Vantage Point Week 1: The Shepherds
Well, good morning to everybody and good morning, also, to those who watch via the internet and the mobile app. We’re starting a new series this weekend called “Vantage Point.” Obviously, the Christmas season is upon us. Before I get into my message, I read a story. It’s a true story. It’s quite humorous.
A family had purchased a pretty elaborate treehouse for their kids. The kids were away visiting some relatives. So, they had the treehouse delivered so that they could put it together for this big Christmas gift for the kids. So, all these boxes show up one day. The husband and wife get everything out. They’re looking at the instructions. They realize that what’s been sent to them is a sailboat. So, they’re like, “Man, this is sort of a bummer,” because that was their big Christmas gift. So, they write the company a letter that says, “Hey, listen. We had this big Christmas plan with a treehouse. You sent us a sailboat. It’s been sort of a bummer. We’re not trying to be difficult, but it’s just a bummer for Christmas.”
So, a couple of weeks later, they get a letter back from the company. The company does what the company would do at that point.
“We’re so sorry that we sent you the wrong stuff. We’ll make it right.”
They promised them to do some things or whatever. The last paragraph says, “But, just for some perspective, as bad as it might have been for your Christmas, it wasn’t as bad as the family that tried to cross the lake in your treehouse.”
I say that because perspectives can change depending upon what’s going on in our life. And you live life long enough and you know that people see things differently. We all do. I meant, you get people in church and they’ll open up the Bible and somebody will read a passage of Scripture and go, “No, I see it this way,” and somebody else says, “I see it that way.”
When I teach hermeneutics at the college and master’s level, I have a poem that I read to that class that just sort of explains how we sort of see things differently. It’s called, “The Blind Men and the Elephant.”
It says, “‘Twas six men of Indostan to learning much inclined, who went to see the Elephant (though all of them were blind,” that each, by observation, might satisfy his mind.
“The first approached the elephant, and happening to fall, against his broad and sturdy side, at once began to bawl: ‘God bless me! But the elephant is very like a wall!’
“The second, feeling of the tusk, cried, ‘Ho, what have we here, so very round, smooth and sharp? To me ‘tis mighty clear this wonder of an elephant is very like a spear!’
“The third approached the animal, and happening to take the squirming trunk within his hands, thus boldly up and spake: ‘I see,’ quoth he, ‘the elephant is very like a snake!’
“The fourth reached his out his eager hand, and felt about the knee, ‘What most this wondrous beast is like is mighty plan,’ quoth he: ‘Tis clear enough the elephant is very like a tree!’
“The fifth, who chanced to teach the ear, said, ‘E’en the blindest man can tell what this resembles most; deny the fact who can, this marvel of an elephant is very like a fan!’
“The sixth no sooner had begun about the beast to grope, then seizing on the swinging tail that fell within his scope, ‘I see,’ quoth he, ‘the elephant is very like a rope!’
“And so these men of Indostan disputed loud and long, each in his own opinion exceeding stiff and strong, though each was partly in the right, and all of them were wrong!”
So, you live through life and you see that we really do come to different conclusions on different things. It could be about social issues, political issues, theological issues. Why do we do that? Well, psychologists and psychiatrists have gotten together, and they’ve done studies on the human mind. And this is fascinating. The human mind has what we call a belief system. We all have it. Whether it was how we were raised, culture or things that we believe, we all have sort of this noetic structure, philosophical system or world view that’s just the way we see the world.
And, believe it or not, when we get information that differs from what we sort of think, we, as a general rule, reject it. Think about that for a second. We reject it. And if we do actually take some time and look at it, what we do is we filter it through lenses so that it fits better into our system. Here’s a chart from a psychology book that shows this. This is our belief system, and this is information that we typically reject because it doesn’t match up to what we already believe. But, if it does somehow get into here, we sort of crush it on the way in to make it fit what we sort of believe. And you can see that throughout life. You can see that with people that you know. We all tend to be sort of on different sides of different things, and it’s really hard to get anybody to see anything differently. Because, as a general rule, we push things away.
