Luke 2:12-20 “‘This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.’ When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”
A family came from South Africa to study librarianship in Aberystwyth. There was a long flight followed by the airport hassle of hiring a car for themselves and their children. Then there was the drive through England and onto the winding country roads of Wales, westward, ever westward. They finally reached Builth Wells but pressed on in this interminable journey which had begun 24 hours earlier in Cape Town. As they drove out of Builth, passing the Royal Welsh Agricultural Showgrounds, they saw a sign that lifted their spirits. It said, “Aberystwyth 49 miles.” They were on the right road. In just over an hour they would finally be at their destination.
The messenger from God gave the shepherds the sign (not a sign) which would confirm the truth of what they’d been told, that at this moment, just a mile or so away from them, Jehovah Jesus the anointed one had really been born. Why was there any need of a sign? An angel in all his glory, who a second earlier had been standing in the presence of God, had appeared in their midst, and they were terrified – this tough bunch of immoral shepherds were shaking in their sandals. Who needs another sign if a holy angel bright is talking to you? But even then something more breathtaking and intimidating occurred. In the twinkling of an eye a vast gathering of angels stepped out of heaven and joined the archangel and filled the fields and lanes and hills around Bethlehem. Angels were everywhere they looked, and they were singing. Think of it, a vast choir making the most glorious harmonies, without one jarring note, singing in utter joyful perfection, the most wonderful music the world had ever heard, “Glory to God in the highest . . . ”
Yet the angel was talking about some additional sign to be given them, a sign that was not one of angels. What more was needed to verify the message than the presence of ten thousand angels? What could this sign be? It would have to be something tremendous if it’s not these angels. Then they heard what the sign was, that this newborn baby would be wrapped up and lying in a feed-trough. That was it; the fact that the little boy would be lying in such a strange crib would be how they’d recognise him. That would be the sign of this unique baby; that is what would distinguish him from all the other babies in Bethlehem and its environs. This would be the only little boy whom they’d find asleep in a feed-trough in a cave where animals were kept.
What an amazing juxtaposition, tens of thousands of angels all around them, some less than six feet away, open to examination. Not vague, cloudy, wisps of shining cotton candy, no! Majestic seraphim were standing erect, dressed in brilliant white – remember just one angel could destroy all the Assyrian army or all the first born of Egypt – and they are there a yard or two from them singing words that could be heard and understood. It was like being in heaven, and yet the sign given to them that a loving Saviour, Christ the Lord, had just been born, was the very antithesis of such overwhelming majesty. It was the sign of an accessible and approachable God. They could walk right up to him, the Lord of the angels, in a stable. He was wrapped up just like any other baby, but he was lying in a feeding trough. Feeding troughs today cost around 15 pounds and 44 pence and they are made of sturdy plastic, or concrete, or metal. Jehovah Jesus could be found lying asleep in one made of wood.
That was the sign. It was certainly a distinguishing and identifying sign. Probably no other baby in the whole world at that moment was asleep in one of those; it marked out Jesus, but it was also a very fitting and suitable sign for who this child was. Think of it, that the incarnate Creator wasn’t wrapped in silk and satin and lying in a jewel studded cradle. This baby, dependent, helpless, vulnerable was lying in a feed trough. This was a declaration of the manner in which Almighty God intended to save the cosmos, overcome the Serpent, and redeem a vast company of believing sinners. Not by bolts of lightning, not by fire and brimstone, but by incarnate weakness. God was found in fashion as a man. The shepherds didn’t fully understand what the sign meant, but they reckoned that somehow the manger must have been as important as the angels. Sometimes we don’t understand the meaning of a sign but we know it is important. On my lap-top if I wanted to save something I clicked on a sign which I had thought for years was the sign of a TV set. I didn’t know why they had chosen a TV set as a sign for ‘save.’ It was not for some years that I discovered that actually it was the sign of a floppy disc, but the sign did the job for me, and then later on I understood what it meant. The shepherds, after the death and resurrection of Christ and after the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, would understand more clearly why from his very birth the baby Jesus was humiliated by sleeping in a feed trough.
When you are surrounded by tens of thousands of singing seraphim, and God has spoken directly to you, then you don’t argue about the divine choice of a sign. It simply somehow pointed to Jehovah’s plan to redeem his people. Paul later described it in theological language – he is explaining the feeding trough – “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no-one may boast before him” (I Cor. 1:24-27). He is the God of Gideon’s three hundred men. He is the God of Elijah, the one man facing the hundreds. He is the God who helps one man to plant and another man to water, but then he will give the increase as he sees fit. He is the God who says, Not by might, nor by power but by my Spirit.
