LUKE2v8to20: The Shepherds and the Angels

(A) Introduction. (Read the passage.)

Why did the angel of the Lord announce the Saviour's birth to a few shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night? There were surely more deserving groups - a meeting of the Sanhedrin, a symposium of Bible scholars, a synagogue congregation or the faithful at prayer in the temple. Instead the angel comes, the heavenly choir sings and the good news is declared to half a dozen scruffy shepherds. I expect they had folded their sheep and collected around the fire for a drink, a singsong and a few stories. I don't suppose all the stories would have been suitable for polite company. Suddenly, without warning, their peace was shattered by a dramatic arrival. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. v9. Why did the angels bother with these shepherds?

(B) The good news is inclusive.

Jesus the Saviour wasn't just sent to earth for well to do, scholarly and influential men like the magi. We can understand why the star shone for them! No, the good news that the angels brought was also for men like the shepherds. The angel said to them: "Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you." v11.

Shepherding in the Judean hills was seasonal and so it was casual work. Shepherds were hirelings. The facilities were minimal and the pay poor. It is unlikely that the shepherds even had a hut to live in. Minding sheep was done by the uneducated, unqualified and unambitious. There was a high proportion of bastards and orphans amongst the shepherds. They were stuck on the lowest rung of the employment ladder and the envy of none. But they are included in the angel's good news - it was for them.

It was so easy for the shepherds to go and see the newborn king. It would have been difficult for them to gain admittance to a palace, five star hotel or even a posh house, but anyone could barge into a stable. It was their sort of place! And the baby was like any other born to a poor countrywoman - wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

We are not by nature inclusive. There are always a few children at school that no-one wants to have anything to do with. I can remember one such called Brenda Book. She was unkempt. Her writing suggested she was in a permanent state of inebriation. Brenda was neither pretty or charming. She was boring and peculiar. Her saving grace was a sense of humour. So I would blow her kisses and ask her about her love life. Brenda got her own back. At a school reunion she made a beeline for me and buttonholed me for a good 30 minutes. Nobody came to my rescue. Perhaps they thought Brenda would fasten onto them - limpet like - if they did. Alternatively, the other old students may have decided that we deserved each other!

The gospel is for people like Brenda - unexciting, off-putting, graceless, boring, drab and dishevelled. In Jesus' parable of the Great Banquet it wasn't the successful businessman, the prosperous farmer or the happily married man that ended up at the feast; it was the poor, crippled, blind and lame. See Luke14v15 onwards.

We mustn't be surprised if there are all sorts of oddities in the church. The glorious gospel is inclusive - it is "for all the people." C. S. Lewis said that if we could see these unlikeable, unattractive Christians as they will become we would fall at their feet and worship them.

(B) The good news in undeserved.

The good news of salvation was not only for devout and godly folk like Mary, Joseph, Anna and Simeon. It was also for disreputable rascals like the shepherds who were irreligious - working seven days a week, unable and not very willing to attend the holy festivals and rarely ceremonially clean. Shepherds were despised in polite society. They were even restricted to the outer courtyard of the temple and were therefore treated no better than Gentiles. What an insult! Shepherds were scallywags with a reputation for theft and promiscuity. They were not the sort of people that you wanted as neighbours.

I suppose their modern equivalent would be gypsies or travellers. Country folk are not well disposed to gypsies. Many are lawless - parking their caravans where they see fit. They are also associated with rural crime. If the members of my church discovered four gypsy caravans standing in our car park I do not think the majority would be best pleased. I doubt whether there would be many volunteers to knock on the caravan doors to invite the occupants to our services!

It was to people like gypsies that the angels appeared and the heavenly choir sang. They were the ones who were given the good news first - peace on earth and goodwill toward men. It reminds us, and we need to be reminded frequently, of God's grace.

In October I had a lovely day exploring Highgate Hill and Hampstead Heath with my brother Paul. Everyone we met was friendly and happy - it was an almost perfect day - almost but not quite. Soon after we left Clapham North station on the tube a dark haired, sallow faced, youngish man burst into our carriage. He was furious. He couldn't have been more uptight. He was like a coiled spring. The man was selling the 'Big Issue'and had just been sworn at. He felt very sorry for himself and was determined to take it out on us. The agitated fellow told us that he had been trying to sell his magazine for two hours and had only made 50p. Nobody cared and nobody would look at him. Why wouldn't we look at him? He was trying to earn an honest living but we didn't care. He had his hostel charges to pay and we wouldn't even look at him. Finally he rushed off in disgust. When he had gone I said to my brother, "He's never going to sell the 'Big Issue' like that. He antagonised us. If he had only been pleasant and agreeable he might have stood a chance. He got what he deserved."

