Sermon Podcast Audio
Can I tell you what I’m really excited about? Christmas! I can finally light up the outside of my house. We put up the tree and decorations on Friday. My first Christmas celebration begins this coming weekend already—and I get to celebrate it all month long. I’ll celebrate Christmas this year with:
- The youth here at church
- The Drake Intervarsity college kids with Amy
- Everyone who attends the Senior Adult Lunch
- The Celebration of Lights next Sunday
- Christmas with my parents in 2 weeks
- Christmas Eve here at church and then opening presents with my kids that night
- Christmas with my in-laws the following weekend
So yeah, I better be excited about Christmas this year as it is going to be NON-STOP.
With all that celebration all around us, we’re beginning a new series here called “A Picture Perfect Christmas,” where we will look at the original Christmas scene—that perfect moment when sweet Baby Jesus came into this world.
I imagine you all have some sort of image in your heads when I mention the nativity scene where Jesus was born. Maybe it’s the nativity scene you had under your tree as a child, or maybe it’s a famous painting that’s ingrained in your mind. Perhaps it’s a non-traditional scene like the rubber duckies I posted on Facebook a few weeks ago! Whatever it is, the scene likely includes all the same characters:
- Mary and Joseph with Baby Jesus lying in a manger
- Shepherds holding their shepherd’s crooks with sheep beside them
- The wise men holding their gifts
- And an angel flying overhead
Over the next 4 weeks we are going to dig into the significance of these people and items which have become symbols for Christmas.
Today we begin with the symbol of the shepherd’s crook. This is one of those parts of the nativity scene you don’t really notice, it sort of blends into the picture, but it has become synonymous with Christmas in America—after all, it’s the reason we have candy canes! And who doesn’t love candy canes.
The Christmas Story
One thing many people don’t realize about the Christmas story, is that all the details of the Christmas story aren’t actually all found in one place in the Bible. Both Matthew and Luke described Jesus’ birth in detail, but they each told different parts to the story—and that’s a really good thing for us, because it gives us more detail about the birth of Jesus.
With that said, I want to begin reading Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth:
While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “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. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. —Luke 2:6-18
What’s interesting to me is that shepherds actually play such a big role in this Picture Perfect Christmas. And it’s surprising because they didn’t have any reason to be a part of this scene.
- They weren’t family or friends
- They weren’t important or significant to the community
- They played no active role in what happened—they were really just background to all the events—probably the reason they are always found in the background of every nativity scene.
So today, I will explain the 2 reasons it is so significant that these shepherds were the first ones told about the birth of Jesus and were the first ones to visit the Son of God, come into the world.
Upside-Down Nature of the Kingdom of God
First, it shows us about the upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God. Shepherds were known to be dishonest and untrustworthy. So, the fact that God chose for the first ones to witness the birth of the Messiah and to spread the news through the community to be a group of people known to be untrustworthy seems absurd.
But really, this just sets the table for how the rest of Jesus’ life will be characterized by doing things in an upside-down way. Remember, after he dies and is resurrected, it is again people who are widely viewed as unreliable—women—who are the first to attest to his body being risen from the dead. So, maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that God chose to reveal the birth of his son first to shepherds rather than people of importance or notoriety.
Not only were shepherds known to be dishonest, but because of their reputation, career choice, and overall hygiene—they were a lowly bunch. They had no importance in the community and people looked down on them. They were essentially outcasts from the community—yet again, remember that it was these outcasts who God chose to invite to the celebration of Jesus’ birth.
And again, I think this beautifully points to the nature of the Kingdom of God where everybody is invited to the celebration. It doesn’t matter your money or status, or hygiene habits—we all receive an invitation and have the opportunity to accept it or ignore it.
Remember, the shepherds were just minding their own business one night when the angels showed up and told them the Good News that the Messiah, the expected savior, had been born. And at that news, they had a choice—they could respond and go search for him, or they could stay in their fields with their sheep and keep on keeping on. They chose Jesus! And it’s clear they’re glad they did because after leaving him, they excitedly told everyone about it. They knew they had just met the ONE who would change everything!
We have to realize, just like the shepherds, we all have a choice in how we respond to the Good News of the Gospel. We can listen politely and then return to the business at hand, or we can choose Jesus and encounter the Savior of the world face to face. And that decision is not one which is made one time and forgotten about—it’s a decision we make each day we wake. Will we choose to be with Jesus THIS day, or stay wrapped up in the busyness around us?
Shepherds Point to the One Good Shepherd
The second reason it’s significant that God chose to reveal the birth of Jesus first to shepherds is how it symbolizes the way Jesus would fulfill the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah being a shepherd to God’s people.
