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Shepherds


Shepherds

For the past two weeks - the first two weeks of this year’s Advent season - we have spent

some time in the messages thinking about two different kinds of headphone. One kind

that allows the wearer to hear, the hearing happening when the headphone is plugged in

to a source of sound. The other kind allowing the wearer to not hear. The kind of

headphone that shuts out sound.

We have thought about those two kinds of headphone in the contexts of Mary and of

Joseph, Mary being the one chosen by God to conceive and give birth to Jesus, Joseph

being the one chosen by God to be the husband of Mary and therefore the earthly father

figure during Jesus’ growing up years.

For Mary, answering God’s choosing - God’s call - would bring about various difficulties.

For instance, since the conception was going to happen before she was married to

Joseph, she would face accusations of immorality, which would cause her to be rejected

by family, friends, and Joseph.

There would also be jealousy. You see, the baby, who was to be conceived by God, was

to grow up to be the Savior. Can you imagine the jealousy when Mary would try to

explain that? “Who does she think she is?” many must have said.

Plus, her plans for a quiet, normal life would have to change.

For Joseph, answering God’s call would also bring about various difficulties. He would

be accused of being immoral, getting Mary pregnant before they were married, which

would not be the case, but how would he be able to convince people of that? Can you

imagine how often he would have heard comments like, “Joseph, you claim to be

righteous, but I guess you’re not as good and holy as you pretend to be”?

Even from those who did believe Joseph was not the father of Mary’s baby, he would

face ridicule for staying with Mary, who, it appeared, had been unfaithful to him.

And what about his plans for a quiet, normal life? If Joseph agreed to do what God

wanted him to do, those plans were gone.

Mary and Joseph each received a message from God. They each had a decision to make.

Would they put on the sound elimination kind of headphone and ignore what God

wanted them to do? Or would they put on the headphone - the spiritual headphone -

that would allow them to be plugged in to the sound of God’s voice, which would allow

them to hear God? Which headphone would they choose?

Well, Mary chose the headphone that allowed her to hear the sound of God’s voice.

Then Joseph made the same decision. Both of them listened to, agreed with, and

obeyed what God told them, and they did so, not only then, but far into the future.

Because of the choice each of them made, Jesus was born. He was born in Bethlehem,

which is where Old Testament prophecy had predicted the Savior was to be born. Then

He was named exactly what God wanted Him to be named.

Sometime later, Jesus was saved from death at the hand of King Herod, that happening

when Joseph took Jesus and Mary to Egypt, which allowed another Old Testament

prediction to be fulfilled. The prophecy that the Savior would rise up out of Egypt. And

after that, Joseph moved Jesus and Mary to Nazareth, which is where Old Testament

prophecy predicted the Savior would grow up.

Mary and Joseph each chose to listen to, agree with, and obey God. But again, theirs

were difficult decisions to make. Especially so since in each case, they were the only

ones, at the time God spoke to them through angels, who heard the messages. They

were the only ones, at those times, who had headphones plugged in to God - to the

sound of His voice.

But you know what? Being the only one plugged in to a source of sound is not the only

way for sound to be heard. That is because of a nifty little invention - a splitter - that

allows more than one headphone to be plugged in to a single source.

Yes, Mary was the only one who heard the message she received, and yes, Joseph was

the only one who heard the message he received. But today, we move to a group of

people who, in a spiritual sense, were all plugged in to the sound of God. A group that

used a spiritual splitter. Which means all of them heard the same message at the same

time.

That group were some shepherds in a field near Jesus’ birthplace of Bethlehem. They

are told about in today’s passage, which is Luke 2, beginning with verse 8.

And actually, let’s begin with verse 1 of Luke 2, which explains why Bethlehem was the

birth place of Jesus rather than Nazareth, which is where Mary and Joseph lived.

Where Mary was when she received the message of God’s plans. Where Joseph was

when he received his message.

Here is the explanation. Shortly before the time came for Jesus to be born, Caesar

Augustus issued a decree that an enrollment - a census - take place. The decree stated

that all men under Caesar’s authority were to report to the cities or towns of their

ancestors.

Bethlehem - about 70 miles south of Nazareth - was the home of Joseph’s ancestors. It

was there Joseph was required to go. He took with him Mary.

Now, being a woman, Mary did not have to go with Joseph. Being so very pregnant -

being so near the due date - she was not expected to go with him. But remember she

had been rejected by family and friends alike. Joseph, in obedience to what God had

told him to do in staying with Mary, is the only one who showed her any kindness. So

she wanted to go with him.

Which means everything worked out just as it was supposed to, according to the

prophecy that predicted the Savior was to be born in Bethlehem. Because of the decree

and because Mary traveled with Joseph, that prophecy was fulfilled.

