Christmas - Week 6
Last week we explored the faith that Mary exhibited as shown to us in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. We saw that Mary’s faith was at first measured when confronted by the angel with wildly impossible tidings but that she did not stop the conversation. She kept the lines of communication open. Second, she exercised simple acceptance. She did not say she understood all of it or was even looking forward to it, but she said “May your word be fulfilled” to the angel. Lastly, we saw where she finally arrived at a point of complete buy-in after her cousin Elizabeth reinforced everything the angel had previously told her that day weeks before when he appeared and told her she was “highly favored”. It was at that point that Mary rejoiced in what God was doing. Her journey would be hard. She rejoiced nonetheless. Favor had come upon her. She realized God had been “mindful” of lowly her. She realized she was favored or special to her God. It was about God’s plan and not her own plans for her own life. I pray all of you who are a child of God, realize the same favor has been bestowed upon you. You are also special, no different than Mary. God has been mindful of you.
Today we want to explore the faith of another group of people that angels appeared to in the Christmas story, the shepherds, as told to us by Luke in chapter 2:8-20. If you grew up in church you are familiar with the story of the shepherds. You may have been one of those that as a child dressed up in the Christmas play and wore a bathrobe with a towel around your head and came to see the baby in the manger. While the scenes we have been taught are nice with fluffy little lambs and a starry night sky, Luke here is telling us much more than what many have grown accustomed to thinking about when it comes to the shepherds. Matthew told us what he did through the Holy Spirit for a reason. Luke is doing the same thing. What are we to learn from the story of the shepherds? What has God said and what is He still saying to us from this passage. The author of the book we are using as a reference for these Christmas messages, Tim Keller in his book “Hidden Christmas”, starts at the end of the passage and works back toward the beginning of the passage while exploring four points about the shepherd’s faith.
The first point for us to consider when hearing this part of the Christmas story is “do we Hear Well”? Our passage in verse 17 says that once the shepherds had seen this baby they went and spread the word concerning what they had been told about this special child. Verse 18 goes on to say that those that heard the story from these most common of men, shepherds, were amazed at what the shepherds were proclaiming. It does not say the people believed what they were told, but it does say the people were amazed at the impact that had been made on the shepherds. People saw something different in them. Do people see something different in you? Verse 19 says Mary treasured and pondered what the shepherds told her. Verse 20 then tells us that these shepherds that had intently listened to and heard the message of Christ, returned to their jobs out on the hills with their sheep, praising God for all they had seen and heard. They, like Mary, had their lives changed leading to praise to God for what they had been shown and told.
While the shepherd’s lives had been changed by this encounter and what must have been riveting words by these angelic hosts, we must remember everyone else only heard the message from the shepherds. Shepherds were not educated. They were not trained speakers. They were not pastors. They were the ultimate laymen. They were the common of common of our day. One of the big problems in churches today is that people focus upon the “messenger” rather than the message. There was nothing impressive about these shepherds. Mary, caught up in favor and faith herself, takes their words to heart. She “heard well”. Nowhere in the passage do we see where others sought out these shepherds to hear from them after that night. In our present world of communication, we can call up whomever we want on our phone through Facebook or some Podcast until we find someone that shares in a way we “like”. We are looking for the current famous or fashionable speakers and not the common of common such as the shepherds. We seek to hear a pleasing message or word of encouragement. But, and it is a big “but”, are we really “hearing well” or are our ears simply being tickled? These shepherds heard well. That hearing led to rejoicing and praising of God by them as well as cherishing and pondering by Mary. So many today, listen to a message with their sole intent being how do I find something in it to criticize. Don’t be guilty of overlooking a word from God that can and will come to you from an unlikely source.
Tim Keller comments in his book that it is extraordinarily easy to not really hear the Word of God because it comes to us through such non-spectacular means at times. The Bible is a long book and is by no means a simple read. Preachers and teachers are famously flawed, and every time one of them stumbles, it seems to provide license for many to turn away from the entire Christian enterprise, Bible and all. We have to recognize however that our instincts in this area are not reliable. Even a laughable messenger might be delivering a true message. Balaam’s donkey was – let’s say it – an ass. Yet in one of the strangest and most interesting accounts in the Bible, God spoke to Balaam through this animal (Numbers 22:21-39). The lesson here is that the medium is NOT the message. We must not ignore uncomfortable truths just because they come through an unimpressive messenger. People often complain about the one delivering the sermon but if you ask them the question “was what they said wrong”, you find out whether they really listened or heard well. Please, please beware of missing out on what God is saying because of some perceived “flaw” you tend to focus on in the messenger.
Mary, this young fourteen or fifteen year old girl was not turned off by the appearance or reputation or lack of communication skills of the shepherds. She pondered, meaning thought deeply about what she was being told. Verse 19 says she pondered and even treasured the word from these uncommon messengers. Her faith was so real that she was looking for God in all that was going on. She was not reviewing everything with a critical eye. She had no time for that. She just wanted to hear from God. Mary had her shoes off. Mary understood she was on holy ground. These common shepherds gave her a message that encouraged and increased her faith. She “heard well”.
