Stable Snapshots: The Shepherds
It snows in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
I know that we do not often think of that as being true; but last year, for example, they had several snowfalls there, totaling some eleven inches. Because that region stands some 2,000 feet above sea level, they experience the harsh reality of winter weather. Winter can bring times of chilling winds and freezing precipitation, including snow. That’s why winter would have been especially hard on those shepherds keeping watch over their flocks on the hills around the little town of Bethlehem at the time of the first Christmas.
Of course, we must be aware of the fact that those Bethlehem shepherds played a key role in the religious life of the people. There is a terrible irony in the fact that the shepherds were not permitted to participate in religious services because being with the flocks made them ritually unclean, and yet what the shepherds did each day was vitally important to the religious services held in the temple at Jerusalem. You see, every day in the temple, every morning and each evening, a lamb was sacrificed for the sins of the people. These lambs had to be the finest lambs in every way and so the temple maintained its own flocks and those flocks were kept in the hills around Bethlehem. It makes for an interesting symbolism, don’t you think, that the lambs offered everyday in the temple came from the same place where Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, was to come.
Yet it has always seemed that God has a special relationship with shepherds. I think I know why. When one is alone, when one has extended times of quiet, when one can think long thoughts, when one can dwell on wind-kissed hills and lift one’s heart to the heavens, well there’s a special sanctity in that. Bethlehem, while not a large town now, was even smaller then. It sat on the crest of a low ridge, plainly visible from the hillsides all around—just a collection of small sun-bleached homes and a few vineyards and a few stands of olive trees. Behind Bethlehem, off in the distance, the barren white limestone cliffs of the Judean wilderness reflected the sun in many magnificent ways. So as the shepherds of Bethlehem would sit out with the flocks and look at those things, it’s not surprising that they would think godly thoughts and it’s not surprising that they were so open to hearing God speak in their experience.
However, at the time of the first Christmas, when the raw winds and snow of winter were blowing, the Bethlehem shepherds 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 about the town. The flickering lights of those fires must have mocked them. The census was on. The hated Romans were exercising their power. And the shepherds must have thought to themselves that it was the emperor who was on the throne of the universe, and not God. They felt the heel of the Roman boot on their throats, and that land had become for them not a place of milk and honey, but rather of vinegar and gall. They must have cried out with the Psalmist of long before: “How long O Lord, how long?” But when they cried out the winter wind gave no response. That wintertime must have been a depressing time for those shepherds—cold on the outside, but even colder in their hearts.
That is still true here and now. Strange, isn’t it, that December, Christmastime, is for many a time of deep depression. December is the month when there are the most suicides. December is the month when I have the most funerals. December is the month when the 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, 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; their children have become rebellious; they’ve suffered illness; they’ve experienced profound temptation. January might be a time of optimism, but December for many people is very dark and very cold. The flowers that bloomed in spring are now covered with snow. This season of the year is for many people what it must have been for those Bethlehem shepherds—a hard, cold, and heavy time. That’s why it is so important for us to learn some lessons from those shepherds at Bethlehem.
First this: God’s schedule is more important than ours, so we must be patient.
No doubt those shepherds at Bethlehem were very anxious about what would happen to their country. No doubt they prayed and prayed about the matter. And 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 answers. 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.
God answered the prayers of those shepherds on the first Christmas simply because the fullness of time had come. For the first time in history, the Mediterranean world was united by a single language—Greek. That meant the message of the Gospel could be spread more rapidly. For the first time in history, the Mediterranean world was experiencing a relatively secure peace—today historians call it the Pax Romana—the “Roman Peace.” That meant that the missionaries of the faith could move about with freedom. For the first time in history, the Mediterranean world was linked by a thorough 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 Mediterranean world experienced the devaluation of ancient pagan religions and the people were yearning for the truth and for the secret of the meaning of life. That meant the people’s hearts and minds would be fertile ground for the teachings of Jesus Christ. It was then, at that precise point in time when all of these 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 and made the announcement that God had answered the shepherd’s prayers. That’s the point we need to remember, 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 haven’t been able to forget. He said that you have to be in jail to understand what Christmas really means. You see, the prisoner in jail can’t go where he wants to go when he wants to go. He’s locked in. He’s contained. He has to rely on help from the outside. When that help comes—and only when that help comes—is he set free. His deliverance is dependent upon someone coming from the outside—and he has no choice but to wait until that help comes.
I must tell you something—that’s powerful theology for this Christmas season. God comes to us in Jesus Christ to help us, to save us, to set us free. But He comes at the time which He knows is best. The angels will sing, but only when they are supposed to sing. That’s the first great lesson we learn from those shepherds. God’s timing is always better than ours—therefore, we must be patient. You can stand a lot of cold when you’ve got the warmth of that in your heart.
Next this: God’s answers are more wonderful than we can imagine, so we must be expectant.
