The Shepherds in the Field

Sermon by Cory Brock on December 20, 2020

Luke 2:1-14

Our passage today comes from Luke chapter 2 and it is the Christmas story; it’s the story of Jesus’ birth and when the angels appear to tell the shepherds about Jesus’ birth. And very famously in verse 14 of the passage you have the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” – “Glory to God in the highest.” And it says, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth.” And so it tells us that the baby in Bethlehem has come to bring peace on earth. And really the question of the passage is, “What kind of peace did the baby come to bring?” And so let’s look at it; we’ll find out. Let’s pray and then we’ll read it together.

Let’s pray.

Lord, we ask now that Your Spirit would come and open up Your Scriptures to us. And we ask this in the name of Jesus. Amen.

This is God’s Word from Luke chapter 2, verses 1 to 14:

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

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!’”

And so right there at the end it says He came for peace on earth, and so we’re asking, “What kind of peace did the baby, did Jesus come for? What kind of peace did He come to bring?” So three lessons from this passage this morning. First is the rationality of Christmas. And then second, the problem of fear. And finally, how to get peace.

The Rationality of Christmas

So first, the rationality of Christmas. We start in our passage here exactly where Luke starts. And when you look at the actual birth account, the first seven verses – and all the commentators point this out – the grammar, the language, the tone, the list is very rational and it’s really just a presentation of the facts. At Christmas time and Advent we’re talking about Jesus’ birth a lot and it’s very easy to evoke emotion at Advent. But Luke wants us to take a second and just put away the emotion and just be rational for a minute about Christmas. And if you look, for example, at the details of verse 1 to 7, he simply says at that time period the emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus, issues a decree that the world should be registered. That word means a census in order to know how much to charge a household for taxes. And then he just starts listing the facts. By the way, Quirinius was the governor of Syria at this time. And Joseph had to go from Galilee, from Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David because he is a Bethlehemite. And it says he was with his wife, his betrothed, Mary, and she was with child. And the time came for her to give birth and she gave birth and there was no place for them to stay, so they put them in the inn. And whatever they could wrap Him in, they wrapped Him in – swaddling cloths. And the commentators will point out that there is nothing sentimental. Jesus’ birth gets one sentence. The birth of the God-Man gets one sentence!

And then you come, verse 8 to 14, and the glory of the Lord appears and the luminosity of God shines and the shepherds are “sore afraid,” as the King James Version puts it, and the multitude of the chorus of heaven says, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth!” And it’s two very different texts, paragraphs, in tone. And seeing that is so important because we’ve got to see exactly what Luke is doing when he presents the birth account in those first seven verses because in the 19th and 20th and even into the 21st century scholars of the Bible, the Old and New Testament, often will say, often has said, that there is a difference between the Christ of history and the Christ of faith; that the Christ of history is the Jesus that actually was born, lived and died, but what we get in the gospels, they often say, is the Christ of faith. And that’s a religious presentation, a legendary form of Jesus in order to get people to follow Him later on.

And when you look at Luke 2:1-7, Luke is saying to you, “No, no, you can’t do that. You’re not allowed to separate the Christ of history from the Christ of faith. The Christ that is being presented here is in fact the Christ of history.” And if you look at just a few of the details, for example, Caesar Augustus issues a decree – we know exactly who this is. This is Gaius Octavius. He ruled from 27 BC to 14 AD. And Luke is saying, “By the way, this was when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Why is he saying that? Because some of you who are reading this in the 1st century were children when this happened. You remember the decree and you remember when Quirinius was governor. And he was governor from 6 BC down. And Herod dies in either 4 BC or 3 BC. So we can actually, most commentators agree, we can date Jesus’ birth to either 4 BC or 3 BC. Luke is telling us, “Look, I’m telling you when it happened and I’m telling you all the facts and all the details so you know that the Christ of faith is also the Christ of history.” And that’s not surprising because in Luke 1, remember, he says, “My account, my gospel was compiled over a long time, sourcing a bunch of eye witnesses.”

And if you jump to chapter 3, just listen to how precise he gets even in the next chapter:  “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John…” And Luke is saying, “I will give you every single political fact of the day so you know exactly when this happened. This is not legend; this is history.” If they were wanting to write religious legends you would never write the shepherds in. If this was fake, you would never write the shepherds in as the first witnesses of the birth of Jesus Christ because shepherds carried no weight in the society. They were not educated; they were poor. They could not bear testimony in the public court. They were not good first witnesses if you were trying to get people to believe this. You only write it in if it happened that way.

