The Fascination of the Shepherds

angel-and-shepherdsCheck out the podcast here.

Last week we focused on the shepherds and the angels for good reason that we will see this morning. The familiarity of this Christmas story shouldn’t prevent us from learning something new each time we look at it. The shepherds were scared out of their minds when the angel of the Lord appeared, but the angel told them something incredible: a Savior had been born. The angel even gave them a sign on how to find the One. That’s the good news of Jesus Christ. This morning, we’ll see how the shepherds went from frightened to fascinated.

Read Luke 2:11-20 to get a feel for the context as we take a final look this year at the Christmas story.

How did the shepherds respond? They heard the message from the angel of the Lord. “Today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” It was a message of hope, a message of peace, a message of salvation, a message of deliverance. Maybe you’ve shared the same message except you change it around and say 2000 years ago, a Savior was born. The shepherds could have responded in a number of ways. We’ve heard the message before. We’re too busy with our jobs to listen. Apathy, indifference, disdain. All the same things you hear today. Maybe there’s something lacking in our lives that was present with the angels that had them convincing the shepherds to find out more. Maybe we lack the glory of the Lord in our lives. Maybe we use words to speak about His power, but it seems to be lacking in our own lives. Maybe we don’t confidently share what God has done in our lives because we fail to see what He has done. Maybe the message of the manger is ignored because we’ve lost or never had God’s glory. The glory of God should be evident in our lives. It’s an acknowledgement of who He is, of His power, of His compassion, of His mercy, and His grace. It doesn’t mean everything is going great, will be great, or that we’ve figured it all out; it’s just that we recognize that God is God. When presented with the incredible message of the good news of Jesus’ birth, the shepherds responded in an incredible way. They went to Bethlehem. An angel appears and tells them a Savior has been born, the multitudes break out in shouts of praise and the shepherds move from fright to fascination. “When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” The angels left and they immediately began to talk among themselves. The talking wasn’t a debate. They said let’s check it out. Let’s, “See this thing that has happened.”

What did the shepherds do? I love how Luke portrays what happens next. “So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph.” We have no idea how they found Mary and Joseph. Maybe they asked around about a pregnant girl, maybe they knew all the inns that were in Bethlehem, maybe they knew all the places where a traveling couple could stay; who knows? One thing is for sure – they were in a hurry. Hurry means move or act quickly. They were obedient and they were quick about it. I could spend a whole lot of time here. We don’t see the shepherds praying about what to do. We don’t see them getting advice from their friends. We don’t see them making excuses about why they can’t go check it out. We don’t see them saying I’ve seen a fresh born baby before. They left the fields and went to Bethlehem to see this thing that had happened. They wanted to be a part of something that had never happened before. If I could take a side trip here. God is doing incredible things all around us if we’ll just take the time to recognize it. The shepherds were told to go and they wanted to check it out themselves so they went.

There is an indication that they were told to go because the angel tells them, “You will find a baby wrapped in cloths lying in a manger.” They found Mary and Joseph, “And the baby as He lay in the manger.” Not only did they find Mary, and Joseph, and the baby . . . they found Him exactly as they were told. It was specific. I’m laying odds that there weren’t any other babies born that night in Bethlehem. Don’t underestimate the significance of this. The shepherds found the baby exactly as they were told. Since they found the baby exactly as they were told, it stands to reason that the identity of the baby would be exactly as they were told. A Savior has been born and there will not be another one. Messiah is here! Col. 1:19 says, “For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross.” This is the way God designed it. Full access, full grace, full mercy, full redemption, full restoration, and full peace. Can you imagine being there? Did the shepherds fully understand what they were seeing? Did they understand they were seeing the face of God? Could they possibly comprehend that they were looking at the salvation of mankind?

