On December 21, 2015, the following headline appeared in the International Business Times: “Bethlehem Christmas 2015 Cancelled”. To be fully accurate, religious celebrations of Jesus’ birth went forward last year in Bethlehem, but many of the secular celebrations of Christmas that usually surround it were toned down due to instability in the area. Looking back a decade, there was even one year when Christian Arabs canceled community celebrations of Christmas in support of the Palestinian uprising. However, the Jewish government would have no part of that, so the Israeli military sponsored its own holiday celebrations in the area.
It is also interesting to note who celebrated the first Christmas and who didn’t. The first Christmas was not celebrated by the emperor Caesar Augustus, nor Quirinius, the governor of Syria, nor was it celebrated by the lowly innkeeper. But Christmas was celebrated by a few lonely shepherds along with Joseph and Mary and the angels of heaven.
How amazing that the Lord would announce the birth of his Son, not to the emperor, nor to the governor, but rather to simple shepherds. Shepherds were nobodies in the social structure of the ancient near-east. They were not able to testify in courts of law because their testimony was considered unreliable. Shepherds were thought to be crafty and dishonest, something akin to gypsies, vagrants, and con-men all rolled into one. Shepherds were among “the people of the land”. They had no formal education, and thus could not even read the Scriptures. No work in Palestine paid less than shepherding. Even manual laborers earned more.
It was to such people as this that God announced the birth of his only begotten Son. Let’s read the story of Jesus’ birth from the perspective of the shepherds as it is written for us in Luke 2:8-20….
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When 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.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
What was the shepherds’ perspective on Christmas? First, they received the good news that a child was born. I can hardly think of anything more wonderful than the birth of a child. I was present for the births of each of my sons. I would not have missed that experience for anything. I never thought babies were particularly good looking … until our first child was born. But that birth changed my perspective!
Echoing the words of the prophet Isaiah, the angel said to the shepherds: “A Savior has been born to you.” The shepherds must have been struck with amazement. “Unto us?!”
This child was not born simply for Mary and Joseph. This child was born for the shepherds, and for us. This child was born to be the Messiah, the King who would inherit the throne of David and reign forever. This child was and is the Lord. Once we recognize that this child was born for us, to be our Savior, that can change our perspective, not only on Christmas, but on life itself.
Secondly, we see here that the shepherds responded immediately to the good news. The shepherds didn’t say “ho hum” and go back to watching their flocks by night. They didn’t debate the reality of angels and put off going to Bethlehem. The shepherds didn’t conclude that this Savior was born for others and not for them. They didn’t say, “We aren’t dressed for the occasion. We have nothing to bring. Who will care for the sheep?”
Many people around the world since the time of the shepherds have heard the good news about the birth of Jesus, but not all have responded. Will we be like the shepherds? Or will we put off our response, or not respond at all?
Perhaps we are inclined to treat the good news about Jesus sort of like a sweepstakes letter in the mail. You know those letters from Publishers Clearing House announcing that you may have just won 5 million dollars. I haven’t received one of those in a long time. But when they used to come in the mail on a regular basis, I would just throw them out. Becky, when she saw them in the mail, reacted differently. Her response was: “Somebody is going to win that money; maybe it will be me.” And she was right in a way. If you don’t send in your response to Publishers Clearing House, then you don’t win anything. If you do send in your response, then you have a chance.
The good news about Jesus is even better than a sweepstakes letter in the mail. Everyone who sends in a response wins! Jesus says: “Anyone who comes to me, I will never drive away.” (John 6:37) The benefits of responding to the good news about Jesus are far greater than any monetary reward. If we respond with our “yes” to the good news about Jesus, we receive eternal life. So why not be like the shepherds and respond immediately?
You may wonder: how do I respond to this good news? We can respond in a way like the shepherds. They ran to the Savior. Luke tells us “they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.” No one had to tell the shepherds to run to the Savior. No one had to invite them to respond this way. It was their natural response once they heard the good news. This announcement from the angels was the most amazing thing that had ever happened to them and so they ran to the Savior and found him just as the angel said they would—lying in a manger.
How can we run to the Savior today?
The story is told of a ten-year-old girl who went with family and friends to see the Christmas light displays around town. At one church, they stopped and got out to look more closely at a beautiful nativity scene.
“Isn’t that lovely?” asked the grandmother. “Look at all the animals, Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus.”