And this point is so important. Just to be rational for a second – what’s so unique about Christianity among the world religions is that the history of Jesus Christ is Christianity. And if you take away the history of Jesus Christ then you don’t have Christianity at all. And that means that it’s His history that is the main rational argument of why we should believe in Him this Christmas. Because the baby of Bethlehem in 4 or 3 BC that we’re reading about right here, He flipped the Greco-Roman world on its head in under a century, the entire Roman empire. And the celebrated humanistic values of the modern West flow because of centuries of belief in His history. And Richard Bauckham, one of the great New Testament scholars of our time, he says it like this. “No other faith in history has so extensively crossed the cultural divisions of humanity and found a place in so many diverse cultural contexts as faith in the history of Jesus Christ” – because of the eye witnesses; because it’s history and not legend.

So let me just close this point by saying for a lot of people December, the winter solstice is tomorrow, it’s the darkest time of the year and it’s the time where doubt can really rise up even as we celebrate the Advent season. And maybe it’s a passage in the Old Testament that you’re struggling to understand or the problem of evil and suffering in this world and in your own life. And let me just say this. Everybody agrees, nobody disagrees with the fact that Jesus was born and that He lived and that He died. But if this was an eyewitness account and if what the gospels say about Him is true, that if you go to Israel you cannot find His bones buried anywhere. If there was a man in the first century and He was born, He lived and He died but He is not dead any longer, then you’ve got to believe everything He ever said.  And that’s not emotional; that’s rational. If He really did rise from the dead then we have to listen to everything that He said. We have to decide this Christmas what we’re going to do with the fact that Luke says this is eyewitness testimony. These are the facts.

The Problem of Fear

So secondly, the problem of fear. Now Luke then focuses our hearts on the shepherds. He gives us the facts in verses 1 to 7. He turns our hearts in verses 8 to 14. And verse 14, very famously, “The Gloria,” the song we love to sing – “Glory to God in the highest and peace…” And that’s there because the angels are saying, “Peace on earth is the baby’s purpose. This is what He’s come for.” But the question is, “What does that mean? What kind of peace is it?” Now we might think about – some of the prophets talk about international peace, peace among nations; how when He comes conflict would stop, swords would be beaten into plowshares. Or we could talk about it at an individual level and say, “Jesus has come to bring me peace in my heart. There’s so much conflict and anxiety in my heart and He’s come for that sort of peace.” And those are true, but that’s not what’s being talked about. That’s not the peace that’s being talked about in this passage.

And to see it you’ve got to look at what happens with the shepherds here. And verse 8 and verse 9, the shepherds are out at night, they’re in their fields, they’re very comfortable shepherding, being shepherds in the dark, but then it says, “The glory of the Lord shone.” So it’s dark, it’s nighttime, but the glory of the Lord appears as light. And we know it’s light because it says it shone. It uses the verb for light there. And immediately Luke is saying, “You know what this looks like? This looks like the Old Testament and it looks like the Shekinah glory, the appearing glory of God coming down as it did over and over in the Old Testament. And in the Old Testament the glory of the Lord always came in one of three forms – as cloud, as impenetrable cloud, as consuming fire, or as blinding light. And it comes here as light and it says here that when God’s luminosity appears, the shepherds were totally okay being out in the middle of the night in the dark. But when the light comes, the KJV puts it, “they were sore afraid.” Literally the text says, “They began to fear with a mega fear.” And it’s so emphatic. It’s saying that they were absolutely shaking in their boots whenever the luminosity of God came down.

And why? And it’s because, just like in the Old Testament, when the glory of the Lord comes – the word, “glory” in the Old Testament is this word, “kavod” and it literally means, “weightiness,” like a weight falling; a heaviness to it. When the glory of the Lord comes into this world it is heavy and it is weighty and humans cannot handle it. Creatures cannot handle it. That’s what’s happening here. Remember when the glory cloud came to the top of Mount Sinai God said the people of Israel at the bottom of the mountain – it was a long way down – and God said, “You tell them that if they even touch the bottom of the mountain they will die.” And then Uzzah touched a piece of furniture that had previously been in the glory presence of the Lord and he died. And we know, it’s a central Biblical idea, that humans are sore afraid in the deadly presence of God when the glory of God comes down.

