The Baby, the Angel & the Shepherds

Posted by Jenny on Jan 18, 2011 in Christmas, Homilies |

I want you to imagine a hill in the country, on a starlight mild night, in a small occupied though once proud nation.  Here a small group of men sit or stand together probably warming their hands by the fire, yet with senses alert to danger, ever watchful of their charges.

There was nothing extraordinary about them – they were not particularly well off, not particularly cool or influential.  They had little social standing and were in fact looked at askance by many.   Despite some famous forerunners, their occupational group were not trusted – as they spent so much of their time away from normal village and city life, spending night after night on the hills when most respectable folk were sleeping in their beds.  They were hired hands after all, and poor or desperate to accept such work.  They were – often unfairly or maybe in some cases fairly – accused of being cheats and thieves.   Perhaps not unlike lonely men, often former convicts, who lived alone on the edge of the expanding Australian colony – poor, despised, looking after the flocks of the wealthy and powerful.

Like them, their nation – once proud and with a stirring history, was now small, despised and occupied by a far superior military force, a world power that put down resistance to its rule efficiently and brutally.

Truth to tell, the majority of the population of this small, despised nation was poor with little hope in the midst of their daily lives.  They carried heavy burdens of taxation and coercion from the occupying power and the burden of nearly impossible-to-keep rules and regulations from their own (religious) leaders.  Only those who ingratiated themselves with the occupying power or belonged to the religious leadership had the opportunity of wealth, power and influence.

These were a people – poor, oppressed, fleeced like sheep, with uncertain futures and often desperate lives.  Yet many did have a hope that in the midst of the chaos and trouble of their lives that God would act to change their futures and those of their nation for good.  Others perhaps had lost hope as generation after generation went by with no change for the good.

And even though we live in “the Lucky country” – not the most powerful and influential nation, but still a small world player with a enviable standard of living and relatively robust economy that can weather financial crises that threaten to sink other countries – even so – many of our fellow citizens live lonely, sad, hopeless, desperate lives.  Despite the fact we can accumulate material goodies – TVs, DVDs, i-pods, i-phones -  and have access to amazing technology  that allows us to connect to friends and family almost anywhere in the world, almost instantly (email, facebook, skype) – we also live in a country in which suicide rates among both our teens, our middle aged, and our elderly continue to skyrocket.

The fact is, that like those despised and socially isolated shepherds –many of us here today want to hear, to know, to experience, to see a message of hope in midst of the struggles and difficulties of our own lives.  Well we all know Christmas is a time of joy and celebration, of hope and good feelings, of family and friendship.  The flip side is that it can also be a time that accentuates grief and loss, loneliness and pain, family tensions and disagreements.  It is into both our joy and pain that God speaks.

And on this lonely star lit night, while these socially despised shepherds watched their sheep, something extraordinary did happen.  And it is that message of hope – and what the shepherds did with it that I would like to think about this morning.

Looks look at the story as told in Luke 2:6-20

1.    The Angels announce the birth of the baby (Luke 2:8-14)

What happened that night was that the extraordinary burst in on the ordinary – the shepherds were looking after the sheep on the hills at night – as they did night after night when suddenly they are bathed in a heavenly light, suddenly they are aware of God’s glory all about them.  They are overwhelmed, well terrified to be honest.   In the midst of this the angel announces – don’t be afraid, I have fantastic news – not just for you – but for everyone – the hoped for, longed for Messiah – the one who will save his people and bring about world peace – he has finally come, he has been born this very night, and this is where you will find him.”  And if that’s not enough, a whole host – an army of angles appear praising God.

Don’t know about you – but to me that’s extraordinary – that doesn’t happen every day for me. Well actually – I don’t think I can ever say I’ve been serenaded by a heavenly choir or had night turned to day with God resplendent glory – well not yet at least – though I have had on occasion those amazing God-moments when he has broken in on my life – into the mess and chaos, the brokenness, the hope of something more – and transformed my life and, more importantly, me.

