A Prayer for Christmas: Eagerness Of The Shepherds
It has always seemed to me that God has a special relationship with shepherds. All the way through the Bible, God seems to speak through and to work through shepherds to advance His purpose and His plan for the world.
Why is that true?
I think I know the answer. You see, when one is alone, when one has extended times of quiet, when one can think long and deep thoughts, when one can spend time on wind-kissed hills beneath star-spangled skies, then one is inevitably more attuned to the silent whispers of God. Such was the case, I believe for the Bethlehem shepherds. Remember, please, that Bethlehem, while not a large town now, was even smaller then. It sits on the crest of a low ridge, plainly visible from the hillsides all around—a collection of small, sun-bleached homes, a few vineyards, a few groves of olive trees. Behind Bethlehem, stretching all the way to the Jordan River and the Dead Sea are the barren forbidding hills, cliffs and ravines of the Judean wilderness. And so, as the shepherds of Bethlehem would sit out on the rolling hills, surrounded by solitude, it is not surprising that they would think Godly thoughts, and it is not surprising that they would be so open to hearing God speak in their experience.
Now, I think it’s important for us to remember that at the time of the first Christmas, when the raw winds of winter were blowing across those barren hillsides, there was a deeper chill in those shepherd’s hearts. They must have felt that God had abandoned them. As they would look toward Bethlehem at night, they would see the fires of the Roman guards circling the town. The census was on. The hated Romans were exercising their oppressive power. The shepherds must have thought to themselves that it was the Roman Emperor that was on the throne of the universe, not God. They felt the heel of the Roman boot upon their throats. The land had become for them not a place of milk and honey, but rather of vinegar and gall. Yes, that wintertime must have been a depressing time for those shepherds—cold on the outside, even colder in their hearts.
It’s still true. Have you ever stopped to reflect upon the fact that December, Christmastime, is for many a depressing time. It’s been documented quite beyond dispute. December is the month when there are the most suicides. Throughout my 35 years in the ministry, December is the month when I have had the most funerals. December is the month when patient loads for doctors and counselors reach their peak. December is just plain bad news for a lot of people. They started off in January with high hopes for the New Year, but then they have seen their hopes dashed, or their businesses collapse, or their jobs disappear, or their marriages fall apart. They’ve lost loved ones to death; they’ve suffered illness; their children have become rebellious; they’ve encountered the sting of set-back. Yes, December for many people is very dark and very cold. This season of the year is, for many people, what it must have been for those Bethlehem shepherds: a hard, cold, heavy time. And yet, that Christmas, the warm, radiant powerful message of God pierced through the cold, enabling those shepherds to cast aside depression and replace it with eagerness and excitement. That’s why I think it is so important for us, today, to learn some lessons from those shepherds at Bethlehem.
I think the shepherds learned that God’s schedule is more important than ours.
No doubt those shepherds at Bethlehem had been anxious for a long time about what was happening in their country, in their community, in their own lives. No doubt they were convinced that evil had the upper hand, that the Devil was running amok in their land. No doubt they had prayed, and prayed, and prayed about the matter. Finally, God answered. But, notice this: God answered at the right time. One of our problems as Christians is that we fail to synchronize our prayers with God’s will. We pray selfishly, we pray for what we want, when we want it, and we want an answer, now. But God knows what is best. God’s timing is always the best timing.
The first Christmas is proof of that truth. God finally answered the prayers of those shepherds only when, as the Bible puts it, “the fullness of time had come.” You see, at that precise point in history, for the first time, the Mediterranean world was united by a single language—Greek. That meant that the message of the Gospel could spread more rapidly. For the first time in history, the western, middle-eastern, and far-eastern regions of the world were experiencing a relatively secure peace—our historians call it the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. That meant that the faith built on the One we call “The Prince of Peace” could spread unhindered. For the first time in history, civilization was linked by a network of roads and sea lanes, some of which are still in use today. That meant that more people and nations could be exposed to the Good News of the Gospel. For the first time in history, the world experienced the devaluation of pagan religions, and thus people were yearning for the Truth, and for the meaning of life. That meant that people’s minds and hearts would be fertile ground for the teachings of Jesus Christ. It was then—at that precise point in time when things were as they had to be and as they had not been up to that point in history—it was then that the angels came announcing that, at last, God was answering the shepherd’s prayers. The warmth of that message lifted the chill of depression from the spirits of those Bethlehem shepherds. That’s the lesson we need to learn—that instead of trying to argue God into fitting our schedules, we ought to be trying to fit His.