“Yes Grandma,” the girl replied, “It’s really nice. But there’s one thing that bothers me. Isn’t baby Jesus ever going to grow up? He’s the same size he was last year.”
Well of course Jesus has grown up. He’s no longer a baby in a manger. He is no longer walking this earth. He lived for us, died for us, and rose again for us. And for the last 2000 years he has been reigning in heaven. We cannot run to Jesus physically today, but we can run to him spiritually through prayer. Paul says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:13)
We can also run to Jesus and learn more about him through reading the Gospels. Some people find reading the Bible to be rather challenging. I understand. If that’s true for you I suggest doing something like this. Set aside some time each day. Seven minutes is good for starters. Open your Bible to one of the Gospels and just start reading through it, for just a few minutes each day. But before you read, say something to God like: “If you are really there, please reveal yourself to me as I read the Bible.” If you approach the Bible with that attitude, I believe God will reveal himself to you. And as we catch a glimpse of Jesus from the Scriptures, we can be transformed just as the shepherds were long ago.
Luke tells us, “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.”
Once the shepherds caught a glimpse of Jesus, their lives were transformed because they knew Jesus had come for them, to rescue them. So they went out and relayed the word that had been told them about this child.
We don’t get the picture that the shepherds were particularly concerned about what others thought of them. They were so excited about Jesus that they could not contain themselves. Just as no one had to tell them to run to the Savior, neither did anyone need to tell the shepherds that they should to tell others about Jesus. It was natural for them to do so. They had just received the greatest news ever to be told in the history of humanity. They could not help but relay that word to others.
Are we like the shepherds? Are we so filled with the good news about Jesus that it naturally bubbles forth from us? What better time to share that news than Advent? This is the season when everyone is singing our song—in restaurants, in shops, even at the gas station! I was sitting in the doctor’s office the other day and what was coming over the speakers? Christmas music! What could be more natural than to invite someone to join us for one of our Advent or Christmas services when the message about our Savior is already playing everywhere at this time of year?
The story is told of a man who laid a piece of chocolate candy on a table. Then, picking up an ant, he put it near the delicious bon-bon. He was surprised to see the ant take one bite and then hurry away. But a few minutes later, the creature returned, followed by a long trail of other ants who soon enjoyed the treat with him.
I wonder: have you, as the psalmist talks about it, tasted and seen that the Lord is good? If so, it is as natural to share that experience with others, as it is to tell of a delicious chocolate you have discovered.
That is the way it was with the shepherds. They went to Bethlehem, which means “house of bread”, and they saw Jesus who later called himself the bread of life. Then the shepherds went forth to tell other beggars where they too could find this bread from heaven.
Luke tells us one more thing about the shepherds’ perspective on Christmas. He tells us that the shepherds returned praising God. The shepherds didn’t give up their jobs or their families to become missionaries to some remote part of the world. They went back to their normal lives, back to their daily routines, back to the responsibilities God had given them of shepherding and raising their families. But the shepherds went back as changed men. Where before their lives were dull and uninteresting, now their lives were filled with praise to God.
An artist once made a sketch of a wintry twilight. The trees were laden with snow, and a dreary looking house, lonely and desolate, stood amidst a field of drifted snow. It was a bleak and depressing picture. But then the artist took some yellow chalk and with a few quick strokes put a light in one window of that house. The effect was almost magical. The entire scene was transformed into a vision of comfort and cheer.
Likewise, the birth of Jesus brought light to the dark and dreary lives of a group of shepherds who lived long ago. Where before their lives had been drudgery, now they had direction. Where before their lives seemed meaningless, now they had purpose. They had come to realize that the God of the universe had planted them there in Bethlehem to receive his message and pass it on to others.
We too can find purpose in life. We can return to our jobs and our families, even after Christmas is past, and we can return praising God. The shepherds’ perspective can become our perspective if we would but receive the good news, respond immediately, and run to the Savior. We can discover what the shepherds discovered—that we are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that we may declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
What was the shepherds’ perspective on Christmas? It can be summed up in one word: JOY! They received good news of a great joy. They responded with joy, ran with joy, relayed the word with joy, and returned with joy, praising God.
As the Czech Reformer Jan Hus urged centuries ago, “Rejoice, that the immortal God is born, so that mortal men may live in eternity. Rejoice, because the rich Lord of the universe became poor, that he may enrich us needy ones.”