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While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night

Series: Songs of Christmas

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Dec 27, 2004

Luke 2:8-15

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Turn with me now to the Gospel of Luke, and the second chapter, and we’ll read once again the familiar words of the Nativity story as we find it in Luke's Gospel, beginning at verse eight. This is God's holy and inerrant word:

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: ye shall find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly hosts, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’”

Amen. May God bless to us the reading of His holy and inerrant word.

Now, as well as having that portion of Scripture open before you, you may also want to have the hymn, the carol, No. 222 or 223; we've just sung it in the version to the tune of 223, but we’ll be singing it in the version of 222 at the close of our service.

This past month we've been looking at the very familiar songs of Christmas, Christmas carols, and allowing them to be portals through which we may view once again these familiar narratives of the incarnation, the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This morning's carol is While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night, by Nahum Tate.

This past summer I was in London by myself; and being by myself I did what I often do when I'm in London by myself, and that is I visit the National Gallery. And I saw once again two of the most famous paintings of the Adoration of the Shepherds. That's not the story we're looking at this morning. This is a little later in the story when the shepherds moved from the Judean hillside actually to Bethlehem to see for themselves the Baby Jesus lying in the manger. And the two paintings come from the seventeenth century by Puissant and Rembrandt, and they’re very fine, fine paintings indeed. There's another one of great fame by Titian, but it's not in London, it's in Florence in Italy, and I've never been there.

But this scene, the Rembrandt painting, especially, is one that touches me. It's typically seventeenth century, of course: the dress that everybody is wearing is seventeenth century; the barn in which the manger is to be found comes, I think, from at least Medieval Europe, if not fifteenth or sixteenth century Europe; and there's a light, a glow, an incandescence which emerges from the manger–none of which, you understand, is true to the history of the birth of Jesus. And it's not those aspects so much, it's the faces of the shepherds; it's the expressions on the faces of the shepherds–and if you have no idea what it is that I'm talking about, then if you have access to the internet, or you have a book on Rembrandt's paintings (maybe you had one yesterday for Christmas), just look up these paintings and just look at the wonderful way in which Rembrandt can catch the expressions of wonder and delight and awe on the faces of these shepherds.

The carol, While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night, was written by an Irishman, Nahum Tate. He was born and studied in Trinity College at Dublin. He became the Poet Laureate for Britain. He had something of a very sad end, and died as an alcoholic. He's buried in St. Paul's Cathedral. He had a special interest in the Psalms, and actually published two volumes of The Complete Psalms, the 150 Psalms for singing: one in 1696 and another some six years later in 1702.

He's the author of some very famous Psalm settings: As Pants the Hart for Cooling Streams from Psalm 42; Through All the Changing Scenes of Life, from Psalm 44; Oh, ‘Twas a Joyful Sound to Hear, from Psalm 122; and perhaps less familiarly to us, With Glory Clad, With Strength Arrayed, from Psalm 93; and all four of those Psalm settings are in Trinity Hymnal. And that accounts, I think, in part, for the style of Nahum Tate's famous carol, While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night, because it really is a paraphrase of this Luke 2 section that we read together this morning. And it reflected something of Nahum Tate's philosophy about singing, and about praise in the worship service, and that they should be as biblical as possible. And I think his interest in the Psalms probably reflects that.

There are two famous tunes set to While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night. We've just sung the later of them, namely that written in 1728 by none other that George Frederick Handel, and called CHRISTMAS. Perhaps the more familiar one, at least to me, is the older of the two settings: WINCHESTER OLD, actually written towards the end of the sixteenth century, in 1592, and actually appeared as a tune for a Psalm in a fairly famous book of Psalms published by Thomas Este.

What I propose to do this morning is to look at this carol. It has six stanzas, but I want to see five things that emerge from this carol setting of Luke, chapter two, the first of which is this: the unlikely recipients.

I. The Unlikely Recipients.

While shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground...” and that's a paraphrase of what Luke tells us in the eighth verse of Luke, chapter two. The lesson of this is that the gospel is for sinners. These are shepherds.

Now, I wonder this morning who you would have gone to first of all with the news if you had been one of the angels whom God had spoken to, or perhaps the angel of the Lord, the unidentified angel of the Lord who speaks first of all to these shepherds. I wonder to whom you would go with the news that God had sent His only begotten Son to become incarnate, to take on flesh and blood, and to be born of the Virgin Mary in this stable, in this manger in Bethlehem. Perhaps you’d have gone first of all to the high priest in Jerusalem, the “senior minister” of “First Temple in Jerusalem”, perhaps. That would be a very good choice, would it not?

But perhaps you’d have gone to the scribes in Jerusalem, the teachers–or, if you like, the preachers who are full of learning and wisdom. Perhaps you’d have gone to them.

