Shepherds. They appeared to shepherds, not to the ruler of the province, not to the governor at the time, not to the king, not to the emperor, but to shepherds. That’s to whom the angel of the Lord appeared. Shepherds. It’s often been said that these shepherds were…well…losers, at the bottom of the social food chain. Shepherds were supposedly the outcasts who worked among animals and lived outdoors. They weren’t special in any way, which of course makes them the perfect example of those whom Jesus came to save, the weak, the poor, and the lowly.
And, yet, if Jewish customs are to be believed, these shepherds watching over their flocks by night were no ordinary shepherds and their sheep no ordinary sheep. No, these shepherds were in fact priests charged with watching over the sheep that were to be sacrificed for the Passover. It was these shepherd-priests’ job to make sure the lambs were without blemish and unharmed before being sacrificed. If that’s true, then it’s cool to think that, out of nowhere, an angel from heaven appeared to them to let them know that the need for animal sacrifice had come to an end, and they were the first to know that, “Today, in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”
Now, maybe these were unique shepherd-priests or maybe they were just shepherds. In the end, does it matter? Certainly, it’s fun to think about why these shepherds were the first to hear the announcement of this long-promised birth. I’ve often thought that God, in general, has had an appreciation for the job of a shepherd. Two well-known Bible names were shepherds. Moses was a shepherd in the wilderness before God called him to free the Israelites from Egyptian captivity. David was a ruddy shepherd boy before he was anointed to be king of Israel. And, of course, Jesus called himself our great shepherd. Is that then why God chose shepherds? Because he liked their work?
You know it’s often interesting for us to think about how God works and why he does the things that he does, but, again, in the end does it matter? I mean, in this story, could it just simply be that these shepherds were out in the fields around Bethlehem and God decided he wanted his Son’s birth announced, and this was the group that was out and about that night. I admit there’s probably more to it than that, but on this night the shepherds aren’t all that important.
It’s kind of like if someone you know is going to have a baby and they announce it to their friends and their family, does it matter who knows it first? I mean, we pretend it matters, but say one of my brothers was going to have a baby and I was the last to hear…yeah, I might be a little perturbed, but does me not being the first to hear, or even the second to hear, or, since I have three brothers, the third to hear, really matter? No, my brother and his wife are going to have a baby (that’s not true by the way, as far as I know. And if it is true, I must be the last to know).
I think you see my point. These shepherds were out in the field. They were watching their flocks, and that angel of the Lord came, and he had a message, and they got to hear it. But, here too, we have to stop because in our curiosity we can’t help but wonder about this angel of the Lord. You see it there in verse 9, that he appeared, and the glory of the Lord shone out around him. Could it be that this was no ordinary angel but God himself here on earth to herald the birth of his Son, Jesus? If that was the case, it was no wonder those shepherds were terrified. And, as cool of a thought as that might be, that this birth was of such a magnitude that God briefly appeared in glory to announce, I, yet again have to ask, does it really matter?
Use one of my brothers again as an example. If one of my brothers was going to have a baby, and that brother, say it was the one living out in Fort Collins, Colorado, drove the 14 plus hours here to tell me in person, I would love that; I would feel pretty special But, now say, he just texted me, “Hey, me and my wife are gonna have a baby, talk to you later”…not as cool, but – you know my question – does it matter? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that my brother is having a baby, and that’s fantastic news.
For these shepherds, they were terrified at first, but the angel or the Lord quickly told them what mattered, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” And then it happened, more angels, praising, singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” It must have been quite a moment of sight and sound, and I’m definitely not doing it justice by describing it in that way, but that’s because amid all of the noise, the sound and the sights that ended this silent night, it’s the message that matters.
That angel of the Lord pointed those shepherds to a humble bed. “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” There they would see God’s son, the Father’s only begotten Son. There they would not just hear this “good news of great joy”, but they would see it. Everything in the heavens and on earth is now and always will be compared to this baby. He is the hub of all time and space. Everything that was, and is, and will be is drawn into orbit around him – he became the center of all things! And, here is the best part, he is born to you. And who is he? Who is this child announced by angels? He is your Savior. He is what matters, because in that child was and is everything you need. Don’t let that simple truth escape you tonight. We need him. We need that child so meek and mild.
Remember those shepherds? Remember how they terrified when the angel of the Lord appeared, and rightfully so. Sinners have no right to be in God’s presence. You and I have no right to claim a seat in heaven, and apart from Christ, that makes God terrifying. He is a judge, and we are guilty.
Yet, even though we may imagine that God is against us, or feel that the Father is angry with us, that our creator has abandoned us, here we find, here you find, it’s not true. “Today…a Savior has been born to you.” I mean think about it. Why was this child promised? Why was this child conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary? Why did these angels show up and announce this birth? Here is why, because God loved you, and he wanted you, but our sin – yours and mine – it separated us from him. So, he did what only he could, he gave us himself, and Jesus was born.
Let this sink in. Your heavenly Father gave you a Lord and Savior, the baby, the son of Mary. And if God is for you, who – who!? – can be against you (Romans 8:31)? No one can, not sin, not death, not the devil, nor your sinful flesh. All those things were crushed on the cross, but it started here, in a manger. It started here with a promise kept, “a Savior has been born to you.”
This was the message the angels came to bring to those shepherds watching over their flocks at night. What a moment of joy, and light, and happiness it must have been, but then the night was silent again, and notice what those shepherds did? They said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” And they went. Let’s you and I do that next week. Let’s come back here on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and let us together see this Lord and Savior who is for us, who is for you. It is just as God said. All “glory then be to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Amen.