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Christmas sermon blog: Shepherds’ delight

December 20, 2017

shepherdsofsignificance

Luke 2:1-20

“And so this is Christmas”.

Such a busy time – full on.

A time when our attention is filled with so many things and it’s good to have time to focus on what Christmas is truly all about.

A familiar tale?

It’s a story that we think we know so well, but often I think we know so little.

The gospels contain scant details about what we would call the first Christmas.

Mark does not mention it at all

And John writes high poetry about the eternal Word who becomes flesh.

There is no mention of shepherds and angels, or wise men, or even a baby.

For those details we turn to the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

But even there we are presented with the bare bones of the nativity story.

Using our imagination

The details are so thin that inevitably, and quite rightly, people have had to use their imaginations, to try to recreate those events.

What happens as a result of that is that the donkey, or the inn keeper, or the stable have come to be regarded as fact and are part of our nativity plays and our carols.

We even find room for snow in our Bethlehem story.

2 accounts, one story

Matthew and Luke choose to tell different aspects of the Christmas story, different characters are introduced, but the 2 complement each other marvellously.

This morning we have chosen to look at Luke’s take on the events. Luke is writing to a friend called Theophilus. In his opening chapter he describes how he has “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” and has “decided to write an orderly account” of the life of Jesus.

History: Son of God

And so to start he puts things in their historical context.

The Roman emperor of the day is Caesar Augustus – he is the self-styled Son of God. He used the title Augustus intentionally to denote majesty.

There would be a great contrast with this emperor, who claimed the title son of God and the description Majestic.

Jesus we shall see is the true Son of God and profoundly majestic and yet subjected himself to poverty. Augustus sought to change the world by force.

Jesus by love.

Indeed this apparently insignificant baby would end up confronting the greatest empire in the world.

God’s plan

The true God may be very much at work here but there is human activity working behind the scenes of God’s great plan.

It is Caesar Augustus who calls for a census of the entire Roman world.

A show of strength perhaps.

Luke tries to pin the events down further, saying this particular census was the one while Quirinius was governor of Syria.

Dates!

It is unclear from the history books as to when such a census would have taken place, there is some confusion too over the dates of Quirinius

Elsewhere in the story we read of King Herod. As Herod died in 4 AD Jesus must have been born before then.

The calendar has long been known to have obviously gone wrong somewhere. Jesus was not born at year DOT, but over 4 years BEFORE CHRIST.

The place

The census Luke describes required people to go to their own town to register.

Matthew does nothing to explain how this came about but Matthew and Luke are both loud and clear in telling us that Mary and Joseph found themselves in Bethlehem.

Luke tells us that they travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Their ancestral home.

O little town

Bethlehem was not a place apparently of great significance, certainly not in terms of numbers.

But it had great significance for the people of Jesus’ day.

One of their prophets Micah had prophesied a ruler who would come from Bethlehem. The chief priests believed this to be Messiah, as they confirm to Herod in Matthew’s account, quoting Micah the prophet.

Small town hero

But this little town of Bethlehem, had another claim to fame. Israel’s greatest most famous of kings was a small town hero. A noble man of most humble beginnings.

The youngest of 8 sons. A boy tending sheep out on the hills of Bethlehem.

But from small beginnings came KING DAVID.

The carol rather exaggerates things in describing Bethlehem as “Royal David’s city”. Even at the time of Jesus birth it was no city, it was barely a town. “O little town of Bethlehem” is much more appropriate.

Some would say its population was perhaps around 1,000.

Royal family!

Joseph is of the house and line of David. Mary it is revealed elsewhere can also claim that lineage.

The child the angel spoke to Mary of was promised the throne of David.

God’s plan is being meticulously worked out.

Complications

So Joseph heads to Bethlehem with Mary.

They are betrothed, a status equivalent to marriage in every sense, save that they did not share a bed. Mary – pledged to be married.

But also expecting a child!

It’s quite matter of fact but in that day, would have been a scandal.

Joseph had needed an angel in a dream to convince him that Mary had not been unfaithful to him.

Matthew makes it clear that Joseph was minded to divorce her quietly, rather than having her stoned according to the letter of the law.

But then the angel and the Gospel truth.

I always suspect the questions would never have gone away. “Remember that couple? She’s the virgin who had a baby!”

Time

Joseph went with Mary – there is no mention of how they got to Bethlehem.

But the donkey is as good a guess as any.

The time now came for the baby to be born. Luke describes the baby as “HER firstborn, a son”.

 

Humble beginnings

He is wrapped in cloths and placed in a manger. Doesn’t sound like much of a beginning.

Lying in an animal’s feeding trough.

The NIV explains why.

No room!

There is no guest room.

Most experts will agree that the translation of “no room in the inn” is the wrong translation. As far as I am aware the NIV is the only version which translates the words in what is believed to be correct.

It is considered unlikely that Bethlehem had an inn for two reasons:

Firstly it wasn’t big enough!

Secondly hospitality was second nature to people in that culture. There would have been no need for such a place. Even complete strangers would be entertained.

Rather there is no guest room available so they would have slept in the room otherwise occupied by the family’s animals.

Today’s equivalent might be sleeping on the settee in a sleeping bag.

Whatever the reason, it seems there is certainly a sense in which Jesus didn’t quite fit in.

Is that still true today?

“The lack of room for Jesus in our modern world is sometimes a deliberate refusal but, it seems to me, it is more often, now as then, that there simply isn’t quite space for him”. Paula Gooder – ‘Journey to the Manger’.

