Blog Detail

Shepherds and Cardinals

Shepherds…and Cardinals

Third Advent Message 2016

In 1994, two Americans answered an invitation from the Russian Department of Education to teach morals and ethics, based on Biblical principles, in the public schools of Russia. They were invited to also teach at prisons, businesses, fire and police departments, and at a large orphanage. At the orphanage, there were about a hundred boys and girls who had been abandoned, abused, and left in the care of a government-run program. 

The two Americans were in Russia for a year. It was near the holiday season of that year when the two Americans went to the orphanage, where they told the story of Christmas. 

For most of the orphans, it was the first time they heard the story of Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem, finding no room in the inn of that town, and going to a barn where the baby Jesus was born and placed in a manger. Throughout the telling of the Christmas story, the children and the orphanage staff sat in amazement, trying to grasp every word.

After completing the story of Christmas, the two Americans gave the children some materials so they could build their own mangers. The orphans were busy assembling their creations as the story tellers walked around to see if the children needed help.

All went well until they got to the table where little Misha sat. He looked to be about six years old and had finished his project, but as the two Americans looked at Misha’s manger, they were surprised to see not one, but two babies in the manger.

The Americans called for the translator to ask the boy why there were two babies in his manger. Crossing his arms in front of him and looking at this completed manger scene, the child began to explain. 

In his explanation, Misha related most of the happenings of the first Christmas very accurately. However, when he came to the part where Mary put the baby Jesus in the manger, Misha started to ad lib, making up his own ending to the story.

He said, “And when Mary laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay. I told Him I have no mamma and I have no papa, so I don't have any place to stay. 

“Jesus told me I could stay with Him, but I told Him I couldn’t stay with Him because I didn't have a gift to give Him like everybody else did. But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much. So I thought about what I had that maybe I could use for a gift. I thought maybe if I kept Him warm, that would be a good gift. So I asked Jesus, ‘If I keep You warm, will that be a good enough gift?’

“Jesus told me, ‘If you keep Me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave Me.’ So I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and He told me I could stay with Him - for always.”

As six-year-old Misha finished his story, tears began to run down his cheeks. He then laid his head near the manger and sobbed. His crying was of joy because he had found someone who would never abandon him or abuse him. Someone who would stay with him always.

Two thousand years ago there were some others who heard the story of Christmas for the first time. Not orphans, probably, but others who had a rough life. A life of hard work, loneliness, and being disrespected. A group of men who were, the night of Jesus’ birth, watching sheep in a field near the little town of Bethlehem.

Their story is told in the second chapter of Luke, beginning with verse 8. It starts shortly after Jesus was born. Here is what happened.

In the region were Jesus was born - just a short distance from Bethlehem, which was Jesus’ birthplace - there were shepherds out in a field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 

What a horrible job shepherding was at that time. 

Horrible as in boring. There was little to do at night but sit and watch the sheep sleep.

Boring even in the daytime as the sheep so often got themselves into trouble. The same trouble over and over again of straying away or getting so fat that if they fell and ended up on their backs, they were unable to roll over and stand up on their own.

In addition, there was the constant annoyance of bugs that often got in the noses and the eyes of the sheep. Bugs had to be dealt with.

Horrible as in sometimes having the boredom broken by sudden danger. Most especially the danger of predator animals, such as wolves that would sneak up on a flock and grab and kill any sheep they could get, but 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. Being out in the fields - certain fields in the summer, other fields in the winter - meant shepherds were not near places of worship, which means they did not always observe the sabbath. They were 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.

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 looked down on those who were shepherds.

That happened even though it is possible the shepherds in Luke 2 were 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 to Jewish worship in Jerusalem, which might have made those shepherds respected, but no. All shepherds were looked down on.

And horrible because, even with all they did and all they faced, they were poorly paid. 

The night Jesus was born, there were shepherds in a nearby field, keeping watch over their flock. But suddenly, that night became anything but boring. Anything but dangerous. Suddenly, that night turned into 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 God appeared to the shepherds. At the same time, the glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds.

How spectacular the scene was when the angel and the glory of the Lord appeared. Someone was with the shepherds. That someone just suddenly appeared. And the area around them was suddenly bright. Brighter than they had ever experienced before. I wonder if there were colors in the glory of the Lord. Brilliant colors of all kinds.

