Most people in America are familiar with this passage, even if they rarely crack open a Bible. These verses from Luke have even entered the popular culture, through Linus’ famous speech in the Charlie Brown Christmas video. Every December since 1965, in between televised scenes of the Grinch slithering around Whoville, and George Bailey being saved by Clarence the angel just as he’s about to jump off the Bedford Falls bridge, and Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer running around the North Pole with Herbie (an elf who wants to be a dentist), we have Linus, who discovers the true meaning of Christmas in the gospel of St. Luke, chapter 2.
Now, it’s certainly a welcome change of pace this December to hear the Bible being quoted on television. And I’d much rather turn on the TV right now and see Charlie Brown, or even the Grinch, than those smooth-talking Presidental canidates. But my concern is that with all the annual repetitions, the familiarity of the story of the shepherds can cause us to take it for granted – to overlook just how amazing this incident really is. Because it’s not just a story of God’s love for some shepherds. It’s a story about God’s love for us. And if we consider this story carefully, we’ll see that it has a message of love and hope for each one of us here.
Let’s start by looking at the most obvious feature of the story. Who does God announce the birth of His Son to? Who does he invite to come and see the new baby? A ragtag collection of sheep herders! There is only one announcement of Christ’s birth recorded in the Scriptures, only one invitation from God to anyone to come visit Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus. And that one invitation goes to a bunch of uneducated, smelly, low-class, social and religious outcasts, a bunch of shepherds.
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 over the sheep. A modern day example might be a trucker or a shift worker, whose job keeps them from regularly attending church. 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, or carnival workers. 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 “living out in the fields” (v. 8). This was not a 40-hour a week job. They didn’t come home at night. They were with the sheep 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. During the day, they led the sheep to grass and water. They watched while the sheep grazed. They kept an eye out for predators like wolves. And at night, they actually slept in the sheep pen with the sheep to guard against theft and animal attack. A good shepherd could identify each one of his sheep by sight. He knew his sheep and they knew him.
“2But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.
3To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out.
4And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice.
.” – John 10:2-4 (KJV)
Being a shepherd was lonely, wearisome, usually very boring and tedious, and sometimes extremely dangerous. It gave them a lot of contact with sheep, but very little exposure to people. No wonder that David in the Old Testament, the shepherd who became king of Israel, was such an accomplished musician. Many shepherds learned to play the flute or some other instrument, because they had hours and hours with nothing to do but watch sheep eat grass. [Does that make you feel any better about your job?]. Shepherds just didn’t have much social contact. Put it this way – you probably wouldn’t want your daughter to marry one.
Now, step back for a moment. Imagine you’re God and you want to announce the most amazing, incredible, joyous news ever; an event which will literally change the course of history – the birth of your only Son, Jesus Christ. The birth of the One who will be the Savior of the whole world. The One for whom the nation of Israel has been waiting and hoping and praying for thousands of years. Finally, He has come! Who do you announce it to? Who do you tell? Who do you invite to come and see?
When a child is born to a member of British royalty; for instance, when Princess Diana’s sons Harry and William were born, they didn’t send a messenger down to the docks to break the news first to the longshoremen and the fishmongers. They didn’t issue personal invitations to the cab drivers of London to come visit Diana and her new infant in Windsor castle. I’m guessing that if any announcements or invitations were sent out, they were printed in gold leaf and hand delivered to political leaders and foreign heads of state.
The point is that you would expect an event like the birth of Christ to be announced to the most important people in the nation. Political leaders – kings, governors, magistrates, even Caesar – might be invited to come and pay homage to the future ruler. Religious leaders – Priests, rabbis, synagogue officials, the head of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin – they would all be invited to worship their Messiah. Military leaders. Wealthy merchants. Men and women of distinction. The news media. But none of them got the word. None of them were invited [Some foreign kings figured it out by following the star of Bethlehem, and they informed Herod. But they didn’t get an angelic messenger, or angel choir, or invitation.]. Only these few, poor, shepherds, these social and religious outcasts, received the announcement. [Can you imagine the conductor of the angel choir announcing this to them? It’s as if the Mormon Tabernacle Choir were to rehearse all year to perform Handel’s Messiah, but then give the concert for just the eight guys on the building’s maintenance crew].
So why? Why did God do this? Why did He send His angels to announce the birth of Christ to these shepherds, to invite them, and them only, to come and see the child?
* Were the shepherds especially pious, unusually holy? In spite of the fact they couldn’t participate in organized religion, were they just outstanding believers in God? It’s doubtful, although the passage does say that when they got the news they believed what the angels said, and did what the angels told them to do. But there’s nothing in the text to indicate that they were more religious than anyone else.
* Were they perhaps expecting this, were they looking to God to visit them? Could they have anticipated this in any way? No. In fact, if I’m a shepherd, I’m probably convinced God has no idea who I even am. I don’t sacrifice at the temple, I don’t show up for the feasts, I don’t go to synagogue; and my deepest theological discussions are with a bunch of stupid, snot-nosed sheep. If God does know who I am, he can’t think much of me.
So why did God send the angels first to the shepherds? Several possible answers have been proposed, such as the fact that Jesus Himself is later called the Good Shepherd, caring for us as His flock. But I prefer a simpler explanation. God wanted to show that His love does not discriminate on the basis of class, or wealth, or social standing. He does not respect kings and princes more than hourly laborers, he does not value priests and pastors above the people in the pews. God does not show favoritism; He does not give preferential treatment to one group of people over another. His love is available to all on the same basis – faith in Jesus Christ, and faith alone.