Shepherds: history repeats itself

The scene changes. We are now transported to the fields around Bethlehem.

Maybe these were even the fields where David himself was once found caring for the family’s sheep. David the shepherd boy.

In an interesting twist, it is shepherds out on those same fields, who are chosen as the hearers and carriers of the greatest news.

Given King David’s beginnings, and God’s constant Old Testament references to himself as a shepherd to his people (“the LORD is my shepherd”), it is surprising that by this time shepherds enjoyed a pretty bad reputation.

Shepherds it seems were despised. Largely uneducated. The rabbis regarded them as untrustworthy, always on the move. Their lifestyle made it pretty much impossible for them to observe the religious purity laws, and their sheep would stray on to others’ land.

They were certainly outsiders.

But Just as Jesus was born in humble circumstances, God does not make an announcement in a royal palace, in the temple, but rather out in those fields.

There they are: the night shift – guarding their flocks.

Angels!

An angel of the Lord appeared to them – at that moment heaven opened.

Unlike in other parts of the Christmas narrative, the angel is unnamed. There is nothing to suggest that it would be wrong to believe this was Gabriel once more.

There’s an angel. The glory of the Lord. Those dark hills are lit up dramatically.

It’s terrifying.

As always seems to be the case, it is the angel’s first job to put their minds at rest and to encourage them not to be afraid.

Good news!

The shepherds are not despised but are privileged to be chosen to hear good news.

Of great joy.

Good news of great joy for everyone. No exceptions.

Even shepherds.

A saviour has been born to you.

TO YOU! In your little town. The town of David.

This isn’t just for the others. This is so much more than an ordinary normal birth of a baby.

This is for them.

This baby is the long awaited Messiah, the Lord.

As Tim Keller puts it in his book ‘Hidden Christmas’, “God…wrote himself into the drama of history”.

Sign

And they can know this baby for themselves.

They can find him.

He will be exactly not where you would expect to see the Messiah.

The shepherds would not be welcome in palace or temple, but here they get front row seats.

The baby’s unusual birth was to be a sign to them. They are not given directions, mobile numbers, or street names.

“Look for the baby in the animal trough. This is a small place. You’ll have no trouble finding him if you ask around”.

Sing choirs of angels

As they struggle to take this in, the angel is joined by “great company of the heavenly host”.

Praising God.

“Glory to God in the highest”,

And pronouncing a blessing on this world.

“Peace on earth – to those on whom his favour rests”. This child is due to bring an end to enmity and warfare.

To quote the carol “God and sinners reconciled”.

Heavenly hosts when they do appear in scripture are normally ready to fight, as in 2 Kings 6:14-17, in the story of Elisha.

Or they are depicted around the throne of God worshipping day and night (1 Kings 22:19).

Now they raise their singing voices in worship and bringing of good news.

“The implication is that this event is so great and world changing that the shepherds are given a rare glimpse into heaven to see the angels praising God” – Paula Gooder – ‘Journey to the Manger’.

Let’s go!

The angels head back to heaven. Or heaven is once more closed up, and the fields are back in thick darkness again.

Did the shepherds discuss the events, this impressive show they had witnessed?

No their response was immediate and urgent:

“Let’s go and see this thing that has happened!”

“The Lord has told us about” this.

They hurried off

Just as they were told

They found Joseph and Mary and the baby – not sure how, but there they were.

The baby lying in a manger feeding trough – the angel’s words were true.

Tell us the story!

So what did the shepherds say? How did they explain their visit to Mary and Joseph?

What did they do? Did they worship? Did they bring gifts? We’re not told.

What did Mary & Joseph say? We are not told. The details of the meeting are not shared with us. They remain a secret between Joseph and Mary, the animals, the shepherds with the infant Messiah oblivious.

Spread the word

But we are told the effect this meeting had upon the shepherds. They spread the word about what they had been told about the child. The words of the angels. Maybe too the words of the young couple with the baby.

All who heard were amazed at what the shepherds said

Were they amazed at the message? Probably.

Were they amazed that the shepherds were chosen to spread the news? Probably.

Treasure

Mary we are told treasured all these things. This was a response of the emotions and the heart. With all that Mary and Joseph had experienced themselves, they heard now how the news was announced on David’s hillsides.

Praising

The shepherds return euphoric.

Glorifying and praising God for what they had seen and heard.

And for choosing to tell them.

Responses

Check it out

So what is your reaction today to the Christmas story?

Are you like the shepherds, you’ve heard that here in this story is a saviour, the Messiah, a king?

Will you be untouched by the news or will you determine to see for yourself?

Don’t just be a spectator at Christmas, but seek out the Saviour.

He is a saviour TO YOU.

Ponder

Will you be like Mary?

As she takes in the unfolding Christmas story, she drinks it all in. She makes sense of it all. But it’s not just an intellectual response. The events touch her heart.

She treasures these things.

Do we stop to think. What does all this mean to me? Its more than just a story.

Those of us who have been Christians many years, has it all become too familiar?

Time to let Christmas change our thinking and our hearts.

Telling others

Will we be like the shepherds who’s natural response to the amazing experience of meeting Jesus, was to tell others? Can we keep the good news of Jesus, the saviour, to ourselves?

 

 

 

Praising

Would those shepherds ever be the same after that night? They returned to their work. But they returned in an attitude and an atmosphere of praise and worship to God.

As you focus on the Christmas story again this year let it shape your heart and your mind and bring about a response of praise and worship.

Even when you’re in the middle of looking after your sheep.

Or whatever it is you do.

This story is good news of great joy, for all the people.

For you.

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