Wednesday 29 December 2010

Nobody (Luke 2:8-20)

Who do you think you are?
Who do you think you are? What do you think about yourself?

Do you have a Facebook page… Where you post photos, comments, videos? I guess you can tell a lot about a person just by looking at their Facebook profile. Their likes, their dislikes; where they’ve been; what they have done.

Yet Facebook is really about what others think about you. Or what you want other people to think about you. “Look at me! Look at what I’ve done!”

But what happens when there’s no one looking? When it’s just you; and your thoughts; you’re lying on your bed before you sleep: What do you really think about yourself?

I’m awesome! Oh, things are not perfect – but I’m doing OK!”
Some of us might think that way.

Others might say, “Nothing ever seems to work out. I feel like such a loser!
Some people think that way too.

Today we’re going to meet three different people in this story about Christmas. It’s taken from Luke’s gospel, who records the historical event of the birth of Jesus Christ. And we’re going to ask each of them the same question, “Who do you think you are?”

1. The shepherds

And the first group we meet are the shepherds.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. (Verse 8)

Luke, the storyteller tells us – five times – these men are shepherds. The shepherds did this. The shepherds said that. The shepherds went here and there. He keeps reminding us of their job. These men are shepherds.

In fact, this whole account of the birth of Jesus Christ focuses not so much on Jesus, but on these few humble shepherds hearing the news and discovering the baby.

Which is unusual: when you consider we never hear a word about them ever again after this. They appear. Then they disappear. What is so special about these shepherds?

Two things we need to know about shepherds in the bible.

Firstly, shepherds were weirdos.

When you meet someone new, you might introduce your name; you’ll say where you are from. Then eventually you’ll tell them what you do. “I’m a student.” “I’m a doctor.”

So much of who we are is defined by what we do. Our job. The thing we spent years training at university to do. The profession that pays the bills.

Which is great if you have a respectable job. Doctor. Architect. Computer programmer. OK, maybe not programmer. But you get what I mean.

If you met shepherds 2000 years ago, they wouldn’t have wanted you to know what they did for a living. You see, some of us are kinda embarrassed about our jobs. Some jobs aren’t as respected as others.

It doesn’t mean they aren’t as important. Often times, those are the jobs that really matter and are harder to get done.

Shepherding was a dirty, smelly job that involved looking after dirty, smelly sheep. But what made it worse was this: shepherds were unclean. There were rules in their religion which said, if you touched a dead animal, you can’t come to church. You can’t join the whole community to worship God. And every day these shepherds would have to handle dead animals. They had to slaughter the sheep for meat. It means when they turned up in church, their friends would have said, “Yucks! It’s that shepherd. Let’s stay away from him.”

Some of the bible experts say that ironically, since these shepherds were living so close to Jerusalem, they were raising the sheep to be used in the sacrifices at the temple. And yet, these shepherds, themselves, wouldn’t have been welcome at that same temple.

The same experts tell us that shepherds often lived out by themselves. They slept under the stars with the sheep and kept away from town. People didn’t trust you if you were a shepherd. In fact, your testimony wasn’t even admissible in a court of law.

So these shepherds were weird. At least that’s what people thought of them. Outcasts, they were considered unclean and untrustworthy.

And yet secondly, shepherds have always played an important role in the history of Israel.

Moses was a shepherd. So was great King David. These leaders spent significant years in their lives working as humble shepherds and God used those years to mould them into individuals he would use for his purposes.

If you remember back to Genesis: Jacob and his sons were introduced as shepherds to Pharoah. That characterized the entire nation of Israel for generations to come. The people of God was a community of shepherds: wandering in the wilderness, living nomadic lives and tending to their flocks.

So much so, that its leaders would be called shepherds with responsibility over the nation as sheep.
Whenever their leaders led them astray, God would rebuke them as bad shepherds. In Jeremiah 23, the LORD, the God of Israel promises he will gather the remnant of his scattered flock and place them under the care of good shepherds.

It is no wonder that Jesus is called the Chief Shepherd in 1 Peter 5, and elders or pastors in the church are serving as under-shepherds.