The shepherds visited with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus and, “They made known the statement which had been told them about this Child.” This is fantastically brilliant. The shepherds met the Savior and what did they do? They became evangelists telling anyone and everyone who would listen. They shared the message from the angels, they shared about meeting with Mary and Joseph, and they shared about the baby that God had given for mankind’s redemption. It was a story that was absolutely incredible. They heard the announcement of the angel and they responded. I can imagine them seeing someone in Bethlehem and beginning a conversation, “You are not going to believe this, but let me tell you what has just happened.” “And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds.” There is one word that really gets to me. It’s the pronoun all. Everyone that heard the message about Jesus from the shepherds wondered. Wondered is also translated amazed. Without exception, people were amazed at the story of Jesus’ birth. Do we find that today? Today, even in the church, we have lost the incredibleness of the birth of our Savior. We’ve heard it so often, that it’s just another Bible story. Believers get caught up in the same things that draw other people away from Jesus. We’re inundated with events that fill up our December. We think about presents that need to be bought and the bills that are going to come in. We have believers that make a jolly old fella with a white beard the center of a season that must be reserved for the Savior of the world.

How did Mary respond after the shepherds left? “Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.” The things she treasured is everything concerning Jesus. How He was conceived, His birth, and His life. Was she thinking of Gen. 3:15 when Jesus birth was first prophesied? Since you’re already in Luke, take a quick look at Lu. 2:25-35. At this point, there’s no indication that Mary understood the implication of being the Savior. She pondered these things. She wondered, she thought, she tried to wrap her brain around the things she was told and the things she saw with her own eyes, but it is really hard to understand and remember, she was likely a teenager. When we consider Is. 9:6-7, she was probably asking herself what it meant to have the government rest upon His shoulders. She probably didn’t understand that there, “Will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore.” You think about what you know and how hard it is to understand this precious gift that God has given to us. Mary pondered these things, she thought about it and I’m sure it perplexed her.

What did the shepherds do? “The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.” Matthew doesn’t mention the shepherds, Mark and John start off their gospels with John the baptizer. We don’t see the shepherds again. They drift off into scriptural oblivion not to be mentioned again. I find it curious because the shepherds played such an important role in this event. No matter the incredible and great things the Lord calls us to do and we accomplish through Him, it’s still all about Jesus. The shepherds told Bethlehem about Jesus and they went back into the fields praising God – present tense. When we see and hear things about God, do we praise Him? This is what I’m talking about. We are so underwhelmed with the things of God. The shepherds had a personal encounter with God and they responded by telling anyone who would listen about the Messiah. As a professing believer, you’ve said you’ve had a personal encounter with God and how do you respond? Do you immediately tell others about what has happened? You cannot acknowledge the gift that was given by God without acknowledging the reason the gift was given.

After Jesus is circumcised on the eighth day, He continued according to Lu. 2:40, “to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.” We don’t see or hear anything about Jesus until he’s 12 years old when His parents make their way to Jerusalem for the Passover. After the Passover, Mary and Joseph leave to head home and don’t realize Jesus isn’t with them until they had traveled a day’s journey. One final passage I’d like you to read for yourself. Look at Lu. 2:45-51. We find the same phrase when Mary is treasuring these things in her heart. Jesus must be about His father’s business. You cannot have Christmas without recognizing the reason it had to happen. Jesus was born of a virgin to enable Him to be our Passover lamb. He lived a sinless life so that He could affect the redemption of mankind. He is a gift. Maybe you have never received and accepted the gift of God. Maybe this year is the year you will.

Advertisements

How Bethlehem Missed Christmas

You can catch the podcast here.

It’s possible to miss Christmas even as it happens all around you. The stress of finding the right gifts, wrapping them, and paying for them can mask Christmas so well it might just disappear altogether. It happened to a lot of people that very first Christmas and nowhere was it more obvious than in the little town of Bethlehem that slept right through the most important birth in history. Christmas came to Bethlehem, but almost everyone there missed it. Bethlehem, however, had a good excuse. The people there were overwhelmed with life. An unexpected census caused that little village to be packed with people. The town was not prepared for the extra people. The demands for food, water, and lodging must have stretched the townspeople to the max. To make it worse, many of the people there probably had to be somewhere else to be counted for the census. It looked like a golden financial opportunity, but before it was all over, Bethlehem was overwhelmed with grief.

Take a look at Matthew 2:13-18.

The loss of a child is particularly painful.  In America when a child is abducted, an Amber Alert is posted.  Signs across highways light up to let people know that a child is missing. The truth is that a lot of things can keep you from Christmas, a lot of really normal life-things. Just as it did in Bethlehem, grief can steal the joy of Christmas faster than any other enemy.

