Why the Shepherds?

Title: Why the Shepherds?

Text: Matthew 2:1-12

Time: December 13th, 2009

Over the last few weeks I’ve talked about the peculiar way God chose the most unlikely characters to use in the fulfillment of the first Christmas. I first talked about Mary, an unmarried, poor, Jewish girl who God chose to be the mother of the Lord Jesus. I then talked about the Magi, men from the East who followed a star all the way to Bethlehem. This week I’d like to talk about another peculiar group God chose to be a part of the Christmas scenario — the shepherds. Perhaps this is the strangest group of all because in the case of Mary and the Magi, at least we can see some logical reasons why God might have chosen them. For example, in the case of Mary, she was a very pious and faithful young woman who would glorify God and not herself in giving birth to the Messiah Jesus. God chose a woman who wouldn’t steal the glory from him and his son by claiming to be something special or great because of her role in the Nativity event. Or in the case of the Magi, God might be making a statement that the Messiah and Savior Jesus is born for all people of all nationalities, not just the Jews. Salvation is offered to the whole world through Jesus Christ, not just the people of Israel. But in the case of the shepherds, what logic is there in choosing these men? God has his own reasons, and we can only speculate as to why they were chosen, but it stretches the imagination to think that God would chose them to be the first to hear of the birth of the Christ child. Luke 2:8-15 describes what happened, “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flock 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 us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord told us about.'” We’ll stop there; the story goes on a little further. They visit the baby Jesus and leave glorifying God. Now if a committee where assigned the task of notifying people about the birth of the Messiah in Israel there would probably be many individuals and groups that would be notified before shepherds — if a human committee were to make that decision. Eventually, I’m sure, someone would notify the shepherds, or maybe they’d hear about it second-hand, but I’m certain that eventually they would hear about it and praise God in their hearts. But evidently that wasn’t good enough for God; he wanted them to be the first to know. Why is that? We’ll explore that question this morning. In announcing to the shepherds first, a lot of people and groups were by-passed, snubbed, if you want to put it that way; some VIPs were completely ignored. We’ll talk about that also. After looking at God’s choosing Mary and the Magi, we should be pretty used to God doing things his own way, apart from human logic or protocol. We see that again with the shepherds. Let’s look more closely at the announcement to the shepherds and see if we can’t understand it better. What might God be saying by announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds?

First, in announcing to the shepherds God deliberately by-passed others who we’d think would be among the first to know. Luke 2:8-9, “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. . . .” Like I said before, if the very brightest of human organizations and governments were to select an “order of announcement” for the Messiah’s birth, shepherds would probably be far down on the list. But who would be near the top of the list, according to human logic and protocol? Well, probably the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. If a governmental task force were assigned the duty of coming up with an announcement plan and then carrying it out, they’d probably select the official Jewish leadership in Jerusalem. From a logical standpoint, that would make sense. Probably the high priest on duty that year would receive the official angelic announcement; he would then tell the other priests and from there the word would spread. Or, the official committee for choosing who hears about the Messiah’s birth might select some other important Jewish individual or family. There were VIP families and individuals in and around Jerusalem — scholars, political families, wealthy businessmen, and other movers and shakers in the Jewish community. Surely these people would need to know about the long-awaited Messiah’s birth. After all, he was the hope of Israel, the dream of every real Jew at the time. Surely word of his birth must reach the most important Jews of the time first and then trickle down to the average Jew through word of mouth. We know that there was a high council called the Sanhedrin. Wouldn’t it make sense to notify these members of the birth of Israel’s Messiah? But God didn’t do that; instead he announced it to shepherds. There were the two important Jewish leadership groups, the Pharisees and the Sadducees; surely they would need to know of something this monumental happening in Israel. But no, God didn’t choose them to hear of it through special revelation, like he did the shepherds. And then there was another individual who any blue-ribbon committee of selection would certainly notify, if not first then a close second, King Herod. Now for sure, Herod was not so popular with the Jews, even though he was part Jew, still most Jews despised him for his cruelty and harsh leadership on behalf of the Roman Empire. No, he wasn’t a true son of Israel, but surely he must be notified if not for any other reason than he was in fact the official “king of the Jews.” But again, God by-passed any announcement to Herod and instead sent angels to announce to lowly shepherds. We can understand why; Herod, we later learn, would try to kill the baby Messiah. The sad truth is that many or even most of the logical choices for receiving a divine announcement would not have received it with joy and gladness anyway. It’s the same way, unfortunately, today in our world. Many or most of the powerful and influential leaders, the real movers and shakers in the world today, they most likely fail to follow God and his will closely either. God bypasses dealing with most worldly wise and powerful and influential people today because they are closed-minded and closed-hearted towards him. God is looking for open minded and openhearted people today to speak to today. Are you that someone? If not, why not open your heart and mind today; God wants to speak to you today, this Christmas season.