The Scripture says of our blessed Lord that though he was crucified through weakness he lives by the power of God. It affirms that the weakness of God is stronger than men, and the foolishness of God is wiser than men; so this weak and foolish manger is a stronger and a wiser choice than the crib in which Caesar’s son sleeps. Soon Jesus will say that the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. We’d have prepared something better than a feeding trough wouldn’t we? But God chose the feed trough as the first resting place for his Son. The sign that says Jehovah Jesus has come is in the eyes of the world a pathetic symbol of weakness and folly, but in God’s eyes it is the strength and wisdom of his everlasting love. Here at the first cries of baby Jesus in the world God was stamping upon this nativity the method by which he would always work throughout the life of Jesus, throughout the lives of the apostles and the early church, and throughout the whole history of the church until today. This is always going to be the way God will work until the end of the world. The redemption of his people will not be accomplished through eloquence or superior wisdom, nor with wise and persuasive words, nor with human might and power. God works through those who are poor in spirit, and those who mourn, and those who are meek, and those who are pure in heart and hungry for righteousness. He simply won’t work through razzmatazz or any parade of the flesh. He works through those who are conscious of their weakness and are utterly dependent upon him.
If you think a rough and smelly feed trough is a strange place to find the incarnate God then what will you think when you see him hanging by nails to a cross, utterly alone? No magi coming to adore him there with their gifts, no wondering shepherds standing silent around, no loving protecting father and mother, just a mob of chanting men who hate him, just the soldiers gambling and the sky dark at noon. Golgotha too is the sign that this one is God. If you want to see him then . . .
There is a green hill far away, outside a city wall
Where the dear Lord was crucified who died to save us all.
That sign of suffering is what you must look for; it says, “Find me and you will not be far from God.” Hurry up now and go to the cradle and the cross and the tomb. Go to the Lamb who has all the marks of his suffering still upon him, sitting in the midst of the throne, and you survey what God has done in Jesus his Son. So today we must ask what all these people involved in the birth of Jesus did about this message from heaven? How did they respond to the coming of the Lord Christ?
1. THE SHEPHERDS RESPONDED TO THE MESSAGE BY HURRYING OFF TO SEE THE LITTLE LORD JESUS.
“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger” (vv.15&16). They didn’t hang around did they? Hear the dynamism in their voices; “Let’s go . . . let’s go to Bethlehem . . . let’s see this thing that has happened . . . so they hurried off . . .” God will take care of the sheep if shepherds are doing his will. They had seen his messenger and heard his word and they obeyed immediately. That is conversion. It is not tested by feeling but displayed in doing. They went to be with the little Lord Jesus; they were drawn to him; Roman soldiers could not have kept them away; where Christ was they too wanted to be. They heard the message, and immediately desired to come near to the Lord, and this movement was encouraged by God. They weren’t told, “Back off, mere shepherds!” They weren’t told they were unworthy of such a privilege. There is that Private Eye cartoon of the bank manager who is saying, “Yes, I am prepared to grant you an overdraft, but first I would like a little more groveling please.” There was no groveling in Bethlehem. Hurry to the stable, the shepherds are told. Let them see for themselves the incarnate deity. The change in values for these men is becoming immediately apparent.
Think of the men and women converted on the day of Pentecost. They immediately did things they had never done before. They were baptized almost straight away – just like the Ethiopian eunuch a year or so later. Those 3,000 men in Jerusalem then devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles – they became students. They became part of the apostles’ fellowship – they weren’t loners; they did things together as Christians. They broke bread in a service and they prayed together. Think of Saul Tarsus, converted on the road to Damascus, and we are told some remarkable words about what happened in the following week; “Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God” (Acts 9:19&20). A new life began for Saul of serving the Saviour.
The very first pagan description of Christianity came from a man named Pliny, the Roman governor of Bithynia, in a letter to the Emperor Trajan written in the year 112. Pliny wrote to him that Christians met “regularly before dawn on a fixed day of the week to chant verses alternately among themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god, and also bind themselves . . . to abstain from theft, robbery and adultery.” Christians did things, as we still do them today, meeting together on the first day of the week, and singing praise in honour of Christ as our God and encouraging one another not to sin.
