February 7, 1999
The first people to hear of the Savior’s birth weren’t rich or powerful but poor and unimportant shepherds going about their daily work. Alistair Begg describes for us these shepherds’ response, from their journey to Bethlehem to their proclamation of the promised Messiah. More than two thousand years later, God continues to reach people in the midst of their daily lives, calling them to be bearers of His great message of joy.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn with me to the Gospel of Luke and to the second chapter. Those of you who were present this morning know that we endeavored to study the first twenty verses, and we made it—at least in some fashion we made it—to the fourteenth verse.
So, God came not to a princess but to a lowly maiden; not to the home of a high-ranking officer but to the home of the village carpenter; and not, as we now see, to the halls of learning but to the fields of shepherds and to a group of individuals who, as a class, were actually despised by those who were religiously orthodox in their day.
The shepherds were not anywhere close to the top of the social spectrum. And in religious terms, they didn’t fare much better. On account of their duties, they missed far too many of the services, and they tended to wash their hands a little less than they were supposed to in relationship to the ceremonial and judicial law.
And yet despite that, when God dispatches his angelic host, it is to the fields he sends them. And it is, as we have seen, directly to this group of shepherds. The one of whom the angels sing their message to the shepherds is one who, in the years of his manhood, is going to stand upon the stage of human history and take to himself as one of the descriptions of his person nothing other than that of a shepherd. It will be this one of whom the angels are singing that will stand and say, “I am the good shepherd; [and] I know my sheep and [they] know me.”
At this point in time, when a son was born into a Jewish home, or at least into a Mideastern home, it was a cause of great celebration. I wish I could say in all honesty that when a girl was born into the home, it was a cause of equal celebration. It was not. That was a mistake, something that we wouldn’t want to emulate. But nevertheless, the distinction was clear. And the birth of a son brought out the minstrels, and friends and neighbors would gather at the home of the individual in order to make music and to sing songs.
Mary and Joseph, of course, have moved from the locality in which they are most known, best known, and have found themselves now in at least marginal obscurity in a different place altogether. And so the likelihood of the people from the community showing up at the door of this particular dwelling is not very high. And so God arranges his own celebration and sends the heavenly minstrels to fill the night sky and to sing the songs of celebration at the birth of this child.
Now, we read from Hebrews chapter 1 in order that we might be clear that the Bible in every place, and not least of all in Hebrews 1, establishes the superiority of Christ to these angels. And we noted, I think, in our reading verse : “And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’” And if we might think reverently and correctly about the scene in heaven, the Father dispatches the angelic host at a precise moment in time, saying to them, “Now, I want you to go to the fields around Bethlehem, I want you to greet this particular group of shepherds, and I want you to magnify and glorify my Son, who has now been born.”
It’s a quite remarkable thought that the covenant of redemption into which the Father and the Son and the Spirit had entered in all of eternity now comes to birth in the experience of the incarnation, and the Father is still judicially involved in it all and dispatching these angels at his behest.
And so, as we noted this morning, they come to these shepherds not, you will note, when they were involved in peculiar acts of devotion but when they were simply going through the routine of their lives. We don’t want to pause there unduly, except for a moment to note what I’m saying: that God came to them not because they were particularly pious (they weren’t), not because they were uniquely religious (they were not), not because somehow they had a standing and a status amongst others in their day (they didn’t). Indeed, in one sense, they had nothing going for them at all, these fellows on the night shift on the Judean hillsides. And God comes not to reward their devotion but to meet them in their place of business.
That’s the kind of God that we discover in the Bible. That would be the testimony of some who are here this evening: that you were going through the fairly routine activities of your life, and God came and met you. Oh, not with an angel singing in your office, I’m sure, or in your lab or in your schoolroom, but perhaps through a book or through a friend, a colleague; through an uncertainty; through a hospital visit that you had left, and with a nagging sense of foreboding, you stood and wondered what your life would now be in light of the news that you had just heard. And God came in that day of fairly mundane routine, and he met with you.
