3. Shepherds, first on the Scene
Hi there! This is Jim Harris with the third talk in our series, Travelling Towards Christmas. Having previously discussed Mary and Joseph, this time we’ll have a look at the shepherds, who apparently were the first people to see the new-born Son of God, the one we now describe as ‘Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ,’ This would be a good moment to read Luke 2:1-20, for that’s where we find their story.
1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to his own town to register.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. The Shepherds and the Angels 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[a] 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.”
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.
Shepherds were not sophisticated middle-class people. They were down-to-earth, rugged, hard working men, who tended and took care of flocks of sheep, mostly belonging to rich people. Some of them had a special role in looking after the flocks that produced lambs for the Temple sacrifices at Jerusalem. It’s known that these were pastured on the fields surrounding Bethlehem, because of it was close to Jerusalem. With that in mind, consider the fact that Jesus was to become ‘The lamb of who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29) Isn’t that remarkable?
But there’s something else, too. Jerusalem was King David’s city but Bethlehem was his home town. That’s why Joseph had to travel to register there, ‘because he belonged to the house and line of David.’ (verse 4) With these ideas in mind it’s good to reread verses 8-11 again. It all comes together into what we can only think of as God’s superb plan for introducing His Son to the world..
These shepherds may have been ordinary people, representing the rank and file of human kind, but they were very privileged people too. That night out in the fields, unexpectedly, the curtain between heaven and earth was drawn back sufficiently for God’s messengers to be seen and heard. ‘An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.’ Then a little later we read, ‘Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel.’ The message they brought was ‘Good news of great joy to all the people’ – the Saviour had been born in Bethlehem. It was made pretty clear to them that they were to bear witness to this tremendous event by visiting the Baby, then passing on the good news to others. What does all this say to us, as we approach Christmas by crossing Shepherds Fields?
First of all, that Jesus is for all people. Good news of his birth was entrusted to what a poet has called ‘a few farm workers!’ News of his resurrection was entrusted to a woman with a dubious history, Mary Magdalene. Jesus is for everyone, whatever their social rank or moral background. He’s the Saviour – he specialises in forgiving the past and creating a new future for all who put their faith in him.
Then, they did what was required of them. They went off immediately to find the Baby and confirm what the angel had said. They were eager to do what God wanted from them, which is a mark of true faith. Mind you, if we’d been among them, I think the excitement of heaven breaking through in the encounter with the angels and in the birth of God’s Son, would have sent us hurrying down to Bethlehem as well.
Then, they told everyone what had happened. They witnessed to others about their experience and the message they’d heard. Another mark of genuine faith is that we become so thrilled with what’s happened to us, that we simply overflow. We tell everyone about it. That’s what happened with Jesus’ disciples about thirty three years after this. They just couldn’t stop telling everyone the good news that Jesus was risen from the dead.
Finally, the shepherds glorified and praised God for all the things they’d seen and heard. They did not draw attention to themselves. They did not entertain a ‘special status’ mentality because God had chosen them for this important role in the nativity. It’s a mark of true spirituality that all glory goes to God for the experiences he grants us.
We sign off with another question for you to consider. Verse 19 reads, ‘Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.’ The question is simply, ‘Will I give some time this Christmas to pondering its significance for me?’