11 December 2009

To certain poor shepherds...

We always hear the story of Mary and Joseph and how they traveled to Bethlehem. And of course we see the Nativity scenes with the manger and Mary and Joseph and the wise men. True or False—the “wise men” were there at the manger when Jesus was born. False. But we just assume they were there because they're in all the Nativity scenes, right? BUT!! If we look at the timeline in the gospel according to Matthew, we see that the wise men didn’t come along for quite some time after. Matthew 2:1-2, 7, 12, 16Now after Jesus was born—OK, so after Jesus has already been born—after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him”…Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared… Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way…Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. So, Jesus was probably about 2 years old or a little less when the wise men came, but no, they were not there the night He was born.

But there were three of them, right? We don’t know. The only thing we know is they were wise men from the east. But they were kings, right? No. They were sorcerers, pagan priests, but no they were not kings. The word “Magi” literally referred to a worshiper of fire. So “We 3 kings from Orient are”—eh, not so much. But were there shepherds at the manger that night? Yes. And we’re gonna look at the Nativity story from their perspective. Think about the words to "The First Noël":

The First Noël the angels did say
to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay.

We know what happened that night. But imagine yourself being there when those angels sang that first noel. Bethlehem was what might be called a little backwater town. Although it was the birthplace of Israel's most beloved king, King David, no one paid much attention to it. Nothing ever really happened in Bethlehem. Kinda like living in Rockwood or Coalfield. And if you live in Rockwood or Coalfield, I mean no offense. Now, imagine you were a shepherd in Bethlehem about 2000 years ago. You're out watching your sheep one night. And it's a night like any other night. It doesn't feel any different than any other night. And having spent enough nights outside, you know what the sky should look like. You know what belongs and what doesn't. You've tried to count the stars, you've seen a few of them shoot across the sky.

But tonight, when you look up, you notice something. And this thing you notice looks very different than any other thing you have ever seen before. You call your friend Jakub over. “Do you see that up there?” “Yes, I do. What is it?” Then, you notice something. It's getting bigger...it’s getting brighter...and it’s getting closer. Suddenly you realize, “That is no star! If I didn't know better, I'd swear that looks like a...a man?” Luke 2:8-9 (KJV)And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. “Jakub!! This is an angel of YHVH!!” At first you're thinking, “WOW!! We are being visited by this messenger from YHVH!!” But then you stop and think. “Has he come to perhaps fulfill God’s wrath? Has YHVH sent this angel to destroy?” And you start to get scared.

But then the angel speaks. Luke 2:10-12 (KJV)And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” Joy?! An angel bringing news of great joy from on high!? “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” Of course, being Jewish, you're hearing this in your native Hebrew. You hear three words that grab your attention: “Yasha”, or “Savior.” “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Yasha.” It is the root of Hebrew names like “Joshua” and “Yehoshua”, which are the roots of the Greek “Iesous”, or “Jesus.” Then you hear the word “Mashiacha.” We know that word as Messiah. “Anointed.” Christ. The prophet Daniel wrote that this Messiah would bring peace between God and man. “Adonai,” the Lord. The One who is above all. Even as He laid in that bed of straw in a cave, Jesus was Lord of all!! “For unto you is born this day in the city of David Yasha, which is Mashiacha the Adonai.” Our Saviour, Christ the LORD.

Then it’s like all of Heaven opens up, and Luke 2:13-14 (KJV)And suddenly 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, good will toward men.” And when it's all over, your heart still pounding, “Jakub!! Let’s tell the others and see if they—nah, they're never gonna believe it! An angel came to US—shepherds?? Yeah, right!!” But then you look, and ask Jakub, “Hey—is that Yitzhak running this way?” Of course Yitzhak stops before he gets to you because he's thinking, "Nah, they're never gonna believe me!!" But then everybody realizes they’ve all seen the same wonderful sight, and heard the same glorious words. Maybe heaven really did open up this night! And you all run to each other and rejoice, and sing praises to God! And Yitzhak says, “Ya know, I heard that the prophet Micah wrote that although Bethlehem was small, out of it shall come the One who is to be Ruler in Israel! One who has existed since before the beginning!” (Micah 5:2). You look around, and see all these other little groups of shepherds gathered together, and they all seem to be very excited. It's like a shepherds' convention.

Before you know it, it occurs to you that sunrise is close at hand. You ain't gonna sleep tonight. So, Luke 2:15-16 (KJV)And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.” So you gather up your stuff, and head into Bethlehem. Maybe your sheep are still with you, maybe they're not—do you really care? Because right now, all you know is that something wonderful has happened! And along the way, you remember hearing a rabbi read from the scroll of Isaiah. Isaiah 9:6-7 (KJV)For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. “Could this be what he meant? Is this the One that shall have the rule of Earth upon His shoulders? Whose name shall be Wonderful Counselor? Mighty God? Father of Eternity, Prince of Peace?”

So you get to Bethlehem, and you look around, and all the city is…acting like nothing happened. There’s a ton of people there because they all had to come home to be counted in the census. And you look at each other, and you say, “Uh, guys. We did all see the same thing, right?” So, you start looking through the city, pushing your way through the crowd, knocking on doors. And you remember, “Manger! The angel said something about a manger!” So you start asking at all the farms and all the inns. And you ask at this one place and they say, “Well, yes, a young man and woman came to us last night. And she was indeed with child. We had no more rooms available; we did let them have the use of our barn; that was the best we could do. You can check; they may still be there.”