Some would say that that is true in relationship to their attendance at worship. They were coming to worship, and they were not particularly devoted. Indeed, if anyone could have seen their hearts, seen into our lives, they would have known that we weren’t particularly interested in it at all. We stood when we were asked, we sat when we were told, we sang when we were supposed to, we did our best to get into it, but really, we were far away from everything. And then God came and pared back our hearts and spoke into our souls. God does that.
Were it not for the fact that I have a deep conviction, on the authority of God’s Word, that he does, then I could never maintain Sunday by Sunday by Sunday. Can you imagine the awful pressure, believing yourself to have the responsibility, by dint of the things that you say and the way in which you say them, of somehow or another stirring up this lifeless mass of humanity that sits before you on a regular basis? You think it’s bad as a schoolteacher with thirty kids in the class, and you’re trying to teach them chemistry, and only 7 percent of them are remotely interested? I will gladly trade places with you on any occasion you choose. Only know this: that your students will be in severe danger as a result of my presence. But I’ll be glad of the opportunity, just to see how it feels.
Now, I say that not to denigrate the privilege that is mine, nor to suggest that you are some unmoved mass of humanity, but to point out this: that were it not for the fact that God does this, then, of course, we would have no hope at all. In fact, the less devoted the individual appears to be, the greater the seeking dimension of God unleashes itself in the soul of a man.
And I can never remember who the lady was who told us how, in her interview for membership, she had been coming regularly to Parkside, and she was as I have just explained: going through the motions. She had no interest in things hardly at all. She couldn’t explain why she kept coming, until on one Lord’s Day morning, as the opening hymn of praise began, she found her heart lifted up within her and her throat gripped and her eyes filled with tears, and she had no explanation for it whatsoever. No one had said a word. Nobody had done anything to her at all. God came in the routine of her day, and he met her. And so he did.
And in the experience of the birth, followed by the announcement, we then said we would deal with the reaction. And the reaction to the birth and the announcement we are given on the part of three groups, or two groups and one individual. One group are the shepherds, the other group is those whom the shepherds told, and the individual, of course, is Mary. Let me say a word about Mary. I’m not going to say much about those whom the shepherds told. I’ll spend most of my time on the shepherds, and even then, it will not be a long time.
A word about Mary. Verse 19: “Mary treasured up all these things,” and she “pondered them in her heart.”
I really like Mary, don’t you? The more I’ve been studying Luke’s Gospel, the more I’m looking forward to meeting Mary. This is one remarkable woman. Think of the experience that she had. Think of the drama that entered her life with the appearance of the angel and the stirrings within her womb and the experiences of motherhood with yet ever having had the physical encounter with a man. She is, in one sense, very ordinary and, in the other breath, incredibly extraordinary. She is undemonstrative in all that we see of her, and yet she is uniquely sensitive.
Her circumstances must surely have been the butt of cruel jokes. She must have lived, at least through some of these months, in Nazareth with snide remarks, aware in the marketplace of whispered allegations, noticing the furtive glances of people as they looked down at the ground rather than catch her gaze. And somewhere in all of that, she draws deeply upon God. She renews her strength. She is able to mount up with wings like an eagle. She is able to run and not grow weary. And in the experience of the prophet, she is able to walk and not be faint.
Her personality, as we are able to deduce it from the text of Scripture, would at least be characterized by these things: she is calm; she’s deep; she is spiritually receptive; she’s strong, steady, persevering, tender. And in my mind’s eye, I can see her smile: just a quizzical smile—feeling so alone, feeling so misunderstood, feeling so overwhelmed and so bewildered not simply with the physicality of it all but with the drama that surrounds it. And then to be on the receiving end of a visit from these dusty-footed shepherds with their gnarled faces and sunburnt skin, who tell her that they are down here in Bethlehem because they were going about the routine of their lives, and an angel came! And she smiled ever so slightly to herself. She said, “The angel’s back.” And they said, “And there was an angel choir that gathered, and they sang of this son of yours.” And in her yearbook, for her senior quote, she chose “I’d like to ponder that, if I may.”