A student stayed on one vacation in Aberystwyth; it was about twelve years ago and he lived in Tanygraig for the summer. He had spent three years in Aberystwyth without going to church, and on that first Sunday he was asked by another student in Tanygraig to come with him to church. He heard the gospel message that morning and he became a Christian, and on the Monday he went to the Christian Book Shop and bought himself a Bible. He left Aberystwyth at the end of that summer and I had forgotten about him until this July when my daughter Fflur and her husband Glyn went on holiday to Kent and they met him in his church with his wife and children. He is still doing what Christians do, meeting on the first day of the week and singing the praises of Jesus Christ as of God. The moment you hear who Jesus Christ is then you are under obligation to believe, adore and obey. The moment you know you need a Saviour you go to him and he will give you rest. You must go to him just as you are.
2. THE SHEPHERDS RESPONDED BY PROCLAIMING THE MESSAGE TO EVERYONE THEY MET.
“When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child” (v.17). Let me point out to you the progression in the language of this passage. It begins with a very personal word directed to shepherds. The messenger is first speaking to them . . . “I bring to you good tidings of great joy.” Let’s think of ourselves, I mean of this congregation, and a man of God bringing this word from God to us now. We are not thinking of some future occasion when this message will be listened to by others on a CD or when many will read the text of this message on the website. Let’s begin at this very moment with ourselves; I have good tidings of great joy for you who are listening to me here. I have a Saviour for you. He is God’s anointed prophet, priest and king and he is for you to receive and believe upon this hour, not when you have straightened up your life, not when you are older, but there is good news of the Saviour at this moment for you.
Then the message is expanded beyond the narrow circle of shepherds on the Judean hills. The message is of “great joy which will be for all the people” (v.10). We are moving outside our own circle to all the people that surround us, to our entire families, to the student body at the university, to the teenagers, the children, the pensioners, the middle aged, to all who live around us, to everyone without exception a joyful offer is to be made. You and I are authorized by God to go to anyone and tell them that we have good news for them. I have a Saviour ready to receive them. I have the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life to offer to them. This sincere offer of Jesus Christ is for all those people whom we will discover – by their response – to have been divinely favoured to receive this Saviour. You see this in the further declaration of all the angelic choir, “peace to men on whom his favour rests” (v.14). The message is to men, and here is the generic term for human beings, that God promises he will turn his wrath into peace on all who have this Saviour. All on whom God’s favour rests will enjoy peace with God through Jesus Christ. Whatever time in history they live, whatever continent they live in, whoever they may be, as long as they are the beneficiaries of God’s favour there is peace for them.
The shepherds were gripped by all that had happened to them and then they told everyone whom they met what they’d heard and seen. Why did they do this? No one had told them to do so. They hadn’t done a Saturday course in how to witness. No one had laid hands on them to do this work. Who were they to tell people what they had seen and heard? These shepherds could reply as Peter and John answered when those apostles were commanded not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. Their response was in these familiar words, “we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). My daughter is expecting her first baby in her fortieth year and you expect me to be silent about this wonderful news? I cannot help speaking about it as I do again on this occasion. So it is with the message of Christianity. I deserved eternal death because I am a sinner, but Jesus Christ because he loved me, gave his life in my place. Now I cannot help speaking about him. I am always to be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in me, because Jesus Christ has given me a birth from above by his resurrection.
3. ALL WHO HEARD THE MESSAGE RESPONDED WITH AMAZEMENT.
Do you notice what Luke tells us, that “and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (v.18). Luke does not say ‘shepherd’ he says ‘shepherds.’ You see the picture; there were perhaps a dozen shepherds on that Judean hillside and they were well known in Bethlehem, local characters, with their families. That next day you met one of them and he couldn’t wait to tell you what he had seen. An angel had appeared to them when they were in the fields the previous night and told them that the Messiah was born, and then they had seen ‘millions’ of angels surrounding them. The baby and his family were in that old stable on Benjamin Street, the cave that goes back into the side of the cliff. They had been there and had seen the little boy and his parents.
