1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.
2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, 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, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
The New Testament provides two accounts of the birth of Jesus: one in the Gospel of Matthew and the other in Luke. The gospels of Mark and John begin their story later when Jesus was already an adult, but let us think this morning about Matthew and Luke. The birth narratives of the two gospels have some elements in common. They both relate that Jesus of Nazareth was the child of Mary, who was betrothed to Joseph, a descendant of King David. However, both narratives make clear that Joseph is not the father of Jesus. Mary is with child by the Holy Spirit.
In Luke’s account, Mary learns from the angel Gabriel that she will conceive and bear a child called Jesus. When she asks how this can be, since she is a virgin, he tells her that the Holy Spirit would "come upon her" and that "nothing will be impossible with God". She responds: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word".
At the time that Mary is due to give birth, she and her husband Joseph traveled about 90 miles south from their home in Nazareth to Joseph's ancestral home in Bethlehem to register in the census of Quirinius. Having found no place in the inn, Mary gives birth to her firstborn son in a stable. She places him in a manger, which is to say, a feeding trough.
An angel of the Lord visits the shepherds watching their flocks in nearby fields and brings them "good news of great joy," explaining that "to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord." The angel tells them that they will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. The angel is joined by a "heavenly host" who sing "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" The shepherds hurry to Bethlehem where they find Jesus with Mary and Joseph.
That is Luke, but Matthew is very different. Matthew relates the appearance of an angel, in a dream, to Joseph. Matthew talks about the wise men from the east; and Herod’s massacre of all the babies in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the messiah, but the massacre does not achieve Herod’s purpose because Joseph and Mary have taken the baby and fled to Egypt. Luke mentions none of this but describes the conception and birth of Jesus; the appearance of an angel to Mary; the worldwide census; the birth in a manger, and the choir of angels; none of that is mentioned in Matthew. Luke says they lived in Nazareth and only came to Bethlehem for the census. Matthew implies that they lived in Bethlehem and only moved to Nazareth after their return from Egypt. Matthew and Luke give two different genealogies of Jesus, and appear to use a contradictory time frame. Matthew's account places the birth during the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC, but Luke dates it to the census of Quirinius ten years after Herod's death, around 6 AD.
Actually the birth story of Matthew might not be a birth story at all. Matthew tells us that the wise men found the child Jesus in a house, not in a manger, not in a stable.
You get the idea that the wise men could be visiting the Bethlehem baby sometime after his birth, maybe up to a year later. And Mary and Joseph are living in Bethlehem.
However that may be, today we are considering Luke’s account, we are talking about shepherds and angels.
The shepherd’s were attending their flocks by night. Have you ever thought about how dark it was at night in ancient times? They had no electricity, no street lights, no house lights, no car headlight beams. Perhaps they had a fire, but that was more for warmth than for light. You get the idea that the word “Dark” had a whole different meaning in the first century than it does today..
But suddenly the darkness of that Palestinian hillside was lit up as the brightest day.
And the KJV says, “they were sore afraid.” They were petrified. They were rooted to the ground in fear. Of course they were. You and I would have been also.
And the angel said, "Fear not." In the first two chapters of Luke, there are three different appearances of angels. An angel appears to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and to Mary, and to the shepherds. The first words the angel speaks in all three cases are “Fear not.” these are reassuring words, gentle words. These are God’s loving words to God’s own people.
When I was a kid, I liked to go to Saturday afternoon matinees at the movies. They had something in those days that they don’t have today. They had serials. A serial was a film broken up in to 10 to 15 minute chapters, and they showed one chapter a week before the feature films. And each chapter ended in a cliffhanger. That is the hero or heroine seems certainly doomed. You had to return next Saturday to find out how they escaped, and they always escaped at the last possible minute.
Over 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, it was the last possible moment for humankind. People were desperate to escape from the hopelessness and the meaninglessness of things.
Think about the shepherds. They were trapped in a deadend job with little or no prospects. Being a shepherd was not considered to be a good career choice. You can see that immediately. Everyone else is asleep in a warm bed down in Bethlehem. They are out on a cold hillside watching dumb animals.
No one wanted to be around shepherds. Sheep had an odor, not a pleasant odor, and shepherds had that same odor. They were stinky.
And they had a bad reputation. Tthey were regarded by the community as petty criminals. The saying was, “Never trust a shepherd.”