During the day I thought about that incident. It dawned on me that what the young man needed was grace. Nobody showed him grace. My brother didn't, I didn't, nobody in the carriage did. He got what he deserved. It would have cost us so little to have shown grace - 50p - the price of the 'Big Issue.' But it is hard to show grace to the graceless.

In sending Jesus, the Saviour, to this world of lost and ruined sinners God showed grace. He didn't treat us as we deserved. Paul wrote to Titus: For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. Titus2v11. John tells us in his first epistle: This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1John4v10. God did not treat us as we deserved. He showed us grace and it cost him more than a little! It cost him his own dear boy - sent to this world of rascals, rogues and scallywags to make an atoning sacrifice for sins.

          Jesus, the Saviour, this gospel to tell
          joyfully came;
          came with the helpless and hopeless to dwell
          sharing their sorrow and shame;
          seeking the lost
          saving, redeeming at measureless cost.

There are many things we think we deserve. We can even believe that we haven't had all we deserve. However, there are a few precious things I have been given that I know I did not deserve. The goodwill of my pupils was one. They showed me grace! None of us deserved God's goodwill or the precious gift of his Son, our Saviour. He showed us grace.

(D) The good news changes lives.

Who would have thought that anything could change the sordid lives of those light-fingered shepherds. They were rogues and outcasts. Nobody cared for them. They were a coarse-grained lot living out in the wilderness cut adrift from the finer influences of life. The good news changed the shepherds for the better because they went by faith to Bethlehem to see this thing that has happened. v15. What really transformed their lives was Jesus himself. Luke tells us: When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child... After they had seen Jesus the shepherds witnessed to others and worshipped - glorifying and praising God.

Sometimes I saw a pupil at school change for the better. Paul Emm was the picture of innocence - blond haired and blue eyed - but full of mischief. His favourite pastime was to jump in puddles and splash the unwary passer by. One lunchtime it was my unhappy duty to supervise him in whole school detention. On his desk, at which he laboured copying out the school rules, four bottles of cherryade were prominently displayed. He told me with the greatest satisfaction, "After detention I'm going to drink all these in one go." The Deputy Head looked in to see if Paul had remembered to turn up for detention! He took one look at the cherryade and said, "They'll rot your teeth - you'll end up all gums and no molars." Paul didn't know whether to laugh or cry. After the Deputy Head had left I heard him mutter, "He's not a dentist." At the end of detention he drank four bottles of cherryade in one go! After a lunchtime drinking his favourite beverage it was almost impossibe to get Paul to work. He was in sleepy mode - yawn and flop, sigh and sprawl. One day I said to the Head, "I have tried every thing to get Paul Emm to work and failed. I give up." The Head said, "I'll send someone to support him." So in Geography lessons Paul Emm was given a helper, Mrs Anderson, someone to sit along side and keep him up to the mark. From that point he began to improve.

Men and woman can be changed. The very worst can be changed. All sorts and conditions of men have been transformed by Jesus. On October 31st 2004 I was much moved by a testimony on BBC TV's Songs of Praise. Richard, a Welshman, was one of five brothers. Unfortunately his father left home and his mother found it difficult to bring up five sons alone. Richard drifted into a life of drug taking and crime. He was eventually imprisoned for burglary. While in prison he opened the Gideon's Bible meaning to tear out a page with which to roll a cigarette. The Good Book opened at John 1. Richard began to read the familiar words. He didn't fully understand them but he saw something of Jesus. Perhaps they triggered childhood memories. Anyway he prayed, "God if you are there - please change me." He called out in despair because his life was in such a mess. God heard him and God changed him. Richard is now a Methodist minister in Wales. His final words, spoken with tears in his eyes, were, "If any man be in Christ he is a new creation." Richard was a new creation - saved by the redemptive work of Jesus and given a helper - the Holy Spirit to keep him up to the mark.

            My song is love unknown;
            My Saviour's love to me,
            Love to the loveless shown,
            That they might lovely be.
            O whom am I,
            That for my sake,
            My Lord should take
            frail flesh and die?