There are three things I’d like to note in the midst of this extraordinary happening.

a.     God’s takes the initiative at unexpected times

The first thing is that it is God who takes the imitative and he does so at the time of his choosing – when the time is right.  Our God – who took the initiative to create the vast cosmos and to create life (a beginning that still baffles scientific minds) – this God is one who habitually takes the initiative. We can see this time and time again in his dealing with his people as he moves to this very point in history.  He was the one who called out to the hiding, shamefaced Adam and Eve in the garden, He was the one who called Abraham, he was the one who got Moses’ attention and sent him to rescue his people from Egypt – the examples are too numerous to list.

I remember the story of a 19th century missionary in Africa – Edith Buxton.  Now this lady lived in the middle of Africa before there were planes, phones or even telegraphs – supplies and letters had to come from far away England and took several months to arrive by ship and by porter.  One day she ran out of butter, that night she prayed that God would supply some more, the very next morning a shipment was carried into the settlement containing the butter she had prayed for the night before.  You see months earlier God knew she would run out of butter – and he had already provided the answer to her prayer months before she would even know that she would pray it.

Our God is like that – he knows your situation, he knows the difficulties and the joys you face, he knows what you need, what you desire, he knows what the solution is to your problems – and he not only knows – he acts and is acting on your behalf if you will only allow Him freedom to work in your life.  Even when we turn away from him, go our own way – He does not give up on us but is active to bring us back to Him, if only we would open up to him.

b.    God acts in unexpected ways

God also acts in unexpected ways – he brings about his plan of rescuing his people and all the peoples of the world, to bring about a new heavens and new earth, to transform the lives of those who will commit their lives to him – through the birth of a baby.  Not a baby born of a powerful family from a powerful nation – a baby born in questionable circumstances, of poor parents, in somewhat desperate circumstances.  The sign the angels give to the shepherds – a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manager contained by the ordinary and the extraordinary.  In those days, in that culture one would expect to find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes but not laying a manger!   This was less than ordinary, this was almost unbelievable – that this baby who was God incarnate was born in a stable and had an animal feed box for a cradle.

Well, I must admit I can relate to that to some extent.  My parents didn’t have much furniture when they brought me home from the hospital.  Like many residents of Mt Isa at the time, they improvised what they lacked from what was in plentiful supply – gelignite crates.  So I spent the first weeks of my life sleeping on top of a padded gelignite crate.  I’m not sure if that explains anything out about how I turned out – but obviously I survived the experience.

Yet what God does next is even more unexpected.   The start of Jesus’ career is as many expect and many hope that he is indeed the Messiah – the one they hope will bring about change. But he does tend to do and say some unexpected things  – like offering forgiveness and belonging to the despised and the “fringe” elements of society.

And then the cross – that was totally unexpected by everyone.  The cross, like the stable and the manger are less than ordinary.  The cross is like the gas chamber, the electric chair, the guillotine, an instrument of execution – only far more horrific.  And it is on the cross that the baby, now grown into a man, takes our place that we might live.

God’s works out his great plan through the unexpected – a baby laid in a manger and a rough wooden cross.

c.     And God includes the most unexpected people

Thirdly, this message is given to the most unexpected people.  You see this point in history had been longed for, hoped for generation upon generation.  When somewhat later the learned men from the East arrive to honour the baby they naturally go to the palace of Herod the King of the Jews.  After all, if such a momentous, such an epoch changing event has occurred wouldn’t it be the rich and the powerful, the rulers that would know about it, that would be informed.

Yet God chooses to announce the birth of His son, not to the Kings and generals – but to the despised shepherds.  He knew what Herod’s response would be.  Herod might pretend to be happy at the birth of the Messiah – but in fact God’s chosen could only be a threat to his own rule, and he does everything in his power to destroy the child.  God knows that it is often the weak – people who know they need something more, something different in their lives, who have come to the end of their own resources, who hope in the midst of having no hope – it is such people as these that will turn to him and welcome the news of the baby born in the shadow of the cross into their lives.

