The story of Christmas is filled with surprises. We have been looking at some of those surprises this Christmas season:
- A barren old couple who learn they are going to have a baby, not from their Doctor, but from an Angel in the temple.
- An unmarried woman learns she is going to become a mom in spite of the fact that she has never been with a man and will face all kind of ridicule.
- The fiancé of the woman who must decide whether to believe her incredible story of her pregnancy and raise this child as his own son.
- The businessman who is so busy he almost missed the birth of the long-awaited Messiah.
And tonight we look at the first visitors to the new baby, a group of ragtag shepherds.
What I hope we have seen during the course of these weeks of study is that God came into the world, not for the religious and pious. He came to reach the broken people; people like you and me. This is illustrated clearly by the story of the Shepherds.
The Story of the Shepherds
Like any job, there were good shepherds and there were shepherds who just logged their hours for a paycheck. Some of the most significant people in the Bible were Shepherds: such as Jacob, David, and the prophet Amos.
However, being a Shepherd was not an exalted or even a respected profession. In fact, Shepherds were often despised. A shepherd’s testimony was not admissible in court because they were considered unreliable. They were seen as social outcasts. They often smelled like sheep and were generally much better with sheep than with people.
This is why it is surprising that that God invited (even commanded) the Shepherds to attend the birthday of Jesus. He did not choose religious leaders. He did not invite royalty. He didn’t even invite prominent citizens of the town. Instead, the angel was sent to the field to invite the Shepherds. This was no accident. God was sending a message to us all. Let’s look at the story again as it is found in Luke 2.
8 That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. 9 Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “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.”
13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
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.
It is hard for us to imagine the setting. I Imagine the Shepherds kicked back around the fire. Maybe they were looking up into the majesty of the dark night sky. When SUDDENLY (a word that I don’t think can possibly convey the sense of shock or surprise of what happened.) an angel of the Lord appeared, radiating with God’s glory. It must have been a little like driving at night and then suddenly there are headlights that come out of nowhere to blind and disorient you. If you can imagine the surprise, the horror, the fear and the confusion of that scenario, you might have an idea of what it was like for the Shepherds.
They were actually startled twice. The first time was when the angel of the Lord appeared. The second time was when the sky filled with angels.
The angel that appeared told them first to calm down and get a grip. He then told them about Jesus. He told them that Jesus was the Messiah or Redeemer they had all been waiting for. He had been born in Bethlehem.
Every Jewish child (even those who became shepherds) was taught about the promised Messiah. People had been waiting for Him for hundreds of years. Everyone assumed he would be born near the temple and celebrated by Kings and religious leaders.
So why the Shepherds? I believe it was to make it known that the message of Christmas; the message of hope, redemption, forgiveness and new life, is for everyone. There is no one who is a “nobody” in God’s eyes.
The Lesson of the Shepherds
The world is always writing people off. We determine that a person can’t do a job; won’t amount to anything; or that they are a bad person because they made a mistake. As a result the world is filled with people who feel anonymous and insignificant.
- The child who is “average”
- The teenager who doesn’t like the image they see in the mirror
- The person who has a minimum wage job and feels others look down on them
- The retired person who feels useless and discarded
- The divorced or widowed person who feels alone and forgotten
- The person who wants to work but can’t find a job
- The person who is disabled and can’t get anyone to help them or listen to them
- The person who works with the public and feels taken advantage of
- The person who is at a big group gathering yet no one seems to notice them
- The person who feels their employer is inaccessible and won’t listen to their concerns.
We live in a world where there is an emphasis on the chain of command, power, and who you know. It is all about the pecking order. The idea is that the closer you are to “the top” the more significant you therefore are in that particular organization. We measure significance by titles, the salary you are paid, the car you drive, the popularity you possess, or the power you can exert. We are told how to “dress for success” and how to “speak with authority”. All of these things are designed to make us more “significant” than other people.
However, even these people who are deemed significant in the world find that when they leave their place of employment, their community, or their circle of friends, they find that their “significance” is suddenly vastly diminished or gone. People aren’t nearly as impressed when you are outside your own little Kingdom. So, even the “significant people” in the world often feel insignificant.
What we see with the Shepherds is that God does not measure people the way we do. God sees potential rather than baggage. He looks past titles and sees the heart. He isn’t concerned about your annual salary but about the fruit you bear in the lives of others. It is a reminder that those whom the world esteems are often the ones so full of themselves that they have no room for the Lord.
Jesus came into the world to reach lost people . . . period. Few people understand lostness more than those who feel insignificant, broken, and anonymous in the world. Have you ever heard someone say: “God could never love me because of all the bad things I’ve done”? There are many people, maybe some of you, who feel that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. The message of Christmas says you are wrong! The person who knows and admits that they have done bad things is also the one who sees their need for a Redeemer; they know they need someone to rescue them. And those people are the very people God is looking for.
The Shepherds remind us that we need to see ourselves differently. We need to see ourselves through HIS eyes. We need to see that the coming of Christ is a declaration that God sees our need and has done something drastic and dramatic to address that need. God has CHOSEN us. He has set His love upon us. Notice something, the angel did not say, “For a baby has been born to a woman named Mary” He said, “For unto YOU” is born this day a Savior . . . Jesus had come for the Shepherds! Certainly, after that night the Shepherds must have told the story over and over again. But the one thing I am sure they could never get their minds around is this one question: but why me? I know I feel that way. Maybe you do too.
The Response of the Shepherds
They Went. After the angels departed, we are told that the Shepherds decided that they needed to go and see this baby they had just learned about. How easy would it have been to make excuses?
