I just finished an excellent book, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, by Tony Rienke (2017). He opens his conclusion with the following, familiar routine.
Today, tired after work, I opened Facebook on my phone, looking for a diversion. I flicked past a video of a cat that sounds like a crying child; then I saw a new study about gun control; then I saw an innovative new keyboard for tablets; then I read a story from the latest celebrity gossip; then I was offered twenty pictures of actors who have aged badly (which I ignored); then I saw a breaking news story about a rogue militia group in Oregon; then I read that North Korea apparently had detonated a test atomic bomb; then I watched a viral video of a “monster shredder” that crushes refrigerators, couches, and cars with large metal teeth; and then I saw pictures of a friend and his wife on vacation in Iceland. On and on I flicked down a list of disconnected and fragmented items, and most of them only barely important or interesting. I was not edified or served, only further fatigued because of missing a nap I should have taken or a walk I could have taken, and easily lured back to my phone for more.
He illustrates the frustration of the nature of his distractions with a reference from The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. The senior demon, Screwtape, is teaching his nephew, Wormwood, about the goal of distracting his “patient” (a Christian). Instead of communing with God, Screwtape commends the “Nothing” strategy, which he assures is…
“…very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years, not in sweet sins, but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them…or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.”
You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts, Your affectionate uncle SCREWTAPE”.
In other words, according to Lewis, one of Satan’s chief strategies is to leave us with no time to treasure and ponder the things of God because we are too busy doing nothing important.
Last week we noted that the events surrounding the birth of Christ reveal a sovereign and humble Messiah who fulfilled the Old Testament promises regarding his birth. This week we will see several responses to the good news of Christ’s birth. The goal is that we will be drawn into a higher theology and a deeper doxology.
Read Luke 2:8-20
Receiving the Good News of Christ’s Birth (8-14)
The shepherds are prominent characters in Luke’s gospel, but it is significant to know something about the way the culture viewed them. Shepherds could not participate in religious rituals because their work often left them ceremonially unclean. Due to their reputation of being unreliable witnesses, they were not allowed to give testimony in court (Talmud). It would seem that only lepers were a more despised class in Israel.
The actual date of Jesus’ birth remains unknown. It’s always interesting when anyone confidently asserts that Christ was born on a specific day. There are serious proposals for almost every month of the year. Last week, I mentioned it most likely was not in the winter, but I can’t be certain of that. December 25th does have some traditional references (especially when combined with the timing of the angel’s appearance to Zechariah in Luke 1). Some have suggested the flock would not have been out in the field at night in winter, but that is not true. James Edwards summarizes the matter well:
In general, shepherds spent warmer, drier months (March–November) further afield, and colder, wetter months (November–March) nearer towns and cities. Proximity to Bethlehem could speak for a winter birth of Jesus; a census, however, would more likely be scheduled for July–August, when harvests were complete. The dearth of information on the date of Jesus’ birth may indicate that NT writers themselves did not know when he was born.
Regardless of how far out in the field they were located, the angel knew precisely with whom to share this news. The shepherds transition from a routine night of “keeping watch” to “fearing a great fear” as the glory of the Lord “shone around them” (9). This is the typical response when an angel appears to someone. This was not a common experience for anyone. When it happens, it usually begins with a humbling fear. Why? Fear strikes a proper reverence in the recipient.
There are a series of contrasts in this passage, the first of which is the contrast between the darkness of the night and the light of God’s glory. While their initial fear was natural and understandable, it is followed by the instruction to “fear not” (10). That’s not to say that their fear was inappropriate, but to assuage them with “good news of great joy.” Their fear immediately met with a glorious message of hope.
We are all familiar with the best scene from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Three girls chastise Charlie Brown for picking a pathetic tree, hardly capable of holding any decorations. Everyone laughs at him, including Snoopy, and they leave the scene. Linus comes near with his ever-present blue blanket. Charlie Brown admits his failure and shouts in frustration, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Linus responds, “Sure Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” Then he walks to the center of the stage, asks for the spotlight, and quotes Luke 2:8-14. The moment he says, “fear not” he drops his blanket. Obviously, Charles Schultz was indicating that the message of Christ’s birth displaces the fears represented by Linus’ security blanket. It’s a subtle reminder that this angelic message is for us too!
