Our consideration of God’s Word in this study gives us opportunity to identify two realities in our western culture.
First, we are confronted with the role played by the concept of celebrity and factors defining desirability. You are familiar with some of the factors that would perhaps highlight such celebrity: physical appearance or abilities, material assets, lifestyle, opulence, extravagance, etc.
When we consider the life of Jesus Christ in the light of these factors, it becomes very clear that He would not have been considered a celebrity!
It is easy and tempting to stand in judgement on cultures that have overt caste systems and a social hierarchy where some people are more “in” than others, when in fact we ourselves in our own hearts and minds have a covert system where we despise the poor and the uneducated, or those who live in bad neighbourhoods, wear threadbare clothes and drive old cars. We might be tempted to immediately put down their poverty to laziness and poor stewardship, but even if not, we still have distinct categories in our minds.
But in this text this morning we are faced with a second reality, which sophisticated people (we like to think that’s us!) need to factor into their understanding of reality: namely, the presence and role of angels—spirit-beings—that are not always visible, but are nonetheless doing God’s bidding. What we see with our physical eyes is not all that there is. There is more to reality than what we can appreciate with our five senses.
So, this morning, we will be speaking, amongst other things, about shepherds and angels. The take-home for all of us is that we must seek to be like them (the angels and the shepherds), for their journey began in faith and obedience and ended in praise and proclamation.
The words of our text are familiar to us, and at first blush they alert us to several things.
On the one hand, we are reminded afresh of God’s love affair with shepherds. Shepherds were despised in the ancient world, and yet God used several shepherds in Scripture as bearers of His Word and authority. Moses was a shepherd when God called him at the burning bush to lead His people out of Egypt. David was a simple shepherd boy when God sent Samuel to anoint him as king. Amos was called from his work as a shepherd to deliver God’s Word to the nation of Israel. And here, the first announcement of the good news of Jesus’ birth came to shepherds.
On the other hand, we are reminded of the great and joyful announcement of peace made by the angels. At first, a single angel appeared to the shepherds to make the announcement (v. 9), but soon the sky was filled with angels as they sang glory to God in thunderous chorus (v. 13). It is somewhat ironic that an army of angels was sent to bring an announcement of peace to humankind, which stood at enmity to God because of sin! We wonder what is the nature of this peace, on whom does it rest?
We are further confronted in our text with Mary treasuring certain things in her heart, and this perhaps gives us cause to wonder whether she was perhaps Luke’s human source of information. You will remember that Luke consulted various sources in the compilation of his Gospel, and Mary may well have been his primary source for the account of Jesus’ birth.
We are also given opportunity to wonder why we so despise poverty and the poor, and hanker after wealth and esteem the rich. The fact is that the things of God’s kingdom are often hidden from the rich, great and noble, and revealed rather to the poor. As the apostle James said, “Listen my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5).
We marvel also at the fact that the very first worshippers of the Christ-child, sent to the earth to redeem sinful humanity, were sinless angels. Hebrews 1:6 makes reference to the birth of Christ and the worship of the angels.
But having made some preliminary observations, let us delve a little further into our actual text and appreciate some things that Luke recorded for us.
Appreciate the scene
Jesus had just been born that night in Bethlehem, “and in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (v. 8). These shepherds were doing their job: They were watching over the flocks at night. The sheep being raised here may well have been destined for slaughter at the temple, and it was the task of the shepherds to ensure their safety. The most dangerous time for a shepherd was at night, but these shepherds were dutifully doing what was expected of them.
As noted above, shepherds were a despised class in the ancient world. Their job prevented them from keeping the ceremonial law. They moved around with the flocks a lot, and this gave many of the more suspicious folk in their vicinity cause to suspect them as thieves. It is a matter of historical record that shepherds were considered so unreliable that they were not permitted to give evidence in a court of law. And yet, as we have seen, God used shepherds very effectively in His work.
As they dutifully went about their responsibilities,
an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with 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 Saviour, 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.”
You can well imagine the shock of the shepherds. As they were perhaps conversing on a hillside while the sheep slept not too far away, a bright angel suddenly appeared without warning. No wonder he had to first allay their fears before he could give them the good news!
We recently had a majestic electrical storm, in which our house was took a direct strike by lightning. We were sitting inside while the lightning flashed and the thunder roared, and all of a sudden our lights tripped and flames burst from the electrical sockets. It was an electrical storm unlike any other that I have ever experienced and it caused a distinct sense of nervousness. How much more awe-inspiring it must have been to have an angel, surrounded by the glory of the Lord, appear on a quiet hillside!