I know that at first this point may not be compelling to you, but when I found this earlier this week I was again amazed at the incredible story God Almighty has woven together across hundreds of years. Let me explain:
First, I want to look at Micah 5:2,4 where we read about the promised Messiah to come:
2 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
4 He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.
We know this prophecy was known among the Jews during the time of Jesus’ birth because it is quoted in Matthew as part of the story about the wise men. So, the Jews of the time knew that the Messiah, the savior to come, would be like a shepherd to the people.
There is a second example where the life of Jesus fulfills the words of the Old Testament written hundreds of years earlier:
Then Micaiah answered, “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and the Lord said, ‘These people have no master. Let each one go home in peace.’ ” —1 Kings 22:17
And now, knowing this verse from the Old Testament, we again shouldn’t be surprised when Jesus in his earthly life, fully assumes this role as the shepherd to the people of Israel, the lost sheep.
This is clearly seen in Mark 6:34 where Jesus crosses the sea and upon landing he finds a large crowd. Mark 6:34 says, “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
And do you know what he did when he saw their need? He cared for them like a good shepherd would. He filled their spiritual appetite by teaching them. And then when it got late and the disciples told him to send everybody away, he said, “No, I will feed them.” And like a good shepherd he fed the lost sheep of Israel.
Jesus knew that was his calling; it was his duty to be the Good Shepherd. In John 10, Jesus spoke directly about his role as a shepherd to the people of Israel.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. —John 10:11
See how he not only knows he is the good shepherd, he describes what that means—it means giving your own life for the sake of the sheep. I think this speaks volumes to the character of Jesus. From early on he knew that guarding his people, his sheep, would mean that he would have to give up his life for them. But that’s what shepherds do—they put their own life at risk to protect the flock.
Then Jesus continues:
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. —John 10:27-28
Here’s a second aspect to what Jesus is saying about himself as a shepherd: Just as a shepherd knows all his sheep and the sheep respond only to the voice of their shepherd, Jesus is saying that he knows who are his, and those who are his, know his voice and follow him. So, as followers of Jesus, we are like sheep in that we know the voice of the one who is leading us and we not only know the voice, we follow it.
And most importantly, we follow him to eternal life. We have no doubt about where our journey with Jesus ends. We know the journey may be difficult, in fact, it may be grueling, but in the end, Jesus is leading us to eternal life, a life with the Father. And he not only is leading us there, but is guaranteeing that he will get us there safely.
Now that’s a good shepherd. That’s a shepherd worth following. That’s a shepherd who fulfills the promise of a savior who would lead people back to God, even though it meant giving up his own life!
That’s why I’m so passionate about the Old Testament link to shepherds and the fact that God chose lowly shepherds in a field one night to announce the birth of the One Good Shepherd.
I just LOVE how the shepherds in the background of the nativity scene offer so much symbolism for us. But it’s so much more than symbolism. It’s a call for us to respond.
If the shepherds in the Picture Perfect Christmas scene point to Baby Jesus, who is the Good Shepherd—then we must understand that we are the sheep, the followers of the shepherd who cares for us, who will give his life for us, and who wants what’s best for us. But the problem is, sheep are stubborn and so are some of you!
If you have committed your life to Jesus, you know his voice, and you want to follow him, then you are on the path to eternal life. The problem is, along that journey of life, we often get distracted by all sorts of things: new relationships, new jobs, new Christmas gifts, it could be anything. Sometimes, we are so obsessed with these things that we fail to listen to the shepherd who is trying to lead us somewhere else. Sometimes, like teenagers, we simply tune his voice out, while other times we wander so far from him, it seems we can no longer hear even if he shouts for us.
The question each of us should ponder today is this: In what area of your life might Jesus be trying to lead you that you are stubbornly ignoring?
As the good shepherd, Jesus will be patient with you, he will keep seeking you out as you go the wrong way, but know that he will also use that crook to get your attention. He cares too much for you to let you go. So today, choose to listen to his voice on this issue and follow him.
This Christmas season you will probably see countless candy cane decorations in stores and covering advertising pages. You’ll likely eat a few too. But don’t let their symbolic meaning for the lowly, untrustworthy shepherds be lost on you. Don’t forget that it was God who could have chosen to announce the birth of his son to anyone, yet He decided to announce it to these shepherds watching over their sheep that cold night. And in choosing them, he was clearly making a statement about the shepherding character of his son, pointing to the fact that Jesus’ mission was to lead lost sheep to eternal life with God. Just like a shepherd leads his sheep not to where they want to go, but to where is best for them, Jesus Christ is trying to lead us to eternal life. Will you follow?