Now if you would please take a copy of God’s Word in your hands. Over the last few weeks, we’ve been thinking about the four songs found in the opening chapters of the book of Luke. They are, as we have said, the very first Christmas carols, praising God for the coming of the Lord Jesus. We studied the Magnificat; the choir just so beautifully sang portions of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, from Luke 1:46-55. And then last time we looked at the Benedictus, Zechariah’s song, 67-79. And today we’re going to think a bit about the song of the angels sung over the shepherds while they kept their watch by night over their flocks in the fields, so often called the Gloria because they sang glory to God. So go ahead and take your Bibles and turn with me to Luke chapter 2. We’ll read verses 8 through 20; page 857 in the church Bibles. Before we read it together, however, would you bow your heads with me as we pray? Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, would You please stand and shepherd Your flock now in the strength of the Lord and in the majesty of the name of the Lord Your God? Grant that as we hear Your voice speaking to us in the power of the Holy Spirit from the text of Holy Scripture, we might dwell secure that we may see that You are great to the ends of the earth and that You will indeed be our peace, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Luke’s gospel chapter 2 at the eighth verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“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!’
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.”
Amen! And we praise God that He has spoken in His holy Word.
The passage this morning is, you might say, somewhat like a mountain. It begins, the ascent, the climb begins in verse 8. Here’s the level ground at the foot of the mountain. A mundane pastoral scene shepherds tending their flocks, watching over them in the night. But then, from there our road begins very quickly to mount to higher elevations. The angel of the Lord appears to them and announces the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ until, by verse 14, we find ourselves at the summit, at the pinnacle, standing on the mountaintop, surrounded by countless angels of the heavenly choir, all of them singing the Gloria. It is a beautiful moment and one, if you look at the angels’ song, that actually affords us a view of the entire landscape of saving benefits, purchased by the Lord Jesus Christ for all who believe. “Glory to God and peace on earth among those with whom He is pleased.” That’s the climactic moment in this short passage, the angelic choir singing praises as Jesus’ birth is announced. And sometimes in our rush to get there, to see the wonder of that moment in our mind’s eyes, we might miss some of the rest of the landscape along the way. So let’s be careful as we consider the angelic song a little later on first of all to notice the landscape along the way to that mountaintop moment.
And if you look at the passage you will see actually, it’s a rather upside-down, topsy-turvy landscape indeed because that’s the nature of the kingdom that Jesus’ coming brings. If you’ll look at the text, I want you to notice with me some of the upside-down values of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, the upside-down values of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. And the first thing I want you to think about with me is the role and the place of these shepherds. The angels were not sent to kings sitting upon imperial thrones nor to generals at the head of an army nor yet to philosophers studying the complexities of logic. The angels are sent to shepherds. The great good news that God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, that He has so loved the world that now He has given His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life, that great good news is announced to shepherds. It did not make headline news. The stock markets did not stop trading. No one was shaken from their beds that night to be told the news that would change everything. Some of you can remember the great epoch-making events of our time with crystal clarity. You know where you were exactly when they happened. Some of you remember the assassination of JFK, for example. Most of us remember exactly where we were, glued to our television screens, the day the Twin Towers fell on 9-11. But on the night when the single greatest moment in human history took place and God the Creator stepped onto the scene of history as a creature in Jesus Christ, there was no one taking notice. The mass of the world’s population in that moment would not turn to one another in after days and say, “I remember where I was when it all took place.”
But a handful of rough, unlettered shepherds in the middle of the wilderness in the dead of night, they are the ones to whom the angelic messenger is sent and above whom the choirs of heaven begin their song. It’s astonishing. Actually, all the more astonishing when you understand something of the status of shepherds in those days. A shepherd was thought of as on a par with a tax collector, a loan shark we might say - untrustworthy and held in near universal contempt. The rabbis prohibited devote Jews from buying wool, milk, or meat from shepherds on the assumption that it was most likely stolen property. They said, and I’m quoting, “No position in the world is as despised as that of the shepherds.” They were considered to be so untrustworthy in fact, that their testimony was inadmissible in a court of law. They were, by all accounts, the lowest of the low, unclean, unreliable, universally considered petty thieves whose word could never be trusted. It’s not the profession that you want your children aspiring to. If country music had been popular back then, then “Mama, Don’t Let Your Baby Grow Up to Be a Shepherd” would have been an enormous hit! And yet it was to them that the angelic messenger comes. Before them, the heavenly choir bursts into song. Actually, given how they felt about shepherds, the rabbis found themselves really wrestling with passages like Psalm 23, that declared that the Lord Himself is our Shepherd. “How can it be that God is a Shepherd? A Shepherd?”
And their perplexity, ironic though it is, actually provides us part of the answer to the question, “Why do the angels, why is the announcement of the birth of Christ given to shepherds?” The Lord is a Shepherd, that’s why! And when He becomes a man in Christ, to tend His flock and to lead His people to green pastures and quiet waters, He comes, of course, He comes, to shepherd country, in particular, notice He comes to the city of David, Bethlehem. Israel’s greatest king, from whom the Messiah would descend, was King David. But before ever he was a great king, he was himself a shepherd, tending flocks in these very same fields over which the angels sang that night. God who comes among us in Jesus comes to shepherd His people.