And why? Well that’s because of the transition between Genesis 2 and 3. In Genesis 2, Adam and Eve literally walk with God in the Garden of Eden, in the glory presence of the Lord. And then they turn their backs on God and right after God comes down again and says, “Where are you, Adam? Why are you hiding in the bushes? Why are you sore afraid?” And what we learn there is that we were, on the one hand, made to walk in the glory presence of the Lord. We were made to be at home with the presence of God Himself, on the one hand, and on the other hand we have become completely unfit to be home; completely unfit for our true home. It’s so cliché, but like Mr. Beaver said to Lucy, again, “He is good, but He is not safe.” And we might say, “He is not safe to us because He is so good.” And Luke says, “Here are the facts – that you are at war with the real God and His presence is deadly.” That’s what the message of the shepherds is here.

In 1941, C.S. Lewis gave a sermon about this during World War II in London and now it’s a very famous essay called, “The Weight of Glory.” And it’s hard to look at a text like this and not think about Lewis’ essay, “Weight of Glory.” He says a lot of amazing things in it but this is what he points out – the thesis really. He says the vision of God or being in the presence of God’s glory is the “secret ache for a far off country that we’ve never been to.” It’s a deep desire for something that we have never actually experienced. It is what we, he says, we really desire. “We get traces of it,” he writes, “when we experience beauty, but we have never seen the thing itself.” And the glory of the Lord, he says, “is the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country that we have never visited, the reality that can break the evil spell of all worldly enchantment. Every human, each one of us,” he says, “remains conscious at all times of a deep down desire which no natural happiness in this world will ever satisfy.”

And so when God’s light appears, it’s blinding and it’s impenetrable and at first, he says, gives us chills and we’re forced to step back and then we want to step forward nevertheless. And it’s just like Moses on top of the mountain whenever God said, “Moses! Moses! Come to me, but don’t get any closer. You want to come home, but no man can see the Lord and live. His presence is deadly for dead sinners.” And that’s why the angels here are so sore afraid. They have the “old ache” as Lewis talks about – deep down satisfaction that they long for but have no known. And it’s being in the glory presence of the Lord.

And so back to verse 14 – as we begin to wrap up this point – the Gloria in excelsis Deo. The angels say the glory of God in the highest has come down to bring peace on earth. And what kind of peace is that? Charles Wesley got it right when he wrote his Christmas hymn. He said, “Peace on earth, mercy mild, God and sinner reconciled.” Before any other peace can enter into the world, real peace, Christmas peace is being reconciled to the God we are at war with. That’s what the baby has come for – to be received back home; to come into the light of God again. And Paul, here’s Paul’s Christmas verse – Colossians 1:21, “Once you were alienated from God and you were enemies with God, but now God has reconciled you to Himself by the body of Jesus Christ that you might enter into His glory.” Christmas peace offers reconciliation with God. It’s an invitation into the fullness of life. And it’s the only way. Saint Augustine put it this way. “You will never find rest until you rest in God’s glory.”

And that’s why the angels say to the shepherds, “Shepherds, go and behold the baby in Bethlehem.” And the reason for that, they’re saying, look, if you, if the baby of Bethlehem, the glory of God come down, truly becomes the desire of your heart, if you have a discipline in your life where you’re meditating on the glory of God and your desires are really being shifted towards wanting to see the face of Jesus Christ more than anything else, then you hope in something that you cannot lose and you hope in something that cannot die – because He already did die and He lives again. And you hope in something that cannot change. And that means if He is truly your greatest desire then all of your fears in this temporal world are relativized because you have something that ultimately will keep you safe, that will ultimately bring you home.

So Lewis closes his essay the same way Luke closes this section. He probably got it from Luke and not the other way around. Lewis says every single human is facing two incredible possibilities. That’s how he puts it. And you see that in verse 14. And some of you might remember – I have a subconscious that brings this language to the top when I read verse 14 – but older translations of the Bible said it a little different than verse 14 here is listed. The King James and others would have said this. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace, good will toward all mankind.” And now when you read the ESV and any modern translation it says, “And on earth, peace among those with whom God is pleased.” And that has narrowed it and has made it much more exclusive. And the reason for that, one, is because we have so many more older manuscripts of the Bible now and so we know actually the way the ESV puts it is the way it was originally. And also because in the older versions they were translating a genitive as an accusative. And I’m not going to say another word about that point, but that’s one of the things that happened!

