Christmas Service on December 22, 2019
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
“Unto You . . . This Day . . . a Saviour”
We have read again today the Christmas story that is repeated around the world each year. So we all know it, right? Let’s see. I’m a teacher, so I’m in the habit of giving quizzes. Don’t worry—I won’t call your name here like I do in English class a lot. But let’s find the answers together.
1. Mary rode a donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. (That’s about the distance from Jozankei to Asahikawa, according to Google Maps.) So it was one of the animals there around the place Jesus was born. [Answer: the Bible doesn’t say. It’s possible but not certain.]
2. The angels announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds sang the good news. [Answer: the Bible doesn’t say. It’s possible but not certain. Verse 13 of today’s reading says, “They were praising God and saying, “Glory to God. . . .”]
3. Jesus’ manger-bed looked like this (see picture, wooden manger). [Answer: probably more like this (see picture, stone manger). Mangers were often used to hold both water and food at various times, so stone was more useful.]
You can see that there are things about this well-known story that you might not notice without reading it carefully. Let’s look at it once more and asking God to speak in a fresh way through it and give us the message that we need to hear today.
I’d like to look especially at the shepherds and what Luke is telling us about Christ through them. When the angel speaks to them and says, “Unto you . . .” (v. 11), he is saying something with great meaning. To see it, let’s back up a few steps and look at a few things about the sheep industry in Israel.
For one, raising, buying, and selling sheep is an important part of the nation’s economy at the time of Christ’s birth and has been for thousands of years. Some of the most-respected Bible characters were shepherds, such as Abraham, Moses, and David. People depend on the wool, milk, and meat they can get from sheep, so sheep-herders in this society actually do a very important job. But it isn’t the kind of work that requires great skills or learning, pays a lot of money, or brings a lot of glamour and prestige. Shepherds aren’t valued or appreciated all that much.
Have you ever felt that way? If so, the Christmas message is for you.
Besides the “blue-collar” status of shepherds in Jesus’ country, they for whatever reasons have developed a bad reputation, as well. In various writings at different times before and after the time of Jesus’ birth, in not only Israel but other parts of the Middle East, there are words about shepherds that put them in a bad light. Some people have said they are not reliable and might steal from others, including their bosses (if they work for the sheep owners). Others have said that shepherds bring the sheep onto land that is not theirs, and the sheep eat up the food they are growing there—if the shepherds themselves don’t. Some religious leaders have taught that it is not acceptable to buy wool, milk, or meat from shepherds because it is likely that they have stolen it.
Problems like this are really not so difficult to imagine, are they. If some shepherds are supposed to take care of their boss’s sheep, they all know that some wander away and get lost, wolves or other animals attack and kill others, and still others might die from accidents. For example, if a sheep’s wool has grown heavy, it’s almost ready for shearing, and it falls over somehow, within 30 minutes or an hour, it will die under the pressure of its own weight unless someone is there to help it get up. So it is not rare for shepherds to lose sheep now and then. If they report a death for one of the reasons I just mentioned but it is really because of a delicious Genghis Khan dinner, how will the owner know?
We can’t say whether the particular shepherds in Luke’s stories deserve the reputation of being dishonest people, but shepherds in general have it in Jesus’ time. For this reason, they are not allowed to give testimony in court because they are seen as so unreliable.
So when the big day arrives and the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior of the world is born, and God choses shepherds—of all people—to be the first to hear the hot news, that raises a lot of questions. Why them? If you had big news, like an engagement or the birth of a child, who would be the first to hear it from you? Probably not some random person but someone who was very important to you, right? So what is it about shepherds that makes them God’s choice? That’s a lot like asking what is it about women that makes them God’s choice as the first people to hear the dramatic news of the resurrection of Christ.
If God thought like we do and decided to start a new religion, and He hired a PR firm to do consulting work, shepherds would be one of the last groups of people these professionals would advise Him to choose. We can imagine the “experts” saying, “If you tell them, they may end up being your voice as they go around telling the news to people. You don’t want that, God. That would be about as effective as letting prostitutes and tax collectors speak for you.”
But maybe part of God’s choice is in that very fact. When God makes a place for the wise men in the Matthew 2 story, we see Him including in His work people who probably have a good amount of power, connections, and access to money (at least enough to give three expensive gifts). But when He chooses the shepherds, He chooses people on the other end of the spectrum. In choosing the least, the last, the lost—the outcasts—God is setting a pattern that will continue throughout Jesus’ life and is always there in our Lord’s work. He is demonstrating that He has a place in His family for people of every class and background. All people are welcome in His Kingdom when we are willing to follow Him as our King.
When the angel tells the shepherds in v. 11 that Christ is “born to you,” He is showing them acceptance like they have probably never experienced. He is breaking down the divisions between so-called “good” and “bad” people. He is making it clear that these outcasts, too, have a place at God’s table and belong there as much as anyone else. It’s not because they are particularly moral, upstanding people or have done anything to earn their way into His family. In fact, it may have more to do with their understanding that they have not. But with God, it’s all about grace. His unstoppable love is the point of the whole story.
These people get the idea that God is taking them seriously, and they do the same to Him. They accept His message and by the end of the story are going around telling everyone the good news that God has come to save us. If God can use unlikely people like these shepherds to do His work of announcing the gospel, what reason do we have to think that we don’t have anything important to say or do, nothing God could use for His work of salvation today?
