8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.
Dear Friends in Christ,
I would imagine that most, if not all of us here this evening were taught from early childhood on that it’s not polite to interrupt people. For example, if someone is talking, your job is to listen and refrain from talking until they’re finished. Or kids, if your mom or dad is taking a nap, your job is to be quiet and to stay out of trouble until they awaken. If your boss is involved in an important meeting and you want to tell him about the great weekend you had, you don’t barge into that meeting and begin to expound upon all that happened. Rather, the polite thing to do is to wait until the meeting is over and then tell him what’s on your heart, provided he has the time to listen.
Some interruptions, however, are necessary. For example, if your boss is in that important meeting and a fire breaks out in the building, it would be a good thing, the right thing to barge into that room and tell everyone to head for safety. Or kids, if your mom and dad are taking a nap and the sky turns an ominous black color and you maybe even spot a funnel cloud, then yes, by all means, interrupt their sleep.
Well, if you are a student of Scripture, then you know that God had a real knack, a real habit of interrupting peoples’ lives, not in an impolite way, but always for a good reason. For example, he interrupted Abraham’s comfortable life and moved him to a place he’d never been before so that he could use him to become the father of the Jewish nation. He interrupted Joseph’s life in the Old Testament when he was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, but through Joseph and that interruption God was able to save the world from starvation years later. He interrupted the retirement years of an 80-year-old sheepherder named Moses and used him to deliver his people from slavery in Egypt. And in our text for this evening we see God interrupting a dull and ordinary night of some other shepherds who were tending their flocks outside the village of Bethlehem. So let’s spend some time on this Christmas Eve examining this greatest of all interruptions when the perfect Creator of the universe entered our imperfect world and became one of us.
And the first of two points that I want to make is that Jesus comes in surprising ways. Our text begins by saying: “There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” We know so little about these shepherds. We don’t know their names. We don’t know how many of them there were. We don’t know whether they had families. All we know is that they were in charge of watching sheep. And I think we can safely assume that they were expecting no surprises. For what could be more predictable and I might add what could be more boring than watching sheep sleep. These were night shift shepherds and night shift shepherds watched sheep sleep. Try saying that a bunch of times in a row! The goal of the night shift shepherd was to be able to go home to his wife, if he had one, and say, “Nothing happened last night.” For if anything did happen, if there were any interruptions, they were probably negative in nature – poachers, lions, predators – those are the kinds of things that would interrupt the nights of sleeping sheep. So the shepherds were very hopeful and very content to have no interruptions.
And some of you here this evening are grazing in the same pasture, aren’t you? You’d be perfectly content if life brought you no more interruptions or surprises. You’re at a stage in your life where you’ve got things pretty well right where you want them. All your ducks are in a row. The house is fixed up the way you like it. Your job, though not perfect, is going along fine and earning you a decent living. The kids are raised and you’re enjoying the grandkids now. Retirement is not that far away at which time you’re hoping to do some traveling. And the last thing you want is for anything to spoil or interrupt your nice little life.
But you know what? Sometimes God has different plans for us. Isaiah 55 says that his thoughts are not always our thoughts and his ways are not always our ways. So when we find ourselves sinking down deep into the Lazy Boy of life, we need to be careful that we don’t get too comfortable because at any time our Heavenly Father who loves us and cares for us more than we can imagine and certainly more than we deserve may say, “I’m sorry, but I need to interrupt your cozy little life.” And the doctor may say “Surgery.” Or your boss may say “Transfer.” Or the test might say “Pregnant.” And when those interruptions happen, we can respond in one of two ways. We can get angry and turn away from God or we can grow attentive and look up to God.