They were not allowed to worship in the temple because the priests regarded them as spiritually unclean. So in the grand scheme of things shepherds were outcasts. As some folks used to say in the South, they were “low no’count trash.”
One of the huge differences between Luke’s birth story and Matthew’s birth story is that in Matthew kings pay homage to the Bethlehem Baby. In Luke, it is the folk from the opposite end of the social spectrum, shepherds.
This is deliberate. Everyone who reads the gospel of Luke notices that Luke does not much like the rich and the powerful. Earlier, in chapter one, when Mary realizes that she is pregnant with God incarnate, she sings a song in verses 46-58 which we call the magnificat. Verse 52 reads, “He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.” And verse 53 adds, “He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.”
Or as chapter 2 implies, he has appeared to the shepherds and not to the Roman Procurator nor to the priests in the temple in Jerusalem. Of all the people in the Roman province of Judea that night, society would have said that God is least likely to have anything to do with some outcasts watching sheep. They were people in a hopeless situation. Their lives had no meaning or significance.
But God came to them, and the lesson is that if God can help them, God can help us. The “good tidings of great joy” are not for an elite group. The “good tidings of great joy” are not for what society may call the best people. The “good tidings of great joy” are for all people, for everyone. The hopelessness in this world has been overcome by a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
Now after the divine announcement, and after the angelic choir stopped singing, the astonished shepherds did what you or I or anyone else would have done. They went to Bethlehem to see if what the angel said was really true. They found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in a manger. Then, we are told in v20, “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.”
They were still shepherds, outcasts, people of doubtful reputation but that baby brought hope into their lives, meaning into their lives.
It is a strange thing. According to the priests of the temple in Jerusalem, the shepherds could never get clean enough to come to God in the temple, so God came to them. They were lost, mired in their sins, worn down by their burdens. God reached out to them. God reaches out to us.
They knew what they were. The shepherds know what people thought of them. Unclean trash. They wanted something in their lives. They discovered that something in the Bethlehem baby.
Shepherds had a reputation as thieves, but there is nothing to steal here. Instead, they were given the greatest gift. Through the messiah, through the Christ, they can come to God. they can know that they are accepted, their sins are forgiven, they are loved and cherished, and it is all a gift.
They did not need to undergo some strange rite of cleansing. They did not need to buy a bull to give to the priest to sacrifice in the temple. The angel told them that they had a sign. The sign was “a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” The implication is obvious. God expects them to go and see this sign. And they did.
Their decision to go and see the baby Jesus, changed their lives. They were free. They were free of an old system of religion that let some in and kept others out. This invitation was for all and freely given.
That night changed their lives. It was the greatest night they ever experienced. I suppose that down in Bethlehem, it was not a great night for some folks. The town was bursting at the seams with people who had come for the census. Probably some of the local folks were making a lot of money and pretty happy about that, others were very unhappy that they had to be there at all. Some tempers were short. Some words were spoken in anger.
Did you ever have a Christmas like that? Too many expectations, too many hurt feelings. We want a perfect holiday and somehow we seem to always miss the mark. We wind up singing that Elvis Presley song about a Blue Christmas. But it does not have to be that way! Our problem is that we get caught up in the trappings of the secular holiday and that is somehow always unsatisfactory. We need something more. We need the baby of Bethlehem.
Remember those Shepherds. They did not fit in, they were shunned by the mainstream population, but not by God. They were the first to hear the Gospel message; they were the first to lay eyes on the Messiah; they were first people to preach the good news of Jesus’ arrival.
They could not be quiet about their experience and told anyone and everyone who would listen, because they knew in this baby they had something special.
Ask yourself, when was the last time you were that excited? About anything? Then ask yourself this, have you ever been that excited about Jesus?
Some Christians seem to have the idea that our faith is a rather boring duty that we need to perform every Sunday. We come to church, listen to another sermon—well, I hope you listen—then we go home. Ho hum. Well, we toughed that out, didn’t we? Is that what Jesus means to you?
As we read Luke’s account of the shepherds coming to see the Bethlehem baby, we have to say that was definitely not what Jesus meant to them.
They could not talk about anything else. They could not think about anything else. They were jumping and singing with joy.
The Son of God, the redeemer, the deliverer entered a noisy, dirty, confusing, sin-filled world. He did so for confused, sin-filled people, for people just like you and me. That what is exciting. This friend of sinners, this Savior, this Lord, this Jesus came for me. That is great. The messiah is god’s gift of love to me. How could we not glorify and praise God for that.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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