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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
 
Title:God brings the shepherds to an encounter with his glory
Text:Luke 2:8-20 (View)
Occasion:Christmas Day
Topic:The Incarnation
 
Preached:2010
Added:2010-12-29
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 15
Hymn 7:9 (after the law)
Hymn 13
Hymn 17
Psalm 111

Reading: Luke 2:1-7
Text: Luke 2:8-20
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of Christ,

The birth of our Saviour has often been romanticized.  It happens in different ways.  Sometimes it happens through pious Christmas carols.  The classic example is Away in a Manger, telling us that Jesus was some kind of super-baby who never cried.  Sometimes it happens through nativity scenes or dramatic re-enactments.  You can get the impression that this was a heavenly, supernatural birth.  You might think there was none of the messiness or pain or ugliness that typically accompanies human births.  But these are all idealizations of what happened at our Saviour’s birth. 

Not only are they false and wrong, they can also lead towards the ancient heresy of docetism.  Docetism says that Jesus only appeared to be human.  He was not a true human being, he just looked like one.  So those who hold to this heresy would say that Jesus didn’t cry like a normal baby.  He didn’t fill his diaper like a normal baby.  He didn’t burp up like babies do.  He never got sick and always, always slept through the night.  But that is a heresy.  Scripture plainly tells us that he was and is a real human being.  When he was a baby too, he was like us in every way, except without sin.  Crying to let your mom know that you’re hungry is not a sin.  Filling your diaper is not a sin.  Neither is not sleeping through the night, and so on. 

Loved ones, we need a Saviour who is a true human being, not just a reasonable facsimile.  Only a true man could go to the cross for us.  Only a true man could bear God’s anger against our sin.  Only a true man could do for us what we can’t do for ourselves, obeying God’s law perfectly.     

So romanticizing the birth of our Saviour is common, but it’s also dangerous.  It endangers our salvation.  This romanticizing has also frequently taken place with the shepherds.  The shepherds are painted as gentle, pastoral figures.  It’s almost as if it would be obvious that God would send the first birth announcement regarding Jesus to them.  Of course, he would go to the Shepherds.  Who would be better suited than them?

It’s time to peel away the layers of romance and get to the true picture.  We need to take a step back from our idealizations of the Christmas story and pay close attention to what the Bible actually says.  This morning, as I preach to you God’s Word, we’ll see that at the birth of Christ, God brings these shepherds to an encounter with his glory.  We’ll see how:

1.      The glory shone around them

2.      The glory went up before them

3.      The glory was hidden from them

4.      The glory was given by them

We all know the story of Jesus’ birth that we find in verses 1-7 of Luke 2.  A Roman census brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and there Jesus, our Saviour, was born in a manger.  In the same region, there were shepherds watching over their flocks.  Right away, we need to strip away the romantic image of the shepherd.

Shepherds were not highly respected people.  They did dirty work.  They were grimy people who spent a lot of time living outside in close proximity to animals.  From a Jewish perspective, they were perpetually unclean.  Not only that, but they were stereotyped as low-lifes.  They were known to have sticky fingers, roaming around at night and helping themselves to things that didn’t belong to them.  The testimony of a shepherd was worthless in a court of law.  They were generally regarded as untrustworthy people.  Yes, Moses and David had been shepherds.  But they got out of that line of work, they moved beyond it. 

So there were these men on the lower end of the social scale.  They were out in the fields.  Some have used that to determine the time of year when Christ was born.  The tradition is December 25, but the reality is that we simply don’t know the historical date.  The fact that sheep were out in the fields doesn’t really help.  Sheep could be out in the fields at pretty much any time of year.  So we ought not to read too much into that. 

They were out in the fields with the flocks and it was night-time.  That suggests that our Lord Jesus was born at night. We would expect the announcement of his birth to come right after his birth, so that makes sense. 

As they were out there, suddenly an angel from God appeared to them.  How did they know it was an angel?  Sometimes in the Bible angels are indistinguishable from people.  However, at other times, they’re seen to have wings, or to have bright white clothing.  Whatever the appearance of this angel, there was no doubt in the shepherds’ minds that this was not an ordinary person.

Accentuating that fact was the glory of the Lord shining around them.  This is an important aspect of what happens here.  The glory of the Lord in the Bible is the sign of his presence.  When the glory of the Lord came into the temple, that meant that God was present to bless his people.   That’s the way it is here too.  God has come down to these shepherds to bless them.  The night sky was lit up.  Suddenly they were surrounded by glory and majesty.  It was readily obvious that something out of the ordinary was happening. 

Loved ones, we need to keep in mind that the voice of prophecy had fallen silent.  The people of God had heard nothing directly from him for hundreds of years.  Then, out of the blue, on this dark night, these shepherds encounter the glory of God shining around them.  He didn’t come to the high and mighty religious leaders in Jerusalem, but to some low-life shepherds out in the fields.  God finally is about to speak again to his people.