God is always at work so we worship Him. The angels’ song was worship at its finest. It considered nothing of the circumstances of earth, but only considered the majesty of God. The angels had a view of God that completely blocked their view of anything on earth, and they sang as if God alone was worthy of praise. They sang as if the glory of God was making a difference in the lives of those who lived on earth. But people on earth were so focused on their circumstances; few of them caught so much as a glimpse of what the angels saw on that first Christmas night. In Luke 2:14 the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” In other words, this is the best day the world has ever known. Mary and Joseph probably didn’t get the full impact of the angels’ message. Joseph was more stressed than he’d ever been, and when his young wife needed him the most, the best he could do was find a smelly stable in Bethlehem. Mary had just given birth and was certainly exhausted. The labor and delivery must have been difficult. No meds. No modern child birthing techniques. Loneliness – Mary’s mom wasn’t there to support her.  The shepherds were physically and emotionally tired – they had been watching over their flocks at night. The people of the village were packed into tight quarters, exhausted from a census and all the trouble the census had caused. For everyone involved, life was hard. If their circumstances were the reason they would give glory to God in the highest, then this probably wouldn’t have been the night for a song.

Your circumstances are probably very different from any of those in Bethlehem. Maybe it’s your job that applies the daily pressure. Maybe it’s a relationship challenge that dominates your thoughts. It could be that December’s schedule is packed too tightly with things to do, things to buy, things to wrap, things to cook, things to decorate, things to eat, or things to attend. Maybe your circumstances are more painful. Maybe there is some loss, some illness, some point of grief that has taken away any desire to celebrate Christmas, or even life. Perhaps financial pressures have taken the joy right out of life. When life is difficult, or even too busy, it’s possible to miss the truth of the angels’ song that broke into the night skies over troubled Bethlehem. Regardless of your circumstances, God is worthy of your praise. He never changes even as your circumstances change constantly. God is worthy of your best song, your best love right now. Whether you can see it or not, God is always at work.

Not only is God is always at work and we should worship Him, but God is always in control so we should trust Him. Mary and Joseph were facing some big changes in their lives and probably wondered if they were on the right track. Mary’s instructions had come in a vision. Joseph’s instructions had come in a dream. As time passed after they were given their instructions, it seems that there was silence from God. How many times had Mary wondered if she heard the Lord correctly? How many times had Joseph second-guessed his decision to stay with Mary? It must have surprised Mary and Joseph when the shepherds arrived full of excitement and filled with the wonder of a miraculous message. From the shepherd’s point of view, Mary and Joseph confirmed their own encounter with the Lord. Eight days later, Mary and Joseph met Simeon at the temple. The Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not see death before seeing the Christ child. In the temple on Jesus’ eighth day, Simeon said, “Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, According to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation, Which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, A LIGHT OF REVELATION TO THE GENTILES, And the glory of Your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32) “At that very moment [Anna, an 84 year old widow] came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:38) Those events solidified what the Lord had told Mary and Joseph. By the time Joseph had a second dream, a few nights later, there was no hesitation in his willingness to believe, or obey. He and Mary took the child and ran toward Egypt, trusting that God was in control at that moment, just as God had been in control in the events leading up to that moment.

Trusting God is probably the greatest challenge in our lives. It is the essence of faith. The Bible is woven around this principle. Moses had to trust that God was in control, even as Pharaoh turned the people against him. Noah had to trust God even though he’d never seen rain let alone a flood. Ruth trusted as she walked toward Bethlehem with bitter Naomi. David had to trust as he waited to become king. Daniel had to trust as he was thrown into the lion’s den. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had to trust as they were thrown into the fiery furnace. Jeremiah had to trust as he followed a trail of tears out of Jerusalem. When Mary and Joseph were asked to trust God in Bethlehem, they weren’t the first. They were simply two more people in a long line of God’s people who had been asked to believe that God was in control. Even if they couldn’t see the evidence of that control right at that moment. You’re in that line, too. God will ask you to trust Him, to believe that He is in control. We need to understand a fundamental principle. Not everyone can make the leap of faith that is required here. The shepherds managed to make it to the birthplace, but no one else in Bethlehem did. The old-timers in Bethlehem surely knew that one of the prophets had promised that Messiah would be born there and were probably able to quote Micah’s prophecy. But when the big moment came and went, the meaning of Christmas slipped past them just as it sometimes slips past us. Trusting God is a decision that you must make daily.

