The Shepherds’ Peace
"Glory to God in the Highest and peace among men in whom He is well-pleased." Luke 2.14
It is so good to see everyone this evening gathered together in Jesus name for the celebration of His miraculous and meaningful birth. I want to begin with an old sermon illustration. Maybe you’ve heard it before, but it’s a good one to get us quickly to the heart of Christmas.
In a typical family like many of ours a little boy got himself into trouble. Mother put him in his playpen for a time out. About ten minutes into his time out grandma and grandpa arrived for Christmas. The little boy was crying, and when he saw grandpa he reached out his little arms and pleaded to be set free. Just then mother reminded everyone why he was there and that he still had a few more minutes in the time out. Grandpa knew he couldn’t break the rules, but he was eager to be with his grandson. Then grandpa made a decision. Since he couldn’t take the boy out he decided to climb in with him.
That’ a pretty good picture of Christmas. All mankind has been placed in a serious time out because of sin. Many people think that God can just break the rules and overlook sin. But God cannot be unjust or simply overlook the evil in our lives. What He can do and has done is to put Himself under the same punishment that we deserved. Tonight we celebrate the truth of God’s salvation and that very important part whereby He Himself came into our world and into our lives at the first Christmas.
Is Christmas a tradition or is it a truth? Is it a convenient opportunity upon which we can add all sorts of celebration. Could we have done the same with any other number of themes such as "winter fest," or "new years"? Is there really something to the words and promises of Christmas the under gird all the other celebrations? There are no words, no promises, no truths any better in all this universe than those that underlie this wonderful Christmas holy-day.
Tonight we meditate upon those words… especially those spoken to the Shepherds… And we will again discover that there is much more to this Christmas thing than we could have hoped.
The Shepherds Heard
The shepherds are a colorful part of the Christmas account. But over the years they have been idealized. In fact in any Christmas program a child would be honored to be chosen as one of the "shepherds." However, in Jesus’ time shepherds were not idealized. In fact if you were slow, if you lacked good connections, if you were backwards and uneducated, if you had committed a crime that would prevent you from a good job… then you would probably have to take the worst job in Israel… the job of shepherd.
Shepherds had a rough life. They lived outdoors without the benefit of weather resistant clothing and down-filled sleeping bags. Their religious life was also limited. The rabbis could not go out to teach, and they were often not permitted to enter the Temple to pray because they were ceremonially unclean. The shepherds of Jesus’ day were struggling to survive. And yet it was God’s choice to add to His small group of disciples these ragged men as they heard the Christmas Gospel.
To a certain extent all of us are struggling to survive. Single mothers work all week and then try to keep things organized at home. Even though you’ve been given a job that provides a nice living, everyone is just a little "heart to heart" talk with the boss… away from unemployment. God might have blessed us with an accumulation of wealth, but what is that when our body begins to weaken with cancer or heart disease. Just when we think we have overcome evil in the form of fascism and communism, the new "ism" of terror rises on the horizon. When and where will they strike next? Will I be one of those who shakes the head in front of the TV, or will I be the one shaking with sorrow because it is my loved one they are talking about?
We live in a sin-broken world, and that brokenness is going to break into our lives sooner or later. Yet, it is the Christmas Gospel that is spoken first and especially to us who are trying to survive in a sin-broken world. The angel said, "Do not be afraid, behold I bring you good news of great joy which shall be for all people. Because today in the city of David the Savior has been born, who is Christ the Lord." God’s love and desire for this sin-broken world trying to survive is especially seen in the fact that He put His Son in the middle of it- with swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. God’s love for this world is especially recognized in that His Son was sent to be the victim of all the sin of this world. There, in the agony of a Roman execution, He did not even have the benefit of clothes. He who was first laid in the wood of the manger was also was laid on the wood of the cross. And there He died. The angel called Him "Christ, the Lord." Indeed He was and is that Christ or Messiah that the prophets of God had long ago told.
If this Christmas you are just trying to survive, I thank God the Holy Spirit that you are hearing the Christmas truth. He has drawn you here for a reason. Struggling people have a tendency to turn away from God. They think God doesn’t care. Jesus would later teach, "Come to Me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me for I am humble and lowly of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.1 This is the way through the difficulties of our world. It is the only way. It is the good way.
The Shepherds Go and See
The Shepherds did not have the benefit of a nicely ornamented church with soft pews, organ and stained glass. But they did participate in one of the most amazing worship services ever on those hills near Bethlehem. The angel preached as we just heard, "To you this day in the city of David the Savior has been born…" Then, joined with an immense choir of angels, they altogether praised God:
Glory to God in the highest…
And on earth peace…
To men of good will…
God certainly deserves the glory. He sent His Son to bring peace. He has healed the wounds of sin that have separated people from God… as the Bible says, "Having made peace through the blood of His cross…"2 And this is what brings the good will of God back into our lives.