Now, what you may be saying — and it would be a good question — is why in the world would you spend three minutes to talk about that? The reason I did is because of this: God knew each and every one of us would have a filter and a screen in the way we interpreted things. But God wanted to communicate to you and me. And He wanted to communicate to you and me in a way that we would truly be able to see what He wanted us to see. And knowing that we have the propensity to reject information that doesn’t fit into our system, and knowing that we have the propensity to want to shape it and refit it so that it meets where we want it to be, God chose a genius way to speak to you and me.
He chose — this is a library of 66 books. We call it the Bible. These 66 books were written by around 40 people over 2,000 different years. And rather than being a book that you open up and it just has a couple of statements of what you do and don’t do, which we would probably all debate what that meant and everything else because of the filters that we have, God wrote to you and me through stories, because He knew something. He knew that if you and me would immerse ourselves into a story, we would start seeing things through the eyes of other people that would get us outside of ourselves to start being able to see some things about who we are and who God is.
Because, see, reading Scripture through the eyes of others helps us to truly see ourselves. John 7:53-8:11 records a story of a woman caught in adultery. She probably was drug out naked, maybe with a sheet. But, she was caught in the very act. And she’s brought out and there’s religious leaders that are there that want to throw stones at her. If we read that passage right, we get to choose, through the eyes of others, what we see. Do we see ourselves as the woman caught in adultery, the woman in need if God’s forgiveness, truly in need of His grace, or do we sort of feel a little bit more like the religious people, going, “What she did was wrong? She needed to be stoned.”
It helps just to see who we are when we read Scripture through the eyes of others. When we read Scripture through the eyes of others, it helps us to see what Scripture says is really important. You know, when we think of status here in the West, we think of maybe a position, a title, a job, a car, house, clothes, but when we read the Christmas story, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, the One who created the heavens and the earth, the greatest of all, God Himself, is born in a feeding trough, which really speaks to us as to what really is important. What does status mean?
The Bible does that when we read through the lens of other people and we read through the lens of these stories. Not only that, but when we read through the eyes of others, it forces us to ask, “What would we have done? What would I have done if was Sampson? What would we have done if we were Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego? Would we have gotten into the fiery furnace? What would we have done if we were David looking at Bathsheba? How would we have responded?”
Because, see, when we read Scripture through the eyes of others and through the lens of story, what it does is it starts to show us who we are. It starts to reveal it. Not in ways where we sort of get to screen through our presuppositions and do all of that stuff, although oftentimes we read Scripture that way. But, when we read Scripture the right way, through the lens of other people, all of a sudden, we see questions. What would I have done?
It also gets us outside of ourselves, which is so important. Because, when we’re inside of ourselves, it’s difficult to truly see who we are, and it’s difficult to see who God is. So, what I want to do over the next three weeks is I want to talk to you about vantage points. I want to take three different characters out of the New Testament Christmas story, the Advent story, and I want to read these passages through their eyes. And I think when we do that, you’re going to be shocked. You’re going to really have a moment where you stop and go, “Wow. This story that I know, that I’m familiar with, reading it through their eyes changes a lot of this story. It changes my whole understanding, in a lot of ways, of who God is and how He meets us and what He wants for you and I’s lives.”
So, this weekend, what we’re going to do is we’re going to talk about the shepherds. To talk about the shepherds, we need to take a moment. Because all of us probably have, when I say shepherds, some of idea of what we think about shepherds. But, understanding, in the First Century, who the shepherds were is important if we’re going to read the Bible. The shepherds in the First Century, which is sort of crazy because, when you go back and read the Old Testament, some of the great men of God were shepherds. But, by the First Century — and this is crazy — we have archeological finds that shepherds were considered in the same class as robbers and thieves. They were like the lowest of the low in morality. They were the lowest of the low in terms of being shunned by the religious.
Some of it was because of what they had done. The shepherds, many of them, were nomadic and sort of gypsy type of people. They would go into towns and they were known for sort of just picking things up and putting things in their pocket and stealing things. They were known for taking other people’s animals and stuff, and all of these things. But, by and large, the shepherds were considered to be the worst of the worst, not just vocationally, but morally. They were far away from God. In fact, they couldn’t even come into the temple. They couldn’t even offer sacrifices for themselves in the temple because they were ritually unclean by touching all of the animals.
