The Lord's Day Evening
December 12, 2010
“Jesus: Adored by Shepherds”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Turn with me again to Luke chapter 2. We were here last Sunday evening and we were looking at this passage that's so very familiar to us from the point of view of the angels. The angel who spoke first of all to the shepherds and then to the multitude of the heavenly host that appeared on the hillsides of Bethlehem. And tonight I want to look at the same passage, going a little further on in the passage, but looking at it tonight from the perspective of the shepherds.
Before we read Luke chapter 2 let's look to God in prayer.
Gracious God and Father, how blessed we are to be among those who have been blessed by the Gospel, blessed by the Holy Spirit, quickened and regenerated and made new, having experienced a second birth from above by the power of the Holy Spirit transforming us, giving us a new heart and new affections and new desires, unlocking our wills so that we not only desire but You have granted to us by Your Spirit an ability to run after You. Lord, we are still those who live in this world and for whom the good that we would we do not and the evil that we would not that we find we do. But now we ask for the blessing of Your Spirit to come and open up the Scriptures to us. We thank You for the Bible. We thank You for our access to it, Your holy, infallible, inspired, inerrant Word. We ask for a light to shine upon our minds and our hearts and our affections, the light of Your Word, that the truth might set us free. Bless us we pray. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Now we're going to back up from what was printed in the bulletin, all the way back up to verse 8 of Luke chapter 2 and we’ll read down to verse 20.
“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 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!’
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, which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
Thus far, God's holy and inerrant Word. May He add His blessing to the reading of it.
Now, I wonder, was it like the Christmas cards tell us it was, or as the Nativity play told us it was? I mean, Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus lying in the manger, and the innkeeper and the wise men and an ox and an ass and some sheep and all there simultaneously. Probably not. The wise men, of Matthew's gospel, probably didn't come until possibly two years later, and that, because as study Bibles now seem to want to tell you, Matthew tells us that the edict that came from King Herod, the pogrom — the killing of the infants in Bethlehem, was an edict to children from two years old and downwards. So probably the wise men weren't in this scene and they’re not in the scene that Luke describes for us here.
But I began to think last Wednesday in that marvelous, marvelous Nativity play, and my hearts go out to all those who prepared the boys and girls and did all kinds of things for that Nativity play on Wednesday evening — it was such fun and such faith confirming simplicity — but I began to wonder as I watched this fortieth Nativity play that I've seen, I began to ask myself, “Who do you want your son or daughter to be? Mary, for the daughter that is, or Joseph, or one of the three wise men, or one of the extras, the shepherds — lots and lots and lots of them came all dressed up as shepherds? I want you to think about that for a minute.
Ligon was reminding us, at least in the eight-thirty service this morning, he was reminding us about shepherds. I remember back in 1976, there was a book that had just been published in English, maybe four or five years, it was published in German I think in 1967 and was translated into English. I'm referring to a very important book by a man called Joachim Jeremias and it was called Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. It was a ponderous book to read. It was one of those books that you had to read because it was a text book, but there are bits of it that have stayed with me for the last thirty-five years. And one of the things that came across so very clear in that book was my complete misunderstanding of shepherds.
You see, I grew up on a farm. I grew up on a farm that had four, five, six hundred sheep. Jeremias informed me that shepherds, as Ligon said this morning, were inveterate liars and cheats. You see, in the first century, you know, one sheep looks like another sheep. How do you know without hedgerows, as you have in Anglo-Saxon Britain, that can keep sheep all pinned up, how do you know that these sheep that are roaming about the hillsides, how do you know that they’re your sheep and not somebody else's sheep? And apparently, shepherds were notorious for claiming sheep that weren't theirs. The testimony of a shepherd was unacceptable in a court of law. If you had committed a crime or a crime had been committed against you, let me put it that way, and the only witness was a shepherd, you had no hope because a shepherd could not appear in a court of law. His testimony would be regarded as worthless.
Now, put that thought against how the Old Testament had prepared us for the coming of a Shepherd. I mean, the Good Shepherd of John 10. I mean the Great Shepherd of Hebrews 13. I mean the Chief Shepherd of 1 Peter chapter 5 — Jesus. How, at least to us, that great psalm, Psalm 23 — “The Lord is my Shepherd” — the Lord is my Shepherd. He's my Shepherd. He's not a liar. He's not a cheat. He's my Shepherd who loves me and takes care of me. And how Ezekiel had applied that to the shepherds of Israel, the elders of Israel, that they were to be God-like in their rule and care over the people.