God is always at work and we should worship Him, and we know that God is always in control and we should trust Him, but we must also realize that God loves us more than we’ll ever know: this is the gift of Christmas. As we have seen in past weeks, in our culture, Christmas is all about the gifts. We spend billions on the gift exchanges every holiday season. Christmas was God’s ultimate gift. It was God’s love for us that served as the motivation of Christmas Remember what Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3:16? It was a personal encounter with Christmas. Meeting Jesus impacts everyone in a different way.  Some accept His free gift and some don’t. The shepherds heard the song of Christmas and returned to their fields with a different outlook on life. The magi were impacted with the child they found, literally changing their path home as a result. Mary and Joseph – already convinced that God had led them to Bethlehem – left there with a deeper conviction than ever that God could be trusted and that the child they carried with them was the greatest gift the world had ever known. Through the ages, millions have found the gift, realizing that the God who is so worthy of worship, the God who demands that we trust Him, is also the God who first of all gave us a gift, motivated by unspeakable love, so that we could know Him personally. God is always at work and we should worship Him, God is always in control and we should trust Him, and God loves us more than we’ll ever know and that is the real gift of Christmas.

It turns out the song of Christmas is a beautiful one if people will only hear it. Most in Bethlehem missed the song. Pain and grief and tragedy and busyness got in the way. But for those who were listening, and for those who responded, the gift the received was nothing short of life-changing. Every Christmas, the song plays again, with God’s constant invitation for us to hear, to believe, and to respond.

The King that Missed Christmas

You can listen to the podcast here.

The first Grinch wasn’t the one Dr. Seuss created.  The first Grinch that tried to destroy Christmas was Herod the Great.  This is the The King that Missed Christmas. The fictional Grinch stood on a mountain overlooking the small village of Whoville where Christmas still happened no matter what he did. There really was a king who stood on his own mountain over the original Christmas village. Just like the Grinch, the king missed Christmas despite his best effort to kill it.  Let me give you some background on Herod and of the times in which he lived. When Jesus was born Herod had reigned thirty-four years. He was called Herod the Great because he had distinguished himself in the wars with Antigonus and other enemies, and because he had demonstrated great talents, as well as great cruelties and crimes, in governing and defending his country; in repairing the temple; and in building the cities of his kingdom. Herod built a palace three miles from Bethlehem known as the Herodium. It was huge.  It was built to house 1,000 soldiers and the royal family for a full year. It had huge storage bins for food and plenty of fresh water brought in by aqueducts from Jerusalem 8 miles away. There was a giant swimming pool, twice as big as an Olympic-sized pool that had gardens around and in the middle of it. It had beautiful artwork, mosaic floors, steam baths, and cold baths. The palace bedrooms were open to the breezes coming from the Mediterranean; as close as you can come to air conditioning. You can still see the ruins of the Herodium from Bethlehem of Judea. At this time Augustus was emperor of Rome. The world was at peace. All the known nations of the earth were united under the Roman emperor. What a perfect time to introduce the gospel.

Matthew gives us some insight into Herod’s Christmas. I hope you have you Bible and will read Matthew 2:1-23.

Verse 1 tells us that magi came from the east, probably Persia or Arabia. These magi were not sorcerers or diviners, they were wise men in medicine, astronomy, and philosophy and they had access to the king. They were smart enough to recognize the sign and to seek out Who had come. They asked Herod, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” They’ve been anticipating His birth for some time. Dan. 9:25 says, “So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress.” This expectation of a Messiah was well known. Jews were living in Rome, Egypt, and Greece and wherever they were, they had the Scriptures that told them of the coming Messiah. They would have told others about His coming as well. Josephus and Philo both record the anticipation of the people that a person was coming. The magi saw His star. The magi wanted to worship the King of the Jews, but Herod was troubled. Herod grew his kingdom by cruelty.  He committed great crimes and shed a lot of blood. He knew of the coming Messiah just like everyone else and he feared his reign would come to an end.

