Since August, we have been going through Luke’s Gospel exploring the various encounters people had with Jesus. I have found it most illuminating at the cross section of society who had profound encounters with Jesus. Sometimes it was their initiative to meet Jesus and sometimes it was at the initiative of Jesus. Prostitutes, tax collectors, the poor, blind and lame encountered Jesus. So too did the rich, power, and religious.
And today as we draw to a close this series, we see yet another encounter of some people who encountered Jesus and were changed forever.
The scene is set. Mary and Joseph are in Bethlehem in a humble place (a stable or cave or barn) very likely surrounded by animals. While Mary is laboring to deliver her first born Son, Joseph is there helping and observing the birth of this special child that an Angel told them about.
Through the pain of delivery comes the beautiful baby boy. He is wrapped in strips of clothing to keep him warm and secure. And it is as if God the father had to spread the news. He sends out a birth announcement like none other. With angelic messengers, and bright light and glory he lets the word out.
We might expect heaven to be excited and break forth in shouts of praise for this once in history event. Never before had God taken on human flesh. This was new, this was exciting, this child would change the world.
But the dramatic twist in this scenario is to whom this angelic birth announcement is sent.
Now when Prince William and Kate announced the births of Prince George and Princess Charlotte, the world press as expected went into overdrive. This is when the sales of your Woman’s Weekly and New Idea go through the roof. News of George’s and Charlotte’s birth went immediate around the world through the media and social media. And it will be the same in May next year when their third is born. And with the announcement will be the usual greetings from the national heads of state, Political players, those with Royal blood, famous people. Presidents, governors, senators.
And this is where the twist comes in Christ’s birth announcement. There in Bethlehem was born the King of all kings, the Lord of all lords. This was it. This was the biggest event in human history. And the mayor of Bethlehem doesn’t get the announcement. The High Priest in Jerusalem is left out of the loop. The Caesar and the members of his Royal court don’t get the news. None of the officials, none of the power elite get the announcement.
The palace doesn’t hear, the temple doesn’t hear, Jerusalem doesn’t hear.
This birth announcement that God gives out goes to a group of Shepherds - farmers on the outside of Bethlehem.
Have you ever thought why the shepherds? Why not more noble people for this glorious news? Why some shepherds?
There are probably a few reasons why God chose to reveal this incredible news to these shepherds. We will look, this morning at three of them.
Let’s look at the first. By appearing to Shepherds, God wants to emphasise Jesus’ connection to shepherding. There is a connection between shepherding and the life and ministry of Jesus.
A. First, great leaders in Israel’s history had a connection with shepherding. Jesus would be a shepherd in the line of other great shepherds in Israel’s history. Moses and David were once shepherds before they respectively became the great prophet and king.
In Exodus 3, we read of Moses being called while shepherding the flock of his father Jethro, when he experiences the presence of God in the burning bush.
King David was a shepherd boy when he was anointed by Samuel as King of Israel. He rose from shepherding sheep, to shepherding the people of Israel. In Psalm 78:70-72 we are told, “He chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens; from tending the sheep he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel his inheritance. And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skilful hands he led them” (Psalms 78:70-72 NIV).
In the past God raised up shepherds to lead Israel to a greater knowledge of God. And now in that same tradition, the master Shepherd of Israel the (sheep) had just been born. The Shepherd of shepherds.
Isaiah the prophet foretold that the coming Savior of Israel would be a shepherd to the God’s people. He described the messiah as one who “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young” (Isaiah 40:11 NIV).
Jesus embraced the description of being a Shepherd. He said about Himself: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11 NIV).
The Shepherds on the hills of Bethlehem, that first Christmas, received the news that Christ the Lord was born. The long-awaited shepherd had arrived. The messiah, the leader of the people of Israel. The Jewish messiah.
B. Jesus’ ministry is akin to shepherding. By first announcing the birth of Christ to Shepherds God gave a glimpse into the type of ministry Jesus would have. It would be like sheep herding. In many ways, Jesus showed to people how they were to follow the path of the Lord.
Shepherding, like farming, was hard work. Never a day off. The sheep needed constant attention and care. They could not be left alone for a moment or else trouble would find them.
Shepherds were committed to their sheep. Sheep aren’t the most intelligent animal. They don’t anticipate danger, they mindlessly follow the sheep ahead of them which can make them vulnerable to predators. And of course, sheep are stubborn.
Jesus was to become dedicated in bringing the children of Israel into his fold. And like sheep the children of Israel were a bit slow. They didn’t get it. They were stubborn and deeply entrenched into their own traditions and ways of doing things. This made them vulnerable to lies and ultimately spiritual death. But Jesus would be the Good Shepherd who was willing to pay the ultimate price for the protection, the salvation of his sheep, not only those of Israel, but other sheep. This is why Jesus said in John 10:16, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16 NIV). Jews and Gentiles, the Angel of the Lord would proclaim the Good News is for all people (Luke 2:10).
C. Jesus would be the Lamb of God. Looking back, we can see that God appeared to the shepherds because He knew that his son would be the Good Shepherd, who would pay the ultimate price for his sheep, by laying down His life for theirs.
It is likely that animals the shepherds were watching that night were being raised for the temple sacrifice. They were sacrificial lambs.