Well, that’s Mary.
What about the reaction of the shepherds? Let me give you just four words.
First of all, you’ll notice their decision, in verse 15: “When the angels had … gone…” Incidentally, there is in the Greek text here an indication of the way in which they both came and left. Further up in the text, where it says that the angel “appeared,” and later on, when the “great company of the heavenly host appeared,” you will notice that we use the English word, there in verse 13, “suddenly.” It’s not actually there as a word in the Greek, but the word that is used in Greek brings with it this notion of “All of a sudden, they were there.” And here, in the departure, there’s no notion of them splitting as suddenly as they came. Indeed, the very notion is that they left in a kind of undramatic and gradual fashion. And as the shepherds were there within the context of the sheep, they watched as the angels, one by one, began to dissipate—not into nowhere but, we’re told, “into heaven.”
Now, it was when the angels had left them that they made the decision, because clearly nobody was saying much or going anywhere while this particular choir was singing. And then their decision, halfway through the verse: “Let’s go,” they said, “to Bethlehem.” “Let’s go to Bethlehem.” If someone had said, “Let’s go!” I doubt anybody would have said, “Where?” There wasn’t a question: “We’re on our way to Bethlehem. Why are we going?” Well, “let’s go … and see this thing that has happened.”
It’s an interesting phrase, that: “this thing that has happened.” “Thing” and “things” comes up quite a lot in Luke’s Gospel. Made me think of the way some of these girls from California used to talk, and now they talk like it everywhere: “Well, there was, like, this thing, you know. And, like, this thing has happened, like, like, something, this thing has happened. Like, it’s happened, you know. So, let’s go to Bethlehem and, like, see this thing that has happened.”
Now, if there was any one of them that was at all disinterested, he’d say, “Why would we leave our responsibility to go see a baby? Have you never seen a baby before? After all, we’re producing lambs left, right, and center here. It’s not a lot different,” the cynic might have said, the skeptic. “There’s no point in buzzing off just for that. I mean, goodness gracious, I’ve seen plenty of babies in my time. I don’t see why we should go. Leave the sheep to see a baby?” No, you see, the key is in the final phrase of the verse 15: “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” “Which the Lord has told us about.”
You see, verses 6 and 7, in all of their pristine simplicity, would mean very little to anyone, including the shepherds, minus the word of explanation which follows in the word of the angel. And so, they followed through on their decision. And verse 16 tells us that “they hurried off,” and they “found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.”
So we go from decision to discovery. And their discovery is that things are just as they were told they were going to be. It is this more than anything else which convinces them they’re on track. The sign was told them: “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” So there were a couple of distinguishing things. It wasn’t simply that they were going into Bethlehem looking simply for a baby. There probably were a number of babies around at that time in Bethlehem, and they would need to narrow their search somewhere.
And we presumably think of them not going directly to the place. There is no indication that they were given the details as to street number and so on. They were told it’s happened in Bethlehem, and so they would go. They’d say, “We’re looking for a baby.”
And then the person would come to the door and say, “Do think this is it?”
They say, “No, that couldn’t possibly be it.”
“Well, you’ve got it in that thing there. This baby we’re looking for won’t have any nice clothes on like that. We’re looking for one that’s wrapped in cloths.”
“Oh, well, this one was wrapped in cloths earlier.”
“Yeah, but that can’t be the one. Thank you. See you around.” And off down the road they go: “We’re looking for a baby. He’s wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Anyone around here got a baby in a manger?” And finally they come, and there it is, exactly as they had been told.
What a staggering contrast, huh? Between the angelic chorus and the manger scene.
I don’t mean to play with the text, but I can only imagine that there is at least one or two of these shepherds who are not as into it as some of the rest, and the cynical ones on the end are going, “That was a pretty big buildup for this, wasn’t it?” They come walking in, and then they look, and what do they have? They have a baby wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger. And one said, “Hey, good work, George! Thanks for bringing me down. This is a drama in itself.”