And that’s really important when we come to the shepherds in the story in Luke, because it helps us to understand what’s going on, who they were and what God is doing in these stories and how they might have responded. Now, how we get there in Luke is in Luke 2, Luke starts off and he tells us that there was a census, in some translations. Some say a tax. Those both are true. Back in the Roman days, a census wasn’t like it is for today. You know, if they take a census in Sarasota, they want to know how many people are in Sarasota. That’s basically what they want. But, a census in the time of the Roman government was for two big, specific reasons.
One, there was a lot of insurrection in pockets against the Roman Empire. And we see that in history. People were trying to fight, especially the Jewish people. They were continuing to want to fight against the Romans. By sending everybody back to where they were born, it separated those gangs of people that were together doing stuff. It would send them back to their families. So, it would squelch some of the insurrection in the empire. But, on top of that, when they got everybody back into towns, they would send Roman troops through and they would see who’s there, they would see what people are doing, and it was an opportunity for them to collect money from people. It was a huge economic boom for the government to take these census that ended up being tax.
So, we read that the Roman government has the census and taxation, and Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem. When you’re reading it through Luke’s eyes, Luke’s telling you that what looks like the Roman government is in control. Really, God is. He’s using that to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem so that Jesus can be born there and fulfill Scripture. So, as they’re in Bethlehem, Mary has this child, Jesus. And then we’re told, after this, that Luke takes us into a region. We’ll pick up the story here on the shepherds.
Luke 2:8: “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”
So, here are these shepherds. They’re out and probably talking around a fire. Just chatting. Probably talking about the census, saying, “Hey, what’s going to happen if one of the soldiers comes out here, man? If it’s one, do you think we could probably take him? He’s going to take our stuff. Maybe we could take him. Maybe we could bury him and take his horse. Nobody will ever know. If it’s more than one soldier, what are we going to do?”
They’re having this conversation. That’s just where they’re at. They’re dirty. They’ve got stuff under their fingernails. They stink. They’re out there sweating. They’re with their animals. This is who they are. And then something happens that you would not expect if you were a shepherd, and you shouldn’t be expecting if you’re a reader of Scripture. This is what Luke says:
“And an angel of the Lord appeared to them.”
Wait, they’re the ones that God wouldn’t reach. They’re the ones that are so immoral that God — and angel is appearing? If an angel of the Lord appears to them, they’re thinking, “Whoa. What’s up? We’ve been told by all the religious people that God doesn’t love us. We’ve been told that God would never, ever visit us because of our lifestyle. And an angel of the Lord is appearing?”
Well, it gets way better. The next one is crazy. The angel of the Lord appeared to them. Listen:
“And the glory of the Lord shone around them.”
The glory of the Lord is for the temple. That’s where God shows up. In the temple in Jerusalem. His glory doesn’t come into a field in Bethlehem to those on the far ends of the margins of society. What’s going on? If you’re a shepherd, you’re like, “Man. This is not the story I’ve been told. God doesn’t show up here. God doesn’t come to me. God doesn’t even care about me. In fact, God hates me. And He’s here? And His glory is here? I can feel it.”
“And they were filled with great fear.”
Because they don’t know. “Is He here to judge us? Is He here to take our life? I’ve heard all the stories about what God does with people like us. Why is He here?”
“And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not.’”
Fear not. “Guys, I know that there’s all kinds of stuff going on. I know there’s censuses and taxation. I know there’s all of this stuff. I know you’ve been told that. But, listen. Fear not.”
The next line might be some of the greatest lines in all of the Bible. Listen to this:
“‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news...’”
They’re thinking, “All I’ve ever heard from religion is bad news. All I’ve ever heard is how bad I am. All I’ve ever heard is how much God’s going to get me. Good news?”
“‘...of great joy that will be for all the people.’”
“You mean not just the ones that God...”
“All of the people. Good news of great joy for all the people.”
