Luke 2:8-20 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 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. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 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.
I remember sitting in the reading nook at school and looking around to make sure that my friends didn’t notice me blinking away the tears. It’s funny how moments like that can stick in your head. For whatever reason, this was one of those moments that stuck. I think I know why. For the first time in my young life, I had taken a story into my little heart, been totally captured by it, and watched it play out in a totally unexpected way. Stone Fox - a valiant, faithful, wonderful dog - he - well - I won’t tell you what happened. It didn’t play out like I thought it would. And (Can you tell I was a dog owner as a kid?) for that matter as I grew older Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller had me losing it too. Stories don’t always go as you think they will or want them to. Life doesn’t either.
That’s especially true when you look at the history God put in the Scriptures. There’s a fun game I play sometimes when I read the real, live history that’s there in the Gospels. It’s called How Would I Have Written This Story. Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t play it to be blasphemous or anything like that. I play it because it helps me make spiritual observations about myself, but also and mostly because it helps me see with new eyes what actually happened and how surprising, beautiful, and wonderful it actually is. It’s worth playing that game here in Luke 2 as we look at the shepherds there. They have an incredibly important truth to speak to us.
I can tell you this much. If I was writing this history about the shepherds it would feel a whole lot less like Luke's version and a whole lot more like Silent Night's version: quiet, serene, beautiful, and holy. Silent Night has a really beautiful feel. It's exactly the way I would picture the night of the Savior's birth. But I am fairly certain Jesus’ mother Mary wouldn’t agree with us. There is nothing really very quiet or serene about giving birth from what I’m told. Back then it was even less quiet and serene than it is now. There was no highly trained doctor. There was no epidural. There was a young, young woman in a whole lot of pain, and likely anxious because if there was a problem during birth they couldn’t just whisk her away for an emergency C-section.
And we probably shouldn’t say that everything was pastoral and beautiful for those shepherds either. You’ve seen the children’s pageants, likely a classic painting, or a Hallmark card (or three) that are just so beautiful and heart warming. The shepherds are pictured as these wonderful, calm, and genteel men who look up from warming their hands around a quiet campfire in enraptured awe at the cherubic angels that are sweetly singing. Silent night. Holy night. At least, that’s how the story plays in my head (and apparently in the heads of at least a few others too).
But it’s not how it played out in history. Shepherds were tough guys. They had to be. They were out in the elements. And if it was this time of year as some think it was, then the weather gets pretty cold at night - not cold for a Minnesotan as I once was, but for a Carolinian it would be very cold (Your blood thins out fast down here!). Picture guys with weathered faces and wild beards. They were tough guys with tough jobs. These were guys who couldn’t go home to their wives at night. They were guys who had to be out in the wet, the wind, and the cold all the time. They were guys who were poor and probably didn’t own the land the sheep grazed on, nor the sheep they watched either. Shepherds were tough guys with tough jobs.
And that’s exactly how everyone saw them. Remember when the sons of Jacob - those tough shepherd guys with tough jobs - went down to Egypt? The Egyptians said, “You can come here, but we don’t want to be around you. You're shepherd types. Go down to Goshen. Go to your own little place in our country.” And that shepherd stigma was still there on that Holy Night. Shepherds were considered to be so shifty and so tough and so dishonest that they weren’t even allowed to testify in court back then.
Angels appeared to those guys on the night of Jesus’ birth. And only to those guys. That’s it. Luke doesn’t tell us of the news being delivered to anybody else by anybody else. It’s the angels and the shepherds. That’s it. That is so striking when you think about it. Someone else commented on that fact and made the observation that this is a story about God intervening in ordinary lives to ordinary people. But it’s actually even more striking than that. These guys weren’t the middle class. They weren’t ordinary people. They were something less than that. And God sends angels to reveal the news of Jesus’ birth to them and only to them. That’s not the history I would’ve come up with.
But it is God’s history. What do you think those shepherds were looking for that night? What are you looking for? Do you think those shepherds would’ve given the shirts off their back for something warm and hot like a coffee that night? Or do you think it was something more substantial that they talked about around their fire? Did they yearn to own the sheep they were shepherding? Were they captured with the thought that if they worked hard maybe they could even own some land for their sheep? What were they looking for that night?
What are you looking for? I like parenting a two-year-old. I get her up in the morning. I hug her and sometimes we watch the sunrise together. We usually have a really nice time. But I’m telling you, sometimes she gets it in her head that she has to have Life (You know. The cereal?) and she has to have it now. I’m telling you that she is absolutely convinced that Life is the one thing she must have or there will be no peace on earth. And if I don’t do some parenting in 1/16 of a second flat, we’ll be headed for a nuclear meltdown. That’s what Elliana sometimes looks for in the morning.