It was incredible. Had the man been drinking? No smell of alcohol on him. What tall tale was this? Pull the other leg; it’s got bells on it. “No, it is absolutely true. I saw it with my eyes,” he says imploringly. Then you go round the corner and you see a group of men talking to old Nehemiah the leader of the shepherds, and his face is aglow and he is telling a group of incredulous men the same story that you’ve heard from young Ebenezer. How strange! Then you call in the local tavern and there they are all listening to Isaac the son of Nehemiah and he is telling them exactly the same tale, and their early groans and laughter are being silenced by his evident earnestness. Then on the way home you meet two other shepherds, one talking on the street corner in the moonlight and he gives a few more details of the same story, and the other is walking home singing a psalm under his breath – Jacob, a man who’d been one of the least religious men in the town. To hear him singing a psalm is amazing. You go home and tell your wife, but she has heard the story from half a dozen other people. The town of Bethlehem is buzzing with the news. People have become so curious that they gone down to Benjamin Street to see the stable cave, but the family have left and returned to Nazareth. “What do you make of it?” you ask Esther your wife. “I don’t know,” she says. “It’s amazing.” “It is amazing,” you say. The shepherds are not smart enough to organise a conspiracy and keep it going, and appear so ridiculous – so religious – before their worldly friends day after day. An archangel, thousands of angels, the Messiah born here in David’s town, in the stable-cave on Benjamin Street? Why should they make that up? It is uninventable. A dozen shepherds are 100 per cent sincere and earnest in what they say. They are changed men. It’s amazing.
If one person says he has seen a ghost then you are polite but unpersuaded. If two people tell you they saw it, and you know them that they are responsible men and not given to sensationalism then you will agree that they have seen something and you are curious. If a dozen people tell you with total conviction and quiet and absolute sincerity what each one of them had seen and heard, and they continue to repeat it for the rest of their lives then you are amazed. Remember how Luke begins this gospel; go back to the opening verses; “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye-witnesses and servants of the word” (Lk. 1:1&2). Luke went to the eye-witnesses when he compiled this gospel. He went to an old man who had been a young shepherd boy fifty-five years earlier and his face immediately lit up as he told Luke exactly what he had experienced that night when the angel appeared as they were keeping an eye on their sheep. “I remember it like yesterday,” he told Luke. The apostle Peter tells us in a letter he wrote, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eye-witnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16).
When one person tells you she is a Christian and knows God for herself, then you are mildly interested. You think, “Nice for her.” Then you meet another Christian, and another, and they have the same conviction. Then you are more interested in spite of yourself. Then they tell you that Jesus Christ is also your God; the one who has been so good to you, and blessed you. He is also going to be your Judge one day, and is prepared to be your Saviour now. Now you have to think and respond. Either they are having you on, part of a conspiracy wanting to mess up your life, or they are holy fools (deluded and harmless but mildly fanatical), or they have seen something about the purpose of life and who God is that you have missed out on so far. Our Christian faith is based on the perforation of this life by God. He sent his prophets to speak to us to reveal God to us, and in the fulness of time he has appeared in his Son, Jesus Christ. Many were eye-witnesses of the life and teaching and achievements of the Lord. We become Christians by accepting their amazing words as true.
4. MARY RESPONDED TO THE MESSAGE BY CAREFULLY CONSIDERING EVERYTHING SHE HAD SEEN AND HEARD.
We are told, “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (v.19). What do you treasure up in your heart? What is important to you? What you’re your mind turn to when it relaxes? Treasure Christ, we say. There’s this fascinating world we live in with our many interests, our concern to make money, and be entertained, and there’s the excitement of relationships. Can you spare a thought for even a little time about Jesus Christ. Is there anything else as important as that? Did God make the universe in the beginning, or was there an eternal lump, and out of that lump by a big bang came the Taj Mahal, and the English language, and Mozart’s 41st symphony, and Rembrandt, and Shakespeare, and the Beatles, and X-rays, and anti-biotics, and Jesus Christ, and you and me. All by a lucky bang? Is that your faith, or did a great Designer make it and send his Son to show us his nature and save us?
What a crucial question! You are going to think about this aren’t you; you will ponder this in your heart? Surely mere curiosity would make you do that wouldn’t it? Imagine getting a letter from your family solicitor telling you that your father’s long-lost cousin in America had left you an oil-well in Arkansas. Wouldn’t you be curious? Wouldn’t you make some inquiries as to who this man was, and why he left this oil-well to you, and how much oil it produced each year, and how much income that would bring to you, and for how long? You would, of course you would. But this message is about eternal life, and knowing the only God there is, and going to heaven when you die, not being snuffed out which would be your greatest hope as one who lives without God. You have to consider it. Think! Consider! I mean you must go where vital Christianity is talked about earnestly, and the claims of Christ are explained, and the changes expected in you – if you claim to know God – are weighed up.