Can you imagine? They’re like, “Really? This is too good to be true. This is not what I thought God was like. Good news of great joy for all the people?”
“‘For unto you...’”
“Me? A shepherd? To me? You’re sending the birth announcement of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords to me? Surely, there’s a mistake. Because birth announcements don’t go to people like us. Ever. For unto us a child is born who’s going to be the Savior, who is Christ the Lord?”
That’s the only place in all of the New Testament where these three titles are used of Jesus. It is His humanity, it is His divinity, it is all of it. He is the Savior. He is the Lord. He is God. He is all of it.
“‘For unto you this day is born...’” — you shepherds — “‘...a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’”
Whoa. And on top of it, you’re going to get a sign.
“A sign? You’re going to give us a sign?”
“Yeah. We’re going to give you a sign. Here’s what it is: You’ll find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a feeding trough.”
They’re like, “Hold on. This is a royal birth. We would never be asked to a royal birth. Look at the way we’re dressed. Look at the way we smell. Look at the way we are. But we’re going to see a baby that would look just like one of our babies, because we wrap our babies in swaddling cloths and we put them in feeding troughs. You mean you have come to me to meet me where I am? I was told that could never happen. Not for me. Really? Wow.”
And then the angels go away into heaven, and the shepherds get together and they say, “What are we going to do, man? What are we going to do?”
“We’re going to go to Bethlehem is what we’re going to do. We’re going to see this thing that happened that the Lord has made known to us. He’s revealed something to us.”
And I will tell you this. In Scripture, whenever God reveals something to you, it will take you to Jesus every time. God’s revelation always takes you and me to Jesus. He says, “...that the Lord has made known to us.”
“And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.”
This is radical. Listen to this. Shepherds, on the edge of society, immoral, shunned by the religious elite, not allowed in church, also could not have a word of testimony in a court of law. In other words, their testimony was meaningless. Check this out:
The shepherds show up to Mary and Joseph where the baby Jesus is there.
“And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.”
Now God is taking the shepherds. Not only is He revealing Himself to them, but He’s using their tongues that nobody would listen to. He’s using them to reveal things to Mary and Joseph to confirm to them what God is doing, also, in their life.
“And all who heard it wondered...”
They were amazed. They’re like, “The shepherds?”
They’re all talking like, “Why would God bring the shepherds here? They need to go. Did you notice the smell that came into the room when they showed up? Aren’t they the ones that can’t even go to church? God showed up to them?”
That’s why everybody’s just totally wondering at what’s going on.
“And the shepherds returned [back to their fields], glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
And I love how Luke puts that in here. As it had been told them. In other words, what Luke is saying is that for all those that will read this, for the future of all that will read, I just want to make sure you know something when you read this: What God tells you will happen is exactly what will happen. If God has told you He will do something, He will absolutely do it. As it had been told them. Exactly what God said to them is exactly what He did. Isn’t that a great truth for you and me?
When we open up the 66 books of the Bible and God says, “I will do something,” we can take it to the bank. He will do exactly as He has told us He will do. Amen? That’s better preaching than you all are letting on. Anyway, let’s back up now and let’s debrief here, because I think there are a couple of things that we need to diagnostically ask as we’re looking at this story, because a lot of your minds are going, “Whoa, man. This is a great story.”
So, hold on. Just calm down for a moment. I know the brain’s going or whatever. But, there’s a couple of diagnostic questions I think we have to ask ourselves here. The first one is this: The Lord appears to the wrong people at the wrong place, or does He? Because they were the wrong people and it was the wrong place, if you’re looking at it from just a religious standpoint. God’s glory is in the temple. It’s not in a field in Bethlehem. And God doesn’t visit those people. At all. Or does He? Is it possible that as we sit in church and as we bake in hearing Scripture, is it possible at some level, at some point, that maybe, maybe, maybe reading this story through the lens of these shepherds sort of shows us a lot about who our Heavenly Father is?
Maybe you’re here today and maybe you came to a First Friday and you’re like, “Man, I thought I’d try church again. It’s sort of Christmas time. It’s the birth of Jesus.”
