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It was the dead of winter when nights are so cold and long, that the lives of these ordinary shepherds were interrupted by extraordinary news.
There were shepherds living out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. Behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and they were greatly afraid. The angel said, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. There is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped is swaddling cloths, lying in a manger."
Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!"
When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said, "Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing, which the Lord has made known to us." And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.
When they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. All those who heard it marveled, but Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.
When eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived. Luke 2:8-21 NKJV, condensed
Shepherds and Angels
The focus of attention has shifted, as though the camera is drawing back from the birth scene with Joseph, Mary and the baby. And pointing instead toward the surrounding hillsides, to shepherds watching over their flocks during the night. We are just in time to catch the angel with another joyous proclamation from God. The first words again are, "Don't be afraid."
I remember talking with friends about the angels in the Christmas stories. We wondered what everybody was afraid of? Was it a startled fear? Maybe awe, or not wanting the responsibility which would accompany the angel's message? One woman thought she wouldn't be scared because angels have a soft white light, and are kind and gentle. She rather thought she would like to see one!
The sheep herders, on the other hand, behaved in the typical way. They were frightened. But the angel reassured them with wonderful news about great joy for all people on earth. Is that an absurd message, or what! When has there ever been great joy for everyone! It's more likely that one person's joy is another person's misery. We know this from sporting events, political elections, lotteries, stock market trades, and by simply observing family power struggles.
Fortunately, the shepherds did not want to debate the meaning or credibility of the angel's words. The good tidings involved a baby born that very night in king David's town. A child who is Christ, the Lord! For those who needed evidence, the angel gave a sign. They would find the little Savior wrapped in long, narrow strips of cloth and lying in a feeding trough for animals! Careful now; this good news doesn't come in a bountiful package. It's just skimpy swaddling cloths and a manger!
But to the shepherds, the angel's words sounded just fine. To them, it was a welcome alternative to their nightly activity. In fact, they may have been the only people anywhere in the vicinity who would be open and receptive to such an odd pronouncement. But God was oblivious to all skepticism, and celebrated the birth of Jesus with the most amazing hallelujah chorus. Many angels filled the darkness with glorious light and sang goodwill to all mankind.
The angels did not sing for Joseph and Mary. They sang for those tending sheep on the hillside, who stood in awe before they hurried off to find the manger with God's holy child. They came to that stable in Bethlehem, saw the Christ Child, and then couldn't contain themselves. The joy of their good news exploded all over Bethlehem. Excitedly they told everyone. Then the sheep herders returned home, still praising God for all they had heard and seen. All those who witnessed it marveled. Mary pondered the words of the shepherds in her heart. Eight days later, the babe was circumcised and given the name of Jesus.
This account of Jesus' birth is so in step with the rest of the Bible. It's another example of faith, like Noah building the ark, young David taunting the giant Goliath, or Moses leading a cantankerous horde of people through the wilderness to the "Promised Land."
In this segment of the Christmas miracle, it's the shepherds who become our heroes. They heard. They believed. They acted. In the process of their believing, they were filled with the most incredible joy. Faith and joy go hand in hand. Sometimes it's an exuberance that reaches for the sky. Other times it's a pleasure that settles deep inside and we know there is nothing else we would rather be doing, or no where else we want to be. Believing breeds confidence, and the boldness of these sheep herders, as they went through the streets of Bethlehem, must surely have rivaled that of the disciples on the day of Pentecost!
You and I, as we read the Bible, come face to face with the same challenge to believe in a God who does such outrageous things. A holy babe in a manger on a silent night! Goodwill to all mankind! A Savior who will save us from every sin! Will we believe it? And spread the word? When we do, the shepherds' story becomes our story, too. In the brightest day; during the darkest night. Immanuel! God is with us!Believe it and see.
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: What is the best news you ever heard? Did the news interrupt your life and change things in any way?
After the angels disappeared, what options did the shepherds have? What risks were involved if they left immediately for Bethlehem? Had you been in their shoes, what would you have done?Was it faith that took them in search of the baby in a manger? If it wasn't faith, what did excite them into action that night? When do you act spontaneously? When do you first count the cost?
The shepherds on the hillside might appear to be unlikely evangelists. Yet God chose them to spread his good news on the momentous night of Jesus' birth. What does this tell us about God? About the shepherds? Why would God trust them to be faithful to their task and get it right? How does God inspire you to faith? What is your reaction when God invades the normalness of life?
Joseph may have envied the shepherds because at the end of the day they could go home with their mission completed. Joseph was in it for the long haul. Which had the better part--Joseph or the shepherds? Why?We don't know what happened to the shepherds after that exciting night. Did their lives get back to normal? What do you think?
The shepherds were given a sign--the swaddling cloths and manger--to confirm what the angels told them. What signs do you and I have to help us believe?
Do faith and joy normally go together? How likely is it that an act of faith will bring you joy? When has joy made you act with boldness?
Consider the song of the angels, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men"? Is it significant that "glory to God in heaven" comes before "peace and goodwill on earth"? What is the connection between these two phrases?Have you ever experienced peace and/or goodwill on earth? If so, under what circumstances are peace and goodwill possible?
I picture Joseph as a silent man who kept busy doing whatever the situation required. His silence gave Mary space to ponder and treasure her experiences. In what ways are you like busy Joseph or pondering Mary?