But Lewis is saying every person has two incredible possibilities. And that’s what Luke 2:14 says. That God’s glory means, God’s glory means you can have peace only if you behold the baby of Bethlehem. And on that point, Lewis says that means we need to know that none of us have ever met a mere mortal, he concludes. Every time you pass somebody on the interstate, every person that’s sitting around you right now, the homeless man, the poor man on the street outside of our building, there are no mere mortals; there are no ordinary persons. Everybody is immortal and will live forever. And there are two possibilities. That is to be near God’s glory, home, or to be far away from God’s glory. And either God’s glory is deadly presence – it kills, or because you have come to behold the baby of Bethlehem, God’s glory becomes home for you again.

How to Get Peace

Now the question then, lastly, is, “How do we get this peace if that’s the peace on offer?” And very briefly, three things in the passage that point us to that. The angels say to the shepherds, “Fear not.” And how is it that they are able to not be afraid of God’s presence any longer? How does Jesus do that? And the first thing to see is this. They say, “Because we have come to bring you good news of great joy.” And that is so important that they say, “good news.” One hundred thirty four times in the New Testament this word shows up, and it’s the word that we translate, “gospel,” – good news. It’s “evangel.” And in that word, “evangel,” you can hear the word, “angel,” because that’s the back part of the word. Evangel; angel. And that’s because “angel” simply means, in the Bible, “message” or “messenger.” And it’s built right there into the word itself. It is the good message, the message of a herald. What’s being offered here, in other words, what you have to know to get peace, you have to know that what’s on offer is not good advice; it’s good news. It is not like going to a pastor and saying, “Can you help me think through this problem in my life.” It’s not like going to a doctor and saying, “Can you help me figure out what’s wrong with my body?” No, it is more like opening up the front page of a newspaper. To get peace, you have to know it’s good news. It’s a proclamation over you, not advice that comes under you to lift you up.

And Martin Luther, at the time of the Reformation, really after the Reformation had started in the 1520s, he says that when he read about the good news, the Gospel, the evangel, in Romans 1, Romans 4, places like this, he writes – “I hated the Gospel.” And the reason he says that is because for all of his life he thought that the Gospel said, “Act like God. Be like God. Live a life like God would live His life enough, and eventually you may be ushered into the glory presence of the Lord.” And so he writes, he said in the 1520s, “Before I discovered justification, before I discovered the fact that evangel is proclamation, not advice, I hated the Gospel.” And they could not say, “Good news of great joy.” This is not a joyous message unless it is absolutely newspaper worthy and not in any way advice to you.

Now secondly then, what exactly is the news? And they say, they say, “This day in the City of David, a Savior, born this day in the City of David, a Savior.” Well what is this news? Well the word that Luke gives us is that He is a Savior, meaning before Him, if you tried to touch the mountain of the Lord you will die. But He can save you from that; He can bring you in. He can take you from outside of the presence of God to inside the presence of God. That’s what it means for Him to be a Savior. But it’s so important to note exactly what it says because it doesn’t just say that He is a Savior. It says, “Born this day, a Savior.” Not only is He the God who can bring you into the presence of God but that this God, this Savior has been born. And that’s so important to note the fact that God has been born as a man. He has become a human. And the early Church was so serious about this that they called Mary, “the God bearer.” Mary who gives birth is the God bearer. And they used to say it like this. “That which is not assumed cannot be healed.” “That which is not assumed cannot be healed.” In other words, if God was not born as a man, if He did not take on the fullness of humanity and live as a human, then humanity could never be saved. That which is not assumed – if He did not take on human beings, then human beings could never be healed. That which is not assumed cannot be healed.

And let me just give you two quick reasons why this is such good news. The first is this. In the fact of the baby in Bethlehem, God pronounces over the world, over all creaturely existence, “I am going to keep human beings around forever” because now God has become a human being and God, as the Son, Jesus Christ, will be a human being for all of eternity. And so in His birth, God is saying to us, “Humans are never going away. Humans are going to stay forever. I am saving humanity in this child.”