And you’re in here today and you’re going, “Man, this is like, whoa. I didn’t know God was like this at all. This is really cool.”
Yeah. You know what this is? This is good news. We get our word “Gospel” from that. “Euaggelion” is the Greek word. We get our word “Gospel” from that. It’s not bad news. It’s good news.
So, does He appear to the wrong people, or does He? No, no, no. What happens is He meets the shepherds where they are. Where they are. Out in the field. In all of their grime and all of their dirt. And not only does He meet them where they are, He gives them a baby that they could feel comfortable going to see, because He’s wrapped in swaddling cloths like they would wrap their children in a feeding trough.
Not only that, but God shares His glory with the lowly and the outcast. So many people go to church and they feel like they never measure up and they feel like they never get it right and they feel like they’re always behind. Man, that’s who Jesus came for. For us. For the ones that can’t get it right. He did what we can’t do. When He died on a cross for you and me, He did it so that we could be reconciled back to God and that we could be His children. He knew we couldn’t do it. He meets them where they are. Let that sink in. Does He go to the wrong people in the wrong place, or does He? Is His grace and His reach and His love far greater than we could ever imagine?
And then the second question that we need to sort of work with, or the second diagnostic thought to have, is this: When we hear something other than the good news, we might be hearing the wrong message. The good news is good news. Let me tell you something. Let me make this very clear here. Don’t confuse the message to the Church for the message to the world.
See, Scripture is clear for you and me. It’s clear. As followers of Christ, we should be people that love one another. We should be people that turn the other cheek. We should be people that commit to our marriages. We should be people that live lives that are holy, just and let our light shine. Don’t confuse that message, though, with the message to the world. The message to the world, to those outside of the Church, is good news of great joy for all the people. And sometimes we sort of get it messed up, right? The good news becomes, “You need to clean up.”
“Clean up. Straighten up. God’s not pleased.”
Right? Or how about this one?
“Turn or burn.”
Right? That’s a great way to greet people at church, isn’t it? You know? Instead of the sign, “Hey, we’re so glad you’re here,” have a, “Turn or burn,” and get some flamethrowers when people pull in.
Better get down to the alter, you know? Or how about this one here?
“Eat the bread of life or you’re toast.”
Right? I mean, that’s not good news. Right? And, listen, I know some of you are thinking, “I would never quite say something like that, Chip.”
Okay. Hold on, though. Get those religious pants on for a second here, because, listen to me. We might say this: “God certainly isn’t at work there.”
Oh, but He was in the field, and He was with the shepherds. Or how about this one?
“The Lord absolutely couldn’t use them.”
See, that’s when the good news becomes something that it’s not. The good news — and if you’re not a Christian and you’re here today, the good news is that Jesus went to a cross and died for you. He wants you to come home. That’s the message you need to hear. Not all the other things that we sort of get it all messed up with. The message people and the world need to hear is, “Man, good news of great joy for all the people. God wants you to come home and be His children.”
That’s the good news. And, sometimes, it can become the wrong news or the bad news. For those of us that are Christians and for those of us who aren’t, we still have to ask this question. What’s my response going to be to the Christ-child? How am I going to respond to this?
You know, if you’re here today and you’ve never really done the Jesus thing or you’re not quite sure, you’re like, “Man, I’m not quite sure here,” how are you going to respond? Because the story really does ask for a response. For those of us who are Christians, how are we going to respond? Are we going to look through the eyes of the shepherd and go, “You know what? God might be a little bit different in some ways than the way I portray Him to other people. What’s going to be my response?”
And you know what? It’s so easy. I think the story is so clear that in the midst of all the taxation and all of the things going on in the empire, some lowly shepherds were the only ones that really knew that Jesus had come. It’s easy to miss Him.
Chuck Swindoll, in one of his books, says this. I think this is appropriate.
