Shepherds & Angels Sunday – Luke 2:1-20

This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on December 16th, 2012. To listen to the audio of this sermon, just click on this link – Advent #3.

This morning we are celebrating the 3rd Sunday in Advent, called “Shepherds and Angels”.  While it is true that this the story of Jesus birth is attended by both Shepherds and Angels, the real and central point that we are celebrating is Jesus birth.

What does it mean that Jesus was born in Bethlehem to fulfill the prophecy given hundreds of years earlier?   It means that God has broken into the world and changed human history and given sinners a reason to be hopeful and even joyful.   Jesus’ birth and presence in the world overcomes human pride and weakness.  That is what we want to look at this morning.

The Birth of Jesus Overcomes the World.

The Pride and Strength of the Romans:  “Now it came to be, in those days  a decree went out from Caesar Augustus for all the inhabited earth to be enrolled.”

There is probably no clearer picture of Rome’s complete domination over the world at this time than this statement by Luke in vs.1.   Rome had the power to demand that the entire inhabited world should be enrolled.

There were two reasons for being enrolled.  First, Rome used enrollment to find soldiers for its army.  Military service was compulsory – except for Jews who were exempt.  Secondly, Rome used enrollment in order to squeeze every last tax dollar out of its people for its building projects, its army and its wealth.

The Contrasting Weakness of Joseph and Mary:   “So Joseph also went up from Galilee out of the city of Nazareth to Judea to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was out of the house and family of David. He went to be enrolled with Mary, who was betrothed to him and was pregnant.”

In winter, Joseph and Mary must travel 80 miles, through an area known for robbers, to an “inn” where, “…accommodation for travelers was most primitive… a series of stalls opening off a common courtyard.  Travelers brought their own food; all that the innkeeper provided was fodder for the animals and a fire to cook”.  The journey, if all went well, could take over half a month during which Joseph would not make any income.

They made this trip, not because they were noble, but because they had no choice.  Mary, already 9 months pregnant knew that she would deliver in uncomfortable circumstances (not home) surrounded by strangers – her first child.  Joseph knew that he was losing work and income and would have to pay a tax collector when he arrived.   Both had to travel under the awkward circumstances of being engaged and expecting.

Jesus, the King, is Born:   “And it came to pass while they were there, the days were fulfilled for her to give birth.  And she bore her firstborn son and she swathed him and laid him in a manger, because there was not a place for them in the Inn.”

Through their compliance, their unresisting yielding to the Roman government, God brought about the birth of his Son right where he said he would.  Nothing that Rome did to try to rule the world made the slightest difference in God’s plan – and, in fact, played into it.

Jesus birth in the face of the Roman decree becomes a picture of how empty the Roman claims of authority and rule actually were.  Rome could move the inhabited world around, but they were a temporary kingdom, while God is doing something eternal and unstoppable.

The Birth of Jesus Overcomes Our Unworthiness.

God Came to Unworthy Shepherds:   “And there were Shepherds  in the same country, living in the fields and keeping guard in the night over their flocks.”   Shepherds were blue collar workers.  They were not religious men, in fact, to be a shepherd was to be ceremonially unclean – because of what you had to do for the sheep.  Consequently, they would not even have been allowed to worship in the Temple.  They were just a group of working men sitting around at night talking.

The Angel(s) Pronounced Peace to Unworthy Sheperds:  “And an angel of the Lord came down upon them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they feared a great fear.”

An angel, with six wings and covered with eyes and four faces – all speaking, appears.  And the glory of the Lord, (glory includes the idea of weight), shone around them – both a physical and visual experience of God’s holiness – and they feared a great fear – they feared judgment.  What would you think about?  The fact that you were unclean and should not/ could not be in the presence of an angel right now — that you were not allowed in the Temple — about every sin that had ever bothered your conscience — about what you had just been talking about around the campfire.

The Angel(s) say 4 things to the shepherds…

  • Do Not Be Afraid – Or, you are not about to receive the fearful judgment you expect.
  • A Savior Is Born – There is good news – great joy – because Christ (the Messiah, the one filled with God’s Spirit who has overcome armies and empowers men to serve God), who is called “the Savior,” has been born.
  • This will be a Sign to you – This will be a sign to you as shepherds – he will be born like a shepherd – like the legendary King David, the greatest Israelite king ever, was born.  But he will be like a shepherd – not some snotty, privileged noble’s kid.   He will have humble roots – he will be your  savior too.
  • They Sing an Impossible Song –  Suddenly the heavenly army appears – and they are singing this impossible song…  “Glory to God in the highest places…” – or rather, God most powerful and beautiful, most holy.  God so far above what sinful fallen man – so separate from what we are – that we cannot stand in his presence.   These shepherds have no illusions – they are not even supposed to be here.  If you and I heard this song we would fall on our faces and weep because we would long for the beauty and righteousness of God – and yet we would be certain that we were unworthy of Him.

“…and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”   This is the impossible part of the song for common people like the shepherds.  An army is singing peace and favor instead of the judgment and slaughter that they expect.  The army is singing this to them!

God Overcomes the Unworthiness of the Shepherds through the Birth of Jesus:   What is Luke trying to say in this Gospel?   That to the undeserving, God is offering favor.  To the outcasts who don’t belong in the Temple – Favor.  To those who cannot stand before God and who are afraid in the presence of his holiness and his army – God has chosen to show Peace and Favor.  To those who cannot fix or save themselves, God has chosen to show peace and favor.  This is exactly what makes the announcement and offer of the Gospel lovely and meaningful.

The Birth of Jesus Overcomes Our Emptiness.

Unreliable Shepherds:  Shepherds were distrusted and unreliable, so that their word was not good enough to be accepted in a court of law.  There was a reason for this – Shepherds were story tellers – the kind of people that are always telling some entertaining story which you know isn’t true.  They are the big foot and alien abductees of their day.  They exaggerate and make things up.    If you wanted a reliable witness to back you up, shepherds were not it.  The point is that shepherds had nothing to say that anyone wanted to hear.  They were left to themselves in their fields.

God Fills the Shepherds with a Joyful Message:    “And they came hastening and found both Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in the manger and seeing they made known concerning the word spoken to them concerning this child. and all the ones hearing marveled concerning the things spoken by the shepherds to them…  And the shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for all the things which they had  heard spoken to them and seen.”

What changed the shepherds?  Was it just new information – a new theological understanding?  Were their daily circumstances changed by this message?  No.  They were joyful because they they found Mary and Joseph and Jesus.    When they saw Jesus they did not see just a baby – but they saw the confirmation of the promises of God.   And this confirmation filled them with joy.   And their joy transformed them from a group of shepherds into people who went through the town glorifying and praising God.

Jesus, as Paul says, is the fulfillment of God’s promises – the confirmation of God’s grace and favor.    But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes” and “No.”  For the Son of God, Jesus Christ… [is] not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.”   For no matter how many promises God has made they are “Yes” in Christ (1Cor.18b-20).

This morning we want to celebrate the birth of Jesus by believing that God will overcome – and has overcome this world.   We want to celebrate the birth of Jesus by allowing God to overcome our weakness, our guilt and sin, and to fill us with joy.   We want to celebrate the birth of Jesus by recognizing him as the confirmation of the promises of God to us.

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