Summary: Their faith takes them to the stable, and beyond.
“The Shepherds’ Faith”
Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
In a survey, nearly a third of those questioned stated that, of all the persons mentioned in the Christmas story, they identified the most with the shepherds. They were your average, ordinary, everyday working people and were invited to see the birth of the King of kings!
The announcement was amazing, supernatural, yet it nonetheless took faith to believe the “glad tidings”. A man once said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” Faith is a gift from God. Its’ foundation is in the word of God. These shepherds in Luke 2 were part of a supernatural event; the Holy Spirit generated faith within them, which prompted their response to the angelic glad tidings.
The low-lying shepherds’ plain was an area near to Bethlehem. Apparently these shepherds had driven their separate flocks together in the open and were keeping watch during the night over a collected flock. They could then take turns resting and standing guard. Since Bethlehem is a suburb of Jerusalem (about the distance from Boston to Saugus), it is likely that a large part of these flocks were intended for temple sacrifices.
Shepherds were not high on the social scale; theirs was a lowly occupation, and they weren’t highly educated. The work made them ceremonially unclean and isolated them from people, which caused them to be treated with contempt and mistrust. Yet they were given an honor Herod rejected and one the Pharisees would have been proud to receive—to witness the birth of the Messiah. God didn’t send an angel to the Temple to announce Jesus’ birth to the religious leaders, or to the palace of King Herod to inform the political rulers of Judah. Instead, God’s messenger came first to social outcasts. The Gospel was first proclaimed to ordinary people—people like you and me. The Savior came for all. This visit is a fulfillment of Mary’s words in Luke 1:52, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones and has exalted them of low degree” (words she likely intended to reflect her humble position, yet which apply to the shepherds as well). Whoever we are, whatever we do, we can have Jesus in our lives.
The Bible describes angels as spirit beings who were created to serve God, and to occasionally serve as His messengers. These shepherds were “touched by an angel”. We need to be careful about what we read concerning angels; much of what is being written these days comes from a decidedly new age perspective. Angels are specially created beings—they are not, as some erroneously claim, the spirits of departed people. In the Gospel accounts angels are key figures in the birth of Christ, appearing to Mary, Joseph and Zacharias.
What do you do when you see an angel? It would nearly be like standing before the Lord Himself; angels, after all, represent the greatness of God’s presence, and the Bible states that their appearance was awe-inspiring. But angels do not accept worship. Nearly every time the Bible describes angels appearing to people the response is the same—fear. These shepherds were understandably terrified; but their fear was soon relieved. To these men, and to a world living in fear came two powerful words: “fear not.” The angel didn’t leave it at that, but gave the reason why. The hope of the centuries has been fulfilled! The Good Shepherd was revealed to the shepherds of Bethlehem. This message inspires faith in the shepherds.
Then appeared the “heavenly host”, an army of angels poised, not for battle but for praise, singing “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests” (vs 14). When we sing the Latin “Gloria in excelcius deo” we are singing the song of the angels.
The presence of angels was frightening, for on occasion they came in judgment. But here they spoke words of reassurance. The angelic messenger knew the bad news—humankind has sinned and is lost. But this heavenly being had come to tell the world that God was doing something about its lostness, its fallen state. And here we have an early hint of the scope of this message. God’s embrace would include both Jew and Gentile; grace was to be expanded to include, not simply the people of one nation, but the whole world.
We live in a world bound by fear—of crime, disease, economic collapse, and war. The Solution for fear is still the same. Our world’s problems are at the core spiritual. Peace on earth does not come from summits, envoys or expeditionary forces—it comes from having peace with God; only then can we live at peace with others. Peace proceeds from God. When we find peace with God, we can live at peace with others.