It doesn’t matter who you are – King or shepherd, Prime Minister or telemarketer, Sister Teresa or housewife, CEO or a teen living on the street – God can and does reach out to you.  It doesn’t’ matter is God is almost a stranger to you or you have grown up hearing about him and serving him all your life.  He knows and loves you; He is active to connect with you and to transform your life, to transform you.   He may not do this according to your agenda but he will bring about healing, purpose, joy and hope.

2.    The Shepherds Response

But that is not the end of this story.    When the light had faded, when the last angelic voice was mute, when the shepherds were left once more to the starlight, the grass and the sheep – they did something about it.  Luke 2:15-20

a.     They checked it out

The first thing they did was check out what the Angels had told them.  “Let’s go at to Bethlehem and see this thing the Lord has told us about” and so they hurry off and search Bethlehem until they find that baby in the manger – and Mary and Joseph.

The Christian hope is grounded in history – it is about events that happened, and people that lived and acted in particular places at particular times.  More than that, it is about a God – eternal, timeless, beyond understanding and comprehension – who creates a world of time and place and then who becomes involved in that world.

God doesn’t demand blind faith – He urges us to go and check it out, to taste and see.  Faith is grounded in evidence – though it soars beyond it.   When you or I, with the discoveries of modern science, look at the intricacies of a tiny cell – the factories, transport systems, waste disposal, defences, power plants, the multiple amazing molecular motors, the meticulous planning and coordination that would put most modern cities to shame – all of which can reproduce itself almost an instant – we can believe in the miracle of creation – or believe in the miracle of time and chance.  Which is more reasonable?  It takes a lot of faith to believe that the cell came into being through blind chance with what we know today.  That the who God created life, that the God who created the cosmos can do the extraordinary in history and in human lives, that this God can care about you – is more than reasonable if you look at the evidence.  Yet we still need the eyes, ears and hands of faith to grasp it.

b.    They took it to heart

The Shepherds saw the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger – just as they had been told – and they believed.  They took it to heart.  They praised and glorified God because they believed that this baby was indeed the one who would bring about God’s plan of salvation, of rescue of their people, of transformation of the world.  They did not – could not know – that that baby would grow into the man who would die on a cross and be raised to life again.  They did not know the full story as we do.  But they saw and they believed.  They went back to their flocks transformed – praising and glorifying God for all the things they had seen and heard.  They were not the same Shepherds – they were different.  They had hope.

That wasn’t  the only response open to them – they could have thought “oh, how quaint but really it’s unlikely this child of poor parents will amount to much”; they could have started saying – “maybe it was a dream, it wasn’t really angels – just some strange weather phenomena or perhaps we dreamt it, angels don’t really appear to shepherds”.  Or maybe even “It must have been an illusion, a deceit of Satan, a hoax.”  It’s rather easy to start to doubt that God has appeared to us, has spoken to us, has touched our hearts and minds, to rationalise it all away, even when it is so startling obvious.  As in the Garden of Eden, so in our hearts and minds the enemy can sow doubt “Did God really say… no he can’t have said that… He can’t have meant that… Who am I to think God cares for me” or “God can’t want me to do that … I’m too important…or not important enough.”

We need to take God’s words of hope to heart, to take hold of them, to stake our lives on them, to live by them.  We need to take that faith back with us into our ordinary lives and allow it to grow and change us.

c.     They shared the message

And finally, the Shepherds spread the word, they shared the message.  (vs 17-18) “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told to them about this child and all who heard was amazed.”