And the second reason is this, and the final reason is they say also, “When you shepherds go to Bethlehem, look for the sign. And the sign is that you will see Him in a feed trough in swaddling cloths. You will find Him in the animal muck in the feed trough and wrapped in whatever we could find to wrap Him in after He was born.” That’s what they’re talking about. And the angels say that to the shepherds so that they’ll know this is the baby Jesus. He is the one in the feed trough, by the way. But also that word, “sign,” means He is also a symbol. This is a symbol. When you find the baby in the feed trough, when you find the baby wrapped in whatever blanket they could find for Him, know that His outward poverty is a sign and a symbol of the fact that He came to the world to take on the condition of humanity all the way to the bottom.

A couple of early Church fathers, they put it like this. Ambrose, a preacher, he said, “You will find no baby in Bethlehem wrapped in Tyrian purple,” in the royal color of the king. And John Chrystostom, when he was preaching on this, he says this. “Surely if God had so willed it, Jesus might have come moving the heavens, making the earth to shake, shooting forth thunderbolts, but such was not the way of his going forth. His desire was not to destroy but to save, and to trample upon human pride from its very birth. Therefore, he is not only man, but a poor man. And as the baby has chosen a poor mother who had not even a cradle where she might lay her newborn child, so it says she laid Him in the feed trough.”

You see, His outward poverty at the point of His birth is a prophecy that He has taken on the condition of the inward poverty of all humanity, that He who knew no sin became sin. When you look at the poor baby – the baby in the animal muck, the baby wrapped in whatever they could find – it’s a prophecy. It’s saying that His birth conditions will be His death conditions; that the poverty of His birth will end in the poverty of His death. He will become ultimately poor on the cross. It’s a prophecy that says He will be forsaken from the glory presence of the Lord so that you could be welcomed home again.

And so we’ll just close with this last word. How do you get the reconciliation with God? That’s what’s on offer at Christmas. How do you get it? You have to know that this is news and not advice. You have to believe that He took on your condition; that this is a fact. And that He carried this condition all the way to the cross for you. Finally, Luke says, Luke says finally – he closes with this – he says we have to then fight to not be modernists. And it would be very easy to come to a sermon like this, a passage like this and say, “Sure, I believe the history. I am a Christian. I can’t remember when I became a Christian. I’ve been a Christian for so long.” But Luke’s question at the end is, “Do you live like a modernist?” Because a modernist is a person who doesn’t believe in the supernatural. And a modernist Christian is a person who believes in the glory of God as their home in theory but it hasn’t penetrated down to the bottom of the heart and it hasn’t really become something that shapes your life and shapes your consciousness in how you envisage all of reality.

And you see what Luke does here? It’s what really happened, but he records it for you. Verse 13, it says that it’s not just an angel that was there but all of a sudden the heavenly curtain was pulled back and there was a multitude of the entire host of God right there. And that’s so critical because sometimes in the Bible heaven and earth are talked about as above and below, but that’s metaphorical speech. The more real metaphysics, the way of really describing it, the Bible also presents, and that’s that the glory presence of the Lord is more like simply having the curtain pulled apart and there is the heavenly host, right now. Are we modernist Christians? In other words he is saying people who believe in the baby of Bethlehem, that He is the God-Man, we have to be rabid supernaturalists in a naturalistic world. Or we could put it more specifically, we have to live life like there is a heavenly glory just a curtain pull away, that the dimension of God’s presence is there, it’s real, it’s the really real, if you will. It’s the most real thing. And it’s the fact that defines our earthly life and our earthly existence. We’ve got to meditate on that. We’ve got to meditate on the reality of His glory presence just behind the curtain.

This is Christmas week, but tomorrow is still Monday and the cross always comes before the crown. And so this week, may we turn our hearts to meditate on the reality, the really real fact that the glory presence of God is right behind the curtain, that Jesus Christ, the baby become crucified man for us, the resurrected King for us is there in the glory presence of the Lord, and that it’s the most real thing – the place of real peace. The fact is, Emmanuel – God has come to be with us. Let’s pray together.

Father, we ask that You would shake us up and turn our hearts to help us to understand that there is nothing more real than Your heavenly court and the hosts and the fact that Jesus Christ, as a Man who is God, is seated there right now and that You are just behind the curtain. You are present everywhere. May we know that the message of Christmas, Lord, is that You have come to reconcile us to You. We ask for that heart that we would really believe it today. And we ask that in Jesus’ name, amen.

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