Sunday, December 26, 2004

The Sabbath Essay - Learning from Shepherds

I've been doing some thinking about the shepherds in Luke 2, the ones the angel spoke to about the birth of the Messiah.

First of all I wondered, "Why shepherds?"

Of all the people to announce the birth of he long awaited Saviour of the universe to, why these 1st century social and religious outcasts? Then it stuck me - because that's who God comes to seek and save. "Not many of you were wise…"

But then as I looked at them I was struck by what a fantastic example these men set us. I felt rebuked because for 30 years I have skipped quickly over them. Here are some of the things I learnt from these hairy, gruff sheep-herders:

Always look to meet Jesus
Don't be satisfied with great religious experiences, go and look for Jesus. Imagine the shepherds heard the message and thought, "Wow that was great, an angel, a message from God!" But they didn't, they went to meet Jesus.

Often we can go to church and be really uplifted, by the praise, or just by meeting people, but we have been brought no closer to Christ. Or to look at it slightly differently, sometimes we can hear God's message from God's messenger, just like the shepherds heard it from the angel only we hear it from a minister, and we are satisfied with simply hearing. We don't go further and seek Jesus. Or more likely it happens when we open our Bibles each day to read God's word, and we hear the words of almighty God, but we don't take time to really meet with our Saviour to hear what he is really saying. We close our Bibles satisfied that we have heard the message. Another box ticked for the day.

Don't be conned by appearances - Listen to what God says
The shepherds were told that the long awaited promised Saviour of the world was here, the Lord, the Ruler of the universe. And they go to see this wondrous being that the whole world has been waiting for since Genesis 3. And what do they see? A small baby boy lying in a cattle trough, in a dark and smelly cave used for sheltering animals, much like many of the caves they sheltered in themselves. And it's in Bethlehem - a nothingness of a place.

We wouldn't have been surprised if they had burst into the cave, and then ground to a halt at the scene before them, and been deflated by it. It was incongruous. They were being told something staggering, yet what they saw was the very opposite. And yet these men of straightforward faith were not stumbled by the circumstances they found themselves in.

How often do we stumble at these things? We live in a very similar situation to these men. We are told many things that are staggering: that we are sons and daughters of Almighty God, that we are heirs and co-heirs with Christ, that we are on the winning side, that God never leaves us or forsakes us, that he hears our prayers, that he works all things together for good, that he is building his church, that the church is his great instrument for change in the world. But when we look at our own lives, or at the church, or we look at what is happening around us, we can feel a bit like the shepherds stumbling into the dark cave to see the master of the universe, and all we can see is a helpless infant in a cattle trough.

And we can doubt, and stumble over the contrast between what we hear, and what we see.

But the shepherds teach us this lesson. Listen to all that God says, not just he glorious promises that we love to hear.

What they saw was exactly how God had told them that it would be. v12 "This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

Here was the proof that that what they had heard was true: what you see will look nothing like the majesty you expect. God told them this, as well as the great news that the Saviour of the world had arrived.

That's how it is with us. God tells us that there will be opposition, that the road is narrow and few are on it, that we will be tested, that we will have trouble in this world, that we will be tempted, that the gates of Hell will seek to swamp the church, that we will be discouraged. So we shouldn't be surprised.

But we need to remember what God has told us. Like the shepherds, God has also told us to expect what we see. He tells us that how it will be.

Things are not always what they seem. The shepherds could so easily have gone away disappointed and discouraged. But they hung on to what God said - the very thing that will be likely to discourage you is a sign that all that I have said is true. The very things that are likely to discourage us, have been foretold by God, and are proof that what he says is true.

We need to listen to all of God's word. We have a tendency to maximise the bits that speak of victory and glory and minimise the sections that speak of faith strengthened through suffering and trial.

Do it now
The shepherds didn't hang about. They went straight to Bethlehem (v15). And they came in a hurry (v16).

Prompt obedience. They didn't seem to worry about the consequences. We don't read anything about anyone being left with the sheep.

So often we hold off obeying because we are worried about what will happen, and what will people say. We need to obey God, which is far more important, and the great thing is this - he will take care of all the other details.

Prompt obedience is the hallmark of the person who has heard God speak. What have you been putting off doing in terms of obedience?

Anyone can be an evangelist
Luke 2:17-18 "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."

As these men return to the fields they can't contain their joy. They tell everyone they see - Hey you'll never guess what - the Messiah he's here!

And they weren't expert evangelists, or well trained preachers. They were men who were more used to talking about hoofs, and fleeces, and footrot, and scrappie, and mastitis and rabies, and here they are talking about Jesus to all they meet.

And perhaps we say, "Yes, but something amazing happened to them, if something amazing happened to me, I'd be talking non-stop about it too." But something amazing has happened to you.

Have we done that in the last week, or month or year? Have we told anyone about the life, death, resurrection of the Saviour of the world, that they need to apologise to God, and ask him to turn their lives around, and give them a new strength to live for God and not against him.

We don't need to be experts. We just need to talk. And God does the rest.

When God's people speak about what God tells them, other believers are encouraged
v19 - Imagine the situation, the shepherds make their way into the cave, words bursting out of them about angels telling them about the Messiah. What a confirmation it must have been to Mary and Joseph. Think of the encouragement it must have been to their hearts to hear what God was doing. Is it any wonder we read in v19 that, "Mary treasured up these things in her heart". When we talk about what God is doing in our lives, other believers are strengthened and encouraged.

Real men worship wholeheartedly
v20 "The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told."

In v10-12 God sends an army of glorious heavenly beings to publish the good news, and to sing his praise. By v20, the angels have had their places taken, by the shepherds. What a privilege it is to be human. They appear briefly on the scene of time, we are given the lifelong task of doing it.

And there is no mention of mumbling or singing softly so that no-one else can hear. These big hairy brawny men sang their praise with gusto. Real men worship wholeheartedly, not caring who knows how much God means to them.

Praise God this Christmas. Stop think and meditate on what God has done for you. Worship him. Don't be like so many others who rush through life without stopped to praise God.

"Sorry, Lord, for passing over these men you had time for, and for thinking that they had nothing to teach me."

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