FIRST READING Isaiah 9:2–7
2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined. 3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. 4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
PSALM Psalm 96
1Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth. 2Sing to the LORD, bless the name of the LORD; proclaim God’s salvation from day to day. 3Declare God’s glory among the nations and God’s wonders among all peoples. 4For great is the LORD and greatly to be praised, more to be feared than all gods. 5As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols; but you, O LORD, have made the heavens. 6Majesty and magnificence are in your presence; power and splendor are in your sanctuary. 7Ascribe to the LORD, you families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD honor and power. 8Ascribe to the LORD the honor due the holy name; bring offerings and enter the courts of the LORD. 9Worship the LORD in the beau| ty of holiness; tremble before the LORD, all the earth.
10Tell it out among the nations: “The LORD is king! The one who made the world so firm that it cannot be moved will judge the peoples with equity.” 11Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is therein. 12Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy at your coming, O LORD, for you come to judge the earth. 13You will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with your truth.
SECOND READING Titus 2:11–14
11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, 12 training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. 14 He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.
GOSPEL Luke 2:1–20
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth 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 heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
AT THE MANGER BY INVITATION
There’s a certain family which has for years spent one Saturday in early-December finding and bringing home the right Christmas tree. They don’t buy a tree off a lot. Instead, they prefer to go to a tree farm. There they spend a lot time selecting a tree that’s just right–not too tall, not too thin, with just the right shape. This perfect tree is then cut down and taken home. This plan has worked smoothly for years, however, this year the choice was difficult. It wasn’t because there was a lack of beautiful trees. The problem was that the youngest member of the family, little Jeannine, didn’t like, or want, any of the “really pretty” ones. Her attitude was different. She said, “I’m looking for a tree that needs me. Then I’ll make it beautiful.”
I got to thinking about this story and realized that young Jeannine was, in reality, reflecting God’s attitude toward us. The truth is, God doesn’t cater solely to the beautiful people, the wealthy or educated, the morally superior. God takes each of us as we are, with all our ugly sinfulness and selfishness. When allowed, God then takes up residence within our hearts and minds. There, He gradually makes us beautiful, from the inside out. This is true whether you’re part of the upper crust or among those marginalized in society.
The shepherds of Bethlehem, for me, are a reminder that God doesn’t favor certain groups of people. In first century Palestine, shepherds were as common as the sheep they cared for, and generally no cleaner. They were the rural poor of Judea. The scuttlebutt about them was that they borrowed things without intending to return them. Shepherds, as a group, were considered notoriously dishonest and, as a general rule, weren’t allowed to give testimony in a court of law. But consider this, despite their social standing and reputation as a group, shepherds were the only group that received a personal invitation to go and see the baby Jesus.
Tonight, Luke guides us through the Bethlehem event. Whether Luke actually talked with the virgin Mary, we don’t know. By the time Luke wrote his gospel, she would have been somewhere around 75 years old and in that day, people didn’t usually live that long. But, we can be sure that Luke talked with Jesus’ brother James, who was president of the Jerusalem Church. From James, Luke certainly could have learned Mary’s version of the Christmas story. And among the many facets of the birth narrative, James told him that shepherds came to visit on the night of Jesus’ birth. And it’s from these visitors that I think we can learn a couple of things. The first is that God cares deeply about the least, the lost, and the marginalized.
The shepherds occupied one of the lowest rungs on the social ladder. No reputable banker would give them a loan. Most people didn’t invite them to their parties and if a young lady wanted to marry a shepherd, she had to consider the fact that she’d most likely break her parents’ heart. Nevertheless, God seemed determined that their kind would be found by the manger of Bethlehem. This goes to prove that God is no respecter of persons. And to further prove this point, consider that the other end of the social ladder was represented as well by the well-educated, noble wise Men. God is indeed as an equal-opportunity Administrator and wants us to know that all are welcome. So, He invited the elite and the common, the shepherds and the Magi.
The Texaco Corporation got into some trouble in the past because some of its executives were taped talking about “Black Jelly Beans.” Some disparaging comments were made about African Americans and others, comments which cost Texaco $176 million in damages. According to those executives, black jelly beans belong at the bottom of the bag. But it might surprise them to learn that Jesus had no problem hanging out at the bottom of the bag as it were.
When Mary was first told by the angel Gabriel that she would be the mother of the Messiah, she sensed immediately that her son would upset the usual social order. She declared: “God has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree.” (Luke 1:52-53) God doesn’t worry about contrived social rankings or ladders: God loves both the upper and lower classes. The second thing we learn for the shepherds is that the first description of the Messiah is “Savior.”