And His message, notice His message here! It’s not for the mighty and the good, not for the wise and the elite; the sophisticated and the aristocrat almost always misunderstand His message and His mission. But the outsider and the unclean He shepherds. They’re the targets of His love from the first. Jesus, the Shepherd King, came on a mission for people like these men tending their flocks by night. The message of Christmas is that in Jesus Christ the kingdom of God is for broken sinners, not perfect saints, for screw-ups, not all-stars. Jesus said you will remember, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” It’s the upside-down nature of the kingdom that Jesus’ coming inaugurates and brings and offers. Dirty, guilty, secretly ashamed. The message of Christmas is that Jesus Christ the Shepherd King came for you. He came for you. Jesus’ birth that first Christmas was for shepherds, not kings, for outsiders, not elites, for sinners in need of a Savior, for you and for me. And then I want you to notice in the second place as we continue thinking about the upside-down values of the kingdom that Jesus brings, first of all, He comes for shepherds and not kings, for outsiders, not insiders, then secondly notice He comes not to cause fear but to bring joy, to dispel and to ignite joy.
- Christ Came for Shepherds and Not Kings
Look at the passage! It’s the middle of the night. The Greek of the text says the shepherds were literally “watching the watches,” probably indicating they’ve divided the night into various watches and were taking it in turns, the rest of them to get some sleep while some remained awake to watch over the flock. So the bulk of the camp that night are sound asleep; there are one or two shepherds tending the flock. It would have been “country dark” and maybe the only sounds would be the odd snore from the campfire and the odd bleating of a sheep. And then someone suddenly flicks a switch, as it were, and stadium floodlights engulf these little shepherds. Verse 9, “An angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of God, the glory of the Lord shone around them.” I don’t know about you, but I do not like being woken suddenly from sleep. I am not a fun person to be around. I don’t like being surprised out of a deep sleep. It scares me half to death. I can’t imagine how terrifying this moment must have been for these shepherds. I’m sure you would have heard their shrieks from some distance. They were filled, Luke says, with great fear. The glory of God shines around them. There is a sense of course in which they were perfectly right to be scared. These are sinful men like me, like you, guilty in the sight of God. And now the glory of Almighty God engulfs them! “Is this Judgment Day?” That must have been at least one thought that raced through their minds. They feel like the prophet Isaiah, you remember Isaiah chapter 6, he sees the Lord high and lifted up. The train of His robe fills the temple and he falls down and says, “Woe to me! I am ruined! I am undone for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” The shepherds are terrified as the glory of the holy, holy, holy Lord God Almighty surrounds them. That’s always actually what our sin does when we’re brought into the presence of God. Our sin condemns us. Our sin condemns us.
The Angelic Message
But notice the first word of the angelic message, the angelic preacher declares to them. The first word, “Fear not! Do not be afraid! I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” One day, you know, Jesus will come to judge the world and in that day all who have rejected His reign and refused His lordship, every unbelieving heart will have grounds for fear. But it was not that day and it is not this day. No, the angel is explaining that today Jesus has come to drive out fear. His coming is good news that brings great joy.
- Christ Came to Dispel Fear and Ignite Joy
Actually, Jesus’ coming drives out fear in at least a couple of ways. First of all, He drives out the fear of failure. You see, you cannot fail when you don’t have to qualify. You can’t fail if acceptance with God is offered not on the basis of your qualifications, is offered to you as a free gift, because the one who was born of a virgin and laid in a manger and was nailed to the tree, He has qualified for you and all who know Him need not fear the rejection of God. Though they may yet be sinners fallen short of His glory, in Jesus Christ they are forgiven and pardoned and accepted. And so the second great fear that Jesus’ coming drives out is the fear of condemnation. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The child born of the virgin would be condemned in our place, you see. There is no condemnation for you who trust Him. And as you begin to let those truths percolate down into your consciousness, they tend to ignite a spark of joy. You are accepted in the Beloved and it’s free. It’s free! What a gift has been given in Jesus Christ and those who receive it know not fear but joy.
- The Upside-down Values of the Kingdom
Jesus came for shepherds, not kings, He brings joy, not fear, and then thirdly we see the upside-down values of the kingdom perhaps nowhere more clearly than in this - the King born in a stable. God the Son laid in a manger, Verses 11 and 12, the angel explains the good news, the source of joy that will be for all people. It is this child, born that very day, who is Christ the Lord. He’s born, notice, in Bethlehem the city of David. His family comes, as verse 5 explains, from the house and lineage of David, which means that this child is the heir of David’s throne and will bring to fulfillment the prophecy that David read to us earlier from Micah chapter 5. “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who were too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” How will this mighty King from of old, this ancient Savior be known? What is the insignia of majesty that will set Him apart and identify Him as the Davidic monarch who will rule and reign and redeem His people? “This will be a sign for you, you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and laying in a manger.” Behold your God, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth, here He is wrapped by a mother’s weary hands in simple peasant cloth, laid in a manger. The unbounded Lord of glory upholding the universe, sleeping in a cattle trough. Don’t think that your God is beyond your reach. See Him lying in a manger, in a stable, for you, that the lowest of us may know Him. See how far He has stooped to reach out to you in His love and grace and mercy. He’s come all the way down. The omnipotent Maker made dependent baby. The everywhere present God filling the cosmos bound in swaddling-clothes.