You know what that reminds me of? Me. My heart is the same way. It seems that it always is getting a new idea about what I have to have or I won’t have peace on earth. Maybe you see hints of that in yourself that too. Finish the sentence: If I could just have, _____________. In the morning, Elliana might say Life. (You know. The cereal?) My heart might just say, “a successful, growing church.” Someone else’s might say, “more money,” or, “a better career,” or, “friends that don’t stink,” or, “a baby,” or… you get the picture. If I could just have… Samsung is so right about us. We have hearts that are always looking for the Next Big Thing. And all the time failing to realize that what we really need, what we are built for, and what we too often ignore, downplay, and belittle is The Only Big Thing. That’s why God has to do some serious parenting to do when it comes to deciding about what he will and will not give us. He can’t and won’t let us settle for less. That’s why he has to rattle our cages with this history. And that’s why he came to shepherds.
God doesn’t want to give us the world. He wants to give us so much more than that. He wants to give us its Maker. And so that night of the Maker’s birth, angels showed up to a group of shepherds who had the whole world to gain, but gave them something even better. “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. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’” (v. 10-13) The angels didn’t announce a land give away in ancient Palestine. They didn’t announce free espressos for cold shepherds. They didn’t even announce a free drawing for a flock of sheep. They announced so much more than the shepherds were looking for. They announced the birth of a Savior.
And it really was so much more than they were looking for. Luke talks about an angel of the Lord showing up, and the glory of the Lord shining around them. That wouldn’t feel quite so huge and so different except that earlier in Luke’s gospel there’s no mention of glory when Gabriel shows up to talk to Mary. But here all the stops come out. And as if to put more punctuation on the event, a whole army of glorious angels bursts out into poetry (We’re not sure if they actually sang. We just know it was somehow communicated.) saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (v. 14)
The angels didn’t want to give the shepherds the world. They wanted to give them so much more than that. They wanted to give them its Maker, its owner, its ruler. And they did. They told the shepherds where to find Jesus. And they told those shepherds how they could know it was him. “You’ll find him wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” The shepherds weren’t given the world or anything in the world. God wanted to give them so much more than that: himself.
And there was only one way to do that. He had to be the Savior. I learned something pretty important when I was studying this Scripture. This is the only time in all of Matthew, Mark, and Luke that Jesus is called the Savior. Did you know that? Jesus is called the Savior in lots of other parts of the Bible, but not in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. Want to know why? Some might say, “Well, that’s because that’s not really the emphasis.” And they’d be wrong. It’s because it is.
Let me tell you a fun fact about the book of Esther in the Bible. Did you know that God’s name isn’t used once in the entire book? Not once. That’s done on purpose. Why? So that we’d read God into every little happening and every little circumstance in the book. That’s why. It’s to make a point for our faith with that literary effect. Why is Jesus called, “Savior,” only once in Matthew, Mark, and Luke? To make a point for our faith with that literary effect. To make it stand out. To make it jump. To make it special and important and noticeable. The Holy Spirit wants us to glom onto that term, Savior.
Jesus is the Savior. He’s the God-man who has arrived to give the peace the angels had just finished gushing about. He’s the Maker who gives God’s favor to every human being by reconciling them to God with his sacrifice. And now right before the shepherd’s eyes the Center, the Maker, and the Sealer of all of human history had shown up in a manger to make it all happen. It’s no wonder that the seam between heaven and earth was torn open. It’s no wonder the angels had something to say. It’s no wonder glory was streaming around them. There was so much joy and caucophy in heaven over what was happening that it bubbled over in the black of night to that sky somewhere in the region of Bethlehem and showed up to those shepherds.
Don’t you need that? I know I do. Every. Single. Day. I’ve got a heart that is always looking for something less than what God wants to give it. And the gospel heals that and forgives it. I stood outside this building on launch day nervous and wondering who would show up and what people would think. My heart was looking for something less than what God wanted to give it. And then God reached me with his gospel. I got a text from my twin brother that read, “Launch day: you are a pastor again! Remember that this church is everything because we have the best message of all! Be encouraged not by the few or many that come but that God became man to rescue us.” I can tell you this: whatever you’re searching for, God wants to give you more. He wants to give you himself. That’s why he gave you the Savior.
And you know what? That works. The angels came to shepherds and only to shepherds that night. The angels came to people who had the world to gain. And it worked. They went to the manger. They saw the baby wrapped in clothes and that worked. They had been give the one thing that could bring their searching hearts lasting peace and joy. I think the shepherds knew that this was something deeper and better too. They were bubbling over with joy just like the angels were that night. They returned to the sheep that weren’t theirs and the land they didn’t own and they didn’t deflate. Luke tells us that they kept on glorifying and praising God. I wonder if they knew how complete and lasting that joy is. Because you know what? They still have it. Their reconciliation with the Father carried them to the life they always dreamed of in eternity.
I sat in the reading nook of that elementary school classroom and blinked away my tears. To this day, I’m still not sure if any of my friends noticed me or not. Stone Fox didn’t play out in the way I’d hoped. As I grew older I found out that Where The Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller didn’t either. Neither will my personal history. It will be better. If there’s anything the shepherds, teach us it’s that. God may parent us differently that we expect or want, but he will always parent us in such a way that he’s leading us and giving us the one thing that will give us lasting peace and joy: himself. And you know what? Someday like the shepherds we’re going to find out that the story doesn’t have an end. It’s going to keep on going. And it’s going to be far better than you can ever imagine. Amen.