As fantastic as the scene was, listen to what the angel said to the shepherds. 

The first words the angel spoke were, “Do not be afraid.” The angel had to say that because his sudden appearance and the sudden light of the glory of God had caused the shepherds to be filled with fear. the suddenness of it all would have shocked the shepherds.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel said. he added, “For behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all people.” 

What was the good news of great joy? The angel said, “For to you is born this day in the city of David [which was Bethlehem - again, they were in a field close to Bethlehem, very near where the angel was talking about] a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” 

A Savior. The one promised by God to save people from their sins.

Christ. The one set aside by God to be the Savior.

Lord. The one who offers to be the leader of all who will accept His salvation. The leader who would and does work for good in people’s lives.

What a fantastic scene. What spectacular words. But the angel continued. ‘This will be a sign for you. You will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

The shepherds must have wondered about those last few words. Swaddling cloths were what poor parents used to wrap their babies. A manger was a feeding trough in a barn. Those things did not match the greatness of the one announced as Savior, Christ, and Lord.

The shepherds must have wondered, but they did not wonder for long because suddenly, there was, with the angel, a multitude of the Heavenly host. 

The number in the multitude and who was included in it are not given, but I imagine there were other angels, along with Bible heroes from Old Testament times who had died. I imagine there must have been thousands - maybe millions - in the Heavenly host. 

They all joined together and began to praise God. 

Among the things they said and sang were, “Glory to God in the highest.” God was honored because He had sent the Savior. And, they added, “On earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

What a scene. Wonderful at the beginning when the angel and the brightness of the glory of God appeared. Even more wonderful when the host of Heaven joined in, all the host of Heaven saying the same thing - the Savior had come.

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. 

Would they think that what they had just seen and heard was nice, but then forget the wonder of it all and just go back to work? Or would they do something about what had just happened?

There had been an invitation to do something. Remember? The angel had told the shepherds the Savior was in Bethlehem, that the Savior was wrapped in swaddling cloths, that the Savior was lying in a feeding trough and was, therefore, in a barn. 

All that information would make the baby easy to find. Bethlehem was a small town, so there could not have been too many barns. Jesus may have been one of only a few babies that night who was dressed so plainly. Most certainly He was the only baby that night in a barn in Bethlehem, wrapped in swaddling cloths, who was using a manger for a bed that night.

The shepherds had a decision to make. would they forget what had happened, or would they do something about what they had seen and heard?

Their decision? It was to do something, which started this way. 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. Even more important was the fact they acted on their decision. They did so with excitement as they went with haste to Bethlehem, where they found Mary and Joseph in a barn. With them, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, was Jesus.

The shepherds then did the first of two things that were also very important. Instead of keeping their knowledge and their joy to themselves, they began talking.

I picture the shepherds being so excited, they talked loudly. That is what we do, is it not, when we are excited? 

How nice that there is no indication Mary tried to quiet the shepherds or that she was upset at the noise, but 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, that the baby was to offer peace.

All who heard it… That of course included Mary and Joseph, but the word “all” indicates there might have been a few others in that barn that night. All who heard what the shepherds said wondered.


But Mary did more than wonder. She kept all that was said. She pondered the shepherds’ words in her heart. How amazed she was that what the shepherds said was exactly what she had heard when Gabriel had spoken to her about her son nine months earlier.

The scene in the field had been spectacular. The scene in the barn was beautiful. 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 with them all they had heard in the field - the shepherds returned to their field. 

But listen to how they returned. No longer were they bored. No longer were they discouraged by the danger. No longer were they disturbed that others looked down on them. No longer were they bothered about their low pay.

Those things may have still been concerns, but they were no longer the most important, the most mind-consuming things in their lives. What was critical was that they had had an opportunity to meet Jesus, and they had taken advantage of the opportunity.

The shepherds returned to their field. As they went, they glorified God and praised Him for all they had heard and seen.

What the shepherds did after meeting Jesus, assuming that their glorifying and praising told others about Him, leads us to a consideration of a bird.