He says, “Take the year 1809. The international scene was tumultuous. Napoleon was sweeping through Austria. Blood was flowing freely. But nobody really cared about who was being born. But the world was overlooking some terribly significant births. For example, William Gladstone was born that year, and he was destined to become one of England’s finest statesmen. That same year, Alfred Lord Tennyson was born to an obscure minister and his wife, and, of course, he would greatly affect the literary world in a marked manner. On the American continent, Oliver Wendell Holmes was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And not that far away, in Boston, Edgar Allan Poe began his eventful, albeit tragic, life.
“It’s also in the same year that a physician named Darwin and his wife named their child Charles Robert. That same year produced the cries of a newborn infant in rugged, log cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky. The babies name? Abraham Lincoln. If there had been news broadcasts at the time, I’m certain these words would’ve been heard: The destiny of the world is being shaped on an Austrian battlefield. But history was actually being shaped in the cradles of England and America.”
In a similar manner, everyone thought that taxation was the big deal when Jesus was born, but a young Jewish woman cradled the biggest news of all: The birth of a Savior. It’s easy to miss. It’s easy to miss. The religious people didn’t show up. They missed it. But the shepherds saw it. It’s easy to miss. It’s easy to miss in all the trappings of Christmas and all the festivities. It’s easy to miss what’s going on.
As your pastor, what do I want? What do I want for you this Christmas season? I want not only the people here of Grace, but I want Lakewood Ranch and Sarasota, but specifically the people of Grace, leaving glorifying and praising God for all they’ve heard and seen, as it had been told them. That’s what I want for you. More importantly, that’s what God wants for you.
When I prepared this message, I went back, and I love reading the Church fathers. I love reading people that came way before us. And I was shocked at reading Ambrose of Milan’s homily on Luke 2, imagining in the Fourth Century him speaking this to people in a congregation. I took a couple of excerpts. I hope this speaks to you.
“He became an infant and a child so that you might be a perfect person. He was wrapped in swaddling cloths so that you might be absolved from the bonds of death. He was in a manger so that you might be in the alter. He was on earth so that you might be in heaven. And He had no room at the inn so that you might have mansions in heaven.”
What a story. It really is good news. It really brings great joy. And it’s for all the people. Let that story sink in, because every one of us meets that story at a different place every year. For some of you, it may be, “I want to start this story now.”
If you do, that’s what we want for you to do. We want you to say, “Hey, Jesus. I want to go forward. I really want You in my life. I want to know You as my Lord and Savior.”
If that’s you today, nothing’s keeping you from doing that. You can make that decision right where you’re at. If you want to make that decision where you’re at, please make that decision and find somebody with a name badge. Grab me. Find somebody that looks like they know anything around the church. Find the next person next to you and say, “Hey, I want to make that decision. I want to know how to get involved. I want to know what my next steps are.”
But, for many of us, the story comes anew. Because, as we see through the eyes of the shepherds, it opens up a whole other story for us and a whole other viewpoint; a whole other story of who we are and who God is. Let’s live that out. We have an opportunity this season to reach a lot of people with the Gospel, and to settle an eternity for a lot of people’s lives. Let’s make sure that we do that. Let’s make sure that we tell the story that has forever changed us.
Dear Heavenly Father, thank You so much for the opportunity to share these rich stories. I’m so thankful that You gave me a mouth that can speak to be able to speak the words of our Savior. Father, these are much more than just stories. These are truths. The truths that settle eternity. Lord, I pray that all of us would take a moment and reflect, no matter where we’re at, upon this story and see the change that it can bring to our lives even today.
Lord, I thank You that You visit the shepherds like me and like us. I thank You that You’re for the outcast. I thank You, Lord, that You’re for the ones on the margins. I thank You, Lord, that You came to do what we can’t do. Help us to see the story through the eyes of the shepherds and from their vantage point. And Lord, I pray that as we leave today You would watch over us and protect us, lead and guide us, and that You would bring us back safely to when we meet again.
And I pray, Lord, that You would continue to craft and mold Your Son in our church so that we would continue to do what You’ve called us to do, and that is to reach the unchurched by being intentional neighbors that reflect Christ. Lord, we love You, we praise You and we honor You. In Jesus’ name we pray, and everybody said, “Amen.”
Give the Lord a big hand clap and tell Him you love Him. God bless everybody. Have a great day.