- Someone has to watch the sheep
- We have nothing appropriate to wear
- Nobody is going to want Shepherds around their new baby
- I’m sure someone else can do the job better than we can
- There are probably others invited, they won’t miss us
But that is not what they did. They heard the command of the angels and went to find the baby, just as the angel had said.
The same problem happens to people today. We are invited to enter into a relationship with the Lord of life, and we make excuses. We excuse ourselves because we feel we are unworthy. We excuse ourselves because we have done too many things wrong. We excuse ourselves because we have other obligations. And as a result, the invitation to forgiveness and new life goes unclaimed.
Jesus said, “Come to me, and I will give you rest”. He said, “Whoever comes to me, I will NEVER cast away.” He came to reach out to us and all He asks us to do is to enter into the relationship that He has made possible. Before this can happen we must respond. It is not enough to have the information, we must act on it.
Have you responded to Jesus? The Christmas season is almost over. Will you miss beginning that relationship with God? Will you make excuses for why you cannot enter into a relationship with Christ today?
They Worshipped. When the Shepherds reached the manger they worshipped the newborn King. Their hearts were stirred. When they left the manger they told others and praised God. Worship is a natural response to the reality of Christmas. The lives of these Shepherds were changed in that one brief moment. They told Mary and Joseph their story and then they hit the streets running, telling everyone that the Messiah had been born in Bethlehem. They didn’t care how people around them responded, they simply wanted to spread the good news to anyone who would listen.
And isn’t that a great picture of true worship? True worship is not a sequence of religious exercises. It isn’t about songs we sing. It is about an encounter, a humbling and life-changing encounter with the Lord. Such an encounter changes us. And that change will motivate a new way of living.
There are three things we can take away from the story of the Shepherds. First, no one is anonymous or overlooked by the Lord. By extension, that means YOU are not overlooked by the Lord.
You may sit in this crowd of people tonight and feel no one cares about you. You may feel no one would miss you if you weren’t here. However, God sees you, He knows you, He loves you, and He invites you to be part of His family. He invites you to experience the forgiveness that is made possible by the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
In fact, the whole Christmas story is designed to send you a message. There is no one who is anonymous. There is no one who is forgotten. Christ entered the world because you mattered to Him just as I do.
Second, God looks for humble people. The Bible tells us in the book of James that God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. Don’t miss that! God gives grace to the HUMBLE.
Practically that means that you can’t get through the narrow door of salvation with an inflated ego. It means you must understand that you cannot save yourself. You need to see and admit your own brokenness before you can meet with God or embrace our Savior. Proud people are too busy building THEIR kingdom to be concerned about living in God’s kingdom; they are too concerned about being in charge to humbly submit to the Lord of life.
So, for some of us, the Shepherds remind us that unless we come to Christ as a sinner, we will never receive grace. And to the others, if you recognize you are messed up and sinful . . . well you are right where you need to be to receive His mercy and grace. You may feel like a “nobody”. BUT God CHOOSES you!
Finally, we must respond to God’s invitation. If you have ever hosted a wedding for yourself or your children you know how maddening it is to send out invitations and receive no response from people. Since you are often paying significant money for everyone who comes to the reception, you need to have an accurate count of who is coming. This is why an RSVP (or a response) is requested. When you don’t respond you show a lack of respect and appreciation for the one who has invited you.
How much greater is the offense if we are invited by the God of Creation and give no response?
You can be excited about Christmas. You can know all the words to the carols, attend all the special Christmas events, buy great gifts, and you can serve others in many ways. However, if you do not respond to God’s invitation; if you do not humbly come to Him with open hands and an open and needy heart; you have actually missed everything that Christmas is about.
So, here’s the most important question of Christmas: Have you humbly responded to the invitation of Jesus? He has invited you. He came to save YOU. And now you must decide whether you will respond.
I’m not going to sugar-coat it. Responding involves putting yourself aside and running into His arms. It involves giving up your agenda to pursue His. It means putting all your trust and all your hope in what God has said, and what He has done. It means adopting the heart of the Shepherds who were watching their sheep at night. It means saying, “Yes, Lord, I need you and I come to you and ask you to make me new.”
Max Lucado wraps it all us as so few can . . .
It was a beautiful night—a night worth peeking out your bedroom window to admire—but not really an unusual one. No reason to expect a surprise. Nothing to keep a person awake. An ordinary night with an ordinary sky.
The sheep were ordinary. Some fat. Some scrawny. Some with barrel bellies. Some with twig legs. Common animals. No fleece made of gold. No history makers. No blue-ribbon winners. They were simply sheep—lumpy, sleeping silhouettes on a hillside.
And the shepherds. Peasants they were. Probably wearing all the clothes they owned. Smelling like sheep and looking just as woolly. They were conscientious, willing to spend the night with their flocks. But you won’t find their staffs in a museum nor their writings in a library. No one asked their opinion on social justice or the application of the Torah. They were nameless and simple.
An ordinary night with ordinary sheep and ordinary shepherds. And were it not for a God who loves to hook an “extra” on the front of the ordinary, the night would have gone unnoticed. The sheep would have been forgotten, and the shepherds would have slept the night away.
But God dances amidst the common. And that night he did a waltz.
The black sky exploded with brightness. Trees that had been shadows jumped into clarity. Sheep that had been silent became a chorus of curiosity. One minute the shepherd was dead asleep, the next he was rubbing his eyes and staring into the face of an alien.
The night was ordinary no more.
The angel came in the night because that is when lights are best seen and that is when they are most needed. God comes into the common for the same reason.
His most powerful tools are the simplest.
You matter to God whether you realize it, or feel like it. Christmas is about God’s desire to connect and to redeem YOU. Embrace the wonder and run to the One who calls you.
 Lucado, M. (1996). The applause of heaven (pp. 68–70). Dallas, TX: Word Pub.