And so, it is moving that the Lord God would notify shepherds that not only was the Good Shepherd born that day, in the town of David, but that He was the Saviour (Luke 2:11 NIV). Of course, they probably didn’t connect Isaiah’s prophecy of this Messiah, that “he was led like a lamb to the slaughter…” (Isaiah 53:7 NIV).
John the Baptist did. He knew that the Messiah was coming. He knew what is purpose was. And so, when Jesus came to John who was baptising people at the time, John told everyone there, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NIV).
In that one incredible event, in one person, the Shepherd and the Lamb were born. The spotless lamb had been born. Temple sacrifices would come to an end.
To me, the second point that comes across clearly is, God intentionally used the ordinary as messengers of the Good News.
Let me tell you a bit about shepherds. They were the last people you’d expect God to take notice of. First of all, they were religious outcasts. According to Jewish religious law, these men were unclean. Their line of work prevented them from participating in the feasts and holy days that made up the Jewish religious calendar. Why? Well, somebody had to watch the sheep. When everyone else was making the trip to Jerusalem to make sacrifices at the temple, or to participate in one of the annual feasts, they were out in the fields, watching their sheep. It wasn’t really their fault. But they were looked down on, from a religious point of view. Whatever might have been in their hearts, they weren’t able to participate fully in the religious life of the community.
Not only that, but shepherds were borderline social outcasts. Since they were constantly on the move to find new pasture for their flocks, they were looked on with suspicion. Kind of the way people today might look at gypsies. They were often accused of being thieves. If something came up missing – it must have been those shepherds. They were not permitted to give testimony in a legal proceeding, because their word wasn’t considered trustworthy. And on top of all that, they really didn’t have much contact with other people. Most of the time, they were “shepherds living out in the fields” (Luke 2:8 NIV).
That is who the shepherds were. Outcasts. Overlooked. Ousted by the religious establishment. Not good enough for God, so they were taught.
Now when the angel appears to them, it makes sense why they were scared. This sort of thing just doesn’t happen to people like them. Let’s understand what happened that night: “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified” (Luke 2:9 NIV). I’ll tell you why they were terrified. Not only was there an Angel, but Luke tells us that the “glory of the Lord shone around them”. This “glory of the Lord” that surrounded them was most likely a “Shekinah”. As shekinah is some amazing light where God dwells and its radiates splendour! It was a shekinah that enveloped Jesus when he was transfigured on the mountain. But these shepherds heard many times of the story of the shekinah experiences back in the days of Moses. God’s amazing splendour was in the burning bush and in the pillar of fire and cloud that guided the Hebrews through the desert. Now they were experiencing a Shekinah – the glory of God around them.
So, the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news (not bad news, not judgment, not condemnation) that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10 NIV).
It was for the overlooked, the average of the world that heaven lit up and the announcement came. God threw the switch and displayed the heavenly Christmas lights to bring the good news.
And if there is one lesson we can learn from this series of encounters with Jesus, is that God intentionally wants to have encounters with the ordinary, the average, the overlooked to become His messengers of the good news because that way God gets all the Glory.
You see God doesn’t play power games with people. God doesn’t deal well with inflated egos. By using ordinary, everyday God further displays his power. Luke alludes to this: “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them… The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told” (Luke 2:17-18, 20 NIV).
Can you relate to these shepherds? Feeling overlooked, not much going for you? Here the angel’s message to you - for you a Saviour is born, Christ the Lord. Embrace him.
And now, God calls the church to shepherd people, which leads me to my third point. God calls the church to feed and care for people. Just before Jesus ascended to heaven, he told Peter who was to become a leader in the new church, he told Peter three times, “feed my lambs” (John 21:15), “take care of my sheep” (John 21:16), and “feed my sheep” (John 21:17).
God has called the church to feed the sheep and to take care of them. Jesus also taught in a parable that we are also to go and find the lost sheep that has wandered off (Luke 15:3-7). This is our mandate, to evangelise, to teach God’s Word, and to care for one another. Jesus, as the Great Shepherd has modelled to us how to evangelise, to teach God’s Word and to care for one another. And for those of us who feel to average, to ordinary, to not ready, well the writer of Hebrews wrote this: “…our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will…” (Hebrews 13:20-21 NIV). As the great Shepherd, Jesus equips us for His cause. He trains us, equips us, intercedes for us, and blesses us with spiritual gifts to do His Will. How also were those uneducated, very ordinary shepherds who were equipped supernaturally to spread the word about the Messiah to everyone.
I believe this is what happens when you have an encounter with Jesus Christ. You are not the same person anymore. That’s what happened to Levi, Zacchaeus, Simeon, Anna, the blind man, the adulterous woman – they all encountered Jesus and were changed. The Shepherds encountered Jesus and they were different. No longer forgotten but now bearers of God’s good news.
The thing is, some of us just want to have an intellectual western encounter of Jesus – that is – it all seems logical so I’ll go to church. But an encounter with Jesus demands more. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it” (Luke 9:23-24 NIV). To follow Jesus, we have to surrender our pride, our hurts, our ambitions and in faith obey what God commands. No ifs or buts. It’s in the Bible. Jesus is to be our Lord! It’s only when we lose our pride, our right to get even, our self-ambitions, that we end up being transformed by Jesus. We experience abundant life.
The Christmas story is good news of great joy! You too can encounter Jesus and be changed forever.