This is not a message to be kept to ourselves.   Of course, the shepherds didn’t think – “oh now we better go out and evangelise, um oh how awkward, what will we say, what will people think of us.”  You couldn’t stop them evangelising.  They were stoked, they were amazed, they couldn’t believe what had happened to them, they couldn’t help it – they just had to find everyone and anyone who would listen and tell them the good news, to tell them about this amazing thing that had happened.  And when it boils down to it that’s what evangelising is – sharing the good news of what God has done and is doing in your life.  Evangel is just a Greek word that means “Good news” “the good news of Jesus Christ” Okay – there is a theology to it (it’s not just any good news, it’s about this Jesus, this story), and yes okay you can teach whole semesters on it and about it, and there are the big note evangelists like Peter and Paul or – closer to our time – Billy Graham for instance.

Well, thank God for people like Paul and Billy Graham – but the fact is that if we think we don’t have to share what God has done and is doing in our lives, if we think we can keep the biggest, best news to ourselves and not share it to people who are longing to hear it because we are not Billy Graham – I would like to respectfully suggest to you that you are mistaken.  Paul was one of the most important evangelists and church planters in the early church – but the gospel came to Rome long before either Peter or Paul set foot on the Via Appia.  Who brought the good news to Rome – we don’t know.  Most likely it was not one person, most likely it was a lot of ordinary people whose lives were transformed by that baby and that cross, by Jesus God’s son – and who couldn’t help telling their friends, their neighbours, their work mates and their family about it.   And that should be us.  We don’t have to stand up in front of crowds of thousands (phew).  We don’t have to have any particular style of sharing God’s story which has transformed our story – some are good at challenging people, others may build friendships, others may combine word and deed as they share God’s love in a very practical way – it is after all a team effort.  Most of all, we need to allow God to give us the words, the experiences, the opportunities, the recognition of the people who are ready to hear.

If we are not sharing the message of hope, the good news – is it because we no longer connect to those who haven’t heard the good news, or is it because we are too comfortable and no longer look for those opportunities, or is it because we are resting on past experiences and need to open up ourselves and our lives to God’s wondrous transforming power once again?  These are questions I ask myself – because while God has from time to time used me to share the good news, I am no expert, I have not lead hundreds, let alone thousands to Christ.  And in the end, it is not about us – but about the God who decides to act in unexpected times, unexpected ways and to unexpected people.  It’s about the message, the transforming good news of God’s love and forgiveness for all who would turn to him, to all who will grab hold of the adventure and run with him despite the obstacles and doubts that threaten to pull us down.  It is about allowing God to be part of our lives and to empower our lives.

Not so long ago, I was teaching a Kid’s Zone class on the Good Shepherd and the importance of following him, doing what he wants.  I wasn’t particularly thinking of it as an evangelistic message  – yet as I was speaking the heart of one young lad burned within.  Interrupting my lesson he asked if it was okay if he could kneel down in the corner.  To be honest with you it seemed a bit strange to me, but I said yes and he did just that, praying earnestly.  When he had finished he came to me and said I just gave my life to Jesus and I want to be baptised.   Wow – that is God’s extraordinary breaking into the ordinary.

You know, I don’t think I did anything special.  Others had been contributing to that young lad’s spiritual journey. It wasn’t about me – it was about God acting in the life of a boy precious to him– in an unexpected time, in an unexpected way and to, perhaps, an unexpected person.

Whatever your circumstances, whoever you may be, whatever you may have done, whether God is a stranger to you – or whether he seems to have become one – or whether he is a friend closer to you than your own heart beat – God knows you, God loves you and He is acting this very day in your life to bring about hope and transformation.  He brings good news, he brings hope and peace, and he brings new life through his Son.

I will finish on this challenge – Are you open to what God wants for you today.   Are you willing to check it out; are you willing to commit it to your heart, to believe; are you willing to share what he is doing in your life with others – not just the people in your home group or in the pews next to you – but to your family, friends, neighbours, work mates, mother’s group, exercise partners or even the person sitting next to you in the bus or train.  Let’s glorify and praise God of the unexpected, the baby in the manger who was destined for a rough, wooden cross – and let’s not keep it to ourselves.  Make sure you do something about it this very moment, today and tomorrow, and the days ahead.

Sermon given Sunday, 27 December 2009 at the Hills Church, Brisbane, Australia

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