There was no cause for alarm, however. Their fear was understandable, but the reality was that the angel was the bearer of good news. This good news would result in great joy for all people. It was the good news of the Saviour’s arrival. The seed of the woman had finally come to crush the head of the serpent (see Genesis 3:15). He would certainly save all His people from their sins. This was great and assuring news indeed!
But lest they be tempted to unbelief, the angel offered them a sign. Much like the sign of the Spirit descending on the Lord at His baptism, and like the sign of Jonah the prophet spoken of in Matthew 12:38-42, this sign was intended to validate the credentials of the Saviour. And the sign in this instance was that of a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths.
This in itself is an interesting picture. Newborn babies find security in being tightly wrapped in a blanket. They have been in a very confined space for nine months, and to be tightly wrapped in a blanket helps them to feel safe in an unfamiliar world. Jesus was in every respect fully human. He was not born in a different manner. As a baby, He needed the security and comfort that could only be offered by His earthly parents.
But the sign was not only of a baby tightly wrapped in swaddling cloths. That was a common enough sight and would hardly have constituted a “sign.” No, the sign was that this particular baby, wrapped in swaddling cloths, would be lying in a manger. That would certainly be an unusual sight! Though the text does not specifically state that Jesus was born in a stable, we assume this to be the case, because that is where one would normally find a manger.
In any event, the message made sense to the shepherds, because they knew precisely where to find such conditions.
If they were not frightened enough by the appearance of the first angel, the shepherds must have been awestruck when
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!”
Appreciate the message
The message delivered by the angel is one that must be appreciated. In it, Jesus is referred to as “the Saviour,” “Christ” and “the Lord.”
The word “Saviour,” obviously, speaks of Jesus as deliverer. Interestingly, the term is used of Christ only twice in the four Gospels: here, and by the woman at the well in John 4:42.1
In the light of the Saviour’s birth, glory was ascribed to God in heaven, and peace to a certain people on the earth: those with whom He is pleased. Notice that the peace is not for everyone, but only for those with whom He is pleased: that is, those who by faith embrace the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour. He is pleased with those on whose behalf Christ will act as Saviour. Jesus came to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21), and God is pleased with those whom Jesus saves.
We ought to be interested in and praying about “glory” and “peace,” not seeking glory for ourselves but God, and desiring, making and enjoying peace in our homes, places of work and relationship circles. This peace is inextricably linked to the Prince of Peace!
Appreciate the experience of the shepherds
Having had the good news declared to them by the angels,
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.
The shepherds went looking, saw the sign, and marvelled. When they had seen Jesus, they returned to their pastures, proclaiming to all they could that the Saviour had come. These words challenge the status quo of our hearts. We so often marvel over temporary things that have no eternal significance.
As we fight for joy, we need to work hard to cut through and get beyond our sense of contemptuous familiarity. These shepherds were amazed, overjoyed, and motivated by a wow-factor that can be lost on us who know these words well. Glory has appeared and shone around; may it flood our hearts afresh!
Appreciate the experience of Mary
The angels were amazed (vv. 13-14), the shepherds were amazed (v. 15) and the people who heard from the shepherds were amazed (v. 18). But Mary, having endured the arduous journey from Nazareth and the birth of her first child, “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (v. 19). What “things” did she treasure? I assume that she treasured everything of which we have thus far read in the Gospel: the words of Elizabeth in her song and her record of John’s leap; the words of Gabriel to Joseph her betrothed; the words of Gabriel to her; the report and worship of the shepherds.
What we treasure in our hearts—the thoughts and emotions we roll around in our minds—affects us! Mary’s evident attitude of hope, anticipation and humble curiosity—as opposed to anger, pouting, self-pity, self-righteousness, entitlement, resentment, jealousy, envy, hatred, and discontent—revealed what she pondered in her heart.
What things do you treasure in your heart right now? We are too often tempted to treasure those things that are fleeting and meaningless, but we would do well to learn from Mary to make the treasure of our hearts that which relates to Jesus Christ.
And so we have angels (spirit-beings) and despised shepherds to consider in our worldview. But we also have words: words of disclosure and words of revelation that must result in words of worship, words conviction and words of confession of the Christ!
It is possible to hear these things and be strangely unaffected by them. It is possible to have been affected by them in the past. May your exposure to this good news, this revelation of the Saviour, the Christ, the Lord, eclipse every other bit of good news and produce great joy today!