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Shepherds and JOY

Shepherds and JOY 

Advent Message #3 - 2o18

Seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the Old Testament prophet Isaiah announced that a Savior was to come. That the Savior would arrive as a baby. A baby born to a virgin.

Six hundred ninety-nine years after that prediction, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary with the announcement she had been chosen by God to be the mother of that baby. 

Mary was confused by Gabriel’s announcement because, while she planned to be married - arrangements were being made for that to happen - the wedding had not yet been celebrated, which means she was a virgin.

Mary was confused by Gabriel’s announcement, not only because she was a virgin, but also because she was young and she lived in a small town in a modest province of Israel. None of those things made her special. Special enough to give birth to the Savior.

However, Gabriel was not dissuaded. He explained to Mary that even though what God intended sounded strange, that was His plan. With that, Mary agreed to follow God’s plan.

Mary agreed, even though she had to have known it would be unlikely Joseph, the one who was to be her husband, would be happy, let alone understand. Mary probably tried to explain to Joseph what was going to happen. That what was going to happen was God’s idea. She must have tried to explain, either before or after it became apparent she was pregnant.

However, Joseph did not understand. He was not happy because it certainly appeared the one to whom he was betrothed had not been faithful to him. 

So it was that he decided to end his relationship with Mary. He planned to do so quietly so as not to cause Mary any more problems, but he did plan to end his betrothal to her.

Having made that decision, Joseph fell asleep. As he slept, he had a dream. It was not a dream like we know dreams. It was a visit by an angel of God. An angel who had a special message for him. The message was that he should go ahead with his plans to make Mary his wife because she had not been unfaithful. Instead, the conception of her baby had been by the Holy Spirit.

As mentioned, Mary might have already told Joseph that, but now he was hearing confirmation of it. The angel added that Mary’s baby would be a son, that His name would be Jesus, and that He would become the Savior of the world.

When Joseph woke after the dream, he still did not understand. However, he, like Mary, agreed to follow God’s plan. For his part, Joseph stayed with Mary.

Remember the prophecy 0f Isaiah that a virgin was to give birth to the Savior. Mary agreed to be that virgin. 

There is another Old Testament prophecy about the Savior, also 700 years before the birth of Jesus. It was by Micah. It also needed to be worked out. It was the prophecy that the Savior was to be born in the little town of Bethlehem, far away from where Mary and Joseph lived. Nazareth, which is where Mary and Joseph lived, is in the northern province of Israel. Bethlehem is in the southern province, a bit south of Jerusalem. They were over 70 miles apart, which was quite a distance back in that time.

The prophecy about a virgin giving birth to the Savior was to be fulfilled because of Mary’s willingness to follow God’s plan. What about the prophecy about the Savior being born in Bethlehem? For that, let’s consider the first part of chapter 2 of Luke.

In those days - the days when Mary was pregnant and after Joseph decided to stay with her - a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, the emperor of Rome. The decree was that all the world should be enrolled. The purposes of the enrolling were to count the population of the Roman Empire, to determine where potential Roman soldiers were located, and to help determine taxation for the various parts of the Empire.

A decree from the Roman emperor had to be obeyed, including by Jews in Israel. Though they did not want to be part of the empire and though they did not want to pay Roman taxes and though they were exempt from military service, they still needed to obey the decree.

According to the decree, every man was to travel from wherever he was to the home town or city of his ancestors. 

Guess what Joseph’s ancestral home was. Not Nazareth, which is where he lived, but Bethlehem. Remember? The little town where the Savior was to be born.

So it was that Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem. However, he did not travel alone. He took with him Mary.

Why Mary? Women were not part of the enrollment, and by the time Joseph left for Bethlehem, Mary was well along in her pregnancy. Travel would have been very uncomfortable for her.

Why did Mary go with Joseph? I suspect it was because Mary had been mistreated - sometimes ignored, other times shamed - because she had become pregnant before her wedding.

Again, we know the reason for the pregnancy is legitimate, but no one other than Joseph seemed be aware of or accept the idea of her pregnancy being God’s plan. Because Mary had been turned out by her family and rejected by her friends, there was no one to protect or care for her.

