacles to our goal; just like they view us. We not only want to control our own lives, we want to control the lives of others. This provokes conflict. This attitude often leads to us feeling we are not getting “our share” and therefore we strike out.
We find peace when we allow Jesus to be King of the Mountain of our lives. Then we can rest in His rule and provision and view each other as brothers rather than combatants.
Not everyone who hears will respond . . . but our job is not to control results, it is to share the good news. The Shepherds told everyone they met about their experience with the baby who came from Heaven. I am sure many people looked at them as if they had too much wine or were just crazy. It’s an incredible story but some people will not believe.
There are two things to remember. First, the disciples went back to work rejoicing and glorifying God. They did make their enjoyment of the good news dependent on how other people responded.
If you were privileged to become a parent you likely told everybody about your blessing. You may have even assaulted them with pictures. You may have burst with joy to total strangers. And your joy was not contingent on the response of others. Your joy was centered in the fact that you now had a son or a daughter. No one could take that from you or dampen your enthusiasm.
It is same way with the gospel. Our joy is not in the approval or the response of others. Our joy is anchored to the reality that God became man to rescue us. We share the good news because it is good news. Whether people respond to that good news positively does not change how good the news is.
Second, you never know what impact you are having. The apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth,
Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. 6 I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. 7 It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose. And both will be rewarded for their own hard work. (1 Corinthians 3:5-8)
When I was growing up my parents made me go to Sunday School every week. We had a team of old ladies who had never married (I don’t remember them in anything but gray hair). They taught year after year in Sunday School. I know I didn’t give them much reason to think they were getting through to me. But they were laying a foundation on which others built. And then one day all the pieces came together and the Lord awakened me to His love and His grace. God is going to reward those women for their faithfulness and I hope God shows them that their labor was not for nothing. I am here today in part because of these faithful women.
You may not receive an enthusiastic response, but then, neither did Jesus. You might even face hostility. Most of the disciples faced hostility. However, your faithfulness in telling others about Jesus is sowing seed. Some of it God will cause to take root. You may not see this, but God uses the faithfulness of His children.
We may not be instructed by an angel but our Lord himself told us to “go into all the world and preach the gospel and make disciples of all men.” Let me encourage you to find ways to bring the story of Christmas back to Jesus and why He came. Start with your kids and your own family members. Remind them that the best gift of Christmas is the one God gave to us when Jesus came to earth.
Then reach beyond your family to co-workers, classmates and even people standing behind you in line in the store. You don’t have to explain the whole gospel message each time. Plant a seed. Point people to Jesus. Tell a little of your experience with the Christ who came to save us.
There is a big world out there that is heading to a very bad destination apart from Christ. Others are drowning in a sea of regret and guilt for the mistakes and sin of their lives. They need to hear that God loves them and has come to rescue them. They need to hear about forgiveness and how God made it possible. They need to be told where they can find the peace they so desperately long for.
The shepherds, like us, were just common guys. But, the common people are the very ones God most often uses to accomplish his work in the world.
 Keller, Timothy (2016-10-25). Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ (pp. 114-115). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.