But let’s get back to the shepherds in the Christmas story because something amazing happens to them in verse 9 onwards:

An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
But the angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”

An angel appears to them and says, “There is this great big important news – news that will bring happiness to everyone everywhere! And you know what? God has sent me to you!” The angel says that to the shepherds.

Now get this. God is sending this important message to the entire world. And who does God call? BBC News? Nope. The Prime Minister – “David Cameron, God is on line 1 – he says he’s got important information for the country.” Nope.

God doesn’t even send this angel to the pastor in your local church. (Though it’s curious to note that that “pastor” comes from the Latin word for “shepherd”. Cool, huh!)

But what God does is look down on the entire planet. And he sees these few shepherds, working the night shift. Everyone else is at home, cuddled up in warm blankets; they’re watching TV; surfing the internet. These guys are still working.

And God tells the angel – “Go over there. Tell them the news.”

Notice again the emphasis of who the angel speaks to in verse 10:

“I bring you…  good news of great joy”
“Today … a Saviour has been born to
And then he says in verse 12:
“This will be a sign to you…. you will find a baby… in a manger”

Out of everyone in the world, the angels is sent to these few humble shepherds! He says to them, “God has sent me to you!”

Now, imagine I had these shepherds right here with me today. I’m interviewing them, and I ask them this one simple question.
“Who do you think you are?”

I think they would have said, “We’re nobody!”

“There’s nothing special about us. We’re just shepherds. No-one respects us, no one really likes us even!”

But then I think they would also have said, “But God… God did something amazing in our lives. He spoke to us and told us this amazing good news!”

Now where do I get that from the text? I know this because of verse 15. The angels have left, and these curious shepherds say to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing… which the Lord told us about.”

Then drop your eyes down to verse 17. After they make that journey to Bethlehem, and they meet Mary, Joseph and the baby, then see how Luke describes their response in verse 17. “They spread the word concerning what had been told them… about this child”.

And finally look at verse 20. They’ve seen the angels and they’ve seen the baby. But they are finally rejoicing in verse 20. Why are they rejoicing? “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were … just as they had been told.”

Is it because of the vision from heaven? Was it even because they saw Jesus with their own eyes. Not exactly. Instead, the reason Luke gives us for their excitement, and their joy and their praise towards God was simply this – it was the good news!

Seeing the baby confirmed that the good news, the message they had heard from God was true. That was what transformed their fear to joy. It was the good news!

These shepherds are nobodies, but they have been transformed by God who has chosen them, out of everybody else in the world, to receive this special good news about Christmas.

But what is this message?

2. The angels

To answer that, we need hear what the angel says.

Verse 9:
An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

People today are often confused why these shepherds would be terrified of seeing an angel. That’s because they have friends named Angel, and it’s usually a girl who sweet, petite and flash cute two-finger peace-signs whenever their photos are taken.

So it’s hard to understand why in verse 9, these shepherds are afraid, terrified – if what they saw was essentially Tinkerbell floating in front of them.

Get this: In the Old Testament, when an angel made an appearance – it was more like the opening scene from Terminator. Think: Chaos, destruction, End of the world scenario. Arnold Schwarzenegger appearing on-scene; all muscles and attitude and grunting in an Austrian accent, “I’m awn Awwngewll!”

I say this because in verse 13 – Verse 13, where it says “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel.” And that term “heavenly host” is used in the bible to describe armies, battalions of military men.

This is God’s A-Team – God’s Angelic Team. (BA Baracus: “I pity the fool… who says there is no God”).

And the picture is of God releasing his armies of war, filling the skies, descending upon these few humble shepherds. No wonder it says they were terrified. They were scared out of their wits. They must be thinking it’s the final day of judgement!

Only what they hear next is… singing. Singing!

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth? Peace to men.(Verse 14)

These angels are singing about peace! (Granted some might find the image of Arnie singing Christmas carols even scarier!)

Now imagine I had with me, one of these angels, and I asked the angel this question, “Who do you think you are?”

The angel might answer, “I’m a servant of God! I stand in his holy presence!”

He might say that. Indeed we find similar responses in Luke Chapter 1.

But actually we know from Luke Chapter 2 that what the angel would probably say is: “I serve God, but I’ve now come to serve you.”

Verse 10: Do not be afraid. (Why?) I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.