So it was that Joseph took Mary with him. So it was that when it came time for Mary to give birth to the one who would be the Savior, she was in Bethlehem, which an Old Testament prophecy 700 years earlier had predicted would be the birthplace of the Savior.

Verse 7 of Luke 2. Mary gave birth to her first-born son. She wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a feeding trough. That was her son’s first bed because He was born in a place where animals were kept. That is because there was no room in the nearby inn.

That night, there were, near Bethlehem, shepherds in a field, keeping watch over their flock.

The night was no doubt like every other night, meaning the shepherds were probably tired and bored. At night, with the sheep sleeping, about the only thing for the shepherds to do was keep watch for any sheep that awoke and seemed inclined to wander, and for predators - four-legged threats hoping to kill and eat some of the sheep or two-legged threats hoping to steal some of the sheep.

It was just another tiring, boring night for the shepherds in a field near Bethlehem. But that night suddenly changed. The change came in two ways.

An angel of the Lord suddenly appeared.

Isn’t it interesting that throughout the report of Christmas, angels just suddenly appeared? Mary was by herself when the angel Gabriel suddenly appeared to tell her God had chosen her to give birth to the Savior. Joseph was by himself when he fell asleep the night an angel suddenly appeared to him in a dream to tell him to go ahead and make Mary his wife. Now the shepherds were by themselves, trying to stay awake and alert, when an angel suddenly appeared to them.

Just like Mary was frightened by the angel and just as Joseph might have been confused when he woke from his dream, so the shepherds were afraid. In fact, they were filled with fear when the angel appeared.

With the angel, the glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds. 

What a sight that must have been. Blinding in contrast to the darkness of the night an instant before the glory of the Lord began to shine, but not a harsh light. A light filled with love and joy. That had to have been the case since it was the glory of the Lord.

The shepherds were filled with fear. The angel, seeing that, immediately tried to calm them, saying, “Do not be afraid.”

The angel had more to say. That will be part of next week’s Christmas sermon. For now, listen to a summary of what he said. He reported to the shepherds that a Savior had just been born in Bethlehem. The angel added where in Bethlehem the baby was. That He was in a feeding trough - a manger - and wrapped in swaddling cloths.

I wonder if the shepherds questioned what the angel said. If they questioned if had heard correctly. The Savior a baby? The Savior born in Bethlehem rather than the great capital city of Jerusalem? The Savior wrapped in swaddling cloths rather than royal robes? The Savior in a manger, meaning He was in a place where animals were kept? That place rather than in a palace?

The shepherds might have questioned. But then, after a multitude of the Heavenly host joined the angel - next week we will also think about what the host said to the shepherds - when the spectacle of sight and sound ended as quickly as it had begun, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.” 

That is so important. The shepherds could have returned to their dark, boring, lonely task of watching their sheep. They could have thought of what had just happened as a nice diversion, but not something that would or could change things. They could have ignored what they had seen and heard. 

But they did not ignore. They decided - they agreed - to go to Bethlehem and see what was announced to them by an angel of God.

Making that decision, they went. Remember the angel had told them how to identify the baby. He was a baby. He was in Bethlehem. He was in a manger that night. He was wrapped in swaddling cloths. There was only one that night fitting that description. They went with haste. They were excited to see the one identified as the Savior.

Once in Bethlehem, the shepherds found Mary and Joseph. Beside them, in a manger, wrapped in swaddling cloths, was the baby. The one who would soon be named Jesus. The one who would grow up to be the Savior.

It is important to note the shepherds’ excitement did not die when they saw Jesus. It continued as they told Mary and Joseph what they, that very night, had heard from the angel. That the baby was the Savior. How good it was for Mary and Joseph to hear confirmation of what angels had told them about Jesus. Mary especially listened to the shepherds. She made the decision to keep their words in her heart so she would be sure to remember them.

Even then, the shepherds’ excitement did not end. As they returned to the field where their sheep were, they glorified God and praised Him for all they had heard and seen. I picture them being loud as they glorified and praised. I see them having a bounce in their steps. I see them very excited to tell others - everyone they came across as they returned to their field. I see them very excited to let as many people as possible know that a Savior - that the Savior - had arrived.