And how do the shepherds react?  In the same way as Isaiah when he encountered God’s glory in Isaiah 6.  Isaiah was terrified.  Isaiah was undone.  Here Luke tells us that the shepherds were frightened, terrified.  Afraid with a great fear, it literally says.  Why?  Because they know what God can do.  He could come in judgment as well as in blessing.  God is not Santa Claus, coming down the chimney with a ho-ho-ho and presents for everyone.  He is the Holy One of Israel.  He is to be feared, honoured, and respected.  When he appears in the middle of the night, you don’t take it lightly. 

The angel is God’s voice, his messenger.  Just as in so many other encounters with angels and God’s glory, the first words are, “Do not fear.”  God is not here to destroy you, but to bless you.  He has good news for you!  There’s a message of great joy for you and for all the people of God.  The promises are coming true.  In the city of David, a Saviour has been born for you.  He has come into the world with your flesh and blood to save you from your sins and from the wrath of God.  He is the Christ – he is the Messiah, the anointed one of Yahweh who had been promised.  He is the Lord.  He is God come in the flesh. 

The angel was bringing everything from the Old Testament together into just a few short words.  There was to be no mistake:  the turning point in redemptive history was upon them.  This baby is someone significant!

Then the angel spoke of a sign.  This sign would point to the fact that this is all true.  The sign would confirm the angel’s message.  The sign was that they would find the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.  The swaddling cloths were not unusual.  All Jewish babies would have been wrapped tightly by their mothers out of the belief that this helped the growth and development of their limbs.  But lying in a manger?  Who would have expected to find the Messiah, the Lord, the Saviour, lying in a manger?  This is a royal figure.  He has come from God.  What is he doing lying in a feeding trough for animals?  That’s confusing, but that’s how they would know they’ve found the right baby. 

Suddenly there was not just one angel, but an army of angels, a choir of angels.  They were all praising God, bringing glory to his majesty.  We often think of these words of the angels as being a hymn, a song of praise to God.  But careful readers have often noted that the text doesn’t say that directly.  It says that they were praising God.  And then it says that they were saying, “Glory to God in the highest,” and so on.  Still, the words here have the form of a hymn or a song of praise to God.  Traditionally, they have been understood as a hymn.  Moreover, singing is the most intense form of using our mouths to communicate.  If you really want to make an impression, and if you really want to praise, song is the way to do it.  Singing and music are powerful!  Therefore, it’s a legitimate conclusion that the angels were in fact singing these words. 

What did they sing?  Their song had two parts.  The first and most important had to do with giving the glory to God in heaven.  There is a Jewish tradition that after God created the world, the angels sung praise and glory to the Creator.  Here too, after God brings his Son into the world, the angels heap honour upon the majesty of God.  He has been faithful to his promises.  He is on the cusp of bringing about the bruising of the head of the Serpent.  The Scepter of Jacob is here.  The day of victory over sin and death is rapidly approaching.  God is going to make his Name even more glorious.  The angels had every reason to sing “Glory to God in the highest!”  And of course, we do even more.  We’ve heard of what God did through Christ. And we live in the last days.  We live in the expectation of the second coming of Christ.  God has been faithful to his promises in the past, and we know he will be in the present and the future too.  We’re going to see Satan crushed and defeated.  That realization makes us sing and lift up God’s Name too. 

The second part of the angels’ song had to do with men:  “...and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”  Through this baby, God was bringing reconciliation to mankind.  He was showing himself to be gracious and merciful.  He was giving a Saviour through whom people would be brought into peace, a healthy, friendly relationship with himself.  God’s mercy is the source of the peace which people who believe in Christ will enjoy.  You see, here too, the angels mean to magnify God’s greatness.  They want the Shepherds and us and everyone to see that God is good and gracious and merciful.  He’s sent this baby to demonstrate it.         

Who knows how long this scene of wonder and praise lasted?  Luke doesn’t tell us.  But when the angels left, the shepherds began talking amongst themselves.  What were they going to do now?  The obvious thing.  Go to Bethlehem and check this out.  The Lord has revealed something to us and the right response is to go and see it.  Notice how they’re not indifferent.  They don’t say, “Whatever.”  Rather, they get moving.  There’s no doubt either.  They don’t question whether perhaps they’d eaten some funny mushrooms for supper.  They know what they saw and they know who it was who’d spoken to them.  It was the Lord.  No doubt about it. 

They quickly travelled over to Bethlehem and they found things just as had been told them.  There was the baby Jesus lying in a manger.  This was the Saviour.  This was the Christ, the Lord.  But he was a helpless human baby!  And he was lying in a manger!  This was not what you would expect regarding such a significant figure.  There was no glory and majesty there with the animals.  There were no halos.  His glory was hidden.  He had emptied himself of his heavenly trappings.  He was a true human being, like us, and there was nothing obviously special about him apart from what the angels had said.

