It was Christmas 1984. The snow was flying and the roads slippery, but Rolane and I had paid $120 for four seats to take our daughters to the ‘Nutcracker’ in Seattle and nothing was going to stop us from enjoying the show. We crammed into our old VW and made the opening curtain. What great seats they were! Front row, first balcony – the kind of view reserved for royalty!
Every time I think of that special Christmas experience, my mind turns to the shepherds who were ‘abiding in the fields’ the night of Christ’s birth. If ever anyone had great seats, it was these men. Have you ever wondered why God chose to reveal such a wonder to common shepherds in an obscure field near a small town? Follow me through the narrative in Luke 2 and note what distinguished these men of long ago.
Shepherding enjoyed a blessed heritage when these men entered the profession. God was the first Shepherd (Genesis 48), and Jesus called Himself the Good Shepherd (John 10). Ideal leadership was epitomized in the shepherd’s call. The work was challenging, calling for the feeding, leading, guarding, rescuing and healing of the flock. And we know from the text that these shepherds were diligent in their calling as they were “staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). As with David almost 1000 years before in the same area, these shepherds’ faithfulness in their task was making it safe for the sheep to stretch out and sleep without fear of predator or thief. Perhaps their proven willingness to stay with their “ministry” marked them for the great privilege of being the first to hear the news of the birth of the Savior.
Of course, they probably did not realize the privilege right away, for the story goes that upon seeing and hearing from the angel of the Lord they “were terribly frightened” (Luke 2:9). Here were mortal sinners finding themselves in the presence of one of God’s holy messengers. They must have been overwhelmed with their own sense of neediness as they beheld the glory of the Lord. As Adam hid from God in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:20), these regular men trembled at the realization of being in the presence of a holy and righteous God.
But they learned that the cure for their fear and the neediness that spawned it was being given to them. “A good news of great joy” was the coming of a “Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). God had provided the needed remedy, and that upon his own initiation. Indeed, along with holiness and righteousness, God revealed himself as love.
After more declarations from the angel and a choir concert to rival any in history, the shepherds are left to respond. Full of faith, they say to one another ‘let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us’ (Luke 2:15). They come in haste (implying a rigorous search) and find Mary, Joseph, and the baby.
Faith was part of the lifestyle of these men. Living in a land between superpowers, often traversed and conquered, they struggled to feed and water their flocks in country that saw only 4-14 inches of rain per year. Men who would not hesitate to believe the word of the Lord, they joined the ranks of those listed in Hebrews 11 who illustrated the statement that “without faith it is impossible to please him, for he who comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him” (v. 6).
Lastly, upon seeing the Christ child “they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child” (Luke 2:17), all the while “glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them” (Luke 2:20). Being men generous and faithful in their witness, they demonstrated the true motivation behind gospel witness – the wonderful, matchless grace of God. How could they not share such good news! What manner of selfishness would keep such hope and joy from others!
In January of 1994 I stood on the top of the Herodium, one of Herod’s palaces near Bethlehem, and imagined what it must have been like that night long ago. Indeed, the field where the shepherds watched would have been very near to this palace. Every Christmas since I picture the scene and ponder these questions:
Am I being diligent in my calling? Whether in my ministry or personal relationships and responsibilities, is there the consistent exercise of the shepherd’s tasks of feeding, leading, guarding, rescuing and healing those put in my charge? If I want to be “where the action is” throughout my life, such diligence is crucial.
Am I overwhelmed with my own neediness? After some years of pastoral ministry, some people can become quite self-reliant. After all, we’ve done “such and such” so many times, it becomes automatic. We have studied so much in the Word, certainly we can handle life and its challenges ourselves. I have long contended that the sign of a well-educated person is humility. I think the same holds true of the spiritually mature. 1 Peter 5 would be a great chapter to re-read here. Our people need to see leadership that is purposeful towards godliness and does not forget the absolute helplessness we all face outside of God’s provision in Jesus Christ.
Am I full of faith? My grandparents trusted God – so did my parents. I enjoy a rich heritage of faith. If I am to be a blessing to others, I too will have to demonstrate a life that leans on the power, provision and guidance of the Lord.
Am I generous and faithful in my witness? Several years ago, mostly through a study of Romans and Ephesians, I came to believe strongly in a ministry based upon grace. Not one that soft-pedals sin, but one that celebrates the provision of God, once-for-all given, through no effort on my part. What a privilege to share with people the pure gospel – that Christ has done it all for us – that we live in a state of favor and forgiveness. How fulfilling to teach the word faithfully without adding or taking away from its message. Yet how challenging it is in this day to remain faithful to the truth!
May your Christmas season be an occasion to thank God for those Shepherds of Christmas. Let us seek faithfulness like theirs. Let us glorify and praise God with them forever and ever in those “good seats!”