Reminds me of Johnny Carson when he talks about the fact that when you go to the hospital, and you look in through the nursery glass wall, and the nurse brings the baby up, he says the most dreadful situation is if you find yourself there as a father with another father, and while your baby has been brought up and it looks particularly nice, the baby that is brought up to the man standing next to you looks like nothing on earth. And when the father turns to you and says, “Hey, hey, what do you think?” says Carson, “What do you say?” He says, “There is only one thing you can say in that moment, and that is, ‘That sure is a baby.’”
Now, were they simply showing up at the manger, looking and going, “That sure is a baby”? No. Because the significance was not in the baby in terms of its physicality, but it was in the facts that had been given them concerning this baby.
Verse 17 takes us from discovery to declaration: “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child.” You’ll notice that. There is a whole sermon here, which we will leave for now. “When they had seen him, they spread the word.”
Now, without doubt there were conversations between these shepherds and Mary and Joseph. They must have filled in the blanks for each other. They would have told Mary and Joseph what had been going on in the fields. Joseph would have told the shepherds in turn the word of the angel to him all these months ago. Mary would have said, “And this has been my experience as well.” She may have filled in with a little about Elizabeth and the birth of John the Baptist. And then they began to “spread the word.” And you will notice that “all who heard … were amazed,” verse 18. They were all “amazed at what the shepherds said to them.”
This word “amazed” is a recurring word in Luke. He likes it. You’ll find it again in verse 18, verse 33, verse 47, you’ll find it in 4:22, and you’ll find it a whole host of other places.
Well, why were they so “amazed”? What was so unusual? They weren’t out to say, “You know, we went into town, and guess what? We saw a baby wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger.” The people said, “That’s amazing! That is really amazing!” No. There’s marginal amazement in the fact that the baby was in the manger, because as we noted, that wouldn’t be place number one of choice for it. But that’s not the source of the amazement. Wherein lies the amazement? Because they “spread the word concerning”—now, notice the phrase again—“what had been told them about this child, and all who heard [that] were amazed.”
Now, you have to backtrack through the text and say, “Well then, what had been told them about the child?” And that’s where you get back to verses 10 and 11, and you’re back with “good news” and “great joy” and “Savior” and “Christ” and “Lord.” So they were not describing the amazing characteristics of the child. They were describing the child within the context of the amazing declaration of the angels.
Now, isn’t that what the prophet Isaiah does in Isaiah 53 as he predicts the coming of Christ? And he says of him, halfway through verse 2, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” And this is where many of the Christmas carols go right up the creek, including “Away in a Manger” and “[The] little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.” Now, that would be amazing, wouldn’t it? A baby that didn’t cry! You could go out and amaze people with that: “We were just down the road in Bethlehem, and we saw a baby, swaddling cloths, in a manger, and you know what? Doesn’t cry!” People would say, “That’s amazing!”
Where did “doesn’t cry” come from? It’s a mythology. It’s a fiction. It’s an attempt to make more of Christ than he is. And in seeking to make more of him, they make less of him. They make him less human than he was. He was a real child, with real tears. So the amazement is not in his physicality. And yet still in our endeavors to make much of Christ, what do we do? We make much of the physicality and the personality and the capacity of those who speak for a Christ who had nothing majestic or beauteous about him that would immediately attract people to him.
“Come and hear our terrific speaker on Tuesday. He is very clever, and he is very tall, and he is very handsome, and he is very winsome. Oh, I’m sure you will be attracted to him! And perhaps if we can attract you to him, we will be able to attract you to him who had nothing to attract us to him at all.” Does that not strike you as being a little faulty? Of course it is! And so we have created a twentieth-century cult whereby we attract people to people and fail to attach people to Christ. I say to you again, the angel came not to the halls of academia, not to the royal palace, not to the high-ranking officials of the land, but to a peasant girl, a carpenter man, and a bunch of dirty shepherds.