I can’t imagine how it must have been for those shepherds to have been out there alone on those hillsides around Bethlehem, and suddenly an angel appeared before them. They must have been thunderstruck. They must have fallen on their faces in the snow. The angel said: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good tidings of great joy, for unto you is born this day in the city of David, a saviour which is Christ the Lord, and you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And then a whole chorus of the angels burst out in glorious song. As the sound echoed off those limestone hills, it must have startled the daylights out of both the shepherds and the sheep! They must have been filled with the wonder of it all.
That’s an important thing to notice in the story. God answers us, you see, in ways that are wonderful and utterly beyond our expectation. Think again of what happened on that first Christmas. God gave to us the gift of His Son. He entered into our human predicament as One who was born of a woman and walked our roads and sat at our tables and ate our food and told stories like we do and cuddled little children and comforted those who were in trouble. How absolutely incredible! “The Word became flesh.”
Did you ever stop to thank how often we learn just because the word becomes flesh? Here is a mother who gives to her five-year-old son an alphabet book. The boy can make no sense of the book at all. But then his mother sits down beside him and she begins to explain those letters and those sounds one at a time. And when the word becomes flesh, when the mother begins to do the teaching in person, then suddenly the lad begins to understand. A few years go by—he’s thirteen now—and he’s reading everything he can get his hands on, especially adventure stories. But one night he goes to his father and says: “Dad, why do they always ruin these great adventure stories by putting in those lovey parts?” And his father sits down beside him and puts his arm around him and begins to talk to him about the “lovey parts.” When Dad explains, the word becomes flesh, the understanding begins to grow. Five years pass by and the boy is 18 years old. Now love is the most important thing in all the world to him. Why? Because some beautiful young lady has entered into his life. And when that word became flesh, he understood for the first time what love really is!
Jesus Christ is God’s Word become flesh. He is the pronunciation of the unpronounceable. He is the baby who was born in Bethlehem and the youth who grew up in Nazareth, and the apprentice in the carpenter’s shop and the wandering preacher of Galilee. Historians spoke of Him, prophets preached about Him, psalmists sang of Him, and seers predicted His coming. But when He came, He exceeded everything they had anticipated. He was, and is, more wonderful than anyone ever dreamed He could be. He is the Word of God become flesh. That’s the second great lesson we learn from those shepherds. God’s answers are more wonderful than we could ever imagine, so we must be expectant. Catch hold of that, please. God has come for each of us. You can stand a lot of cold when you’ve got the warmth of that in your heart.
Then this: God’s promises are more dependable than ours, so we must be hopeful.
On that first Christmas, there came a point when the angels were gone and the sky was quiet and the moon passing overhead didn’t even stop to look and the sheep quieted down for the night. And the next morning business took up as usual and there was the same bartering and bargaining there in the shops of Bethlehem that you find today. But things weren’t the same for the shepherds. Because, you see, the night before, God had come down the backstairs of heaven and He had a little baby in His arms—a baby whose life would become the greatest hope the world has ever known. Those shepherds stood and looked at that little baby in the manager and they had no idea what His life would be like. 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 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 Atlantic off the coast of New Jersey. He suddenly became aware that a change in the tide was carrying them out to sea. They were in grave danger. So he said to his daughter: “Now, Mary, you keep swimming and when you get tired, float on your back. You can float on your back all day long if you want to. I am going to take your brother back to the shore, and then I will come back for you.” So the man put the little boy on his back and swam towards shore. Within a short while, hundreds of people were gathered on the shore, and boats were going up and down looking for this little girl. A full two and a half hours passed before they found her. There she was, floating on the waves. The men who lifted her into the boat said: “Weren’t you afraid?” She said: “No, I wasn’t afraid. My daddy told me that I could float all day long if I wanted to, and my daddy promised me that he would come to get me. I believe my daddy. And 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 third great lesson we learn from the shepherds. God’s promises are more dependable than ours, so we can be hopeful. Nothing, you see—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.” You can stand a lot of cold when you’ve got the warmth of that in your heart.
The shepherds went back to the fields. They had seen a mother’s joy and they had seen a father’s pride and they had seen a baby’s sleep. When they reached the hillsides again, the ground was just as hard beneath their feet as it had been before. And they had to pass the Roman guards who swore at them at the gates. And when they looked up into the winter sky it was icy and empty and the winter wind was still biting and raw. But they were different because they had a magnificent memory and a glorious hope. The Lord had come. And the Lord would come. And because they could never be lost to the Lord, they could never finally lose in anything.
What great lessons we learn from those shepherds. God’s schedule is more important than ours, so we must be patient. God’s answers are more wonderful than ours, so we must be expectant. God’s promises are more dependable than ours, so we must be filled with hope for His coming.
I want to tell you something, my beloved. You can stand a lot of cold in this world when you’ve got the warmth of Jesus Christ in your heart…