The latter is what the shepherds did. Now granted, their initial reaction to the angel’s appearance was one of fear. And who could really blame them? I mean, it’s not every day that a mighty, majestic angel from heaven appears to you. But once God had their full and undivided attention that fear was quickly replaced by faith as they listened to what the angel had to say, which takes us to the 2nd point of this sermon. Not only does Jesus come in surprising ways (and by the way, one of the most surprising ways he comes we’ll be enjoying later on in this service when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper for there he comes to us under the forms of bread and wine and gives us himself together with all the blessings he earned for us), but he also comes with a joyful message. Note the angel’s announcement to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”
You know, most of us have heard that so many times that it’s possible it’s lost some of its punch. Oh how I wish that we could pretend as though we were hearing it for the first time tonight, just like those shepherds, because there are 3 titles used for Jesus here that must have gladdened their hearts like nothing else had ever done before. Notice, Jesus is called “Savior,” “Christ,” and “Lord.” The shepherds knew they needed a Savior because they were almost like outcasts in Jewish society, very low on the social scale. They were dirty, smelly, and considered to be very sinful. So they needed a Savior to rescue them from the muck and mire of their sin. But this wasn’t just any Savior. This was Christ the Lord. The word “Christ” means Messiah or Anointed One. This is the One the Jews had been waiting for all those centuries, the One that God had promised already to Adam and Eve, the One who would crush the head of the serpent, the One whom Isaiah had foretold would be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. And he wasn’t just the Messiah, he was the Lord. The Greek word that is used here is kurios and it is the equivalent of the Hebrew name for God which was Yahweh. So the joyful message that the shepherds heard that night was that God himself had come to earth as the long-awaited Messiah to save his people from their sins.
But please note, the angel didn’t just announce the birth of the Savior to the shepherds, it also told them where and how they could find that Savior. Verse 12 says: “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” So we go from Savior, Christ, and Lord – these highly exalted titles for Jesus – to baby wrapped in cloths, or barnyard rags, and lying in a manger, a feed trough out of which the animals ate. Do you sense a disconnect there, my friends? Does something seem a bit out of place? That’s not where you would expect to find the Messiah born. Maybe a palace, maybe the temple in Jerusalem, but a barn? Yet there’s a message here for us, a message that must have brightened that dark night for those lowly shepherds. For the fact that Jesus was born in a barn or a stable or a cave, whatever it was, let them and us know that there is no place he will not go to reach his people.
I wonder how many of you here this evening would describe your life right now as messy. Maybe your marriage is messed up. Maybe your relationship with your kids or your parents is a mess. In fact, you may have even argued before you came tonight and you’re sitting there steaming and stewing even as I speak. Well, Jesus came into a messy stable to be born. So you can be sure that he’ll come into your messy world to help you.
I wonder if there’s anyone here tonight who would describe their world as dark – dark with doubt, dark with disease, dark with depression or fear or worry or confusion or grief. Is there any place darker than a womb? Jesus spent 9 months in that dark place, so you can be sure that he has no qualms about coming into your dark world whenever you need him.
I wonder if there’s anyone here tonight who has problems. That stable was not problem-free, was it? I’m sure that Mary and Joseph were not as prepared as they would have liked to have been. And one has to wonder, did Mary have any help with the delivery? Were they able to secure the services of a midwife? Or was Jesus delivered by the clumsy and callused hands of a Nazarene carpenter? Were there any blankets to keep the baby warm aside from the swaddling clothes that Luke tells us about? Jesus was born into a world of problems, wasn’t he? So again, you can be sure that he has no problem coming into your world of problems and meeting you there.
Think of the shepherds again. When they heard that the Savior was in a stable surrounded by animals, they must have thought: “We can go there!” Had he been born in the temple or a palace, there was no way they would have gotten in. No wonder they were so excited. No wonder they were so joyful. No wonder they did what our text says and went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in that manger the angel had told them about. And no wonder they told everyone they met all about the incredible things that had happened to them that night.
So when God interrupted those night shift shepherds in a most surprising way with that joyful message that we’ve just looked at, he got their attention, didn’t he? My question, as I draw this sermon to a close, is this: Has he gotten your attention, especially this year? The world has certainly seen its share of interruptions, hasn’t it? Floods, forest fires, tornadoes, terrorist attacks. In fact, this year we marked the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I remember after those attacks took place, churches across our land were filled to overflowing the next few Sundays, including ours. Now you probably know what question I’m about to ask. What happened to them? Where are all those people today? Statistics reveal that in less than a month church attendance had dropped to levels lower than they were before the attacks.
How sad! But it’s an indication that sometimes we sinful human beings have a very short memory, which is all the more reason why we so desperately need the Savior whose birth we celebrate tonight. So if it’s been a while since you’ve knelt at the manger bed of that Savior and worshiped him with all of your heart or if you look upon this night as the one night of the year that you do your “religious duty,” I hope you’ll think differently about that. I hope that you’ll heed the warnings and interruptions that God keeps sending our way to get our attention so that you might come to know in a truly personal way that precious Savior who once enjoyed the worship and adoration of angels, but who gave all that up so that he could not only be laid upon the wood of the manger, but also be nailed to the wood of the cross in order that you and I could know the indescribable and incomprehensible joy of one day spending eternal life with him.