Monday, January 12, 2015

The Lowly Shepherds

This is a little late being posted because I wrote it back on Dec. 19, 2014 and sent it out to my congregation as a devotional before the sermon I preached on Dec. 21, 2014. But, better late than never, and while it has a kind of Christmas theme to it, I think the content will still be applicable no matter what time of year it is. My congregation's advent reading for Sunday Dec. 21, 2014 was from Luke 2, which is related tangentially to the sermon topic (the sermon will be posted in a couple of days), so I figured a devotional from that text would be fitting and (hopefully) helpful. The devotional focuses particularly on the classic Christmas story of the shepherds--Luke 2:8-20:
8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
    and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds 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.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Have you ever seen a nativity play? Have you or your kids ever been in one? Which role did you or they want to play? Well, the girls, I am sure, wanted Mary, and the boys, wanted Joseph. But, if you couldn't get Joseph, as a boy, the wise men were usually the next best thing. And then, if you were really unlucky, you had to be a shepherd, which probably meant kneeling with a bathrobe on and a hand towel tied over your head. The shepherds often times get relegated to the lowest part of the pecking order of the nativity scenes and plays we see/perform. In fact, I have often wondered why Luke, the doctor, would choose the write about the shepherds. It seemed to me that surely Luke would have chosen to write about the wise men, the intellectuals like him. Why the lowly shepherds? I think we often think that the shepherds were just lucky, unimportant guests at the party. Well, those kinds of thoughts are a mistake that God and Luke do not make.

Have you every wondered what Joseph and Mary thought when the shepherds showed up? They knew what the angel had told them about Jesus, but they had to wonder, "What brought you here? How did you know?" The shepherds just showed up at the gate to the stable. And, they could have asked the same question of the wise men, who were the "academics" in their time. Now, we know the wise men probably did not arrive at the same time as the shepherds. It was perhaps years later. But, let's imagine the nativity scenes, as we often see them in plays or we put on our mantles, are correct and they all made it there at once. Perhaps the wise men had a proud response to how they knew and said that they had been directed by a very careful reading of ancient prophecy and vigilant watching the stars, as only an academic could have done. Then, they might have turned to the shepherds and said, perhaps looking down their noses a bit, "And, how did you know about this?" And, I image that a cheeky shepherd might have answered, "Yeah, we may not be too bright and able to read prophecy or watch the stars, but we had an angel appear to us; then an army of angels singing to us, and we saw the glory of the LORD surrounding us. You saw a star. God sent us a special host of heavenly messengers."

This is one of the great paradoxes of Christmas: the most marginalized of those in the nativity had the most spectacular display of divine power. And, as most of you probably know, shepherds were the lowest of the low in this society. They could not even testify in court because it was believed de jure that they could never be trusted. Yet, the glorious birth announcement comes to shepherds who had done nothing to qualify for it, and they probably knew that they could do nothing to qualify, as they were the lowest of society. God shows us His grace even in the announcement. The Savior doesn't despise the shepherds, which means He doesn't despise the likes of me or you. He was born even for the likes of us.

But, let's think a little more about this story. Now, if you were a shepherd and you had seen a host of angels announcing the birth the Savior who is the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament, where would you think you would find that baby? You would probably think, like the wise men, that he must be royally-born and that He'd be in a palace. The wise men knew the star announced the birth of someone really important--a king--and they went looking in the place important people go first: the palace. But, what do the angels say to the shepherds? "And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger."

Have you ever thought about how that is a really weird sign? If the one born is the Savior and Messiah/Christ, how is Him being born in a manger--in the food trough of animals--a sign? Well, consider this. If you were a shepherd--the lowliest of society--and the angel told you He was in the palace, would you have gone to see Him? I doubt it, because you'd know a shepherd would never be let into the palace! That Savior would be off limits to anyone but the highest ranking people in the world. They would have said, "He's not for the likes of us." But, He was placed in a food trough, and that was a sign for the shepherds and us that the Savior has come for the least in the world. There is no one so far gone or so low that they could say, "I know He could save others, but He can't save me." He is so gentle, meek, and lowly that there is no obstacle in Him to prevent anyone from having Him as their Savior. He is the God of gods, the Messiah, the heir to King David's eternal throne--i.e. qualified to save the greatest--and He was born and laid in a manger--i.e. qualified to save the lowliest. The only obstacle is our sinful rebellion. The obstacle is found in us, not in Him.

Let's consider one more part of this story. There is something else odd in the birth announcement, in v. 11. Does that phrase "unto you is born" seem a little odd? Wouldn't you expect it to say, "unto Mary" or "unto Joseph"? The shepherds probably were good Jews and knew the Messiah was coming, but there is all the difference in the world between knowing that is true and believing that is for you. That little phrase was another way the angels showed them that the Savior can be theirs. He was born for them. He was born unto us, and even the birth announcement tells us that.

The glory, meaning, or "magic" of Christmas is not in the presents or good will that travels around this time of year, though those things in themselves can be great. The glory is, paradoxically, that Jesus humbled Himself to the level of a servant, was announced to lowly shepherds, and drew the shepherds to Himself so that we could know we could come too and tell others that He is a Savior qualified to save the greatest to the lowliest.

By His Grace,

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