Second, against human logic there are reasons why God chose to speak to the shepherds before others. Luke 2:10-11, “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.'” That God chose the shepherds to announce the birth of his Son Jesus is a fact, but why did he choose them? Here are a few reasons why he might have told the shepherds first. The simplest reason might be that they just happened to be nearby. It happens frequently when a couple is rushing to get married that they shown up at the church after having called a pastor or priest in order to say the vows, but they’ve forgotten to recruit any witnesses — a legal marriage by law must have at least one other witness besides the person officiating. So often the couple will run out into the street and grab the first passer-by to be that witness. Problem solved. Maybe, some people might think, God chose the shepherds because, well, they were nearby, they were around, they were conveniently present. We can also imagine another situation, at a hospital, where a man’s wife has just given birth. Upon hearing the news, he tells the first person he sees that he’s the proud father of a newborn. We may ask, why did he tell that person first? Answer — because that person just happened to be there. Well, maybe the shepherds just happened to be there and that’s why they heard first. Although this theory is simple and explains things in the easiest way, I don’t think it’s the truth. God usually does things more intentional than that. But what other reasons are there for choosing the shepherds? Well, there is the long tradition in Israel of great men being shepherds, for example, Abraham, Moses, David, and some of the prophets. Shepherds have produced some of the greatest leaders in past Jewish history, especially in the case of King David. But during the first century in Israel, the shepherd-leader prestige had largely vanished. The world was changing. No longer was the shepherd a proud and prestigious occupation. By the time of the birth of Jesus, shepherds were usually not so respected, usually poor, even looked down upon for their work. But something closely related to the historical role of shepherds in Israel is the prophetic significance of them in the Old Testament. What was the prophecy that is quoted in Matthew 2:6 from the prophet Micah? “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.” So then prophecy predicted that a shepherd would come forth from Bethlehem, a Messiah who would shepherd Israel. This then appears to be the strongest reason why God might have chosen these men, the shepherds, to make his announcement first. A spiritual shepherd is born, the Messiah, in the city of David, who also was a shepherd. It would then make sense that the announcement would be made first to shepherds in and around Bethlehem. There is a certain poetry about it. God is following the symbolism of the Old Testament into the New Testament. He’s linking the past history of his activity with the present and the future. Are you sensitive to the symbolism that God uses to give meaning and purpose to his will and ways? Or do you clumsily stumble over most of the symbolic significance that appears in the Bible or even in your own life? Let’s open our eyes and really see what God is saying in his Word and in the World today. He’s still speaking to those who will listen and make the connections.

Third, possibly God chose the lowly shepherds to say that everyone is important to him. Luke 2:16-18, “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.” The major objection against announcing the birth of the Messiah to shepherds is that they aren’t important enough to receive such an honor. And from a human standpoint, in terms of human importance, this is correct. The shepherds weren’t very important in terms of human influence and responsibility. But it must be that God doesn’t follow human lines of authority and influence. It must be that God operates on another level than the human hierarchy on earth. As far as worldly politics and power, prestige, influence or wealth and position, yes, the shepherds lacked all those. But God by-passed all the worldly leaders and VIPs and chose “nobodies” in the eyes of the world. It should comfort us to realize that God is “no respecter of persons” as the Bible puts it. It should make us feel safe and secure that we don’t serve a God who is impressed by human authority. We haven’t considered it, but from a strictly human standpoint, God could have just announced the birth of the Lord Jesus to the highest authority and power in the world at that time — Caesar himself in Rome. There was no higher earthly authority. But as far as the Bible records, and as far as we can tell from the revelation and activity of God, worldly powers were totally neglected from any consideration. That should make us feel good. Here’s why. If God operated as we might operate, if he followed human protocol, it might mean that we wouldn’t get much of the attention or consideration of God, because, after all, how many of us are among the elite of the world? So in other words, it’s a good thing that God cares about the “little people” or the “nobodies” — as people who are famous or rich or powerful might call them. It’s a good thing because most of us are little people; most of us are nobodies in that sense. And to know that God would announce to the shepherds, nobodies like all of us; that makes us feel special and gives us confidence that in dealing with God we are relating to a loving Person who will relate to all people who will relate to him. The world’s message, even today or especially today is that unless you are “somebody” or have “something,” you are a nobody. In Old Europe in fact they used to call the masses “commoners” as in common people, as in separate from the nobility. That’s why people fled Europe for America — to get away from being put down because of their social status, or lack thereof. Unfortunately, in the U.S. as things have developed, the new division is money and achievement. If you’ve got money you are somebody, if you’ve done something special you are somebody. But again, that leaves most of us out because, after all, most people don’t have much money and haven’t done anything special. But it’s good to know that God doesn’t grade us on these worldly categories. He deals with us according to our faith and obedience to him. I think the message of the shepherds is that God loves you, he loves me unconditionally. We don’t have to try to impress God; we can’t impress God anyway. All we must do is trust him and give him complete control of our lives. He’ll relate with us no matter who we are. Have you come to God through Christ by faith? The only barriers between you and God are your own because God is waiting and watching for you to turn to him in simple, humble faith. Why not do so this Christmas season?

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