It’s going to be a pattern as you read through the gospel story that will characterize actually the entire life and career of the Lord Jesus. He who had no proper bed in infancy would have none in adulthood. “Foxes have holes and birds have nests,” Jesus said, “but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” He who was bound with the common bands of a nursing baby at His birth would be bound by the cruel shackles of a criminal at His death. He who was unnoticed at His first coming would be despised and rejected at His crucifixion. The one heralded as the Son of David laid in a manger would be called King of the Jews and nailed to a cross. Here’s the greatest of the upside-down values of the kingdom, the one that gives meaning to and becomes the reason for all the others. God became man. The King is laid in a manger. The Lord and giver of life born a helpless, dependent child and crucified, dead, and buried.
Things Which Angels Desire to Look Into
And so as the angel announces that extraordinary news to the shepherds, is there really any wonder that heaven, heaven splits open and the nighttime is chased away. The angels it seemed, the hosts of heaven, have been eavesdropping. And as they hear about the coming of Jesus and the circumstances of His coming it’s as though they can contain themselves no longer. 1 Peter chapter 1 and verse 12, says, “These are things into which the angels long to look.” There’s only perhaps an intellectual understanding of the meaning of Christ’s coming for the angels. They are never the recipients of redeeming love. They are not the objects of redeeming love. Jesus did not come for the angels. These extraordinary, glorious, mighty ones who have dwelled forever in the nearer presence of the holy Lord God Himself. He didn’t come for them. He came for miserable, guilty sinners like me and you, dwelling in the depravity of a fallen world. And He came as one of us with a true body and a reasonable soul to be a perfect Redeemer and Savior of sinners. And so picture the scene. It’s like everyone packed into a darkened room waiting for the surprise party, you know? The lights are out and then suddenly someone opens the door and flicks the switch and now, at last, the angels can jump from cover and join the celebration. “Glory to God, and on earth peace,” they start to sing. That’s the third of the Luken Christmas carols.
- Christ Came to Bring Glory to God and Peace for the World
And the final thing to see about the upside-down and back-to-front values of the kingdom that Jesus brings - Jesus came first for shepherds, not kings, for sinners not the righteous. Secondly, He came to bring joy, not fear, joy not fear. And thirdly He came as the King of kings in humble obscurity - and now finally notice He comes to bring glory to God and peace for the world. These are the consequences and the effects of Jesus’ coming. It’s what Christmas is really about, the glory of God and peace to men and women through faith in Jesus Christ. This is why the virgin conceived and bore a son and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in the manger - the glory of God and peace to men. In a world that says to God, “My will be done! Glory to me!” and yet finds consistently its peace, our peace eludes us. We say, “Glory to me! My will be done!” and our peace evaporates as we do. Jesus was born to say to God, in our nature, “Thy will be done.” And when the nails were pounded into His hands and feet and the thorns punctured His brow, and what peace was His was utterly shattered, it was for the glory of God and peace to men. We are so wrapped up in the pursuit of our own glory, aren’t we? And all it does is shatter our peace. Jesus surrendered His peace in pursuit of God’s glory and He won peace for us all. There is peace with God and peace from God for you in Jesus Christ this Christmas. You will find it paradoxically when you give up the pursuit of your own glory, your own praise, your own reputation. When you cease to fill your own horizons and you turn your eyes instead to Jesus Christ and you learn to sing with the angels, “Glory to God!” then your peace will come. You remember Micah 5:5? The Shepherd King the prophet foretold will be our peace. He will be our peace. When you pursue your own glory, your peace will be forever elusive. But when the glory of God has captured your heart as He comes to you in Jesus Christ, only there, only in Him is there peace for you.
Jesus came for shepherds, not kings, for sinners not the righteous, for screw-ups, not all-stars. He came for you and for me. And He came not to cause us terror but to ignite our joy. He came to make your guilty heart sing. He came to make your guilty heart sing. He came the mighty Lord of glory, born in weakness and poverty to give His life in pursuit of God’s glory, exchanging His peace at the cross that you may have exchanged your alienation from God with peace with God forever. What a gift we have been given in a Christmas Gospel that God should become man for us and for our salvation to give us peace and joy in place of fear and shame and alienation. May the Lord be gracious to us to bring us on bended knee anew to the Lord Jesus Christ, that like the angels we may begin to sing with more than our lips but with our hearts and lives, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace with those upon whom He is pleased!” Let us pray!
Our Father, we praise You. We praise You that in Jesus there’s peace for us in our disturbed and restless days found in Jesus Christ, peace with God, the peace of pardon and acceptance and love. Grant that every one of us here may know that peace this Christmas as we trust in Jesus Christ who is Himself our peace. For we ask it in His name, amen.
©2015 First Presbyterian Church.
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