This was an early step on his road of humiliation.  It was not the first step.  The first step was the incarnation, his conception.  He took on human flesh inside his mother.  Nine months later he was born and placed in a manger.  This was another step downward for him.  In the years ahead, he would continue to travel down, down, down.  This journey would reach its lowest point at the shame of the cross and then at the grave.  As we reflect on the incarnation and birth of Christ, and as we want to strip away the romance, we do well to remember the old saying, “Born to die.”  But not only that, also: “born to live.”  His life was one of constant humiliation, being subjected to all the miseries of human existence.  But it was also a life of perfect obedience.  Everything that Christ did in his humiliation was for us, on our behalf. 

The manger was an early step on that road downward.  The first visitors at his side were not the highly regarded, but lowly shepherds.  The humble greeted the humble.  God was made much of through that which is weak and low in the eyes of men.  That’s the way he typically works.

The shepherds not only saw the baby, but they went on to spread the word.  They didn’t just say that they had seen a baby, but they reported what the angel had told them.  The promised Saviour had come.  The Messiah was here.  And they were praising and glorifying God too.  This was something that grabbed their hearts and lifted them up in joyful adoration.

As you probably know, Luke’s gospel is volume 1 of a two-part work.  Luke went on to write Acts as well.  In verse 20, we’re told that the shepherds praised God for all that they had seen and heard.  Verse 17 tells us that they told everyone they could about what they’d seen and heard.  Later on in Acts 4, the apostles Peter and John can’t help speaking about they’ve seen and heard.  Those exact words come back in Acts 4:20.  That’s important.  Peter and John were witnesses to what had happened in Jesus’ life and ministry.  They saw and heard everything, and especially what happened at the end and then his resurrection.  They were witnesses and then they testified.  It’s the same with these shepherds here.  They saw and heard everything, they were witnesses, and then they testified.  They couldn’t stop talking.  Some have called them the first evangelists.    

Do you see the pattern?  Revelation, faith, testimony.  Do you see how it bears on our lives too?  We have not been eye- and ear-witnesses to Christ’s birth and the events surrounding it.  But we have heard about it from the Holy Spirit.  Mary kept all these things in her heart and reflected on them.  No doubt she wondered about their significance, but God also used this treasuring of Mary to keep the events in the historical record.  When Luke made his careful historical investigation into everything that happened in Jesus’ life and ministry, undoubtedly he interviewed Mary and got the story from her.  And now we have the facts too.  The Holy Spirit has preserved them for us.  We’re getting it straight from him.  We have heard the good news of Christ’s birth.  And we know that he didn’t stay a baby.  No, the hope that we have is not tied down to a romantic manger scene.  Our hope is in a Saviour who emptied himself of all his heavenly glory already in the virgin’s womb.  The hope we have is tied to the cross.  The hope we have is tied to a faithful Saviour who obediently followed God’s will all the way to Golgotha.  The hope we have is tied to our Lord Jesus who rose from the dead triumphantly and who now sits enthroned in heaven at God’s right hand.  Our hope is in our Lord Christ who will return again to judge the living and the dead and who will start the age to come. 

This is the hope to which we’re all called to bear witness.  All of us are called to give testimony to the world where we can and may, to testify that Christ is the only hope for sinners.  Whenever God opens doors and gives opportunities, we speak of the hope that we have.  It’s a hope that is not wishful thinking, but a hope grounded in faith and expectation – a hope that knows salvation through Christ and him alone.   

Loved ones, we have much to celebrate on this day as we commemorate Christ’s birth.  It was indeed the turning point in redemptive-history.  The glory is to be given to God for the gift of his Son.  The glory is sharper when we leave behind the romantic visions of what the birth of our Saviour involved.  The glory is greater when we look beyond the manger.  AMEN.

Prayer:

O God of glory and majesty,

Father, we thank you for the gift of your Son.  We give you the glory that you sent your only-begotten Son to live and die for us. 

Lord Jesus, we thank you for taking on our human flesh.  We’re glad that you humbled yourself in the virgin’s womb.  We’re thankful that you let yourself be placed in the manger among the animals.  We praise you for the crying you made, for being a true human baby in every way.  We give you the glory for your incarnation and birth.

O Holy Spirit, thank you for inspiring and preserving your Word so that we may know of our Saviour’s birth.  We pray for your help in being faithful witnesses.  Please give us courage and strength to testify to the good news wherever we can and may.

O God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, thank you for the joy of this day.  Please continue to bless us as we celebrate together as brothers and sisters, and with our family and friends.  We pray in the Name of Jesus our Saviour, Christ the Lord, AMEN.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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