Now notice that. This important news. This great news is not good news for angels. It is good news for people. It’s news for us.

Verse 14: Glory to God in the highest. And on earth? Peace to men…. On whom his favour rests.
God has chosen to make peace with men! He has chosen to show us his favour. To show us his love!

In fact, I wonder if this angel might even say: I’m a nobody!
… Compared to you shepherds. Because God has sent me to you… tell you just how special you are.

I hope you’re amazed, because this is frankly amazing news. But it should make us wonder still: what is this good news?
This good news:
  • That humbles the mighty angel
  • And exalts the humble shepherd

OK, OK, I’ll get to that soon. But finally, we need to look at one other person. And her name is Mary.

3. Mary

Verse 19:
But Mary treasured up all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

Mary has a totally different response. Compared to the angels; compared to the shepherds.

You see the shepherds, they were excited and joyful. And they were saying, “I’ve got to tell you these amazing things that God is going to do. And the angels… wow, those angels, they said we would find a baby. And here you are!!”

And Mary’s going, “Yeah, I know there’s a baby. I was there.”

Now, I’m not saying that Mary wasn’t joyful. But compared to the shepherds, she’s had a whole different evening. She and Joseph were poor and on top of being pregnant, they had just been travelling a long distance from Nazareth.

Then suddenly the baby decides to come, and there’s no place in the hotel to have the baby. So instead, Mary gives birth behind the rubbish bins. They have to use a manger. A manger is where they keep animals – horses, goats, sheep. It’s smelly, it’s dirty. It’s dangerous.

So, when it says that Mary “pondered these things in her heart”, what she’s doing is: she’s thinking. She thinking about those words back in verse 11 “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

And she’s looking at this baby, whom they’ve had to wrap in cloths… just whatever they could rip apart from their clothing to clean off the blood and fluids. She’s looking at Jesus as saying to herself,
“This is the Christ”. The Christ was God’s chosen King they had been waiting hundreds and hundreds of years for.

This is the Lord. Lord was a way the bible referred to the God of the bible. We’ve seen it a couple of times in today’s passage: the glory of the Lord, the angel of the Lord. It’s talking about this God who created the universe, this God of Israel, this God of holiness and righteousness. And now Mary hears the news: this baby – He is Lord!

It’s overwhelming news! So she ponders it in her heart, she thinks about what it all means in the quietness of her soul.

Some people are like Mary. They need time to process. The shepherds, they get it immediately, and that’s fantastic. They’re joyful; they’re excited and they’re genuinely so.

But others hear the Christmas message – maybe that’s you today – you hear these words and you know there’s so much there you need to go away think about. Let me just say, that’s a good thing, friends.

Friends, when this party is all over and you go back home – that’s when it really matters what you think. Not right now, when you have turkey and friends and presents and lights, when I’m speaking at you, and we’re listening to Christmas carols beautifully sung – not right now, but later: when it’s all over.

And you’re all alone with your thoughts – that is when it really matters. Not when the shepherds are around, but have left and it’s just you and Jesus. That’s when you need to ask yourself: Who is this baby in the manger? Could this really be God? And if so, what does it mean for God to be born as a man? To become a baby – in such a state of helplessness and weakness.

Is this the King? What kind of King is born as a poor man?

These were the questions Mary was pondering about. This baby is a Saviour? What is he a saviour of? Mary might even be wondering: how will he save me?

Now imagine I had Mary with me here today, and I asked her the exact same question: “Mary, who do you think you are.”

I think she would have said this. “I’m nobody. But you know what? I know that this baby – he’s somebody. He is somebody very special indeed!”

That is one way of defining a Christian. Christians are nobodies who have come to know Somebody. They have come to know Jesus as their King, their Saviour and their God.

For Christians, Jesus came to save us from our sins and God’s judgement over our sins. That is the reason he shared in our humanity; so that by his death he might free those held in slavery to death. We are saved not by trusting in Jesus’ birth, but by trusting in his death and resurrection on the cross.

That is why even though Christians are nobodies, we are so eager to tell everybody about this Somebody. This is the good news of Christmas: that Jesus has come into this world to be the Christ, the Saviour and the Lord. And we worship him as our God, our King and our Redeemer.

Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

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