But by the first century, earthly shepherds were sinners. In whatever definition of sinner you want — in the man of the street, the woman of the street definition of a sinner you would go to a shepherd. And it's staggering, it's absolutely staggering, that the first witnesses of Jesus, outside the circle of Mary and Joseph and perhaps, perhaps the innkeeper, but the first witnesses of Jesus, the first witnesses to the fulfillment of God's promise, were shepherds, were sinners — liars and cheats in the eyes of the world. To whom, you see, if you were inventing this story — you know the advertisement that's been so much talked about that all this is mythology. Now if this really was mythology, if you wanted to invent this stuff, if you wanted to make up that Jesus was the Son of God to whom would you give the first witness of His birth to? You wouldn't give it to shepherds, you see, because it was an uphill task convincing the readers in the first century that these shepherds were trustworthy. It's proof to me. It really is proof to me that this stuff isn't made — you wouldn't make this stuff up. You would do a better job if you were making this stuff up.
I. The shepherds see a terrific sight and are afraid.
I want to see four things tonight. How do you make a story that everybody knows and knows so well, how do you make it fresh? How do you make it new? You know if ever there was a time to repeat to ourselves, “Tell me the old, old story,” it is here in these Advent narratives. I want to look at it from the perspective of these shepherds tonight. And the first thing I want us to see is they were given a terrific sight to which they responded with a terrific fright. They were sore afraid. Now, they were “filled with fear” — verse 9. They were filled with fear. I've never seen an angel that I know that I've seen an angel. I may have seen one and not known. I have often wondered when I see strangers on an airplane or in an airport or somewhere — is that an angel? I've seen people do extraordinary things — acts of kindness and love. And I think, “Is that an angel? Did I just see an angel?” You know if I saw an angel and I knew I was seeing an angel I would be afraid. To come into contact with a sinless creature, it would be in the literal sense of the term, uncanny.
I confess to you I don't like the genre of movies known as, well I'm going to call them scary movies. I don't like them. I'm sorry I just can't watch them. I sometimes mute it to see if that will take away the sense of unease. I only need to hear that base music that builds up tension and apprehension, I've only got to see a cupboard with a mirror on the inside and you know that next time that's going to open there's going to be a face in that mirror. I can't watch it! (laughter) It makes me afraid. God uses fear sometimes to speak to His people. What did C.S. Lewis say, that “pain and the fear that is often associated with it is God's megaphone.” He was communicating through an angel, first of all, to these shepherds and they were afraid. They were afraid.
Now, it's unique. This is a unique moment of redemptive history, but there is a pattern here of God so coordinating providence and circumstances to bring about a sense of apprehension and dread that bring us to see our smallness and frailty. God may do that with you, bring you down to show you how small and frail and fragile you are before the immensity of this universe, let alone the purity of His being. God may so order events to communicate with you, sinner, as He communicated with these shepherds. That's the first thing. It was a terrific sight to see an angel and an angel that spoke.
II. A remarkable birth announcement.
But the second thing is they were given a remarkable birth announcement. You know, we talked about this last week. It's very unusual. It's not the regular birth announcement. It's not the announcement that says, “To Mary and Joseph is born a Son, weighing so many pounds and” these days “so many inches long.” No, look at it in verse 11 — “Unto you.”
You know, if you’re looking for the Gospel it's right there. To you — you shepherds, you sinners, you untrustworthy men who can't be trusted in a court of law, whose word cannot be taken for granted. “To you is born this day a Savior.”
Imagine the surprise. I mean imagine the surprise, not just the shock and horror of seeing an angel that is actually speaking to them, but now, this Gospel, this good news, this word of astonishing provision that a Savior that the Jews had longed for for centuries, that this Savior was born in little old Bethlehem nearby and He's for you. He's for you. Who would have thought that? Who would have thought that, that God would have come to the socially lowest and say, “I have good news for you”?
Elder Crawford was reminding us just a few minutes ago about the needs that surround us, to be fed and clothed. And this time of year we do think about that, those who are socially outcasts or at least socially challenged.
And I wonder here, is that a message that we constantly - and I mean “we,” First Presbyterian Church, you and me - that we constantly need to hear? The Gospel is for sinners, for the socially outcast, for those whom society may well despise — the Gospel is for such.
You know these shepherds had nothing to offer. They had nothing to offer. They had nothing. They were poor. And to those who have nothing, to those God comes and says, “I have a remarkable, astonishing announcement for you. A Savior is born who is Christ the Anointed One. He is the Lord and He's for you. He's for you.” “Who is He in yonder stall at whose feet the shepherds fall? Tis the Lord, o wondrous story! Tis the Lord, the King of Glory at whose feet we humbly bow. Crown Him, crown Him, Lord of all!”
III. An unusual sign.
Not only was there a terrific sight, not only was there a remarkable announcement, but in the third place, an unusual sign. Verse 12 — “This will be a sign for you and you will find the babe wrapped in bands of cloth” that you would put around an infant child to hold them tight - it's back in fashion again I understand — “lying in a manger.” You see, if you’re expecting, I mean you should be expecting the angel to say, “You will find Him in Jerusalem.” That would make sense. “You’ll find Him in the palace of the high priest.” That would make sense. “You will find Him surrounded by all the accoutrements and paraphernalia of blessing and provision and wealth and prestige.” That's what you’re expecting.
