The Greatest Story Ever Told: Hillside Shepherds

Sermon by Derek Thomas on December 29, 2002

Luke 2:8-20

We have been looking at the story of the birth of Jesus, especially as we find it in the gospel of Luke, and we come today to the familiar passage of the shepherds on the hillside of Bethlehem.  Now, you may just be at the point this morning of saying, “Enough of Christmas, already, it’s time to move on.”  But this is about our Savior, and we can never have enough of Jesus.  Let’s begin in Luke 2:8:


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. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people;  for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."  And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased."  When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, "Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us."  So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger.  When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child.  And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds.  But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.  The shepherds went back; glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.


 So far God’s holy and inerrant word; may He add His blessing to the reading of it.  Let’s pray together.


Our Father in heaven, we ask now for Your blessing.  We look at a very familiar passage together, and we pray that You would bring us a sense of freshness as we try to unravel some of the mysteries and profundities of the birth of our Savior. For Jesus’ sake we ask it, Amen.


Of course, if Jesus were to be born today, CNN would be there, FOX News would have its satellite dish on the hillside outside Bethlehem, and you wouldn’t be able to move for the reporters from around the world, I’m sure.  But Jesus wasn’t born today; it was 2,000 years ago, and things were very different.  I wonder, of course you know the answer, but let’s try imagine for a minute if we didn’t know the answer.  To whom do you think God would send the first announcement of the birth of His Son?  You might think the Roman governor of Judea, an important office, with political clout; perhaps to the High Priest in Jerusalem; perhaps to the members of the synagogue in Bethlehem–but no–to Shepherds.  Now, I want to think about these shepherds for a minute, because you’ve had some Christmas cards.  Actually, you Americans don’t do Christmas cards the way they do in Britain, so maybe you haven’t had quite as many as I think you have, but you’ve had some.  Did you get the ones with shepherds on the hillside of Bethlehem, the star, the wise men coming–not the one with Santa looking into the crib, I hope.


I. Shepherds.


Often in sentimental Christmas cards, of course, those shepherds look a somewhat pleasant bunch of people.  But shepherds in the first century were entirely different.  We need to go back a little and dig for a moment or two.  You remember when Israel first migrated to Egypt, back in the time of Joseph and Jacob and his sons.  They, of course, encountered a foreign lifestyle.  Jacob’s sons were shepherds. Joseph, you remember, had been captured while looking for his brothers who were tending their sheep.  They were a nomadic people, but the Egyptians weren’t.  They were a settle people.  Shepherds, well, let’s not mince words about it, and I grew up on a farm with sheep so I know a little of what I’m talking about.  Shepherds can smell a little, not to put too fine a point on it.  In the clean-shaven courtrooms of Egypt, shepherds with their straggly beards and smell, well, they stood out a little.  Do you remember in Genesis 46, that strange little verse when Joseph is speaking to his brothers, and he says to them, “Every shepherd is detestable to the Egyptians.”  You may have read the story of Joseph and wondered quite what that statement is supposed to mean there in the middle of Genesis 46.


Shepherds were not regarded high on the social scale in Egypt nor were they to become so back in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Shepherds weren’t trusted. Shepherds were often the victims of some fairly cruel stereotypes. People would wonder if the sheep they were looking after were theirs, or whether they had stolen a few in the middle of the night. It was difficult to be absolutely certain whose sheep they were. In one of the Jewish books familiar in the first century and in the time of Mary and Joseph, The Mishna, it was forbidden to buy any sorts of food or clothing or garments from shepherds because it was thought to have been stolen–hot property. Someone said, and I’m not an authority or an expert so I’m just passing it on to you now, but someone said and it always happens between the first and second service, you know, someone helps you with your sermon, but someone said to me, “You know, the best analogy is perhaps the cowboys of the nineteenth century.” Perhaps as they roamed about in the nomadic existences in the plains of Montana somewhere—I’m not an expert. But shepherds were detested. Shepherds weren’t trusted.


Shepherds were about as low on the social scale as it was possible to get. There weren’t many shepherds that were members of First Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem in the first century. Am I making myself clear? Isn’t it amazing? Isn’t it astonishing that God would say, “You know, the first people who are going to hear the message of the birth of My Son, the Savior, the Messiah, are the most hated and despised group of people in that society. Isn’t that amazing?


And as you think about that for a minute or two, it is just a cameo portrait of the very gospel itself, isn’t it? Do you remember how Paul says as he writes to the Corinthians, who thought themselves just a little bit better than everybody else, that God doesn’t actually call many who are mighty and many who are noble, but He tends to call things that are not—folk who are regarded as the off scouring of the world in order that all the praise and all the glory and all the honor be given to Him. I think there’s a lesson there for First Presbyterian Church, don’t you? A reminder in the very story of the shepherds on the hillsides of Bethlehem that here’s a picture of the very gospel; Jesus came to save sinners. And do you know what shepherds were called in the first century? Sinners.


