July 11, 2020

Another Look: The First To Hear

This is another look at a post first published here last December. It is the story of the first ones to hear the announcement that the Messiah had been born and placed in a manger. It’s a great reminder to us all that losers are welcomed by our Lord.

8 That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. 9 Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11The Savior. yes, the Messiah, the Lord has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others. the armies of heaven, praising God and saying,

14 Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.

15 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. 17 After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. 18 All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, 19 but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. 20The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them. (Luke 2: 8-20 NLT)

We love to romanticize the role of the shepherds at Christmas. We make them handsome and rugged and virtuous. Obviously they must be godly and good, because the angel gave them the birth announcement of Jesus. Right? Plus, they get prime spots in the crèche—so they have to be righteous, right?

Wrong.

Shepherds at the time of Jesus were at the bottom of society’s list of acceptable people, barely above lepers. Some shepherds were the owners of the sheep they tended, and cared well for their flock, for that was their only source of income. But most shepherds were hired hands tasked with herding the sheep from pasture to pasture, tending to their wounds, birthing the lambs, and chasing away predators. These hirelings often had a higher sense of their own value than they did for their flocks. And they also saw themselves as overworked and underpaid. It’s surprising how often a ewe or ram would come up missing just before a shepherd had a little extra jingle in his pocket. Shepherds and thieves were thought to be one and the same—and often were.

Whether they were honest or dishonest, all shepherds had one thing in common: They were filthy. Living out of doors 24/7 does not exactly allow one to keep the best personal hygiene. Shepherds smelled like sheep and all that goes with sheep. They were not only dirty, they were ritually unclean as well, having touched blood, feces and insects on a daily basis, disqualifiing them from any part of religious circles.

Shepherds, as you might gather, were not often invited to dinner parties or weddings. They didn’t attend PTA meetings or get tickets to the latest play. There were no parachurch ministries to shepherds. As far as the religious leaders were concerned, they were non-people. They were outcasts from society. Losers with a capital “L.”

And, thus, they were the perfect ones to hear of the Messiah’s birth. Think about it. They weren’t too busy on the night Jesus was born. The angel knew right where he could find them. And they weren’t so smart that they had to mull over what the angel told them for several weeks, checking sources and verifying credentials before they would respond. They simply believed and went to see for themselves. Would you or I have done the same?

So, Jesus is just a few hours old and we have some very important things playing out here that are easy to miss if we only think of the shepherds as handsome, godly men with sticks who look good in a nativity scene.

  • Ritually unclean men are the first to bow down to the Messiah. The Old Covenant did not end when Jesus died on the cross. It ended the moment he was born. The formalities one had to go through to enter into the presence of God were now history. Jesus accepts those who are not perfect, who don’t line up with religious ideals. These shepherds had not performed the cleansing sacrifices, made atonement for their sins, or become ritually pure. They ran from the fields and, in their unclean, impure state, proclaimed to all what the angel had told them. They shouted for all to hear that this baby was someone special. And the baby accepted them as they were.
  • The shepherds were losers, rejects, outcasts. There were none of society’s winners in the cave where Jesus was born amid the blood and straw and dung. Losers greeted Jesus, who grew to become the King of Losers. Jesus did not come for winners. As Robert Capon writes in The Parables of Grace, “He has all of our messes fixed in Jesus–right now, even before we make them. All we have to do is trust his assurance that losers are his cup of tea. In fact, it’s precisely our attempts to be winners that he warns us about: ‘He who saves his life will lose it; he who loses his life for my sake and the Gospel’s will save it.’”
  • These shepherds were not scholars. They weren’t sought-after speakers. They had very little interaction with others at all. After they visited with the Holy Family and shared what had been told them by the angel, they went back to their flocks. They didn’t go on a speaking tour. They didn’t sign a multiple-book deal with a New York house complete with a movie option. They just simply believed and went back to work. So often after Jesus would heal a person, he admonished them not to tell anyone. It seems he initiated his stealth campaign at his birth.
  • Of course it had to be shepherds who first came to Jesus. Who else would be present at the birth of a lamb, especially the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world?

Things have not changed since that night more than 2000 years ago. Jesus still accepts us as we are, without religious performances. He welcomes the lost, the least, the little, the fragile, the broken, the used, the discarded. And he is not looking for shooting stars, but rather those willing to be lights right where they are. He is the Lamb of God, come into our world to set things right between man and God. So if you are unclean, a misfit, or a loser, guess what. I have good news for you …

 

 


Comments

  1. “Things have not changed since that night more than 2000 years ago. Jesus still accepts us as we are, without religious performances. He welcomes the lost, the least, the little, the fragile, the broken, the used, the discarded. And he is not looking for shooting stars, but rather those willing to be lights right where they are. He is the Lamb of God, come into our world to set things right between man and God. So if you are unclean, a misfit, or a loser, guess what. I have good news for you …”

    Awesome, Jeff!