Perhaps you’d have gone to the Sanhedrin, the seventy elders who ruled the theocratic state of Israel, now in tension with the occupying force of the Roman Empire.

Perhaps you’d have gone to the Pharisees, the strictest Jewish interpreters of all legal aspects with regard to Judaism, and who were constantly talking about and looking for the Messiah.

And perhaps least of all, you would have gone to some shepherds on a Judean hillside, looking after their sheep by night. And that's because, as you will see in your bulletin, your Worship Guide for this morning–I have a quote there from a very famous (though not altogether orthodox) New Testament scholar by the name of Joachim Jeremias, who tells us something about the background to first century shepherds.

Shepherds were despised; they were considered unclean; they were forever being accused of robbing each other's sheep; they were, therefore, not allowed to enter various homes and engage in some of the cultic practices of worship in Jerusalem because they were thought to be unclean–and it's a portrait, it's a cameo picture that the first announcement of the birth of Jesus comes to those who were regarded in the first century as the despised, as sinners. And it's to sinners first of all that the message of the gospel comes, that Mary herself had sung in The Magnificat when the announcement of her own pregnancy had been given by Gabriel: “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly.” Those who have nothing to bring and nothing to offer, with empty hands who come to God as Paul himself would exclaim, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”

“While shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground...” It's a word of gospel grace to sinners like you and me.

Not only the unlikely recipients, but secondly, the fearful reaction.

II. The Fearful Reaction.

The angel of the Lord came down, and glory shone around. ‘Fear not,’ said he–for mighty dread had seized their troubled minds–“glad tidings of great joy I bring to you and all mankind.” And again, that is just a paraphrase of what Luke tells us in the ninth verse of Luke, chapter two.

What had startled the shepherds was a combination of the sight and sound of the angel of the Lord (who is unidentified) and the glory of that shone around: “...and glory shone around.” They were afraid. They were “sore afraid.” Literally, in the Greek “they feared with great fear.” “Glory” is the Bible's word for God's presence; and, there's a weight, there's a significance, there's an intensity to the presence of God.

Now, granted, it is the angel of the Lord who appears to these shepherds, but it's a reflected glory. This angel of the Lord has been in God's presence and is now a bit like Moses when he comes down from the mountain, reflecting the glory of God. This angel of the Lord is reflecting the very presence of Almighty God to these shepherds as they’re encamped on these Judean hillsides. You remember Moses had asked to see the full glory of God, but Moses could never have survived a full display of the glory of God; and, in that anthropomorphic language of Exodus 33, it's not the face of God that Moses sees, you remember: it is the back of God, rather than His face.

Now, it's deeply significant that in the history of redemption God's presence had been manifest in the holy of holies in the temple in Jerusalem, but in Ezekiel in chapters 8, 9, and especially chapter 10, the prophet Ezekiel had described in the latter days of Jerusalem after the Assyrian invasion, and then the Babylonian invasion, how, because of the sinfulness and waywardness of Israel, how the glory of God had actually departed and left the sanctuary–the temple precincts, the holy of holies–and had, as it were, walked out of the temple. And now the glory of God is once again shining: shining to these shepherds, as the announcement of the birth of Jesus has associated with it the return of God's favor and the return of God's blessing, and the angel speaks to these shepherds: “Don't be afraid. Do not be afraid.” This is not for the shepherds the presence of God's judgment, but the presence of God's glory in blessing, in good news.

It would be a wonderful exercise for you on this day (I was about to call it “Boxing Day”, but you don't know what that is...but it's the day after Christmas)–but, to go through your Bibles. Get a concordance, use the index, perhaps, in the back of your own copy of the Scriptures, and maybe this afternoon go through the Scriptures and underline those occasions when God has come to His people and said, “Do not be afraid.” And you will discover that at very significant moments in the history of redemption, God has come to His people and has said to the likes of you and me, “Do not be afraid,” because at the heart of what God does in the sending of His Son is a message of great joy, not only to these shepherds, but to all people, and to you and to me this morning.

The unlikely recipients; the fearful reaction; and, thirdly, the sovereign Lord.

III. The Sovereign Lord.

“To you in David's town this day is born of David's line, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord...” Nahum Tate renders the Lucian passage. He is none other than Christ, the Lord! That's who He is. In Matthew's Gospel, we read that the angel announced to Joseph that He would be called “Jesus,” because He would save His people from their sins; but here, to the shepherds the angel refers to the birth of Jesus as “Christ the Lord.”

He is Christ, first of all. And in both the Greek translation of the Old Testament and in the Greek New Testament, this word “Christ” renders “the anointed one.” “The anointed one” —in the Hebrew, “Messiah.” It refers to somebody who is set apart, set apart for a specific office. Jesus is the anointed King; the Messiah of God's promise; the One who would emerge as the fulfillment and culmination of all that God had promised all the way back in Genesis 3:15, that “the seed of the woman would crush the head of Satan.” He is of David's line. He's born in the city of David, and through both Mary and Joseph, His lineage can be traced back to David's line. He is Messiah! He is the Christ! He is the one the Old Testament had long since been expecting: “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”–and the Christ has been born.