Remember that several weeks ago, our Music and Worship Ministry suggested that, if possible, some thoughts about various birds associated with Christmas be included in the messages.

Last week the featured bird was the French hen. The point was made that while the name of the bird sounds fancy, the bird is still just a plain, common chicken. The point was that if plain, common birds can be associated with Christmas, if Mary, a plain, common girl, and Nazareth, the plain common town where Mary lived when she conceived, and Bethlehem, the plain, common town where Jesus was born, if they could be used by God, so can any of us who are plain and common be used by God. We will be used as we accept Jesus as the Savior He came to be.

Two weeks ago the featured bird was the goose. A story involving geese will be part of next Saturday’s Christmas Eve message, but two weeks ago the point was made that Canada geese are known for traveling great distances - over 3700 miles to northern Canada each spring, then over 3700 miles each fall back to southern Mexico. The point was made that as geese travel great distances, we should do what we can to send our faith flying over great distances, which we do through the missionaries we help support.

However, it is not only people far away who need to hear from us about Jesus, the good news of great joy offered to all people. So, too, do those close to us need to hear about Jesus. As the shepherds told their fellow shepherds about Jesus - I think fellow shepherds heard them on the way back to their field - so, too, are we to tell others close to us about Jesus.

Which means today’s featured bird is the cardinal. 

Cardinals are sometimes referred to as Christmas birds. That is because of the spectacular red color each male cardinal has. Red can be a symbol of beauty and warmth. A glimpse of a cardinal can bring cheer, hope, and inspiration on gray, wintry days.

Cardinals can also be reminders to focus on our faith, the red color representing the blood of Christ, shed for the redemption of people.

But there is also this, which relates cardinals to what the shepherds did when they returned to their field. Remember geese travel great distances twice each year. Not so cardinals. They are known for remaining where they are.

As mentioned, we are to do what we can to send our faith far and wide, but we also need to share our faith right here at home - home being the families with which we live and our neighbors and friends and others in our cities or towns. They, too, need to know about Jesus. 

So, this season, like the cardinals we see will remain here and like the shepherds did 2000 years ago when they returned to their field, let’s remember to share the joy of Jesus with those with whom we associate every day. He is worthy of that because He really is good news of great joy for all people.

In a moment, a closing carol. But first, if you do not know Jesus as your Savior, will you take care of that, even now? Ask Him to help you know the good news of the great joy that He came to bring to everyone, including you. 

And look around. This place is filled with people who already believe. Hear from us the message we share with those close to us. And respond to Jesus. If you do - as you do - your Christmas will be extra special.

Pray a prayer of acceptance if you need to do that. Otherwise, let’s sing a carol that is a challenge to share Jesus with others - those close and those far away. Go Tell It on the Mountain.

Go, tell it on the mountain,

Over the hills and everywhere;

Go, tell it on the mountain

That Jesus Christ is born!

While shepherds kept their watching

O’er silent flocks by night,

Behold throughout the heavens

There shown a holy light.

Go, tell it on the mountain,

Over the hills and everywhere;

Go, tell it on the mountain

That Jesus Christ is born!

The shepherds feared and trembled

When lo! above the earth

Rang out the angel chorus

That hailed our Savior’s birth.

Go, tell it on the mountain,

Over the hills and everywhere;

Go, tell it on the mountain

That Jesus Christ is born!

Down in a lowly manger

The humble Christ was born,

And brought us God’s salvation

That blessed Christmas morn.

Go, tell it on the mountain,

Over the hills and everywhere;

Go, tell it on the mountain

That Jesus Christ is born!

that Jesus Christ is born

Lord, at Your birth, an angel and then the Heavenly host called You Savior, Christ, and Lord. They announced You had come to bring peace. They thanked God for You. 

As the shepherds went to see You, help us to do the same, either for the first time or to keep seeing You, to each day be with You and benefit from Your blessings. 

And as the shepherds told others about You, give us the excitement and the courage to do the same. To do that far and wide, using geese as our examples, and doing that close to home, using cardinals as our examples.

Thank You, Jesus, and Merry Christmas. Amen.

No comments (Add your own)

Add a New Comment


Comment Guidelines: No HTML is allowed. Off-topic or inappropriate comments will be edited or deleted. Thanks.