The Shepherds’ Joy about Jesus

Luke 2:8-20

December 17, 2006 | Brian Bill

A survey was done to see which characters from the advent account most people identify with.  How many of you think its Mary?  Joseph?  The wise guys?   Anyone for Herod?  Not surprisingly, the shepherds came out on top by far.  When I was young I always wanted to play a shepherd but was usually relegated to the role of a rock or I was told to just stand still and act like a palm tree.  I can’t imagine why I was never given a more important part!  

Most of us are pretty comfortable with the Christmas story.  Maybe we’re so familiar that it’s become part fable and part legend in our minds.  Some have sentimentalized it so much that they skim along on a superficial level, counting down the remaining shopping days, stressing about all the things to do, while neglecting the Nativity.  It reminds me of the little girl who misquoted John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only forgotten Son.”   The music this morning has helped us remember that the baby who was born in Bethlehem is Jesus, the Son of God, who brings great joy today.

The shepherds received news about the gift that still goes on.  And because of what they did with this gift, we too can sing joy to the world!   I find it very interesting that God chose to send the birth announcement about His Son to shepherds.  Luke 2:8 doesn’t tell us much about who they were.  No adjectives are used to describe them: “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby…”  

Throughout the history of Israel, shepherding was a noble profession.  Abel was the first to have this job, followed by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and of course, David.  God calls Himself a shepherd and we’re compared to sheep, which is anything but a compliment.  By the time we come to the first century however, shepherding has lost its luster.  Shepherds made up the lowest class of people, coming in just ahead of the lepers.  In the Talmud, which is a collection of interpretations and insight from the rabbis, we read these words: “No help is to be given to heathen or shepherds.” 

In order to understand how unusual it was to have the angels appear to these lowly shepherds, let’s learn a bit about them:

  • Considered ceremonially unclean.  Because of the nature of their work they were unable to attend any religious services.
  • Isolated and forgotten.  Because their flocks needed to move around to find new grass and fresh water, they never stayed in one place for long.  
  • Treated with contempt and mistrust.  They were suspected of stealing from others and would often confuse “thine” with “mine.”  Their testimony was never allowed in court because they were so unreliable.  
  • Known to be brash and bold.  Living out in the fields away from society made them unappealing to most people.  Most of them had foul mouths and were ready to fight at the drop of a hat.

Princess Diana is in the news again, ten years after her death.  Imagine if you will that when her sons Prince Harry and Prince William were born, that instead of all the media attention and birth announcements to presidents and heads of state, the news of their births was delivered only to dock workers unloading cargo in the middle of the night.  

God entrusted the greatest message ever sent from heaven to a bunch of smelly shepherds.  Actually, this isn’t so unusual, is it?  God has always worked wonders for the forgotten, for the despised, and for the lowly.  From the very beginning of his time on earth, Jesus came to those who felt horrible and were humble.  Matthew 9:12-13: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick…For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  Jesus reached out to sinners like Zacchaeus and Levi, prostitutes and the demon possessed, strangers and Samaritans.  He did in His ministry what the Father did in a borrowed stable when the lowly shepherds looked at the Lord as the cattle were lowing.  Mary captured this in her song recorded in Luke 1:52: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”  Paul said it this way in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29: “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called.  Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth…He chose the lowly things of the world and the despised things…so that no one may boast before Him.”  

It doesn’t say, “Now there were in the same region scribes keeping watch over their scrolls.”  The Lord comes to the lowly, to the most undeserving, to the neglected and marginalized in order to show His power.  The Shepherds help us see that God has a message for sinners just like us.  Everyone matters to God.  And the only announcement of Christ’s birth goes out to a bunch of uneducated outcasts.  Indeed, as the song says: What a strange way to the save the world!  As we briefly look at the shepherds’ response, we’ll see some lessons that we can apply to our lives so that we don’t forget the Son this season.

1. Attentive. 

The first thing we see about the shepherds is that they were attentive to their jobs.  Listen to Luke 2:8: “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over the flocks at night.” They were so committed to their career that they never left their work.  They not only worked the third shift, they pulled the first and second as well.  This was a 24/7 deal for them.  We also see from this verse that they were faithful, since they were “keeping watch.”  It was often the case that the different flocks would come together at night and all come into the same fold.  One of the shepherds would literally lie across the entrance to make sure none of the sheep would get out and no predators in, which gives new meaning to John 10:9 when Jesus said: “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.  He will come in and go out, and find pasture.”

Notice that God came to those who were attentive at the jobs they were given to do.  They weren’t slackers and He met them right where they were.  Likewise, whatever God has called you to do, be attentive to it and do it with excellence.  Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”

You don’t have to clean yourself up on your own or act like someone you’re not

You may be thinking that God doesn’t even know you exist and if He does, He’s somehow mad at you.  Friend, you are not insignificant to Immanuel.  God will meet you right where you are.  You don’t have to clean yourself up on your own or act like someone you’re not.  If you smell like a shepherd, let Jesus wash you up.  If your sins are wiping you out, allow Jesus to lift you up.  Heaven chooses to bring a message to the messed up, to the low achievers as well as the high.  You were created in the image of God as an original masterpiece and the signature of the Creator is inscribed on your soul.

2. Awed. 

While they were being attentive to the responsibilities they were given, they are suddenly awed by an angelic announcement in Luke 2:9: “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”  God meets us where we are but then he brings us to our knees.

God’s Shekinah glory lights up the sky and causes them to quake in their sandals.  Whenever we come face-to-face with God’s holiness, we fall apart because of our sinfulness.  Peter had this response in Luke 5:8 and said to Jesus: “Get away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.”   They could also have been terrified because they didn’t know if this was an angel of judgment or not.  Perhaps he had been sent as payback for their raunchy jokes, bad language and sticky fingers.  Maybe their sins were catching up with them and now they would be vaporized.  Whatever the case, they were in awe and it would take a lot for these tough guys to be terrified.

