A Christmas Devotional from Pastor Jeff
“And 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 2:8-9
No children’s Christmas program is complete without its little band of gunnysack shepherds. Frightened by the angel’s sudden appearance, they marvel at the good news from the angel and rush to Bethlehem to see the Savior-King. When they leave the stage we hardly give them another thought.
In Christ’s day, shepherds stood on the bottom rung of the Palestinian social ladder. They shared the same unenviable status as tax collectors and dung sweepers. Only Luke mentions them.
The Mishnah, Judaism’s written record of the oral law, refers to shepherds in belittling terms. One passage describes them as “incompetent”; another says no one should ever feel obligated to rescue a shepherd who has fallen into a pit. Jewish Rabbinic writings indicate that even to buy wool, milk or a lamb from a shepherd was forbidden on the assumption that it would be stolen property.
Into this social context of religious snobbery and class prejudice, God’s Son appeared. How surprising and significant that God handpicked lowly, unpretentious shepherds to first hear the joyous news: “It’s a boy, and He’s the Messiah!” What an affront to the religious leaders who were so conspicuously absent from the divine mailing list.
Why did the announcement come to them at all? Why not to priests and kings? Who were they that they should be eyewitnesses of God’s glory and receive history’s greatest birth announcement? I have to admit that if it were left up to me, I would probably have chosen a different group to be the very first recipients of this message. I might have even sent the angels to Rome, to the very palace of Caesar himself. I mean from the world’s perspective, who better to carry message of a Savior to the entire world than the ruler of the most powerful nation in that world? But that is not how God chose to do things. In fact, God has never operated according to the conventions of human wisdom. The Apostle Paul makes this point clear in 1 Corinthians when he wrote, But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. – 1 Corinthians 1:27
The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. – Luke 2:20
I have read the Christmas story from the gospel of Luke just about every Christmas I can remember for the last 20+ years, but I don’t think that I have fully grasped the significance of this verse. The part of this verse that I want to call to your attention is really just a single word – it is the word “returned”.
Luke tells us that the shepherds returned, returned where? After visiting the Christ child and spreading the news about him the shepherds returned to being shepherds. They simply went back to the only life they knew, a life of tending sheep. They were shepherds before they met Christ, and apparently they remained shepherds after they met him as well. They didn’t write bestsellers about their angelic vision. They didn’t go on the first century talk show circuit and become rich and famous, in fact we don’t know any of their names or even how many of them there were. They simply returned to the hills around the Judean countryside and faded into history.
These shepherds did return to their ordinary lives, but there was something different about them. Notice that Luke tells us these shepherds “returned, glorifying and praising God.” They may have remained shepherds, but they were not the same! Their lives had been radically altered by the encounter they had with Christ. Those two simple words, praising & glorifying, signify a radical shift in their lives. There is no greater evidence of a transformed life than that it is lived in praise to God and focused on his glory.
Most of us (although we would not admit it) are focused on our own glory. We are consumed with ourselves, our desires, our concerns, our happiness (or lack of it), our future, our past, our dreams, our fears, etc. It is a sad and lonely existence to live for your own happiness and your own glory. To live for yourself is, in the words of Ecclesiastes, “a chasing after the wind” you can never quite catch it. The amazing paradox of the gospel message is that when you surrender your life to Christ and live for his glory and for the good of others, you find that your own life has meaning and joy in the process! The radical change that took place in the lives of those common shepherds, and in the heart of everyone who is transformed by the gospel, is that they were liberated from the tyranny of self!
C.S. Lewis called this concept the principle of First Things, he said, “You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first….Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.” But C.S. Lewis was merely echoing the Master’s teaching: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matt. 6:33)
There are many who will tell you that the promise of the gospel is a transformed life, they are right! But that transformation is not necessarily a change in your career, or your material wealth, or your earthly security. It is a transformation of your heart! When you come to Christ it is entirely likely that you will stay in the same job, the same bank account, the same marriage, the same town, and the same network of friendships, but you will not be the same!
I don’t know about you, but I find it oddly comforting to know that while these shepherds stayed shepherds, their lives were given in praise to God and concerned primarily with his glory! The simple point is that you do not have to change careers to glorify God. You do not have to move to the city, or the country or Africa, or anywhere else to live a life for his glory. You simply have to dedicate the life you are already in to him! Your everyday, ordinary, common existence can be for the glory of God!