    That’s the gospel, loud and clear!

  2. Good stuff.

    Bit of a beef though: Jesus pointed out that He didn’t come to erase the Old Covenant, but to fulfill it.

    One example. By being made flesh, God had made it so that He could be ritually unclean. The idea of an unclean God boggles the mind… until we notice how everything Jesus touches becomes clean. The point of ritual cleanliness was that we needed to be made pure before we could encounter a holy God. But once God came near, yes we still needed to be holy, but He makes us so by His grace, and not by ritual washing. Jesus fulfills that ritual in His own person.

    If the Old Covenant ends, it means the Law has been null and void for the past 20 centuries, and we never sinned against it. So there’s nothing for God to pardon and Jesus to die for. Clearly fulfillment can’t work that way.

    It is because the Old Covenant exists that the New Covenant of God’s grace becomes necessary, where we die to sin and the Law and live in Christ.

    • That’s fantastic K.W. I love comparison/contrast pictures of how Jesus changes things, how he is “the true and better…” , a la Tim Keller. The contrast of the ritually unclean God vs. the God who makes all things clean and how incarnation makes that possible in new ways…that’s poetic. Thanks.

    • The writer of Hebrews says the Old Covenant is “obsolete and outdated will soon disappear”. It doesn’t sound like something that has any power over anyone today.

      In any case, it was only the Jewish people who were given the law, not humanity at large. The purpose of the Law wasn’t to prove that people were sinners, it was was given as a restraining force and a teacher until Jesus came. Hence when He came, it was no longer necessary.

      Personally, I think the paradigm of viewing the Gospel through the legal concepts of Law and Grace, while somewhat helpful, can tend to skew the perspective of the whole thing a bit. I think looking at the Gospel as the story of our rebellion, separation and reconciliation with God fits in with the over-arching narrative of Scripture a bit better.

      • Obsolete, outdated, and will soon disappear–but in the same sense that this world is passing away. The Kingdom of God is emerging into this world as God makes all things new.

        But in the already-but-not-yet, we still have to deal with the Law and its ramifications. God uses it, like you said, to teach us until Jesus came. But Jesus taught us to obey the Law. So either there’s a contradiction in scripture, or our insistence on antinomianism is a misinterpretation. That’s where I hang my hat.

        • Well, obsolete seems pretty cut and dry to me. It means out of date, no longer useful, etc. The Law, in the sense of the Old Covenant holds no power over anyone any longer. That doesn’t mean Christians are without any law at all, though. The Law of Christ is our standard now, not the Torah. Even the earliest Christians recognized they were no longer bound to the Torah. The continued to observe certain parts of it in order to keep peace with Jewish Christians, but by in large, they were not bound by it.

          It’s not the Law that convicts people of sin at the present. It’s the Holy Spirit.

  3. I remember back in the early 80s a Channel 4 tv version of The Mysteries, an adaptation of mediaeval mystery plays mainly from the Wakefield Cycle, and one of them was a version of The Second Shepherd’s Play.

    As you say, rough and tumble, and no illusions about saintly men beholding angels. Lots of jokes about the North/South divide and earthy language, but very funny (and also very moving, as was then entire cycle; the adaptation of the story of Abraham and Isaac had God the Father coming on at the end explaining to the audience that although He had spared Abraham’s son, “Mine own son I will not spare” and that has made more sense of the whole story for me than anything else ever did). Synopsis from Wikipedia:

    “The play is actually two separate stories presented sequentially; the first is a non-biblical story about a thief, Mak, who steals a sheep from three shepherds. He and his wife, Gill, attempt to deceive the shepherds by pretending the sheep is their son. The shepherds are fooled at first. However, they later discover Mak’s deception.

    At this point, the storyline switches to the familiar one of the three shepherds being told of the birth of Christ by an angel, and being told to go to Bethlehem, where they offer gifts to the Christ child.”

  4. Rebekah Grace says

    This loser is grateful!

  5. Probably one of the BEST devotionals I have read in many years.

    Certainly among the best explaining what the Good News, what has come to be called the Gospel, is all about.

    If more of “us” understood what you have shared with us, if we got the point, “we” could never utter the words “War on Christmas” again!

  6. Interesting context for my reading of this text. Just two days ago, my brother Jerry asked my about a well worn cliche “GOD can’t stand to dwell in the presence of sin….” and we talked about some sermon points that went with that. Turns out HE can and HE did. More to the point , HE still does. THANK YOU JESUS !!

    Great Christmas, and year long , message. The peace of the KING be on you, JeffD, and your entire family this Christmas.

    GregR

    • Rebekah Grace says

      I like your take Greg…..so often it seems that phrase “God can’t stand to dwell in the presence of sin.” Or “won’t dwell”…..is our humanity, our flesh, our pride, wanting to judge, be prejudiced against and separate ourselves from the very people Jesus came to save…..the lost!

