Text: Luke 2:1-20
The shepherds never really had much reason to feel like they were worth much. They looked dirty because they were dirty. They smelled worse. They were imparted with the important and high job of raising the animals that were to be used in the sacrifices of penitence and worship given in the Temple in Jerusalem, but they were also considered unclean and therefore forbidden from entering the Temple themselves.
Society despised them. They were ridiculed, rejected, outcast, and alone. No one took his son out into the fields and encouraged him to aspire to the grand job of shepherding a flock. Shepherding was not considered a grand job. The task once fine for the likes of Jacob (Israel’s namesake), Moses, and David was no worthy goal for a young Jewish lad in the time of Caesar Augustus.
Shepherding was something you did when there was absolutely no other option remaining. Shepherds were viewed as unreliable and dishonest folk. They were labeled as sinners to be avoided at all costs. They were the lowest rung of the social ladder of their day. Though they performed a necessary task, no one really wanted anything to do with them.
Have you ever felt like an outcast? Have you ever found yourself looking in on a desirable fish bowl, but stuck on the outside with no way in? Have you ever longed to reach into a certain group or echelon or achievement and found yourself locked out by a good old boys club? Have you ever found yourself the object of ridicule for no fault of your own? We’ve all had such moments. We’ve all been looked down upon by someone else. We’ve all been excluded from some group of which we wish we were a part.
The shepherds felt this on a large scale that none of us in this room could ever know or imagine. They did not deserve it, but they received the treatment anyway. They were in the position of those with black skin in America in the 1950s. They were also in the position of those in India called the Dalit – the untouchables – even today, though the caste system has been officially abolished.
No one wanted them. No one welcomed them. No one wanted anything to do with them. “Give me the sheep, lamb, or wool that I need and get of my way.” That was the prevailing attitude.
As He would throughout His ministry, Jesus bucked cultural norms in order to be inclusive of everyone. So it was that, “in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.” (Luke 2:8)
Unexpectedly, it is shepherds – the outcast ones – to whom God chose to reveal this wonderful news that the King of the Jews, the Savior of all mankind, was that very night born in Bethlehem, just as had been foretold by Micah, Isaiah, and others. It is to the outcasts of society that God reached out to make known the great wonder that has become our annual December 25th celebration.
How unlikely! How unimaginable. We would expect red carpet. We would expect a feast, a State Dinner perhaps. We would expect regalia and fancy clothes. We would expect all the movers and the shakers of society in all of its modes to be present. Imagine if William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall, in announcing the birth of a child – who would be third in line to the British throne – chose to make that announcement not to Parliament or to the news media or even to the Queen, but to a group of homeless drug addicts living under a bridge. That might be comparable to the appearance of an angel and then a host of angels to shepherds watching their flocks by night. Shepherds were not the expected recipients of such magnificent news.
For that’s what this is. It is great news that is awesome and wonderful. And that such regal and holy news was announced to such a rugged and unholy group as shepherds is also wonderful and awesome. Because the truth is, whether we feel like it or not, we are all outcasts. Since Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden, we are all and each of us excluded from God’s presence. We fear and tremble at the glory of God just as much as Adam and Eve did in their sin, just as much as the people of Israel did at the base of Mount Sinai, and just as much as Isaiah did when his vision took him into the very throne room of God. And we rightfully tremble in fear before God, because we have no business being in his presence, any more so than a drug-addicted homeless man would be welcome into Buckingham Palace.
We are all broken, dirty, unclean, unwelcome, despised, rejected, and impure. As a shepherd would have defiled the Temple because of his uncleanness, our presence in heaven or with God would defile that holy space because of our uncleanness due to our sinful nature. We are all of us outcasts of heaven. And though shepherds were outcasts of society for no good reason, we are outcasts of heaven for very good reasons: we are sinners.
So that God makes his announcement of Christ’s birth to shepherds gives us immense relief and assurance. Shepherds were counted by God to be worthy to be the witnesses of the multitude of angels declaring God’s incarnation as a baby in a manger. If shepherds were counted worthy in that day, so we, too, are counted worthy of such a message from God. As the message of that first Christmas came to shepherds, so the Christmas message comes to all of us. As outcast as we are, we too can experience the thrill and wonder of God’s awesome work declared boldly and mightily to us. You see, we are worthy, and the account of Christ’s birth in Luke 2 makes it clear how we are worthy.
We are worthy enough in God’s eyes for Him to become Emmanuel – God with us. From the very beginning of creation, God’s desire has been to be with the men and women he created in His image. And all of history and scripture since Genesis 3 is the working out of God making it possible for us to be with Him. God loves us. God Himself declares that we are worthy of His love. And this is despite ourselves and our outcast status.
In no place is this worthiness declared better than right here, on Christmas morning, in the stable of a inn, surrounded by animals, travel-weary parents, and the lowly shepherds. For here, God has descended from on high and said: you are so worthy to me that I will not “count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but make myself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:6-7) Even in our lowly, debased, sinful state, we are worthy of this. So God declares.
“Fear not,” the angel spoke, “for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10) For all the people, the angel said. Announced to lowly shepherds, but also for the greatest of kings. And for all like you and me who fall between such ranks. Great news for all those found worthy! There is a Savior. He is born!
“And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:8) So worthy are we, by God’s own declaration in His incarnation, that God is willing to take our death in our place so that we might still love and be loved, that we might die and yet live. What a gift! What a sacrifice! What worth you and I have. For Christmas is not about gifts and presents and singing angels and sweet babies. Christmas is about Easter. And you can’t get to Easter without going through Good Friday and the lonely darkness of Holy Saturday.
We are of so great worth, that God would become one of us. This is incarnation, this is the mystery and the wonder of Christmas. Infinite God in finite, decaying, human flesh. But it is not just that God would become one of us. It is that God would die as one of us. We are of so great worth that Jesus marched deliberately to Jerusalem so that he would face Pilate, be sentenced, beaten, despised, rejected, outcast (does any of this sound familiar), and hung on a cross.
Isaiah prophesied it: “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53:2-3) No wonder he went to the outcast of society. He was to become outcast Himself, as one of them, that He might redeem all of us.
We are worth God becoming outcast, despised, and rejected in our place, so that we could be welcomed, loved, accepted, redeemed, and restored to our place in the presence of God. This is our worth.
Isaiah also pronounced, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is give; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 9:6-7) What is God’s zeal for? God’s zeal is for those who are outcast, like shepherds. Like you and like me.
This is what we are worth. A birth. A death. A resurrection. A throne. “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 22:1-5)
Once again, we will stand in the presence of God. It will be as Eden, only better and more complete. This is our great worth. This is the promise of Christmas. “Joy to the world, the Lord has come, let earth receive her King.” All is well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well, for on that night, darkness fell into the dawn of love’s light. Emmanuel has come. God is with us. He is born. Come, let us worship.