The angel’s good news to the shepherds was this: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11) In Matthew we read that when Jesus’ father Joseph was visited by an angel, he was given this message concerning Mary: “…she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Throughout the Bible, Jesus is described in various ways: wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father, prince of peace. But first and foremost, His title is Savior. The main purpose for His coming was to save us from our sin. Out of human pride there are some people today who don’t believe that we’re sinners saved by grace. They prefer to think of themselves as being “morally challenged.” They believe that with a little education and tender-loving-care, moral virtues will replace bad behavior just as permanent teeth replace baby teeth.
These people don’t believe in a final judgment or hell, so they see no need for a Savior. Jesus is for them is just a moral example and master teacher. But in God’s announcement to those shepherds that holy night, Jesus was heralded as a Savior. Whatever else He came to do, He came first to seek and to save the lost. Every person who doesn’t know accept Him as Savior and Lord is doomed. Each person who has repented of sin and welcomed Him by faith as Savior and Lord is saved.
In the first century, an unblemished lamb was sacrificed each morning and evening in the Jerusalem temple. These lambs died for the sins of the people. To see that a constant supply of perfect lambs was provided, the temple authorities contracted with shepherds out in the area between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Could it be that the very shepherds who provided sacrificial lambs for the Temple were the same ones who were invited to see the baby who would become the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world? It’s an interesting thought! The third lesson we learn from the shepherds is that we can come to Jesus empty-handed.
Yes, the wise Men brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But the shepherds brought nothing but humble and contrite hearts and a glimmer of faith. God is unlike any earthly dignitary. He’s not impressed by our achievements or credentials or resumes. In approaching Him, we need no letters of referral. He welcomes anyone with a humble and contrite heart and a glimmer of faith.
The Victorian poet, Christina Rossetti, penned these immortal words of Christmas:
“What shall I give Him, poor as I am; If I were a shepherd, I’d give him a lamb; If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; But such as I have I give Him, I give Him my heart.”
God’s salvation is a free gift, offered to us without merit or price. All we have to do is receive it in faith. The fourth and final thing the shepherds teach us is, once we come face to face with Jesus, you can’t help but tell others about Him.
Luke tells us that after the shepherds saw Jesus “…they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child; and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.” Interesting isn’t it! The first evangelists on earth were those lowly, foul-smelling shepherds. They were the very first to say: “We have seen the Lord!”
I saw some excellent advice on a church sign somewhere, it read, “Keep the faith, but not to yourself.” The next time someone asks, “What do you know?”, don’t mumble something like “Nothin’ much.” Say “God is good, all the time,” or “The good Lord is treating me better than I deserve.” I’m not asking you to preach. I’m saying that we need to look for opportunities to say a simple, unpretentious word about how much God has done for us. If we do, God will honor it and through His Holy Spirit use it. The shepherds spread the good news of God’s Messiah all over the Bethlehem region. Surely you and I can do the same in our offices, social clubs and neighborhoods.
So, when someone asks you of what earthly good is a sermon about the shepherds, you can first tell them that the shepherds teach us that Jesus is a Savior. The shepherds also remind us that Jesus hangs out with the least, the lost, and the marginalized. How many of us know such persons? We also learn that the shepherds brought nothing to the manger of Bethlehem except a humble and contrite hearts and a glimmer of faith. That’s all that Jesus requires of us. And finally, we learn that the Shepherds told everybody the good news about the Christ-child.
Recently I ran across a personal testimony by a lady named Mary Ann Bird. It was a story about a caring school teacher that changed her life. It was in her encounter with that teacher that I was reminded of God’s attitude toward shepherds and people like us. Mary Ann says, “I grew up knowing I was different, and I hated it. I was born with a cleft palate, and when I started school, my classmates made it clear to me how I looked to them: a little girl with a misshapen lip, crooked nose, lopsided teeth, and garbled speech. “When schoolmates asked, ‘What happened to your lip?’, I’d tell them I’d fallen and cut it on a piece of glass. Somehow it seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than to have been born different. I was convinced that no one outside my family could love me.
“There was, however, a teacher in the second grade whom we all adored–Mrs. Leonard. She was short, round and happy–a sparkling lady. Annually, we were given a hearing test…Mrs. Leonard gave the test to everyone in the class. Finally, it was my turn. I knew from past years that as we stood against the door and covered one ear, the teacher sitting at her desk would whisper something, and we would have to repeat it back–things like ‘The sky is blue’ or ‘Do you have new shoes?’ As I waited and listened, she spoke seven words that God must have given her; seven words that changed my life. Mrs. Leonard said, in a whisper, ‘I wish you were my little girl.”‘
God whispers these same words to every person deformed by sin, to every reject and loser, to shepherds and Magi; to people like you and me: “I wish you were my daughter” or “I wish you were my son.” God is no respecter of class or status, all are invited into His presence. It doesn’t cost us anything, nor do we need to bring anything. And as we learned from the shepherds, once you’ve been in the presence of God’s Savior, you can’t help but let others know.