In fact, it was fulfilled shortly after Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem. As it is

recorded, the time came for Mary to be delivered, and she gave birth to her first-born

son. She wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a manger because there was

no place for them in Bethlehem’s inn.

Just as Mary and Joseph had been alone when they each had received the sound of

God’s voice, so they were alone when they met the one who was to become the Savior.

I suppose there may have been a few others in the barn where Jesus was born, but even

if anyone else was around, they may have worked at not taking notice. The feeling is

that Mary and Joseph were still the only ones plugged in to God.

But then verse 8. In that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch

over their flock by night.

By the way, I wonder if we can imagine what a horrible job shepherding was.

Horrible as in boring. I mean, what was there to do at night but sit and watch while the

sheep were sleeping? Boring even in the daytime as the sheep so often got themselves

into trouble. The same trouble over and over again. Some straying away, others getting

so fat that if they fell and ended up on their backs, they were unable to roll back over and

stand up on their own. That, plus the constant annoyance of bugs that sometimes got in

the noses and eyes of the sheep - bugs that had to be dealt with.

Horrible as in sometimes having the boredom broken with sudden danger. Most

especially the danger of predator animals. Wolves that would sneak up on a flock and

grab and kill any sheep they could get. Also the danger that came from predator men

who would try to sneak a sheep or two away for his own purposes of having a free meal

or maybe selling what was stolen or using the sheep to start his own flock.

Horrible as in being looked down upon. You see, being out in the fields - certain fields

in the summer, other fields in the winter - meant shepherds were usually not near places

of worship, which means they did not always observe the sabbath. They were often not

near easy water, which means they did not always observe all the hand-washing rules of

the Jews. They were not near a lot of other people, which means they may have been

backward socially. Being with animals all the time meant they were not the cleanest

people around.

All of which caused others - those who did worship regularly and did wash their hands

all the times they were supposed to and were good at conversation and were clean - to

look down on those who were shepherds.

That happening even though, as I have read, the shepherds in Luke 2 may have been

very important. Bethlehem was just five or so miles from Jerusalem, which means the

sheep those shepherds were watching may have been one of the flocks from which

sacrificial sheep were to be chosen. Sacrifices were very important, which might have

made those shepherds respected. But, no. All shepherds were looked down upon.

And horrible because, even with all they did and all they faced, what they did resulted in

little pay. The sheep were not theirs. They belonged to others. And yes, the shepherds

were paid, but theirs was not an occupation that would make them rich.

The night Jesus was born, there were shepherds out in a nearby field, keeping watch

over their flock by night. But suddenly, that night became anything but boring.

Anything but dangerous. Suddenly, that night brought with it something that would

forever cause people to look up to those shepherds. Something that made them rich -

not in money, but spiritually.

Suddenly “an angel of the Lord [an angel of God] appeared to them, and the glory of the

Lord shone around them.”

Just as we might not be able to imagine what a horrible job shepherding was, I wonder if

we can imagine how spectacular the scene was when the angel suddenly appeared to

those shepherds. How spectacular it was when the glory of the Lord shone all around

them. Someone new was with them. That someone just suddenly appeared. And at the

least, things were bright. I wonder if there were colors in the glory of the Lord. Brilliant

colors of all kinds.

I do not know that we can imagine what it looked like that night. But as fantastic as the

sight was, listen to what the angel said, which was the sound of hope. The same sound

that had been given to Mary and then to Joseph.

Listen. And actually, the first thing the angel said was, “Do not be afraid.” The angel

had to say that because his sudden appearance and the light of the glory of God had

caused the shepherds to be filled with fear. If nothing else, the suddenness of it all

would have shocked the shepherds.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel said. Then he added, “For behold, I bring you good news of

a great joy which will come to all people.”

Remember, this was the sound of hope. What hope there was in the words of a great joy

that was to be for all people.

“For to you is born this day in the city of David [which was Bethlehem - again, they were

in a field close to Bethlehem - they were very close to where the angel was talking about]

a Savior, who is Christ the Lord?”

Hope? You bet. The hope of a Savior - the one promised by God to save people from

their sins. And Christ - the one set aside by God to be the Savior. And Lord - the one

who offers to be the leader of all who will accept His salvation and the hope the leader

will work for good in all those lives.

What a fantastic scene and script all that was. Then the angel continued. “This will be a

sign for you. You will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

I wonder if the shepherds wondered about those last few words. Swaddling cloths were

what poor parents used to wrap their babies. Aa manger was a feeding trough. Those

things did not match the greatness of the one announced as Savior, Christ, and Lord.

The shepherds might have wondered.

But they did not wonder for long because suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude

of the Heavenly host.

In my mind, thousands, many millions, were in the multitude. Who was included? The

specifics are not given, but most certainly the host would have included other angels,

along with Bible heroes from the Old Testament who had died.

