Last week we started our look at Christmas by seeing the heavenly side of Christmas through the eyes of the angels. This week we’ll go to the other end of the spectrum and observe the common or the lowly side of Christmas by seeing things through the eyes of the shepherds.
I’ve spoken about the shepherds at Christmas before but they are so important that the information about them bears repeating. The Bible holds shepherds in high regard. David was a shepherd, known for his bravery even before he faced the giant Goliath. He defended his sheep from attacks by lions and bears.
Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep. A good shepherd would defend his sheep, even to the death because he had been trusted with an important job. We are sheep and Jesus is the Good Shepherd who laid down His life in our defense.
Being called a sheep, even today is not a compliment. Our first thought about sheep is of something cute and cuddly. But sheep are quite possibly the stupidest animal on the planet. They are easily led astray. If someone refers to you as a sheep it means that you mindlessly follow the rest of the group without any individual thought of your own.
Sheep have been known to find a bit of grass down the edge of a cliff and to walk off of it in an attempt to reach the lower ledge. Other sheep follow the first sheep, not knowing why or realizing their fate for doing so.
John 10 is all about Jesus being the Good shepherd but one part in particular is interesting.
3 The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.
Sheep are supposed to recognize their shepherd. They know his voice and they follow him. It is about the only thing that keeps sheep out of danger and from inadvertently harming themselves. If we are sheep and Jesus is our shepherd, what does this mean for us?
We must be listening for the sound of Jesus voice. We need to be trained to hear it. And the only way to be trained is to listen to the words of Jesus found in the Bible. In case you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of different opinions on religion out there in the world. And how do people arrive at so many different opinions, even all under the name of Christianity? They don’t listen for the shepherd’s voice.
A number of you know that I run a website. On that website I get over 100,000 page views a month. And about once a week I get an email from somebody containing some kind of nonsense about why what I’ve written is wrong or what they have to add to my writing. And the source of most of this nonsense is either “it feels right” or “I read in an article on the internet.”
Hearing and knowing the voice of Jesus is not about what feels right. It isn’t even about reading and studying what someone else has to say about the Bible. It is knowing the Bible. I feel secure about what I teach and preach not because it feels right or because I read it in a commentary or heard a preacher on tv say it. What I preach is what I know because I have observed it in God’s Word and I have tested it and proven it to be true. If you want to follow Jesus, you have to know and understand His voice. And if you want to do that, you need to read the Bible and study it. It’s really that simple.
Despite the fact that sheep are trained to follow the sound of their shepherd, they still are prone to wandering off. Isaiah 53 tells us a different story of Jesus, one that we don’t picture at Christmas time because it wrecks our image of a cute little baby. It is called the Suffering Servant passage because it depicts the suffering that Jesus would endure at His death.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Jesus paid the penalty for our going astray. He took the wrath that we deserve for our sins. But there’s something else that happens with wandering sheep. It’s something that we’re really uncomfortable with. It’s something that only a truly loving and compassionate shepherd would have the heart to do.
If a particular sheep kept wandering away the shepherd had no choice but to do something drastic to prevent it from wandering off. Wandering off likely meant harm or death for the sheep. And so the shepherd would lovingly scoop up that wandering sheep and break its leg so that it couldn’t wander any more. But that’s not all. The shepherd would then carry that sheep over his shoulders for the number of weeks that it took for that leg to heal. He would tend to the sheep and take care of all its needs. And once that sheep has returned to health it won’t wander off from the shepherd again. It has truly learned of the love of the shepherd and it doesn’t want to be separate from the shepherd again.
Sometimes God needs to break us to keep us from wandering away. This isn’t to imply that if you have bad things going on in your life that it is because God wants to get your attention, but it could be the case. People lean on God more heavily during times of difficulty and crisis. And they tend to forget about God when things are going alright. Some people learn of God’s love during times of crisis and they realize that they never want to be apart from that again.
This is the life of a shepherd. The duties didn’t really change from the time of king David to Jesus day and there are still men tending flocks in the Middle East today doing pretty much the same thing as they did 3500 years ago.
Despite the fact that Jesus uses shepherds as such a positive example, they weren’t held in high regard when Jesus was born. Shepherds were thought to be dirty scoundrels. They weren’t considered trustworthy even to the point that their testimony wasn’t considered reliable in court. This reputation may have been well earned by Jesus’ day – I don’t know – but it is nevertheless interesting that it is shepherds who first hear that good news of Jesus’ birth.
8 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.”
We looked at this passage last week in regard to the angels so we won’t spend much time discussing it today. What I want to point out though is the shepherds’ response. After hearing the good news they respond favorably to it by wanting to find out more.
There are lots of people who hear the good news and do nothing with it. Although it’s possible, it’s certainly difficult to live in the United States and not at least be familiar with the Christmas story and to know a bit about Jesus. But a lot of people do nothing with this knowledge. They treat it as a nice story and get on with their lives. They show up at church once again at Easter or maybe not until the following Christmas where they hear the same story again. It is nothing more than tradition.
The shepherds heard the story and they investigated it to find if it was true.
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.
As the shepherds arrive they find Mary, Joseph and the baby all as the angels had told them. But there is one more that they do. They don’t just keep the story to themselves. They go out and they tell it to everyone that they see. They don’t care if no one will listen to them. They don’t care if people they that they are crazy. They don’t care that they weren’t even considered reliable enough to testify in court. They just go out and tell the story.
Today each one of us is responsible for two things in regard to Christmas. We must decide for ourselves whether we’re going to believe the story of the birth of our Savior. And we’re responsible for telling others that story. We can’t make anyone else believe it. We can’t force people to change their lives because of it. But we’re responsible for telling the story.
The story of Christmas is a story of miracles. It is a story of love and hope and peace. But most importantly of all it is that it is God’s story and it is a story that is to be shared with others.