II. Angels.


But there were others present too; angels and one particular angel. There were multitudes of the heavenly host; they suddenly appeared. It was nighttime. I try to imagine this picture many times. The shepherds are looking after their sheep and all is peaceful. Perhaps there’s the bleating of a lamb or too. It was mid winter, January perhaps. You know, the birth of Jesus wasn’t December 25, I’m sorry to undo all of that, but it was probably later on in January according to the scholars, but it was winter. Lambs, perhaps, were beginning to be born.


And then all of a sudden these angels appear, and there’s one particular angel. Was it Gabriel? We’re not told. It was Gabriel who appeared to Zacharias in the temple in Jerusalem to say that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son, John the Baptist. You remember that it was Gabriel who had come to Mary who was engaged to Joseph, but not yet married, to say that she too was pregnant, and she would bear a Son and His name would be Jesus because He would save His people from their sins. And I wonder if this was Gabriel again?  I wonder, did he say to the Lord in heaven, “Send me; send me again! I want to go a third time. Send me down to those sinners on the hillsides of Bethlehem to announce the birth of Jesus. But no sooner has Gabriel, or whoever he was, spoken to the shepherds than a multitude of the heavenly hosts appears.


Let’s pause a minute and open another Christmas present this morning, shall we? I want to talk just for a few minutes about angels. We don’t think about angels much. I think in our Protestant Presbyterian Bible believing culture we’re a little dubious about angels. It belongs to the iconography of medieval religion or something out in the east somewhere, but the Bible is full of angels. The Bible is full of talk and explanation about angels. Angels are rational created spiritual beings that appeared in flesh and blood at various points in redemptive history. Many of the angels fell; they went over to the dark side. They serve another master. They are, as Peter says, “reserved in chains reserved to judgment.” But many, perhaps the majority of the angels, are faithful and perfect. There are lots of them– ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands. You’ve done the math? It’s billions. Well maybe that verse in Revelation isn’t meant to be taken literally for a minute–billions of angels. This morning as we worship God in our First Presbyterian pews, there are billions of faithful perfect angels praising His name.


There are different orders of angels. Thrones and powers and rulers and authorities, Paul says here, and I have no idea what he means. Paul hints at different lengths. There’s one at least known as an archangel, Michael. Was Gabriel an archangel? We’re not told, but perhaps he was too.


Do you ever wonder what Michael and Gabriel look like? Of course, you wonder what Jesus looks like. You’re expecting and longing when you get to heaven to gaze at the face of our blessed Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But don’t you wonder what Gabriel actually looked like? I wondered what Michael actually looked like. You remember that at significant moments in the history of redemption, angels appeared. At creation, Job 38 speaks of angels being present. In the time of the patriarchs, Isaac and Jacob, there are angels present. At the time of The Exodus, Paul mentions in Galatians about Moses giving the law by the hand of a mediator through angels. In the stories of Elijah and Elisha there are angels. Of course, at the birth of Jesus and in the apostolic period and when Paul is released from prison by angels. Let’s think about what these angels do, shall we? And then I want us to think about what these shepherds did.


III. What the angels did.


What do these angels do? First of all, they sang. What kind of creatures are these that as soon as they appear, they sing? You know there are people like that. Don’t we miss them this morning? They are the choristers of heaven. We mightn’t have our choir this morning and we miss them, but if you stop rustling your papers, and you listen with the ear of faith, you can hear billions of angels praising God before His throne. It is a mark of our lack of faith that we don’t hear them. They are the choristers from heaven. “Angels help us to adore Him. Ye behold Him face to face.” They teach us all about worship; they teach us how to sing. They teach us how to put glory in our singing and in our praise to God. They are the worship guides of heaven. And they come and they sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and good will towards men.”


But angels are also our protectors. Do you notice the first word out of the mouth of this angel to the shepherds? They were frightened. I think we would be too. The first word out of their mouth was, “Fear not, don’t be afraid.” They are, to quote the Book of Hebrews, “ministering spirits sent forth to aid and to help those who are the people of God.” They “appear unawares,” as James says. “He will give them charge over you to keep you in all of your ways.” I don’t personally believe in a particular guardian angel; I don’t find any proof for that. But I do believe that angels are our guardians and that they protect us. I do believe that they watch over us at significant points in our lives and at the outworking of the providence of God there is the ministry of angels—and here they are.


IV. What the shepherds did.


What did the shepherds do? They did two things. In verse 17, they spread the word. They go to Bethlehem and they find Mary and Joseph and the baby, and what do they do? They spread the word. They’re not experts; they’ve never been trained. This is not a slur on training. I believe in training, and I think that can be a good thing to give witness and testimony to Jesus Christ. That’s not my point. But these shepherds had not received any training, but they spoke the word. They could tell that which they had seen and heard. They knew what God had done for them and they were able to go to others and say, “God can do this for you too.” “I love to tell the story of unseen things above of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love. I love to tell the story because I know ‘tis true. It satisfies my longings as nothing else can do.” My friends, if you know Jesus this morning, tell someone about Him. Tell your neighbor about Him. Tell your children about Him. Tell the person that you work with about Him. Tell him what He has done for you in your soul.