Luke doesn’t tell us exactly who “everyone” (v. 17) is, but it might be more than the few hundred or so people who probably live in Bethlehem at this time. The shepherds’ work likely takes them to Jerusalem sometimes, for example around the Sheep Gate in the wall around the city, where sheep market is. They may well tell a lot of people there. Who knows—maybe they are among the people in Jerusalem over 30 years later who welcome Jesus when He rides into the city on a donkey beginning the last week of His life before the cross.
And that’s not all that happens to transform them. There is another reason it’s surprising that God’s angels come to them with the big announcement of Christ’s birth. Why are the shepherds here in the first place? It may be for a very different reason than helping to produce wool, milk, and meat to eat. There is a statement in the written traditions of the Jewish faith (the Mishna, part of the Talmud) that the sheep intended for sacrifice in the Temple were kept in the fields of Bethlehem. This town is about as far from the Temple in Jerusalem as Open Door is from Hokudai (again, according to Google Maps). So it’s very possible that the shepherds are raising these sheep to become the sacrifices that will be given at the Temple to honor God.
Leviticus 17 in the Old Testament Law shows how God tells His people to sacrifice animals to Him in order to correct and deepen His relationship with them as His children. There are two main messages people give to God in offering Him the life of an animal such as a lamb through daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly ceremonies in the Bible (see Numbers 28). These are ways of saying, “I’m sorry” and “Thank you.” And people’s sin and God’s amazing grace are both so continual that there is a need for quite a lot of sheep from these shepherds in Bethlehem (or someone like them) constantly.
But the shepherds in the Luke 2 Christmas story have a problem connected with it. The laws in Leviticus 11 say that various animals which shepherds will be with in their work make these people ceremonially unclean. Even if the animal is ceremonially clean, if it dies and the shepherd touches it, he will be unclean until the end of that day. This type of thing probably happens all the time. So their work makes it practically impossible for shepherds to take part in worship as other people normally do.
Are there things in your cultural or personal background that make it difficult to live a life of sincere faith? Of course there are. We all have them in various ways. They are important to our God, and He understands them, but the obstacles to faith in our lives are not the last word. As He does for the shepherds in Luke 2, He comes to us where we are and makes a way for us to know Him through His Son’s being born into our hearts, our minds, our lives.
The fact that the shepherds are not allowed in Temple worship makes it remarkable that the angels come to them of all people and announce the greatest reason for worship. They actually begin worshiping and lead the shepherds into life-changing, life-empowering worship, even without going to the Temple. When the angel tells them that the good news of Christ’s birth is “for all the people” (v. 10), that includes them, too! God has turned that field into a place of worship!
It is not just worship that makes them feel something for a while. It is a relationship with God through Christ that will always be at the center of their lives. As shepherds, they have a special ability to appreciate what it means that Jesus has been born as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). It is good news for them in a particularly meaningful way that Jesus has come (using another word picture) as the “good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
Meeting this Christ through the angels’ words sends them out on a search. In seeking and finding the baby Jesus, they find that they have a place in the work of God, a part to play that is uniquely suited to them. It is going to the people around them and telling them what they have seen and heard. That’s called a testimony. It’s letting other people know what God has done in their life. It’s not their story as much as it is God’s.
When they encounter the living Lord in worship, He begins a transformation in them that does not end when the angels go back to heaven or the shepherds leave the baby and His parents in Bethlehem. They go back to the fields, but the pastures aren’t the same anymore. Now they are places of worship, filled with the presence of the living Lord. God has come to make Himself known in a new way, through the presence of His Son, Emmanuel—“God with us.” When the shepherds find this, they know they have found a treasure far greater than the ability to worship in a single place such as the Temple. The rest of their lives become first and most opportunities to worship because Christ, the Messiah, has come to be with them.
That is the good news of Christmas that I have come here to give you once again today. In closing, let’s hear once more, as God’s message to us today, the words of the angel: “I bring you good news of great joy. It is for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10b-11). Amen. Let’s pray.
God, thank you for coming to be with us by sending your Son Jesus into this world. Help us to receive the news of His birth, as the shepherds did so long ago, willingly and actively. Help us to turn our eyes not to the things in our lives that make faith difficult but to you yourself. In the power of your love overcome them and give us, too, more and more fully, the great gift of salvation in Christ. As the shepherds did, help us to find our place in your family and your work. At Christmas time and always, help us to join with the last, least, and lost, and all people around us in saying with the angels, “May glory be given to God in the highest heaven! And may peace be given to those he is pleased with on earth!” In Christ’s name, amen.
Easton, M. G. (1897). Manger. Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Thomas Nelson. Retrieved November 23, 2019 from https://www.biblestudytools. com/dictionary/manger/
Robertson, A. T. (1960). Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament. Rev. ed. Broadman Press. Retrieved December 15, 2019 from https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/robertsons- word-pictures/luke/luke-2-8.html
Smith, C. (December 13, 2014). The Shepherds: He Is the Savior. Bearing Witness to Jesus. Retrieved December 15, 2019 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g6Nyy53kIy8
Utley, B. (March 12, 2014). Untitled sermon. Trinity Baptist Church, Lubbock, Texas, U.S.A. Free Bible Commentary. Retrieved December 15, 2019 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DF1ppHiQNao&t=487s
Wilson, R. F. (2019). Luke’s Gospel. JesusWalk Bible Study Series. Shepherds in Bethlehem. Retrieved December 6, 2019 from http://www.jesuswalk.com/lessons/2_8-20.htm