I wonder, when’s the last time you were in awe?  Do you marvel at the Messiah?   Has it been awhile since you hit your knees before Him?

3. Accepted

The attentive shepherds are filled with awe and now they accept the message of good news of great joy in Luke 2:10-15: “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.’” The angel calms them down, telling them that he is bringing good news of acceptance, forgiveness and hope.  We would have a lot to fear if Christmas never happened.  This is literally the word from which we get “evangelize.”  This is good news of great joy.  The Greek word here is “mega” which means exceedingly, large, loud and mighty.  It’s a superlative of greatest degree.  Wycliffe translates it this way: “I evangelize to you a great joy.”  Loved ones, joyless faith in Jesus is a contradiction in terms!  

This message is for “all the people” but I want you to notice the word “you” as well.  It’s for the whole world but it must also become deeply personal.  After getting some more specifics, a whole regiment of rejoicing warrior angels fills the sky, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”  We know that they accepted this message because in verse 15 we read, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see…”

1 Thessalonians 2:13: “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.” 

Have you accepted the message and allowed the word of God to work in you?  God’s good news is a gift that must be received if you want it to be activated in your life.

4. Acted. 

These shepherds didn’t just accept and enjoy the message they received, they acted upon it.  Look at Luke 2:16: “So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.”  The word “hurried off” means they left in haste.  The idea is “come on, hurry up, let’s go!”  This is pretty amazing in itself because shepherds normally did nothing quickly.  They were patient men, accustomed to moving slowly through the pastures.   The Bible is clear that acceptance must lead to action, or as James 2:17 says: “…faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”  They could have doubted or delayed but instead they decided to act and they moved.

  • They went and saw.  The first thing they did was bounce to Bethlehem.  They wanted to see the baby with their own eyes.  A baby born in a smelly stable would not have been a problem to men who were used to the scent of sheep.  Check out this irony.  Unclean shepherds came to a smelly stable to see the Holy of Holies lying on a bed of hay.  Many commentators point out the possibility that they were taking care of sheep that were going to be sacrificed in Jerusalem’s Temple.  If that was the case, it’s no accident that they leave their sheep behind to visit the Lamb of God.  A millennium earlier, David kept watch over his father’s sheep in this same pasture and now they see the Son of David born in the City of David.  
  • They left and shared.  It’s striking that they don’t pull up a bale of straw and make themselves comfortable.  They didn’t hang around the manger because they knew that they were now managers of the message.  Notice that the message they shared had nothing to do with seeing the amazing angels and there’s no reference to Mary’s magnificence or Joseph’s job.  They came to see Him and now they head out to herald the good news.   Look at verse 17: “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child.”   The word “spread” means to “make known in such a way that people can understand.”  We’re here today because they couldn’t keep quiet.

In what area is God calling you to some action?  It’s not enough to just say you have faith, or to feel good about something; there comes a time that after seeing, we must be involved in sharing.

5. Adored. 

What’s cool here is that the shepherds went back to their same boring jobs but they weren’t the same on the inside.  They returned to where they started and were attentive again.  Notice that they didn’t write a book or go on a speaking tour or launch a ministry called “A Shepherd’s Story.”  After Christmas we have to go back to the same routine but now we can do so with rejoicing.  We are to rejoice right where we are.  Yes, it’s possible to have joy in our jobs even if they’re junky.  Look at Luke 2:20: “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”  They don’t just wonder about what they saw, they worship Him who they saw.

You can return to the same place tomorrow but not as the same person

A clear evidence of conversion is always adoration.  Someone has observed that many of us worship our work, work at our play and play at our worship.  When a person is genuinely converted he or she will praise God.  Allow yourself this Advent Season to adore Immanuel as you glorify and praise Him for all you have seen and heard.  You can return to the same place tomorrow but not as the same person.

Do you want to take on the role of the shepherds?  Or, will you just plant yourself like a tree and be as unmovable as a rock?  The shepherds were changed forever by what they saw and you can be as well if you follow their example:

  • Be attentive to what God has called you to do
  • Be awed by God’s message to you
  • Accept the gift of good news
  • Act on what you know to be true
  • Adore Immanuel 24/7

The choir has reminded us that “The Gift Goes On.”  But it must first be received.  The shepherds had to personalize their response.  Jesus was born to the whole world but He was born “to you.”   TIME magazine’s cover this week declares the “Person of the Year” as YOU!  God declares that Jesus was born to YOU! 

Christmas is real history but it must become your story.  Luke 2:11: “Today [that means right now] in the town of David a Savior [one who forgives sins] has been born to you; [personal] he is Christ [the long-awaited Messiah] the Lord [your master and Leader].

I close with three questions:

  • Is He “Savior” to you?
  • Is He “Christ” to you?
  • Is He “Lord” to you?

I love what Corrie Ten Boom once said: “If Jesus were born one thousand times in Bethlehem and not in me, then I would still be lost.”   It’s time today to make sure that Jesus is born in you.  You can do that right now by praying this prayer:

“I’m in awe of you.  Thank you for loving me even when I feel like a loser.  I don’t understand how you can accept me when I don’t measure up.  I confess that I am a sinner and I want to turn from the way I’ve been living.  I need you to be my Savior.  You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  I desire to live under your lordship for the rest of my life.  Thank you for not only being born but for dying in my place and rising again so that I can be born again.  I now receive the gift of salvation and forgiveness by asking you to come into my life.  Make me into the person you want me to be.  I want to act on what I know to be true and enable me to adore you for the rest of my life.  I want to exhibit your joy even when life is junky.  In the name of Immanuel, the babe in Bethlehem, I ask this.  Amen.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?