So what did Herod do?  Look at v. 4. Herod gathered all the learned men he could. The lawyers, the priests, the religious men of the day who knew the Scriptures, who knew of the prophecies, who knew of the coming Messiah. Herod, “Inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.” Herod knew Jesus was coming, but he wanted a location. They knew where Messiah would be born and responded without hesitation in vs. 56 quoting the prophecy of Micah 5:2. “Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared.” (Matt. 2:7) He asked the magi secretly.  He wanted to know how old the Messiah would be at that time. He sent them to Bethlehem. This tells you that Herod believed the prophecy, believed that Messiah was born, and was born in Bethlehem. Herod instructs them, “When you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.” (Matt. 2:8) It all sounds so good and right.

Let me leave Herod’s problem there and tell you about some other people that weren’t so great.

Luke 2 is probably the most read Scripture during this time of year and I want to talk about the shepherds. Take a look at Luke 2:8-15. Linus read this passage in. “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” When the shepherds heard that Messiah was born, they immediately went to the manger. The shepherds worshipped the child. They left the child radically changed. When you have a real encounter with Jesus, you can’t stay the same. What a contrast; Herod and the shepherds. Herod had more power and more money than anyone around. The shepherds spent their time watching over the flocks at night; Herod spent his time lounging around in the Herodium or one of his other three palaces. Herod lived in luxury; they lived in the fields. Herod feasted on a bounty of food; the shepherds lived day to day. Herod had a council of smart guys that told him Messiah was born; the shepherds were frightened when the Angel of the Lord appeared to them. It wasn’t Herod who was excited about the news; it was the shepherds. For most people, Christmas is defined by what you get. We are consumed with parties, get togethers, shopping, traveling, go, go, go. There is precious little time to sit back and remember the Christ child.

(This is where the podcast picks up)

Many people think they know the Christmas story. They’ve watched, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Carol,” all of the “Santa Claus” movies, and even “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” In all there are 309 Christmas themed movies and TV specials – none of which include the Christ child. In research conducted last year by Lifeway, nearly 70% of people said that many of the things they enjoy during the Christmas season have nothing to do with the birth of Christ. Few people know the Christ of Christmas. It can happen to us. Committed believers who get so wrapped up in the season that we forget the reason.

The only way to find Christmas is to find the Christ child. Of all the gifts that you can give this Christmas, give the only gift that make an eternal difference. According to November research, Americans will spend about $700 this year on Christmas for every man, woman, boy, and girl in America. That equates to $218,878,322,600. Now that’s a hard number to visualize so let me help you. In America, we’re spending $5,066,627 spent – per minute from Black Friday to Christmas day. Somewhere we got the idea that if we spend a lot of money, we must really be celebrating Christmas and be filled with Christmas spirit. Herod missed Christmas. The shepherds found it. Set aside the time this year to find Christmas. The shepherds worked around the clock, but they found Christmas. God went to considerable effort to make sure Herod got the word of His arrival on earth.         Wise men told him. Herod’s advisors told him where the Lord was born. Even with all the guidance necessary to find Christmas, Herod missed it. The king missed Christmas. He had no faith, no trust, no need for a Savior. He was immersed in his own greatness.

If you visit the Herodium today, you’ll find it in ruins. Everything Herod ever owned lies in the broken ruins and dust of the Middle East. What was once a place of extreme opulence is now just a rock-covered hill. It was once covered with fresh, cool water, a jungle of plants, right in the middle of the Judean wilderness. Occasionally a new discovery is made about the man history calls “Herod the Great.” To put Herod’s greatness in perspective, there are no hospitals built in Herod’s name.  No colleges or universities.  No charities that inspire people to give. If it weren’t for the Christmas story, most of us would have never heard of Herod the Great. On the other hand, there is Jesus; born in a manger to simple parents.  Homeless. But in the end, Herod was dead and Jesus lived. Even after He died, Jesus rose again. Today, the world is a changed place not because of Herod “the Great,” but because Jesus lives. Don’t let the materialism of this world hide the real reason we have Christmas. Don’t miss Christmas like Herod did.