Here in Jesus Christ is more treasure than all the oil of Saudi Arabia, all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found in him. That is the claim that the Bible makes, and so you ought to know the answers to the greatest questions you are meeting right now; what is the meaning of life? Why am I here? What is the good life? What happens at death? How can I know God? Who is Jesus Christ? What is the message of the Bible? What must I do to be saved? What must I do to inherit eternal life? If these answers are supplied by Jesus Christ then they are indeed treasure. You should do with them what you would do with the letter from the solicitor telling you that you have just come into the ownership of an oil-well in Arkansas. You would check it out. That is what we are asking. Ponder what you have heard; “Is that woman right? Are my youth workers right?”
Mary treasured up all that she had heard from angels, and from her husband, and the shepherds and later when Luke came to write his gospel he either met her or her later children – those she bore with Joseph – and Luke asked Mary herself, or the girls who looked after their mother in old age, “Now tell me all that had happened when Jesus was born.” That is why we have these fascinating details in the early chapters of this gospel. You are not going to be so careless and think that popular music and sport and real ale and relationships are more important than this. I am not saying that they are unimportant, but that in the busy-ness of your life please make a space for checking out the message of the Christian faith. It is common sense at least, but it is far more; it is knowing God.
It is hard work; it involves the memory and so some people make notes of what they hear each Sunday. It involves the affections because it’s in our hearts we are to treasure these things. It involves the intellect because that is where you think things over and ponder them. There are some things in Christianity that the greatest brains have been thinking about for two thousand years, and so with our little brains we shouldn’t be surprised if we can’t work out everything immediately. Expect to be stretched and baffled when you are thinking about the living God who made the Universe.
5. THE SHEPHERDS RESPONDED TO THE MESSAGE BY GLORIFYING AND PRAISING GOD.
You see that in these words, “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told” (v.20). The shepherds ‘returned’ that is, to their sheep; they continued to be shepherds. They didn’t give up everything and go around the country and tell people about the angels. They didn’t build a shrine and make money out of the story. They didn’t claim visions of angels each week which only they could see. They didn’t offer healings. Religious knick-knack shops weren’t opened. Neither a shepherds’ cult nor an angels’ cult started. They returned to their sheep for the rest of their lives, but now how different these shepherds were. They had something for which to praise God. The message had transformed them. Instead of a bunch of cynical men talking about sex and drinking and the Romans and the miserable price of sheep their minds were expanded to eternity, and knowing God, divine glorying and praise. “What a great God he is,” they were saying. That is authentic Christianity – “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace . . . Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.” It was Alexander Whyte who wrote of some religious people who lived as if sanctification were by vinegar. That is not how true faith is seen. That is the fruit of unbelief. I was reading an interview this week with the Scottish pop diva Annie Lennox who once sang with the Eurhythmics. She has no God; no faith; no understanding of why the world is in the state it’s in or that there is any redemption. But she is a singer. What does she have to sing about? Her new album is called Songs of Mass Destruction, full of longing for something lost and a desperate need to find meaning in a harsh punishing life. It is full of vinegar. This is what she said to the interviewer, “This planet is absolutely off its head; it’s insane. It is Hieronymous Bosch out there. Half the people are drinking or drugging themselves to numb it. A lot of people are in pain.” And she is a singer! What have you got to sing about? “Here we go! Here we go! Here we go!” But where are you going? Come with us to the cradle, the cross and the crown of Jesus Christ. We will do you good.
These shepherds now had something to sing about. They had heard real singing from the choir of angels, and now they were praising God for all they’d heard and seen. What quality of life they now knew. There was a Saviour who had been born, Christ the Lord. Life did have meaning; there was a loving God who so pitied the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believed in him should not perish but have everlasting life. There was a Redeemer and even shepherds could receive forgiveness of sins. They knew what they had to do in life, love God and keep his commandments. The fear of God was the beginning of wisdom and they would never forget the fear they had known when the archangel came and spoke to them. And they always remembered that he had said to them, “Fear not for I bring unto you good news of great joy which is to all men.”
If you turn from my Saviour and face a future without God, death without hope, what will you have to deliver you from desolation? Here is a Saviour who has said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). Who else can say that to you? What politician, what psychiatrist, what media personality can offer you rest? What have you got to sing about?
Here were people who met Jehovah Jesus and as a result they had good news to tell others, a message of such amazing relevance to everyone who listened. They had truth to treasure, things to ponder over in their hearts. They had something to sing about. And you? What do you have? When God delivers us from the pit of living without him he puts our feet on a rock and establishes our going and gives us a new song to sing.
23rd September 2007 GEOFF THOMAS