“Oh, you’ll never get that message across on the east side of Cleveland, Alistair. You’re going to have to clean that up a great deal. You’re not going to be able just to go out and say those kinds of things. You’ll have no congregation at all. Don’t you understand that these people have worked hard for everything they enjoy, and they like those celebrities, and they like all those heroes, and they like all those football players? And we love to have them come.”
As it passes through my mind—this is not a cheap shot, but the events of last Saturday involving one of the Super Bowl players highlight the very thing to which I refer: making much of the individual who is called to speak concerning the individual who has not much about him that would make him attractive.
That’s their declaration. And finally, notice their devotion: “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen,” notice again, “which were just as they had been told.” Irrespective of the reaction of people to their witness, they would now be employed in worship, back to their flocks with deep, new emotions.
If sheep and lambs could talk, then I think some of them would have said to one another, “You know, I don’t know what happened to Levi the other night, but something significant happened to him. Because I have felt his boot on my rear end so many times in the last few weeks. And you know, he was calling me by name. You know, I’m certain I felt his hand around my neck, and he took my face in his hand, and he looked at me.” Fiction?
Heaven above is softer blue,
And earth around is sweeter green,
And something lives in every hue
That Christless eyes have never seen,
And birds with gladder songs o’erflow,
And earth with deeper beauty shine,
as a result of a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ. And if redemption does not affect the way a man treats his dog or his lambs or his kids or his colleagues, his redemption is a fiction.
You see, we ought not to think of the shepherds, now, when we think in terms of worship, saying to ourselves, “And every so often they were putting the sheep in a pen, and they were saying, ‘Now, let’s have a worship time together.’ And so they all got together and held hands and said, ‘All heaven declares the glory of the ri—’” They may well have done that. But that’s not the totality of worship, is it? That’s a privilege that is given to us when we gather together. But all of our days and all of our times and all of our lives and all of our encounters are to be worship!
When you think of it in terms of prayer, the same is true. Have you made the amazing discovery that prayer is not somehow or another putting certain sentences together with your eyes closed at a certain time in the day for a remotely few number of minutes? Have you encountered that? It’s such a liberation when we understand that as Christians, we’re indwelt by the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit is God and is naturally in touch both with the Father and with the Son. And therefore, the Holy Spirit lives in my life, and “he walks with me, and he talks with me.” And every morning when I awake, I know that he’s there, and I believe that he’s there. And while I may go to a special place for a special time and read a special book, whether I do or whether I don’t, whether I do that and something or not that and something, he is with me all the time, in all my days.
The shepherds understood that, and it changed them. “I love to tell the story,” they would have been saying to one another,
of unseen things above:
Of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story, because I know [it’s] true.
It satisfies my longings [like] nothing else [can] do.
We’ve a story to tell to the nations
That will turn their hearts to the right,
A story of peace and gladness,
A story of love and light.
For the darkness shall turn to the dawning
And the dawning to noonday bright,
And Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth,
A kingdom of love and light.
Gracious Father, grant, then, that we may follow the example of these shepherds; that we may pay careful attention to all that by your Spirit we have seen and heard of your grace and goodness; that you will make us both witnesses and worshippers; that people will not be amazed at us but may be amazed at the story they hear us tell from such an unlikely source, with such an incredible ending, and with such an uncompromising challenge.
Thank you for the birth of Jesus. Thank you for this fantastic announcement that you sent by the angels’ song. Thank you for the reaction of Mary and the shepherds and all who heard. And thank you for giving us the opportunity tonight to react as well. We bless you in Christ’s name. Amen.
 John 10:14 (NIV 1984).
 See Hebrews 1:4–9.
 See Isaiah 40:31.
 “Away in a Manger” (1885).
 Wade Robinson, “I Am His, and He Is Mine” (1890). Lyrics lightly altered.
 C. Austin Miles, “In the Garden” (1913).
 Kate Hankey, “I Love to Tell the Story” (1866).
 H. Ernest Nichol, “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations” (1896). Lyrics lightly altered.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.