Doing that, they perfectly acted out an Old Testament passage with which they were familiar. I am thinking of Psalm 100, which is included in this message because our theme this season is Great Joy For All. Jesus is the giver of great joy. It is our privilege to express our joy. Such expression should be our response, including how that is described in Psalm 100. 

Psalm 100. “Make a joyful noise to the LORD.” That is what the shepherds did. That is what we are to do. “Make a joyful noise, all the lands.” That includes, as the shepherds did, telling others about Jesus. It did and hopefully will extend to inspiring others to join in joyful noise.

And do not stop there. Expand the noise of joy to serving Jesus. “Serve the LORD with gladness. Come into His presence with singing.” That is certainly what the shepherds did. Maybe they did not sing with notes, but their voices sang with enthusiasm when they were with Jesus and as they returned to their field.

Why be joyful. Because we know that “the LORD is God.” And because we know the proper relationship with God, which is acceptance that “He made us. We are His. His people. His sheep,” who He longs to care for.

Throughout this Christmas season, let us “enter His gates and His courts [into His presence] with thanksgiving, praise, and blessings” because “the LORD is good.” The coming of Jesus to be the Savior is proof of that. The LORD’s “love is steadfast.” It has and will endure forever. The coming of Jesus to be the Savior is proof of that. “His faithfulness will last to all generations.” The coming of Jesus to be the Savior - the everlasting Savior - is proof of that.

*       *       *       *       *

During this year’s Christmas season, we have and will continue to highlight an acrostic for joy. An acrostic that stands for Jesus first, others second, yourself last. For today, let’s think how the shepherds lived out that order.

J - Jesus first. 

Think what the shepherds did or had to overcome to go visit Jesus the night of His birth.

For instance, sheep need to be watched constantly, even at night when there were four- and two-legged predators always on the prowl, and if any of the sheep woke up, they might take off into the darkness where other dangers waited.

Of course, maybe not all the shepherds in that field that night went to Bethlehem. Maybe a few stayed behind. But at least most of those shepherds went, knowing Jesus was more important than the sheep they were watching.

And there is this. They were just tired, bored, lonely shepherds. A group of men disrespected because their work made it impossible for them to observe many of the religious laws about cleanliness and worship. The shepherds must have found it very strange that they would hear about a Savior being born. They had to deal with that strange feeling.

It did not make sense for the shepherds to have had an encounter with the angel, the glory of the Lord, and the Heavenly host, but they overcame their work and their confusion. They went to meet Jesus. That is proof they put Jesus first, which is the first step of joy.

O - others.

The shepherds took the second step of joy when they told others what they had seen and heard.

Remember? They told Mary and Joseph what they had heard about Jesus being the Savior. That helped Mary and Joseph. The shepherds then told others about Jesus. They did that as they returned to their field. Think how many people heard about the Savior that night. Whether any or all of those people responded by also being excited about the arrival of the Savior, they had at least heard, so they certainly had the opportunity to be excited.

Y - yourself.

Though not stated specifically, I think - I hope - the shepherds’ lives were changed by what happened the night Jesus was born. That the shepherds were no longer tired and bored, but excited they had seen the Savior. A lasting spiritual excitement. Which I also hope led to their acceptance of the Savior so that not only would their earthly lives be better, but they would one day inherit a place in Heaven, where they would be with Jesus face-to-face forever.

May we, too, have joy. 

Joy that comes from putting Jesus first, above other things in our lives. Above our confusion. 

Joy that comes from putting others above ourselves. May we be anxious to tell others about Jesus. 

Joy that includes blessings for us. The prayer is that we will feel changed when we meet and accept and follow Jesus. Changed here and then the blessing of an eternity in Heaven.

The closing song for this service reminds us what the shepherds did after they met Jesus. The song is the carol 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 shone 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!

Lord, thank You for the excitement of the shepherds. Help us to be excited as well. Excited to know You are the Savior. Excited by opportunities to meet You and know You and worship You and serve You. Excited that we can tell others about You. In all these ways, help us to be joyful, now and always. Amen.

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