Pastor Johnold J. Strey
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church; Belmont, CA
Sermon on Luke 2:15-20
The Nativity of our Lord; Christmas Eve
Friday, December 24, 2010
If we reenacted the Christmas story in the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel, there would be plenty of roles to fill. There is Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and his wife, Elizabeth. There is Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her fiancé, Joseph. There is the angel Gabriel, who announces the miraculous birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah and Jesus the Christ to Mary. There is the unnamed angel who announces the birth of the Savior on Christmas night. And then there are the shepherds, who receive the angel’s Christmas night announcement and are the first two see the newborn Savior of the world.
If you wanted to play a major part in our imaginary Christmas play, you probably wouldn’t want the role of a shepherd. The shepherds seem like minor characters in the Christmas story. We don’t know their names, we don’t know how many of them there were, and they only make a short appearance after the birth of Jesus, never to be mentioned again in the rest of Luke’s Gospel. The shepherds seem like minor characters in the overall story—especially if we set the story to a play or performance. But the truth is that the shepherds play a major role in the Christmas story. When we know a little bit about the shepherds and when we take a careful look at their response to the angelic birth announcement, we will see that they are the perfect model for us to emulate as we celebrate the birth of Christ. On this Christmas Eve, the Word of God encourages us to celebrate Christmas with a shepherd’s faith.
If you had lived in Jesus’ day and had to guess what kind of people God would announce his Son’s birth to, shepherds probably would not have been on the top of your list. Shepherds were not looked upon very highly. Socially speaking, shepherds were poor, they were not in a position that would set the world on fire, and they were a class of people who many felt could not be trusted. Religiously speaking, shepherd’s 24/7 jobs kept them away from the temple and the synagogue, which put them on the “blacklist” of rabbis. In fact, there a third-century rabbi wrote that he was surprised that God would have compared himself with a shepherd in Psalm 23; that should tell you a little something about the way rabbis looked down on shepherds.
Isn’t it interesting, then, that the most important and glorious birth announcement the world has ever seen came not to religious elites or the upper class, but to poor, lowly, despised shepherds? And it is equally interesting to consider the shepherd’s response. Luke records their response in the final third of tonight’s Gospel reading. “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.’ So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
Notice how the shepherds responded to the angel’s announcement. They turn to one another and basically say, “Let go and see this for ourselves – and let’s go now!” They realize that the news they just heard isn’t a “page five” story, but a front page headline that would change the world forever! And they recognize that the news of the Savior’s birth is really news from God. An angel proclaimed the news, but notice that they say that they are going to “see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
And then notice how the shepherds responded to the baby Jesus himself. The words of the angels had been fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. After they saw the infant Jesus, they echoed the words of the angels to others that the world’s Savior had been born. And they echoed the praises of the angels back to God because everything the angels said about the birth of the Savior had turned out true, down to the last detail. God had kept his Word, and that was reason to raise their praises to him! The shepherds’ response to the birth announcement and to the newborn Savior revealed hearts of faith that trusted in the words and promises of God.
Can you relate to the shepherds? I don’t think it’s difficult to relate to the shepherds. Socially speaking, the shepherds weren’t anything to write home about. And there aren’t too many of us here who are lighting the world on fire. I don’t think any of us would claim to have a great deal of fame or fortune. Spiritually speaking, the shepherds were not considered the most religious people in the world. And if we are honest with ourselves, there should not be a single person here tonight who claims to be pure and innocent and holy in the sight of God. Our lives are not a spotless story of shining virtue at every moment. Maybe there is sin-produced tension in your home life right now. Maybe you have shame from the past that you continue to bury deep inside your soul. Maybe your health is not what it once was, and you are reminded daily of your own mortality, which is the result of sin in our lives. I don’t think any of us should have any trouble relating to the shepherds. They were unlikely recipients of the angel’s Christmas announcement, and frankly, so are we.
But the shepherds did receive the angel’s Christmas announcement. Shouldn’t that suggest something to you? If God chose these unlikely shepherds to be the first to hear about the Savior’s birth, doesn’t that say something to you? The Son of God who was born this night was not born exclusively for social and religious elites. Jesus was born for regular, ordinary people. Jesus was born for you. The message that the angels told the shepherds is the Lord’s message for you—and it is a remarkable message! The Son of Mary whose birth we celebrate tonight was also the Son of God who existed before time began. The innocent baby born this night was born to be your righteousness before God. The child placed in Bethlehem’s manger this night would one day be placed on the cross where he paid for your sins and washed away your guilt in his blood. The angel’s announcement of peace this night previews the announcement God’s angels would make over 30 years later when they announced the resurrection of Jesus from the dead on Easter morning.
The shepherd’s response to the angel’s announcement was one of complete faith and trust. Does that suggest something to us, too? There is certainly a time to ask insightful and honest questions about the miracle of Jesus’ birth. Christians have faith in God’s Word, but that faith is hardly blind or unthinking. But there is also a time for us to simply listen to God’s announcement and to take him at his Word, just as the shepherds did. Tonight, a miraculous Virgin birth took place, and God became man in order to be your Savior. The baby that Mary held in her arms is the very Son of God who became a flesh-and-blood human being in order to be your perfect substitute under God’s law. What a beautiful message for us to hear this night! What a beautiful way to celebrate Christmas with the shepherds! The angel’s message to them led them to trust the gift that God sent them in Bethlehem’s manger. And the same angelic message is meant for you to lead you to trust the child in Bethlehem’s manger with a shepherd’s faith.
For all its joys and celebrations, Christmas can still be kind of a melancholy time of year. We have our family memories and joys of the season, but we have our sorrows too. Life’s troubles don’t get put on hold just because December 24 has arrived.
Maybe that’s why it makes so much sense for us to celebrate Christmas with a shepherd’s faith. Their lives were hardly glamorous or glorious, but to these simple men God announced the greatest gift he would ever give the world. Despite whatever life has thrown at you, God’s gift announced to the shepherds by angels is God’s gift to you announced in his Word. Joys and sorrows, ups and downs, blessings and challenges will come and go, but your faith will always remain on a solid foundation, centered in the facts of Christmas night that nothing can ever erase. “Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). Amen.