And you go to the barn, and lo and behold Luke 2:16 (KJV)And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. Literally, the feeding trough. You see a young lady, with her husband, and a newborn child which they lovingly wrapped in “swaddling clothes.” Time out: Ask 100 people “what are swaddling clothes?” I dare say 90 of them will give you this answer: (insert blank stare here). For many years, I didn't know what they were. Think about what you see at those nativity scenes: They show Mary, and Joseph. The wise men who weren't there. Jesus lying in that manger—and what is He always wearing? Right, usually it’s just a cloth diaper. GET THAT IDEA OUT OF YOUR HEAD!! It is not biblical!!

For one thing, is a newborn’s skin pretty delicate? Very sensitive. Now, have you ever baled hay? What happens when that hay rubs against your skin? Is it pretty irritating? Imagine that on the skin of a newborn child. But even more than that, the Bible says He was wrapped in “swaddling clothes.” Many countries, especially in the Middle East, they still do it to this day. It is a sign of a love that parents show their child. According to the ISBE—“The swaddling-clothes consist of a square of cloth and two or more bandages. The child is laid on the cloth diagonally and the corners are folded over the feet and body and under the head, the bandages then being tied so as to hold the cloth in position.” They would wind up looking kinda like a little burrito. John MacArthur—“This was for warmth. This was for security. I mean, that little baby in the womb is in there all cuddled and nestled tightly in there and all of a sudden comes out into this stark hospital room, nothing touching it, his little extremities flailing in every way. No wonder they're screaming. This is a scary experience…they also believed that wrapping up those limbs and wrapping up that little body protected that little child. Also believed that it helped to keep their bones straight when they grew in early life…This is just a normal little baby. This is just a baby like other babies. Physically looked like any other child. Physically treated like any other child. No royal robes, no fancy clothing, didn't come out with a little halo over His head. He came out like everybody else comes out, same exact way.”

Now, question. Swaddling was a fairly common practice. Still is. So why would Luke include this seemingly insignificant detail? I'm glad you asked. Even though you didn't. But you should have. When you read the gospel according to Luke, or the book of Acts—which was also written by Luke—watch for details. Little details. Details that may not seem that important. But there was always a reason he included them. Luke 23:50-53 (KJV)And, behold, there was a man named Joseph, a counsellor; and he was a good man, and a just: (The same had not consented to the counsel and deed of them;) he was of Arimathaea, a city of the Jews: who also himself waited for the kingdom of God. This man went unto Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus. And he took it down, and wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a sepulchre that was hewn in stone. Now, flip back to Luke 2:7 (KJV)And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger. Don’t skip details! Now, back to our shepherds.

You hear one of your friends ask this young lady a question that makes you wonder if he’s lost his ever-loving mind. He asks this young lady, “Are you a virgin?” You know he didn't just say that. “Jakub, have you flipped your lid???? She just gave birth. What in the world would make you think she is a virgin???” But then you're really stumped when she answers—what? “Why, yes I am.” OK, now you're reeeeeeealllyyy confused. Jakub tells you, “Shimeon, have you never heard what Isaiah wrote?” “What do you mean?” Isaiah 7:14 (KJV)Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. “Shimeon, this is the virgin. This is the Son. This child is Immanuel, God with us!!” The girl looks up and says, “I'll never forget what the angel said when he came to me and told me I would conceive. I asked him, ‘How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?’ (Luke 1:34 KJV). But then he told me, ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God’ (Luke 1:35 KJV).”

The central point in all of human history unfolded right in front of your eyes. The singular event in all of time—God wrapping Himself in sinful flesh and stepping down into His creation—and you are there. A shepherd!! Yet Almighty God chose you to witness the birth of His Beloved Son in whom He is well-pleased. In fact, this was a moment that made all the faithful in Heaven leap for joy. Jesus told the Pharisees that “Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad” (John 8:56 KJV).

And they kept it to themselves, right? Luke 2:17-18 (KJV)And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. Now, you gotta remember something here. Being a shepherd was not the most respected profession. Socially speaking, they were the bottom of the food chain. It would be kinda like those guys that walk around with picket signs that say, “The end is near!” or some other message. And people look at them like they're crazy? Yeah, that. They made known abroad the saying which was told them.

Can you imagine them running into the middle of the synagogue, while the priest was doing what he did? A bunch of…shepherds? But there were many who didn’t necessarily consider it to be so crazy. “I know they're just a bunch of dirty old shepherds, but they can't all be crazy, can they?” And can you imagine all these people running to their rabbi and asking them about the words of Isaiah and Micah and Zephaniah, and others—the words these rabbis had taught them, and now they were being fulfilled. Like I always say, if you want to know what’s gonna be in the paper tomorrow, read the Bible today.

Maybe these shepherds didn’t understand why this child was born of a virgin. Maybe they didn’t live to see the day when the hands that were wrapped in those cloths would be pierced for their sins and that tender forehead would be gouged by a crown of thorns. They may never have seen the day when He was wounded for their transgressions, and bruised for their iniquities. Maybe they didn’t live to see Him after He rose victorious from a borrowed tomb. But if you were one of those shepherds, you knew, beyond anything else, that you were indeed looking into the very face of the one, true, living God. After much joy and celebration, you all return to your homes, knowing you have seen something many of the greatest men of God have only dreamed about. Luke 2:20 (KJV)And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

And think about this: one day, we're gonna get to talk to those shepherds. And we’ll get to talk to that young virgin mother. She won’t be sitting on a throne. She will be worshipping God with the rest of the saints. And with us.

Jesus Christ is Lord.

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