But you’ll find Him in a manger, in a manger, in a feeding trough. And we get all sentimental about it because we love animals, and how cute to have a little baby surrounded by an ox and an ass and a few sheep and — this is the Lord of Glory, this is the King of Kings, this is the One who made everything.
You know, verse 15 — When the angels had gone back to heaven they said, “Let's go. Let's go and see this thing.” With haste they came to Bethlehem. They entered in, they saw it, the sign, they saw the sign; they saw the baby Jesus just as the angel had said. “He was in the world,” John says, “and the world was made by Him.” Can you take that in? He's this size. He's this size. What did Wesley say? “Contracted to a span” from there to there, 18 inches. He's this size and He made the world. He's the Creator of the world and He's this size, this human frame consisting of the human genome of DNA, of chromosomes, of liver and kidneys and eyes and limbs, and He can cry. I know the carol says “No crying He makes.” Ah, no, He's a human being. It wasn't a sinful crying, but when He was crying He told Mary, “I'm hungry!”
And He made the world. In hypostatic union1 with a divine nature of God is this human nature. You have no idea what I've just said. That's how the creeds will put it. Try to wrap its arms around the imponderable, the abyss. “Though He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor.” “Though being in the form, in the form of God, and thought it not robbery to be equal with God, He made Himself nothing, took the form of a servant, in fashion as a man.” “In a low condition,” The Shorter Catechism says. This staggering, unusual sign.
IV. The shepherds respond.
But then there's a fourth thing because they responded. They responded with such boldness of witness. Verse 17 — “When they saw it they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.” I think that means that having seen this in the manger, in this little cave perhaps, which it probably was, they went out into the streets in Bethlehem and began to speak and to relate the things that they had heard and seen. They witnessed to this extraordinary, yes magical moment.
I have to tell you, when I was a little boy — and my wife says I'm still a little boy — that on Christmas Eve I rewrapped all, I mean on the evening of Christmas Day, I rewrapped all my presents so that on the twenty-sixth I could repeat it all again. (laughter) I still do that! It frustrates my family to no end, but it never quite works the second time because as C.S. Lewis says, “There is a deeper magic here.”
Do you notice in verse 18 — “and all who heard it wondered” — that was the response to what the shepherds said. They wondered. They were filled with wonder. Does that mean they were saved? Does that mean they were converted? Perhaps, perhaps not. Christmas brings a wonder. It brings a holy wonder that God is manifest in the flesh. It's a wondrous thing.
The tale, the advent tale is a wonder, but my dear friends that's not enough. That's not enough. You can wonder but not believe and you need to believe this. You need to put your faith and trust in Jesus. “Mary ponders these things in her heart” on another occasion. We would love to take that and run with it. What kinds of things did Mary wonder as she nursed and sang to and changed her little infant son who is the Savior, who is God manifest in the flesh? I can't imagine. I don't know what would be going through my mind. How do you pick up the Son of God? How do you hold Him in your arms? What kinds of things do you say to Him? Her mind is racing.
V. The shepherds glorify God.
And then in verse 20 the shepherds return and what do they do? “They are glorifying and praising God.” They’re singing praises to God. They’re so, they’re so overwhelmed by this event that all they can do is sing. You know, I've been telling Ligon this, I have a book that's coming out and one of my editors who’d been frustrated told me off a number of times for imaging scenarios that aren't in the Bible. Oh, I wanted to tell him, I did tell him in the end to get a life. (laughter) There is such a thing as sanctified imagination and I've been imagining, I've been imagining those angels who went back to heaven.
And the Bible tells us angels look after us. They’re God's messengers. They’re God's helpers and shepherds and chaperones and they watch and they see and they know. And I imagine these angels looking down at these shepherds and one angel is saying to another angel, “Do you understand, do you understand the Gospel? Do you understand grace?”
You see, if I asked you tonight, “Which one would you rather be, an angel or a shepherd?” and if you say, “An angel,” uh-uh, that's not the right answer because angels have never experienced grace. They've never experienced the forgiveness of sins. They don't know what it is. They look, they peer, they ponder, they stretch their minds; they’re full of wonder about it. I imagine one angel saying to another, “Do you understand, do you understand grace?”
And the other angel says, perhaps the angel who spoke initially to the shepherds says, “No, not really. I don't think I do.” “Me neither. I don't really understand it, too. I wonder what it's like?” And they look down and one angel says, “Life changing. Look at them. Look at them. It's changed their lives. It's magical.” “You mean like Narnia?” “No, that's just fantasy! This is real! Look at them!” And you can almost hear the gasp as they say, “Ah, it's wonderful. It's wonderful I tell you.” It's the most wonderful thing that He ever did.
Father, we stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene. We put ourselves tonight again in that cave beholding in infant lying in a manger and He is the Son of God from riches to rags for us, for me. Lord, we pray tonight for anyone here tonight who may not be a believer. Arrest them. Arrest them by Your Spirit and give them no rest until they find that perfect rest in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Please stand. Receive the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
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