They all joined together and began to praise God, saying and singing, “Glory to God in

the highest [God was honored because He had sent the Savior] and on earth peace

among men with whom He is pleased.”

What a scene. Fantastic at the beginning when the angel appeared. Even more

spectacular when the host of Heaven joined the angel, all of them saying the same thing.

The Savior had come.

And then, just as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. The host was gone. The angel

was gone. The light was gone. It was then the shepherds had a decision to make.

They had all been plugged in to the same sound source. But what then?

Would they think, “My, that was nice,” but then switch to the sound elimination type of

personal headphone, which would allow them to forget what they had just heard and get

back to work?

Or would they stay plugged in to God, hoping to hear more from Him? Or, at the least,

respond to what they had just heard. A response that was at least invited by the angel

when he announced where to find the baby and how He could be identified. Jesus was

likely the only baby that night in Bethlehem who was dressed so plainly. The only baby

in a feeding trough.

Their decision? It was to continue to listen and respond. They said to one another, “Let

us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made

known to us.”

Making that decision was important. It was proof they wanted to stay plugged in to

God. But then they acted on their decision, which was even more important.

In fact, they did that excitedly. They went with haste to Bethlehem, where they found

Mary and Joseph, close by the manger where Jesus was.

They then did the first of two things that is also very important. Instead of keeping their

knowledge and their joy to themselves, they began talking.

I always picture in my mind the shepherds being so excited, they talked loudly. How

nice it is there is no indication Mary tried to quiet the shepherds or that she was upset at

the noise.

In their excitement, the shepherds shared all they had heard from the angel and from

the Heavenly host - that the baby was the Savior, the Christ, and Lord, that God was to

be glorified because of Jesus, and that the baby was to offer peace.

All who heard it - most definitely Mary and Joseph, and again, there might have been

one or two others in that same barn, the word “all” seeming to indicate that - all who

heard what the shepherds said wondered.

but Mary? She did more than wonder. She kept all these things, pondering them in her

heart. How amazed she was that what the shepherds shared was exactly what she had

heard when Gabriel had spoken to her about her son nine months earlier.

As fantastic as was the scene in the field, how beautiful was the scene in the barn. But

then the shepherds did the second thing that proved they would not keep their

knowledge and their joy to themselves. After meeting Jesus, Mary, and Joseph - after

sharing all they had heard in the field - the shepherds returned to the field.

But listen to how they returned. No longer were they bored. No longer were they

discouraged by the danger. No longer were they discouraged that others looked down

on them. No longer were they disturbed that their pay was so low.

Those things, while still maybe concerns, were no longer all-important. What was

important was that they had met Jesus!

The shepherds returned to their field. They did so glorifying and praising God for all

they had heard and seen.

So, the same question today that has been asked the last two Sundays. Which kind of

headphone are you using?

What you face is not whether to leave a bunch of sheep. As far as I know, herding sheep

is not a job any of us has been called to do.

But each of us has had the privilege of hearing about Jesus. Maybe not as spectacularly

as the shepherds heard, but still fantastic spiritually. Because of that hearing, each of us

has a decision to make. The decision of whether to tune God out and ignore Jesus, or to

stay plugged in to God and meet Jesus, meaning to accept Him as the Savior He was

announced to be.

Which kind of headphone are you using? May none of us ever shut out the sound of

hope that comes from God. Instead, may we do what the shepherds did and stay

plugged in to God. Stay plugged in because we have accepted Jesus as Savior.

May that be shown in our doing what the shepherds did after they met Jesus. May we

tell others about the Savior, the Christ, the Lord.

And may we remember to always, spiritually, take advantage of the invention of a

splitter that allows many people to listen to the same sound at the same time. To do that

in a spiritual sense. May we remember we are not alone. That we have each other. May

we encourage one another to stay together in being plugged in to the sound of hope from

God. The hope that comes through Jesus.

Today’s closing carol is an interesting one in that in the first verse, there is a summary of

what happened on the night Jesus was born, in the second verse an expression of hope

for us today, including any days we have problems, and in the third a proclamation of

hope for the future. The carol is It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.

It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old,

From angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold:

“Peace on the earth, good will to men, From Heaven’s all-gracious King.”

The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,

Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,

Look now! For glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing.

O rest beside the weary load, and hear the angels sing.

For lo, the days are hastening on, by prophets seen of old,

When, with the ever circling years, shall come the time foretold,

When the new Heaven and earth shall own the Prince of Peace their King,

And the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.

If you are the only one to hear a message from God, be like Mary and like Joseph.

Listen, agree, and obey.

If you have the privilege of hearing the same message lots of others hear from God, be

like the shepherds. Listen, find Jesus, and tell others about Him.

That goes, not only for you. It goes for me as well. How good it is for all of us to

hear from God, agree with Him, obey Him, and proclaim His Son. Amen.

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