Notice in verse 20 we read that the shepherds returned glorifying and praising God. Returned where? To the hillside. They went back to work. You see, life isn’t always about staring at the baby Jesus in the manger. Oh, that it was! Life isn’t always Christmas. Oh, that it was! Life is about work and responsibility, and here are the shepherds saying, “In our spheres of labor however menial that may be, I can glorify God and I can praise God right there at the kitchen sink—wherever I am. I can praise and glorify God wherever I am.”


It’s a recurring theme in this passage, isn’t it? The angels sing, “Glory to God in the highest.” The shepherds take it up and they glorify God as they go back to work. Angels and shepherds saw it as their chief end and aim to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.


V. What we are to do.


It is, I think, a mark of our discipleship. It is, I think, a mark of our spirituality the degree to which we are taken up with the glory of God. It is an indicator of how close we are following our Savior if we are consumed this morning with the glory of God in our worship and in our praise and in our singing and in our attention to His word that He has caused to be written. God’s glory! And Mary, we are told in verse 19, “She treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” I wonder what she pondered, don’t you? I wonder if you know the story by J.B. Phillips. It’s a sort of children’s story. In his book New Testament Christianity, it goes like this:


Once upon a time a very young angel was being shown round the splendors and glories of the universes by a senior and experienced angel. To tell the truth, the little angel was beginning to be tired and a little bored. He had been shown whirling galaxies and blazing suns . . . and to his mind there seemed to be an awful lot of it all. Finally he was shown the galaxy of which our planetary system is but a small part. As the two of them drew near to the star which we call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis. It looked as dull as a dirty tennis ball to the little angel whose mind was filled with the size and glory of what he had seen.


 'I want you to watch that one particularly,' said the senior angel, pointing with his finger.


'Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me,' said the little angel. 'What's special about that one?'


'That,' replied his senior solemnly, 'is the Visited Planet.'


''Visited'?' said the little one. 'You don't mean visited by –'


'Indeed I do. That ball, which I have no doubt looks to you small and insignificant and not perhaps overclean, has been visited by our Prince of Glory.' At these words he bowed his head reverently. . . .


The little angel's face wrinkled in disgust. 'Do you mean to tell me,' he said, 'that He stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?'


'I do, and I don't think He would like you to call them 'creeping, crawling creatures' in that tone of voice. For, strange as it may seem to us, He loves them. He went down to visit them to lift them up to become like Him.'


The little angel looked blank. Such a thought was almost beyond his comprehension. 


'Close your eyes for a moment,' said the senior angel, 'and we will go back in what they call Time.'


While the little angel's eyes were closed and the two of them moved nearer to the spinning ball, it stopped its spinning, spun backward quite fast for a while, and then slowly resumed its usual rotation.


'Now look!' and as the little angel did as he was told, there appeared here and there on the dull surface of the globe little flashes of light, some merely momentary and some persisting for quite a time.


'What am I seeing now?' queried the little angel.


'You are watching this little world as it was some thousands of years ago,' returned his companion. 'Every flash and glow of light that you see is something of the Father's knowledge and wisdom breaking into the minds and hearts of people who live upon the earth. Not many people, you see, can hear His Voice or understand what He says, even though He is speaking gently and quietly to them all the time.'


'Why are they so blind and deaf and stupid?' asked the junior angel rather crossly. 


'It is not for us to judge them. We who live in the Splendor have no idea what it is like to live in the dark. . . . But watch, for in a moment you will see something truly wonderful.'


The Earth went on turning and circling round the sun, and then, quite suddenly, in the upper half of the globe there appeared a light, tiny, but so bright in its intensity that both angels hid their eyes.


'I think I can guess,' said the little angel in a low voice. 'That was the Visit, wasn't it?'


'Yes, that was the Visit. The Light Himself went down there and lived among them. . . . Open your eyes now; the dazzling light has gone. The Prince has returned to His Home of Light. But watch the Earth now.'


As they looked, in place of the dazzling light there was a bright glow which throbbed and pulsated. And then as the Earth turned many times, little points of light spread out. A few flickered and died, but for the most part the lights burned steadily, and as they continued to watch, in many parts of the globe there was a glow. . . . 


'You see what is happening?' asked the senior angel. 'The bright glow is the company of loyal men and women He left behind, and with His help they spread the glow, and now lights begin to shine all over the Earth.'


'Yes, yes,' said the little angel impatiently. 'But how does it end? Will the little lights join up with one another? Will it all be light, as it is in Heaven?'


His senior shook his head. 'We simply do not know,' he replied. . . . 'The end is not yet. But now I am sure you can see why this little ball is so important. He has visited it. . .'


'Yes, I see, though I don't understand. I shall never forget that this is the Visited Planet.'


It’s just children’s story.   But as I wonder what Mary might have pondered and treasured in her heart of the significance of the Savior, the Messiah, her Son that she had given birth to, I’m sure some of those things went through her mind.  Let’s pray together.


 Our Father in heaven, we thank You from the very bottom of our hearts for this Advent story, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners like us.  We dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.  Amen.

© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.

To view recordings of our entire services, visit our Facebook page.

Print This Post