1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
|Shepherds by John August Swanson.|
If there’s one thing that’s sure to sour the Christmas spirit, it’s the dreaded Christmas brag letter sent by a relative, friend, or co-worker.
In the space of just one year, they are once again “blessed” with dizzying upward mobility and financial success. The kids get showered with academic honors and first-prize trophies. Once again, they’ve moved into an even bigger house, bought multiple expensive cars, and gone on several exotic vacations. The only thing that ever seems to go wrong is that there aren’t enough days in the year to accumulate even more “blessings.”
And then you look at your life… You could write a letter about what’s happened in your family, except that you’re not the kind of person who wants people to feel sorry for you.
If that’s how your year has been, you’re certainly not alone. A shepherd in Jesus’ day certainly didn’t have an easy life. Slaves had life easier than they did, since they slept with a roof over their heads. Shepherds, on the other hand, lived outdoors. They faced constant dangers of disease, malnutrition, bad weather, wild animal attacks, and armed bandits. They were constantly counting the sheep and going out after strays. And if all that wasn’t bad enough, shepherds were held in very low regard by the rest of society. Many would graze their sheep on other people’s lands. They didn’t observe the sabbath (because they couldn’t), and their personal hygiene was equal to that of the sheep.
When it came to choosing the people who’d be the first to meet the baby Jesus as the Savior of the world, God was scraping the bottom of the barrel. And I doubt very much that Mary and Joseph would’ve expected (or wanted) to be visited by a bunch of filthy shepherds they’d never met. But nothing this night is happening by accident…
Constantly, throughout the Old Testament, the prophets spoke of God’s promise to raise up a righteous shepherd to rule God’s people (Jeremiah 23:4-6). Jesus himself will say, “I am the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep.” So it’s no coincidence that God is sending shepherds to greet the Shepherd.
The prophet Ezekiel foretold the coming of the one true shepherd who would feed God’s people (34:23). Sure enough, they find the newborn shepherd lying in feeding trough.
Then, they begin to speak about what they’d seen and heard. Imagine what that was like for Mary and Joseph, who’d been through so much over the last several months—the out-of-wedlock pregnancy, the visits from angels, the exhausting journey to Bethlehem, taking shelter in a smelly space more suited for animals than human beings. The shepherds are a powerful sign that it truly is God who is wrapped in bands of cloth. And don’t think for a second that other people were not present. If there was “no room in the inn,” it had to be because the town was packed with people. Surely, they, too sensed the miracle of the moment—by what they saw in the manger and by what they heard from the shepherds.
Jesus naturally brings people together. The presence of neighbors, shepherds, and (later) the Magi help to magnify the presence of God in this tiny child. The Word was taking on flesh and dwelling among us. He is Emmanuel: God with us.
The reason why we celebrate this 2,000-year-old event is because God has stepped out of heaven to be in relationship with people. And he comes to make his blessings known in the times and situations where you’d least expect him: when you are fragile and vulnerable like he was on the night. And he is specifically choosing to reveal his presence among those who are the least and lowliest of the world, for whom life is struggle. He makes his home among those who know no home. He belongs with those who know no belonging. And above all else, he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
But we need each other for Jesus to become real to us. If you try and go at the Christian life alone, Jesus will be little more than a good story. But in your coming together, we help each other to see that it is Jesus who is present amid the challenges, the heartbreaks, as well as the blessings. If you want to know the presence of God, pray with someone. Talk about what Jesus has done for you. Be gracious to a neighbor in need. Seek forgiveness and give it. Seek peace and pursue it. But look for Jesus to show up in the people who show you kindness and mercy when you least expect it—and when you need it most.
The reason why it’s so important to feast on his flesh and feast on his Word is so that you will know where to look for him and be ready when he shows up. And more often than not, the angels Jesus sends will be the people you live among.
With Jesus in your life, you will certainly have much to talk about. Your friends and relatives will continue to write their brag letters, but you will be a modern-day shepherd, bearing glad tidings of great joy for all people. And Jesus is not some magic genie who grants our wishes in return for our faith and good deeds.
He’s the Good Shepherd who seeks out lost and returns them to the fold. He’sHe’s the baby who’s born into all of the hardships and impossible circumstances that come our way in life. He brings light into our darkness and peace into our pain. He’s the one who makes a way when there is no way. He lays down his life for the sheep. This Jesus is sure to give you something to talk about.