Portraits of Christmas
The Shepherds
Luke 2:8-18

One of the wonderful things I get to do here at Grantham Church is visit new babies after they are born. The announcement of the good news is usually a phone call from the new father telling me the baby has arrived. This year our church has again been blessed with lots of new babies – nine of them. Isn’t it wonderful to see the parents up here lighting the advent candle every Sunday along with their baby?

After the “good news” of the baby’s arrival is announced, I arrange to make a visit to see the little one. These hospital visits are joyous times; when I enter the hospital room, the new mom and dad are smiling ear to ear, even though they’ve had very little sleep. I then get my first look at their precious new little one. I ooh and aah and then one of them usually asks, “Would you like to hold him?” Let me just say, I quickly wash my hands and I’m ready. I never turn down the invitation, for, you see, I never get enough of baby-holding. This baby is “good news” – great news – joyous news for this couple, the day they’ve been anticipating for nine months. And they want everyone, including me, to know how happy they are.

In a field outside Bethlehem, a birth announcement was delivered and generated lots of excitement, with the “good news” – of the great and joyful event. It didn’t come as a phone call or a text message. It was crafted and delivered by an angel from the Father God. Who did He send the announcement to? Not Caesar Augustus in Rome. Nor the priest who offered incense, similar to the time when Gabriel appeared to Zechariah to announce the coming of their son, John.

He chose a hardworking crew of men keeping an eye on their sheep on the night shift. I have been pondering: why did he choose crusty outdoorsmen with the stench of the fields in their clothes who tended sheep. I’m not sure, but here are several possibilities.

In those days, sheepherding was one of those common occupations, necessary, but certainly not the most glamorous or professional of jobs. Some writers think God chose shepherds because they were looked down on by Hebrews who prized cleanliness and purity; others say they were a fairly respected group of people. Irrespective of how they were regarded, they experiences long work shifts, tired feet, unwanted aromas, unexpected situations when sheep tended to wander among high cliffs. This was the life of a simple, hardworking, shepherd.

So when this blessed event from heaven was ready to be announced, who was at the top of the invitation list to greet the baby? Not what you might expect! It wasn’t the most religious of the day – a priest or a prophet. It wasn’t the famous or political person – a king or an emperor. It wasn’t a professional – a scholar or a high-ranking official. The honor handed to the first human visitors to see God in the flesh was given to laborers – ranch hands.

Let’s for a moment think how to translate that for today. Who might the Father God choose in 2009? Perhaps a hardworking group of nurses’ aides at Messiah Village on the night shift. Throughout the night they have been dutifully making their rounds caring for their patients when suddenly they take a break and step outside for fresh air at 3:00 A.M. and angels blanket the sky. Or it could be an appearance to a group of industrious laborers who have been unloading trucks for Fed-Ex in the middle of the night in Harrisburg, or to the security guys at Messiah College making their nightly safety rounds from building to building when suddenly the sky, perhaps right above Hostetter Chapel is lit up with unimaginable brightness. Just ordinary people going about their jobs.

Shepherds in that day were common ordinary people, just like us. What was the announcement of the “Good News?” “Today, in the town of Bethlehem, a Savior has been born to you, Christ the Lord.” To you – common, ordinary shepherds. Does God identify with ordinary people? He seems to identify with shepherds.

In the Old Testament, God Himself was called the shepherd of Israel. In Psalm 23, David made reference to the Lord as his shepherd. Isaiah said of God that “he will tend his flock like a shepherd.” It’s hardly coincidental that the first glimpse into the life of Jesus at his birth is connected with shepherds. We know that Jesus will one day proclaim, “I am the good Shepherd, I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” Jesus will also use the shepherd metaphor when He demonstrates the extent of the love of God, as he tells the Pharisees the parable of the shepherd who goes out to search for one lost sheep. Yes, we discover that God values shepherds and sheep, even at the birth of His son, on a hillside in Bethlehem.

These shepherds are thrilled. We find the announcement is not wasted on them. So, how do they respond? The Message reads: “The sheepherders talked it over. Let’s go to Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us.” They left running, and found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in the manger.

A quick conversation together. No hesitation. No doubting. No second-guessing what they have heard. “We must go right now.” These simple, country shepherds believed and they responded. Isn’t it astonishing that humble sheepherders turn out to be the first evangelists, the first to spread the good news of the gospel that has come because they really believe God has spoken to them?

It’s not everyday you see angels. Read from The Message what the angels proclaimed: “Glory to God in the heavenly heights, peace to all men and women on earth who please him.” Give glory to God and acknowledge all His implications in all of life – and it will bring you peace.

This peace is for all men and women everywhere who please him. Many centuries before, Isaiah 9:6 foretells that when the Messiah comes He will be a wonderful counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, and the Prince of Peace. What a title! He will be a prince – the prince of peace.

Zechariah, after the birth of John, speaks of Jesus as the one who would “guide our feet into the path of peace.”

A path of peace? The gospel of the “good news” is a path of peace. We, here at Grantham Church, as Brethren in Christ, believe that pursing a path of peace is important in our understanding of the gospel. It is one of our core values. Peace, that was announced on a Bethlehem hillside is possible.

Two thousand years later, since the birth of the Prince of Peace, people everywhere are still looking for and longing for peace.