The second point we want to explore is “making peace”. Verse 14 is a very famous passage from the Bible that no doubt many will hear at this time of year. While the old KJV translation renders it “On earth peace, good will toward men”, most all modern translations such as the NIV, state the message from the angels as “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests”. Here we see this term “favor” again as we discussed when looking at the message presented to Mary by the angel and that was also used to describe Noah.
The older KJV seems to imply that Christmas means everyone in the world will have peace through Christ and is what many have come to believe. The newer translations seem to be saying that only God’s special favorites will have peace through Him. What is Luke trying to tell us through what the angels proclaimed in that Christmas night sky?
Peace with God is one of the most important concepts in the Bible. One of my favorite passages for many, many years, has been Romans 5:1. There, after explaining that justification is by faith alone and nothing you have or ever will do on your own initiative in the prior chapter, we see that the outcome is “peace with God”. So how do we have this “peace” that is proclaimed in the heavens and heard by the shepherds, at the time of the birth of our Lord and this peace that Paul declares in Romans 5:1?
A baby, a child had come. This baby is the Messiah, the promised one. He is THE light as we saw in prior weeks. He is also the source of peace. He is “Immanuel, that is God with us”. As a human, you will never have peace until you relinquish control of your life. An irreligious person displays their hostility toward God by explicitly asserting their independence saying “I am going to live the way I want to live”. The religious person though expresses their independence from God much more covertly. The religious person says “I am going to obey the Bible and do all these things and now God is required to bless me and give me a good life”. They are in essence trying to control God, not trust Him. They are seeking to be their own savior. To gain peace with God, you must admit that you cannot do it on your own. You must admit your total failure to be your own savior. You must admit that only by the grace or favor of God can you find peace with Him. That source of peace had come. That source of peace was lying in a manger and would be hanging on a cross some 30 years later and then rising from the dead after three days and then returning to the Father’s side in heaven. He was then and is still today the only source of peace for anyone who truly wants peace in their life.
The third point to look at with the shepherds is “Fear Not”. Verse 9 tells us that the shepherds were terrified at first by what they saw. Verse 10 then, in the old KJV, famously says “Fear not, behold I bring you good tidings of great joy”. This emotion of terror or fear is always the first thought that comes to man when they first truly encounter God. That was not God’s intention when He created man though. Adam had perfect fellowship with God in the garden of Eden initially. He saw God as good, the creator and in complete charge and Adam was fine with that. The more you love having and obeying a God that is in complete charge, the less you will fear. Adam was not afraid of God until we see what happened in Genesis chapter 3. Chapter 3 tells us that Adam disobeyed God and now was afraid, running and hiding from the one he had previously enjoyed walking and talking with each day. Adam fell for the lie from Satan telling him that he could be like God. From that day forward, man’s first response when they initially encounter God has been to be fearful. It is not until you come to know Him as your Father, that you then run to Him instead of away from Him. It is not until you know Him as a loving Father that chose and adopted you via the relationship that is built upon the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ, that you can then walk in fellowship with Him during the cool of the day as was Adam’s original experience.
The shepherds are told to fear not. How are they to overcome this fear that all mankind has because of a loss of the God intended relationship? The angels tell them to go see a sign. “Just go see what I am telling you. Don’t fear, just go see”. The Christmas message says you no longer have to be afraid. Just go look. “Listen to me”, God says. “Trust me”, God says. “Rest, I have got this thing”, God says. “My Word is true, believe it”, God says. “Read My Word and get to know Me”, God says. “My Word is a lamp unto your feet and a light upon your path”, God says.
The fourth and last point we will examine about the shepherd’s faith is the word “behold” in verse 10 just after the angel tells them to not fear. This term is changed in some modern translations but the original “behold” really tells us a lot about how God wants us to overcome fear. The angel is literally saying, “Do not be fearing. Be perceiving; for I am telling you the Gospel”. This is the principle – behold and you won’t be afraid. If you take time to truly perceive (behold) what is in the Gospel message, it will remove the fear that has dominated and darkened your life. To the degree you truly behold – gaze at, grasp, relish, internalize, rejoice in – the Gospel, to that degree the fears of your life grow more and more dim. Something new will come into view that you will want to yield to, to give yourself to, to let control you. That something new is our Lord, Jesus Christ.
What is this Gospel at which we are to gaze? It is “A Savior is Born”. If you want to get over your fear of rejection and failure and be filled with his love, if you want to be completely forgiven and lay down the burden of self-justification, you have to rest in Him as your Savior. You have to surrender control. This little baby in the manger is the mighty Christ the Lord. So, think, perceive, ponder, cherish, treasure the message. Hear well today. If the omnipotent Son of God would leave heaven and come as a baby – all for favored you – then you can trust Him.
The angel was telling the shepherds and is still telling us today: “Do you want relief from all your fear? Behold! Look at Christmas. Hear the truth well. Look at what He did – FOR YOU!”
Fear not! Behold! Behold Him!
Next week – A Sword in the Soul, Luke 2: 25-35.