I get letters from our television ministry—amazing letters, fascinating letters, inspiring letters. Not long ago, I got a letter from a man who is in prison. He watches The Certain Sound each week. He said something that I am unable to forget. He said that you have to be in jail to understand what Christmas really means. He said that a prisoner cannot go where he wants to go, when he wants to go. He’s locked in, contained, confined. He has to rely on help from the outside. When that help comes, and only when that help comes, is he set free. Deliverance is dependent upon someone coming from the outside, and there is no choice but to wait until that help comes. This prisoner then wrote, “Dr. Edington, for me, that is the message of Christmas.”
Let me tell you that that man may be in prison, but he is closer to God than a lot of people I know. He’s got the meaning of Christmas right on. God comes to us in Jesus Christ to help us, to save us, to set us free—but He comes at a time which He knows is best. That first Christmas, the time was right. The angels came and lifted the coldness from the Shepherds hearts and we’re told that eagerly they cried, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place which the Lord has made known to us.” They learned that God’s timing is always better than ours. We need to learn that, too, because you can stand a lot of cold when you’ve got the warmth of that truth in your heart.
And, I think those Bethlehem shepherds learned that God’s promises are more dependable than ours.
On that first Christmas, there came a point when the angels were gone and the sky was quiet and business took up as usual and people went back to their homes and life returned to normal. However, things weren’t the same for the shepherds. The Bible says, “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen…” They were forever changed. Why? Because God had come down the backstairs of Heaven carrying a little Baby in His arms—a Baby whose life would become the greatest hope the world has ever known. Those shepherds had looked at that little Baby in the manger, and they had no idea who He would become or what He would do, but they had heard the promise of God and they knew that God always keeps His promises. So, as they looked at that little One in the manger, they were filled with eagerness, excitement and hope for the future. They knew that, ultimately, by the power of God, they would win.
I read about a father, a few summers ago, who was swimming with his 13-year-old daughter and his 7-year-old son in the ocean, off the coast of New Jersey. He suddenly became aware that a rip tide was carrying them out to sea. Knowing they were in danger, he said to his daughter, “Mary, turn over and float on your back. You can float on your back all day long and not get tired. I’m going to try to get your brother to shore and then I will come back for you.” He then put his son on his back and began swimming across the grain of the tide. He made it to the shore, alerted the authorities, and a rescue effort was mounted for the young girl. Several hours later they found her. There she was, floating on the waves. The men who lifted her into the rescue boat said, “Weren’t you afraid?” She replied, “No, I wasn’t afraid. My daddy told me that I could float on my back all day long, and my daddy promised that he would come to get me. I believe my daddy. You see, he did it.”
That’s what Christmas is all about. God promised that He would come—and He did. And God has promised that He will come again—and He will. That means that no matter how harsh or hurtful the circumstances of our lives may be, no matter how frustrating or frightening our experience may become, we can be buoyed up by the hope which is ours in Jesus Christ. That’s the lesson we learn from the shepherds—that God’s promises are more dependable than ours. Nothing, the Bible says, not “death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Let me tell you that you can stand a lot of cold when you’ve got the warmth of that promise in your heart.
The Bible tells us that the shepherds went back to the fields. When they reached the hillsides again, the ground was just as hard beneath their feet as it had been before. They had to pass the same Roman guards who swore at them at the gates. When they looked up into the winter sky, it was icy and empty and the winter wind was still biting and raw. Everything around them seemed to be the same, but those shepherds were different. They were changed. They were glorifying and praising God. Why? Because they knew that the Lord had come and that the Lord would come again. And they knew that because they could never be lost to the Lord, they could never finally lose in anything.
Therefore, my beloved people, I plead with you to take Jesus Christ into your heart and into your life this Christmas. I want you to know that you can stand a lot of cold in this world when you’ve got the warmth of Jesus Christ in your heart…