This Christmas the Gospel will also impact many people who are searching for happiness. They’ve learned to survive. The basics of life are covered. But they want to find or maintain a happy life in addition to the basics. And where do we find happiness? A successful career? Good friends? A well-functioning family? Yes, all these things are good, but are they enough?
The shepherds had friendship and camaraderie as they sat around the fire. They didn’t need to traipse all the way into Bethlehem that night to find happiness. Just think how tempting it must have been for them to sit back down and stay warm by the fire. Even tonight there are many people who have heard the angel’s message before, but it just isn’t interesting enough for them to break away from their Christmas party to go to Bethlehem—that is to go to church where God’s people are worshiping – where Christ is truly present in His word. Even next week many will go back to sitting around the fire of their own "happy" life and miss out on the true happiness of Christmas and of Christ.
The shepherds didn’t do that and neither will you I hope. They left the comfort that they had and risked stepping out into the cold and unknown because they believed the angel’s message. "The Savior has been born." They knew that they needed a savior. Earthly happiness is great. It’s a gift of God. But there’s one huge problem with it—the warm fires of careers, friendships, and even family life are burning out. They can’t last forever. You and I need something more.
Luke tells us that the shepherds found Mary, Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. What did they find there? They found God. They found eternity wrapped up in baby clothes! Jesus is God’s Son in the flesh for us. St. John said, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth."3
Every Christmas present you will ever get will either break or die. This is the one present that lasts forever. Jesus told one of the disciples named Martha, "I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, yet shall he live. And whoever lives and believes in me will never die."4 Just before He was about to die on the cross, the sacrifice for your sins and mine, Jesus said, "And this is eternal life, that they may know You the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent."5
Some of us are celebrating Christmas with an empty chair at home. Someone we love has died. We have been made painfully aware that earthly happiness is temporary. But at the very heart of the Christmas truth discovered by those shepherds that night is this—the words Jesus would later teach about His coming into this world: "I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep."6
The Shepherds Made Widely Known
The last thing Luke tells us about the shepherds is very special. "Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child." Some of you are familiar with the cartoon strip B.C. by Johnny Hart. You may have noticed over the last several years that on holidays, Hart produces cartoons with a deeply moving Gospel message. Sometimes newspapers refuse to run these cartoons because they are so profoundly Christian. Hart wasn’t always an active Christian. For many years he kept his faith in the closet. One weekend he hired a father and son team to install a satellite TV system at his house. Something special happened that weekend. To test all of the TVs the father and son team always tuned them to Christian television stations. Hart said after a while the Gospel message began to get to him by osmosis. Today, in addition to reaching millions of people through his cartoons, Johnny and his wife teach Sunday School at the Presbyterian Church in Nineveh, New York.7
On the day before Christmas, the shepherds were just shepherds. On the day after Christmas the shepherds became Christian evangelists spreading the Good News of Christ far and wide. This is one of the things that impresses me the most about the Christian faith—it is significant. And you are a significant person when you believe it and share it with other people. Some time ago I visited one of our members who had been admitted to the psychiatric floor of a hospital. This person was suicidal and struggling in an agonizing depression. The days building up to this were horrible, and there seemed little the doctors or nurses could do for her. Then came the cleaning lady. As she mopped her room the young person sat on the bed sobbing and groaning, writhing in the knots of despair. The cleaning lady began humming a Christian hymn. Then quietly she began singing the words. She took a little longer time in the room than necessary, and then she sat down on the bed and began rubbing this person’s back. She prayed, and talked to her about Jesus. Our member, who was suffering from uncontrollable sadness and anxiety, said she laid down on the bed and fell right to sleep, and she slept peacefully the whole night. A cleaning lady made the difference!
When you know Jesus, believe in Him and want to tell others about Him, you are not "just" anyone. You are not "just" a laborer; you are not just a "mother"; you are not just a "salesman." You are the mouthpiece of God. "How beautiful upon the mountains Are the feet of him who brings good news, Who proclaims peace, Who brings glad tidings of good things, Who proclaims salvation…"8
Tonight the Lord invites you to the peace of the shepherds. This is the peace of the Lord that overcomes the struggles of this world in which we will all find ourselves simply trying to survive; this is the peace brings the lasting happiness of eternal life in Jesus; and this is the peace of Christ that when shared with others makes all the difference.
1) Matthew 11.28-29 2) Colossians 1.20 3) John 1.14 4) John 11.25-26 5) John 17.3 6) John 10.10-11 7) See "Johnny Hart: Not Caving In" in Christianity Today International/Christian Reader Magazine, March/April 1997 or at http://www.christianitytoday.com/cr/7r2/7r2018.html 8) Isaiah 52.7
Pastor Michael P. Walther
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2003
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 1300 Belt Line Road, Collinsville, Illinois, 62234
Michael P. Walther, Copyright, 2003
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