But He is not only the Christ, but he is the Lord. He is, in the Greek text, Kurios, and there's something staggering about the use of that word in the Greek New Testament, because it translates–when they translated the Hebrew Old Testament, this is the word, this is the word they would use to render the divine name, the name that was so holy that the Jews never even pronounced it! And what the angel is saying to the shepherds in the hillside is the One that is born in a stable in Bethlehem–that they will soon go and see and behold for themselves–is none other than the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth. Christ is Lord. Jesus is Lord.

You know that expression, “Jesus is Lord” was the most fundamental expression that the early New Testament church could ever have uttered. Robert Manse, a New Testament scholar, says, “‘Jesus is Lord’ was the earliest single-clause Christological confession of primitive Christianity.” That's what the gospel was: that Jesus is Lord; that the baby born in Bethlehem is none other than the Lord of glory.

Not only the unlikely recipients; and the fearful response; and the sovereign Lord; but, fourthly, the incarnate Savior.

IV. The incarnate Savior.

“The heavenly babe you there shall find to human view displayed,

all meanly wrapped in swathing bands, and in a manger laid.”

Now, it wasn't the fact that they would find a child wrapped in these bands, and wrapped in those bands —it is thought to insure the straightening of certain limbs- that in itself would not be unusual. What would be unusual is to find a baby lying in a manger in Bethlehem, and it would be a sign to these shepherds of the truthfulness of what the angel of the Lord, and ultimately, what God Himself was saying to them: that God had become incarnate; that the infinite God of heaven and earth, in the words of Wesley, “has been contracted to a span”; that, in the words of C.S. Lewis through the voice of Lucy, “There was one in this world who was greater than the world itself.” It's a mystery. It is beyond our ability to grasp it: that the creator of the heavens and the earth is lying in a manger; that He never ceases to be the Lord; that He continues to be what He had always been; but in addition to what He had always been, He now has become a human being, a little infant. He is the God-man for us, and for our salvation, and for our deliverance. He has become incarnate, and every Christmastime, every Christmastime, we ought to allow ourselves a few hours–perhaps a few days–simply to contemplate and turn over in our minds what that actually means. And it will, to use the euphemistic language, it will blow you away, because it is beyond our ability to grasp how God and man can be united in such a way that He is both God in the true sense of the word, and man, in the true sense of the word.

So that Nahum Tate as he paraphrases this second chapter of Luke then turns to the fifth element of the story, and that is the angels’ song:

V. The angels’ song.

“Thus spake the seraph, and forthwith

appeared a shining throng

of angels praising God, who thus

addressed their joyful song:

“All glory be to God on high,

and to the earth be peace;

good will henceforth, from heav’n to men,

begin and never cease!”

“Glory to God!” they sang. Glory is associated with the word doxology. They were giving praise to God. They were returning the glory back to Him again. They were singing a Reformation song: “Soli Deo Gloria” they sang! All glory, all weight, all significance, all worship, all praise be given to God. Peace on earth! Not peace in the sense of rest from warfare, but the peace that comes as a result of the Gospel: being justified by faith, we have peace with God. That as a result of trusting in Jesus Christ, the warfare between us and God has been done away with. We have been reconciled to God through the death of His Son.

And then, “All glory be to God on high, and on the earth be peace; good will...” that second little phrase...”Good will towards men”...and it's often been trivialized to mean showing deeds of kindness and giving presents and whatnot, and the King James Version (and for that matter, the New American Standard Version)–“with whom He is pleased” sometimes can be rendered and thought, and sounds like as though God is granting peace to those who deserve it, and of course that's not what the angels are saying at all. And so, an alternative rendering makes it: “Peace among men of His good pleasure”, emphasizing the divine sovereignty, emphasizing the divine initiative, emphasizing the divine monargism of the activity of God. God is bestowing His blessing on those whom He chooses, and the angels are singing the sovereignty of God! They’re singing a Reformation carol! They’re singing Luther's Ein’ Feste Burg! They’re singing Sola Fide and Sola Christus and Sola Gratia, and Soli Deo Gloria! All praise to God!

Let me end with this, another Christmas carol by Christina Rosetti, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

“What can I give Him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.

If I were a wise man, I would do my part.

Yet what I can I give Him:

Give Him my heart.”

And that's what this message calls from us this morning, is the giving of our hearts to Him in praise and in worship, and in adoration; to mingle our voices with these angels and to give Him glory.

Now let's sing together these words of While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks from the version 222.

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© 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.