      Some of the Christians I’ve known in my lifetime did a lousy job of reflecting the very message I have been learning (and re-learning, or unlearning)……if God didn’t want to have anything to do with sinners…..then why Jesus? I’d like to ask some folks that actually…..people who claim to be believers, with their seperatist attitude, their pious, holier-than-thou take on the whole thing….”then why Jesus”?…….If God had had the attiude that many believers have had………we’d be sunk!

    • It’s more the other way around – sin can’t stand to dwell in the presence of God. That is why Hell exists; not that God dumps sinners into hell, but that the sin-soaked flee there from the burning presence of absolute purity and fiery love, since it is pain to be in that presence whilst out of His friendship.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Jerry asked my about a well worn cliche “GOD can’t stand to dwell in the presence of sin….”

      A more forceful version was in a booklet called The Calvary Road, a crazy-making devotional popular among local Fundagelicals in the Seventies:

      “…and GOD HATES SIN WITH SUCH A PERFECT HATRED…” followed by how God will NOT allow anything even remotely touched by SIN in His presence. (All Caps was in the original, not by me.)

      As I said, that book was crazy-making.

      • Ok, this is sort of off-topic. But your comment reminds me of a question. Does anyone knows offhand of a Catholic response/reflection on “God can’t dwell in the presence of sin” line of thought? I have a pastoral reason for asking: I think those of us who are familiar with the extreme perfectionism that flourishes within strains of fundamentalism and the holiness movement sometimes back-track to classic Reformation ideas to escape the extreme anxiety or negativity caused by that mindset.

        This same person later gets to reading Catholic theology, with the emphasis on being pure before God’s burning fire or the quest for sainthood, and they tend to think they are encountering the same demand again: God’s loves you, but God demands purity, so you need to mortify the self/seek greater union in the following ways. Then they read about asceticism, the virtues of chastity, and platonic reflections on pure forms over fallen matter. And their modern minds turn to jello.

        This question is not really a Protestant/Catholic one, it is a broader question about how to set God’s acceptance of the sinner in this moment properly alongside God’s intention to sanctify the believer and redeem the created order. One has to get one’s mind on both concepts at the same time, without trivializing either one idea or the other.

        But I am always curious to hear how people in particular traditions wrangle with this dilemma, esp. in a pastoral context. The long explanations are always in the systematic theology, but the devotional element tends to be what matters on the ground.

  7. I’m trying to remember the name – it escapes me for the present – of a church I read an article about some years back. At the back of the church one morning was a tramp. Dirty hat, dirty beard, dirty cough. As the congregation uneasily tried to avoid getting too close to him, he got up and walked to the lectern. Taking off his fake beard, standing up straight and putting on his fussy little glasses, they beheld the face of their vicar – his sermon on the Beatitudes went down with more than usually well.

    • David Cornwell says

      Good story. We all would do well to examine our reactions to certain people we encounter in everyday life. In can be the grocery, on the street, or sometimes even next door.

  8. No, not one is perfect, yet HE loves us all. Lord, help my unbelief.

  9. Wonderful and insightful!

  10. On the bus to work the other morning I talked a bit with two recovering drug addicts not long out of prison, both of whom had discovered Jesus and his Kingdom. They were not educated, not sophisticated, not particularly discerning (one had taken literature and talked at length with Jehovah’s Witnesses at the bus stop), but it was clear they believed in and trusted the same Jesus that I do, and probably better than I do most of the time. We all need the Savior, but we sometimes don’t see this clearly until we, like the shepherds, are stripped of all the things that threaten to usurp Him.

    I didn’t really consciously connect my recent experience with Christmas until this post. Thanks for the reminder.

  11. I liked it last year. I like it this year. The outside me seems to struggle more and more with connecting with the Jesus shape Michael sought after.
    But the inside is driven by this to let Him be in me what others see.
    “He welcomes the lost, the least, the little, the fragile, the broken, the used, the discarded.” Okay, that means me

  12. According to the Book of Revelation (which of course one must take literally, or face hellfire), Jesus married a sheep.

    So whenever you see one of those kitchy Jesus pictures where Jesus holds a lamb in his arms, imagine him saying “Mom, Dad…this is Becky.”

  13. This was great Jeff, and all the comments were great, some I am a little slow on understanding. Here comes the but. I only know one thing for sure, He Loves Me no matter what. Have a blessed Christmas.

  14. Jeff….

    Are you telling me that the “First to Hear” didn’t think culture war at the birth of Jesus?

    No plotting or schemeing of electing conservative religious fundagelicals to change abortion or pornography laws? No praying for the deaths of US Supreme Court justices? No plans for a Young Earth Creation Musuem? No plans for a Prop 8 and to define a marriage and have the official blessing of the state?
    No plans top declare war on Scientists and their work on biology?

    You mean to tell me none of that was important to thsoe who first heard?