In a recent mall survey done by a Christian organization, people were asked, “Where would you like to see peace this Christmas? Here are some of their answers.
I’d like peace with my parents, my ex, and my kids.
I’d like to see the end of political bickering on TV.
I need peace in my mind and my heart.
A peaceful neighborhood.
If people were more peaceful, maybe they wouldn’t be so rude.
Honestly, if we don’t find peace soon, my marriage will be over.
I want my mom and daddy to get back together.
I’d like to see peace everywhere.
From this survey can’t we tell people are longing for peace on many different levels? First, we as humans search to find peace with God. You hear it in the survey – “I need peace in my mind and my heart.” Even though a person may not know what they are searching for, we all long to be at peace with a higher power, whatever that is, and also at peace inside ourselves.

For those of us who have been believers for many years, it may be hard to identify that longing with or even remember what it was like not to have peace with God. We know that a right relationship with God is necessary, as Romans 5:1 states, “Since we have been made right with God, we have peace,” inner wholeness in our relationship with God by faith – faith in His grace. How easy it is to take for granted this wonderful peace which is the most important part of the good news – reconciliation and wholeness with Jesus Christ.

The message from the Prince of Peace still rings out – He wants to reconcile to Himself every single person; the secretary that works with you, the hairdresser who cuts your hair, the man who services your car. This is the good news of the gospel. Do we feel the same urgency to share as the shepherds did?

Luke tells the story in Luke 7 of a sinful woman, who didn’t know peace, who came to Jesus thirty years later who is looking for peace with God. She breaks an alabaster jar of expensive perfume and anoints his feet with her tears. Jesus tells her that her sins are forgiven. When the guests begin to complain because He forgives her sins, Jesus says to the woman, “Your faith has saved you, go in peace.” He knows the kind of peace she needs. Saving faith that brings reconciliation with God brings peace. The single greatest gift you could give to another person this Christmas who doesn’t have peace with God, is to provide an introduction to the person of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. The good news from the Prince of Peace brings peace of mind and peace of heart.

Not only does this Prince of Peace bring peace with God, Christ has come so that we can experience peace and reconciliation with one another. Again the survey points to the need for peace in our relationships with people. Do you notice they listed people who are important in life – my parents, my kids, my ex. Peace with another person can also be difficult. We can have peace with God, but still have huge struggles figuring out how to experience peace with other people. Don’t we all wish there would be easy answers to getting along? While the Bible is not meant primarily to be a textbook to teach us methods of reconciliation in relationships, it certainly gives us reminders of the importance of Christians pursuing peace. Mark 9:50 says, “Be at peace with each other.” 1 Thessalonians 5:13 encourages us to “live in peace with each other.” In Matthew 18, Jesus goes as far as to give us steps to reconciliation and peace within the body of Christ. Peace with another person won’t happen when we selfishly cling to our rights or our own particular point of view. That is not to suggest we sacrifice principles when perhaps it is more our own particular method of solution we are holding on to.

Philippians 4:6-7 sums up will the right approach. “Pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace with exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”

It is peace from the Prince of Peace that helps us to love each other. May I suggest a simple, yet difficult, first step to bring about reconciliation with another person. Regardless of who is at fault, pray and ask God every day to bless that person.

The good news is that we can have peace with God. We can also begin to experience peace in our personal relationships with others.

Third, we hope for and strive for peace in the world. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” As I read Time magazine this week, I must confess, peace in the nations of the world seems as remote as ever. Iraq, Afghanistan – the situation in these war-torn countries makes us sad. However, the truth is that peace is in short supply everywhere in many countries of the world.

Until this past Monday I had never heard of Juarez, Mexico. The Associated Press carried a story in the Patriot News I can scarcely get out of my mind. This border city of 1.5 millions people stands on the Rio Grande across the U.S. border from El Paso, Texas. You could drive there by car in less than three days. It is known as the most violent city in the world outside of declared war zones. Two drug gangs have been fighting since the spring of 2008. Violent death is a part of life every day in Ciudad Juarez. So far this year there have been 2,250 killings. Mothers tell daughters to run stoplights at night rather than risk being carjacked. Even in daylight, drivers dare not glance over at the next car. This year’s dead include university professors, an honor student, and waiters caught in the crossfire. Even emergency room doctors are not immune. Last month while Dr. Alberto Rios was in surgery, gunmen barged in with assault rifles looking for someone. Seventeen-year-old Jose Chavez said, “It’s no longer weird to see dead people. I’ve seen bodies near my house, on the way to school, outside my world.” There is no peace in Ciudad Juarez.

Often at Christmas we hear many public sentiments expressed and prayers said for peace in the world. We see on Christmas cards the sign of the dove on the outside and the word “Peace” – or a saying such as “peace to you this Christmas” on the inside. We long for the day when we will all experience peace, when the war in Juarez, Mexico or Afghanistan will no longer worry us. We long for the day when the Prince of Peace will rule in the world. On a hillside outside Bethlehem, the shepherds heard there, this Savior, Christ the Lord will bring peace. How can it become reality?

Recently I came across these thoughts which I invite you to reflect on: “There will never be peace in the world until there is peace in individual nations. There will never be peace in nations until there is peace in communities. There will never be peace in communities until there is peace in families. There will never be peace in individuals until we invite the Prince of Peace to reign in our hearts.”