Today we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church year. This year we will be reflecting on People Around the Manger. We will begin our Advent series by reflecting on Luke 2:1-20 The Shepherds—Hope and Wonder. While shepherds watch over the flocks in the dark of the night, they are visited by an angel who fills them with hope and wonder. The angel shares with them the good news that a Saviour has been born to them in the town of Bethlehem. This glorious news is first shared with humble, ordinary shepherds who respond with excitement and a desire to go and welcome the Saviour into the world!
The Shepherds—Hope and Wonder
It's the first Sunday of Advent, the time we start eagerly waiting to celebrate Jesus' birth. This advent we're going to come close to the manger and the people most closely connected to the Christmas story, starting with the shepherds. But it's not always a pretty picture or story. Ann Voskamp puts it this way. "And this Gospel? It doesn’t come wrapped in twinkling lights and satin bows; it comes straight into our pitchest black. The Gospel of Christ, it’s a messy, bloody thing and this is how God was born, bloody and bruised, and that’s how God chose to die, bloody and beaten. And our God, he knows the comings and goings of our blackest bloody battles, and this isexactly where He meets us. The Gospel is good news in the eye of the worst news."
As the shepherds go about their work, watching over the sheep in the fields just outside of Bethlehem, they're visited by angels during the night. While some watch the sheep, and others rest or watch out for thieves or wild animals, an angel of the Lord suddenly shows up in the night sky with a message, "Don't be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Messiah, the Lord." This is some pretty amazing news and it comes straight from heaven. God is making sure the good news gets out. But God reveals this good news first to shepherds.
Shepherds are an unusual choice. Dr. Jeremias, a biblical scholar, says shepherds were “despised in everyday life.” They were considered second-class and untrustworthy. The Mishnah, Judaism’s written record of the oral law refers to shepherds as “incompetent”; another place says "no one should ever feel obligated to rescue a shepherd who has fallen into a pit." Dr. Jeremias writes, “To buy wool, milk, or a kid from a shepherd was forbidden on the assumption that it would be stolen property.” Shepherds were officially labeled as “sinners,” and despised. There’s a striking irony that a handful of shepherds are the first proclaim the Messiah’s birth. Jesus draws the outcast and those on the fringes of society to himself even at his birth.
Yet shepherds weren’t always looked down on. King David, an early king in Israel, was a shepherd and good kings were called shepherds because they protected and provided for their people. David tells King Saul when the giant Goliath is threatening God's people, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God."
I often wondered why God told the shepherds first, but then I met a shepherd in Nicaragua. This young man worked hard protecting his sheep from wild animals and thieves, staying out on the fields with his sheep at night with a big flashlight and an even bigger stick. He knew all his sheep by name, even though they all looked the same to me, and the sheep knew him and recognized his voice as a safe voice. This young man made sure his sheep had enough food to eat, taking them to fields in the mountains where there was healthy green grass to eat and water to drink. He cared for his sheep. I believe God told the shepherds first because they can understand why Jesus came and what he was here to do, to take care of his people and provide for them; protecting them from danger and saving them when they get into trouble.
I love how the shepherds are the first to welcome Jesus here. I’ve wondered if this is why Jesus calls himself the "Good Shepherd," an echo to Zechariah's prophecy that a good shepherd is coming who will protect and save his sheep. The angel's news is that the Good Shepherd is here, the promised Messiah. God sends the Good Shepherd to watch over, protect, and rescue his sheep from danger. David gives us one of the best pictures of who Jesus is as the Good Shepherd. In Psalm 23 David writes, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever."
The good shepherd takes us to places that nourish and refresh us, especially when life gets rough and hard. He leads us beside still waters where we can drink safely and leads us in paths that bring shalom. When we walk through times of loss, when we walk through the shadow of death, the good shepherd is with us, guiding us and protecting our hearts and minds by filling them with his love, comfort, and hope. Even when people hurt us, our shepherd blesses us with an abundance of grace, the ability to forgive and not let our hearts grow bitter, as we know our shepherd understands and gives us the strength to bear those times and carry us through them.
Jesus is the good shepherd who is willing to leave the 99 sheep who are safe in order to go out into the wilderness to find the one lost sheep. Jesus leaves home to come to earth to seek his lost sheep. He knows each of us by name and when we stop and listen, we recognize his voice when he calls us. Our hearts are tuned to his voice. If you're here this morning and not quite sure why you're here, my guess is that the good shepherd’s calling your name and deep inside you're recognizing his voice at a heart level even as you came here this morning through family, a friend, or online.
As sheep, we have a tendency to wander; but our shepherd keeps coming after us to bring us back again to where we belong, with Jesus and the rest of his flock. In his love, Jesus also becomes the sacrificial lamb who dies in order to save us, washing us clean from the sin and dirt in us, making us right again with the father.
Now back to the shepherds who have been visited by the angels, they leave their sheep in safety in order to find the good shepherd. Their hearts were waiting to hear the invitation to go find Jesus. I love the response of the shepherds. They don't sit around questioning if what they've heard is true or not; they don't put off responding to the good news they've heard, they hurry off, leaving everything behind for a little bit, and find Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in the manger.
If you're here this morning and aren't really sure what to do about Jesus, if you're not sure if you can even believe that God would actually become a human baby, I invite you to ask yourself why this story seems to touch so many people, why would so many people trust in this story? There’s something about the love of a God who would leave a place where everything is good and there’s no suffering and misery to come to a place where he’ll experience suffering and misery his whole life and then die on a cross because he loves you that much.
Jesus is our shepherd. We’re called to move from being sheep to being shepherds under Jesus. Your sheep may be a friend, a neighbour, a family member, or someone at work or school who needs to meet the Good Shepherd. We’re called to lead them beside quiet waters so they can learn about the living water, we’re called to lead them to lush pastures where they can feed on the bread of life, we’re called to protect and provide from them by leading them to Jesus.
The shepherds are so filled with wonder by what they’ve seen, they go out into the town and tell everyone they see about this child they've met; that he’s the saviour, the Messiah, the Lord, the hope of the world. What a great response! The shepherds head back to their regular lives, but differently; they go back glorifying and praising God for everything they've heard and seen, filled with hope. We join the shepherds in celebrating this Christmas; God becoming human to be our good shepherd, coming to find us and carry us home. What wonderful news to share with our friends and neighbours!