In fact, many passages of Scripture indicate that God loves to lift up the lowly and humble, while at the same time bringing down the proud and self-satisfied:
“28And the afflicted people thou wilt save: but thine eyes are upon the haughty, that thou mayest bring them down..” – 2 Samuel 22:28 (KJV)
“4For the LORD taketh pleasure in his people: he will beautify the meek with salvation..”
– Psalm 149:4 (KJV)
“1Thus saith the LORD, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest?
2For all those things hath mine hand made, and all those things have been, saith the LORD: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.
.” – Isaiah 66:1-2 (KJV)
“12And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted..” – Matthew 23:12 (KJV)
“5Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.
6Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time:
. – 1 Peter 5:5-6 (KJV)
In other words, God was demonstrating, by His choice of these humble shepherds to be the first to receive the news of Christ’s birth, that Jesus was not going to be the Savior of only the political and social and religious elite. Jesus was not going to be the Savior only of kings and governors, or popes and priests. Jesus is the Savior of all equally, he doesn’t give preference to any group or any class. Nor does he discriminate on the basis of intelligence, or education, or wealth, or profession, or political power, or social standing, or any of the other qualities that human beings judge by. His love is offered indiscriminately to anyone who will repent and believe, anyone who will trust in Him as Savior.
Paul makes the same point in his first letter to the Corinthians:
‘26For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called:
27But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;
28And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are:
29That no flesh should glory in his presence.
30But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption:
31That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.
– 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (KJV)
In other words, God especially likes to use people who are humble and lowly and ordinary, because that makes His power and wisdom all the more evident. When He uses people who are obviously very gifted and powerful, then the results can be attributed to human effort and human talent. But if He uses people of obviously low to average abilities, then all the credit for the results go to Him.
So, what does all this mean to me? Well, if you identify with the shepherds, it should be very encouraging. Perhaps you see yourself as kind of on the outside looking in. I imagine that many nights, as the shepherds sat out in those cold, lonely fields, with nothing but dumb animals to keep them company, they looked over at the village, saw the lights of the homes and heard the faint sound of families, people laughing, and wished they could be a part of that. Maybe you’ve felt that way too. Not one of the “beautiful people,” not especially wealthy or powerful or influential. Not likely to ever see your name in the paper for some great accomplishment. On the fringes socially. Maybe when you compare your level of religious observance to others, the comparison isn’t favorable. Spotty church attendance, little Bible reading, infrequent prayer. You think that if God is even aware you exist (which He probably isn’t), He probably doesn’t have a very favorable opinion of you. And you know what? A lot of people, deep down, secretly feel like that. Even people you would think of as “having it all together”. On the surface, everything is going great. But on the inside, you feel like you don’t fit in. You feel like God doesn’t really care, couldn’t care, about someone like you.
If any of that description strikes a chord with you, then I have good news. Great news. The best news possible. God loves you. Just like He loved those shepherds. And you are special to Him. Just like those shepherds were special to Him, so special that He gave them the incredible privilege of being the first to hear of Christ’s birth, being the first people other than Joseph and Mary to lay eyes on the Son of God, being the first to tell others about Christ. He didn’t give those privileges to the Roman Caesar or to the Jewish high priest, he gave it to the shepherds. Not in spite of who they were, but because of who they were – humble, ordinary people with no high opinions of themselves. Simple people who were willing to simply believe what God told them and to simply do what God commanded them. When they heard the news, they didn’t seek out the religious professionals for a second opinion. They simply accepted what the angels told them. When they were invited to visit Bethlehem to see the newborn Messiah, they didn’t worry about who was going to watch their sheep. They didn’t get bogged down in debates about how they were going to find one small baby in such a large town. They simply obeyed and went.
Will you do that today? God didn’t send an angel to give you the news, but He did send me and he did give you His word the Bible. God is inviting you today, just like he invited the shepherds. Will you receive His love? Will you believe what He says and do what He asks? Will you acknowledge your need of forgiveness and put your trust in Jesus Christ for salvation? You don’t need to be a genius or a member of the “in” crowd. You just need to believe and obey. Listen to Christ’s promise:
“16For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” – John 3:16 (KJV)
“37All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out..” – John 6:37 (KJV)
I pray you will make that decision to trust Christ soon, and please tell me about it when you do, so that I can help you with the next step of developing a relationship with Christ.
But what if you don’t identify with the shepherds? What if you identify with the social and religious elite, the gifted, the accomplished, the powerful? Then recognize that in God’s sight, you are on the same level as everyone else. You don’t have a head start with God. In fact, anything that causes you to think too highly of yourself; anything that stimulates pride, actually puts you farther behind. If that’s the case, then ask God to purify your heart and grant you true humility. Understand that you are accepted before God on the same basis as anyone else – not because of anything you are, or anything you have done, but only because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who gave His life and suffered the penalty for your sin so that you could have eternal life and receive forgiveness. Humble yourself before God, so that He doesn’t have to do it for you.
Finally, what did the shepherds do in response to what they had seen and heard? They “spread the word” (v. 17). Let’s you and I do the same, especially at this time of the year, for the sake of all the others who are still waiting to hear the good news.