Burned into our memory is the fact that the shepherds saw the angels, went to Bethlehem and worshiped the baby Jesus. All the Nativity displays end that way, with the shepherds fixed in place. But in fact, Christmas day was the very beginning of the shepherds’ story, since they rushed right out and began to tell others what they had seen.
We read Luke’s gospel and see what the shepherds did – but what do we do to wrap up the Christmas season?
- We measure the diagonal on the wide-screen TVs,
- We rush out to spend our Christmas money.
- We Facebook our friends about going on diets to work off the eggnog.
- We return the gifts we didn’t like, plot to regift others in 2012, or wonder whether we should wait two years to regift, to make sure memories will have faded.
- We haul the tree to the curb, because they won’t let you burn it.
- We buy the discount wrapping paper and ribbon and store them away until next time.
The shepherds’ spiritual career began on Christmas. When I reread the story of the shepherds, a certain pattern leapt out at me, and so I used colored highlights to confirm it. The pattern is: the angels give the good news, and the shepherds go out to give the very same good news. And the gospel uses virtually the same language for both angels and shepherds –
First, the angel and then the angels told them a “word”, a message from the Lord (10, 15b, 20b)
the angel said to them – Luke 2:10
the Lord has made known to us – 2:15b
as it was told them – 2:20b
Using the same language, the shepherds spoke:
made widely known the saying (or message) which was told them concerning this Child – 2:17b
those things which were told them by the shepherds – 2:18
Second, the angels praised God and gave him glory:
there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” – 2:13-14
Using the same language (and the coincidence is as striking in English as it is in the original),
the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God – 2:19
Therefore, the angels give them a message from the Lord, and the shepherds tell the same message to other people. And notice that no-one had to tell the shepherds to do that, they knew that if they possessed this truth, the only natural response was to share it with others. This reminds us of the comment by Peter and John in Acts 4:20 – “For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” And the fact that Luke knew about the shepherds and that they shared what they knew means that, decades later, when he wrote his gospel, people will still talking about these shepherd evangelists even though the shepherds themselves were long gone.
I’m going to assume that you want to share what you know about Christ. In that case, today we will look at some points that lie just beneath the surface and find two applications for ourselves:
I. We should pass on the entire gospel message, not just parts of it
The angels and later the shepherds proclaimed Christ, not just a generic message of “peace and goodwill to all.” “Peace and goodwill” is an excellent idea, and one which everyone should honor. But on the first Christmas and beyond, they announced Christ, through whom God gives peace and goodwill. The shepherds shared that message, because that’s what they had gotten from the angels.
The gospel is not a game of Jenga; you can’t pull out parts of it to see if it will remain standing. You have to take it
as God gave it to us, or else it’s not God’s word.
For Christmas this year, I made a baked pudding, like a custard, that Shogrens have eaten for probably the last hundred Christmases. Since there were a lot of Shogrens around the table, I made a triple recipe, meaning I had to whisk up 15 eggs plus some other ingredients and then bake it. So here I am, adding one egg after another, targeting and destroying 15 yolks and mixing and mixing. When it’s all baked, and I serve it up, what kind of nonsense would it be for me to say, “I personally feel that the important ingredient was egg #11, that’s the key, so I’m just going to search out and eat that.” The gospel is the same way, you take it or leave it, but don’t try to break off pieces and use them as free-ranging truths.
But that’s precisely what I hear people saying. For example, this idea that the real point of Christianity is “love your neighbor as yourself” – many people honor that truth, but they typically don’t practice it. Since Jesus said it was the second greatest commandment it is of high importance. But how will you love your neighbor, if you don’t love God with your whole being, which is the first commandment? And how will you love God, if you don’t have the Spirit? And how will you have the Spirit if he hadn’t come on Pentecost? And how can the Spirit come, if Christ did not send him? And how could Christ send him if he hadn’t rose from the grave and ascended to God’s right hand? And how could Christ rise if he did not die for me? And how could he die, if he were not born as a human being?
In the same way, the gospel is peace and goodwill, but that truth only works when it’s integrated together with all the other parts. The shepherds knew this, and so they shared the whole truth. If we’re going to share the gospel truthfully, we have to mention the unpopular parts as well as the popular ones.