That message includes three titles, “Savior… Christ… Lord” (11). This child would deliver God’s people from their sins. Thus, He is to be obeyed and honored. Luke has already used “Lord” more than a dozen times to refer to God. This is the first time that “Lord” and “Christ” are combined. This was no ordinary child. He is the only God-Man, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior.
Notice what follows is a reference to his location (12). How should the shepherds respond to this announcement? They should go and find him. They must find the sign of the manger. It would certainly stand out from the few other newborns possibly in Bethlehem at that time.
But, just as the first angel completes his message, he is joined by “a multitude of the heavenly host”. The glorious Flash Mob outside is in stark contrast with the quiet manger scene inside. A similar host of angels also arrayed in military fashion 2 Kings 6:11-17. Syrian forces surrounded the city, but Elisha’s servant saw a superior spiritual army. It was a multitude of heavenly hosts protecting them.
That is essentially the scene these shepherds are now witnessing as they hear the angelic choir raise a hymn of praise to the glory of God (14). The hymn opens with giving glory to God, then praises him for the peace that he brings to those favored by God.
The shepherds were illustrating—at that moment—the very point of this hymn. Those, who had done nothing to earn God’s favor, were receiving it. By grace, they were the recipients of his peace. It is a message for all who place their faith in the Lord. The recipients of God’s saving grace are the elect. This is not a declaration of universal salvation, but of sovereign election.
The emphasis is upon God and the peace that he brings. This “peace” transcends the Pax Romana (peace between God and man). An army of angels announces peace.
The least worthy audience receives this glorious announcement. This is the lot God chose to receive the gospel of the incarnation. God revealed the glory of heaven at the climax of history to those who were unworthy. The child was born unto them. They were the privileged recipients of the greatest announcement in history!
In light of this truth, we know that even the most unlikely and unworthy candidate receives an invitation. The announcement departs the mouths of angels, from the realms of glory, and it enters the eyes and ears of shepherds, from the depths of earth. God favors the humble rather than the self-righteous and self-sufficient.
God does not intend for us to live in fear, but that our reverence would lead us to become transfixed by the glory of God’s revelation. This message is for you! Unto you is born a Savior who deserves the highest glory. It is a message that transcends everything else!
Reacting to the Good News of Christ’s Birth (15-20)
Although the culture despised shepherds, they always seem to have occupied a privileged status in Scripture. God refers to himself as Shepherd (Ps 80:1; Ezek. 34:12-16; Mic. 7:14). He called the shepherd, Moses, to lead Israel out of bondage in Egypt. The shepherd boy, David, was anointed king and promised to always have one from his lineage on the throne—ultimately fulfilled by Christ (Lk 2:4; Ezek 34:23-24).
God favors the unworthy. Those who very well may have been in a state of ceremonial uncleanness are the first to see Christ and offer him praise. When people like them experience something like that, it changes everything.
They immediately, “with haste”, head into the city to look for the sign (v.12). Upon beholding the sign they made known the good news they had heard (17). As soon as they heard the evangel, they responded with faith and obedience. Once they saw the child, they evangelized what they heard. This unlikely lot received the privilege of testifying concerning the birth of His Son.
Luke provides three reactions:
- Audience 😑—Wondered (Lk. 1:21, 63; 2:33; 4:22, cf. 28). Amazement. Did any follow up on the news? Did they visit the baby? Did they praise God for sending a Savior? Calvin, “Still, though all are astonished, no one moves a step to come to Christ: from which we may infer, that the impression made upon them by hearing of the power of God, was unaccompanied by any devout affection of the heart.” There short-lived response was ambiguous at best and seems to stand in contrast to Mary’s. ”Good news of great joy” dies in the proud ears of the skeptic. If inquiry and investigation never transition into meditation and praise—the gospel of the birth of Christ will never be anything more than an intriguing idea or concept at which to wonder.
- Mary 🥰—Although the shepherds’ report amazed the people, Mary responded with a deeper reflection and appreciation. She treasured (literally “kept”) and pondered what she heard. The experience of the shepherds compounded with her own miraculous experience. All of it served to reveal a higher theology. The short-lived amazement (impressed/disturbed) stands in stark contrast with the heart-treasuring and pondering of Mary. The world hears about a baby in a manger and its wonder ends there. If Mary had a lot to treasure up and ponder as she looked upon her child—How much more do we have to reflect upon? We know more than she could’ve possibly understood. Do you respond accordingly?
- Shepherds 😵—Glorifying and praising God. Their experience concludes with doxology. The gospel never settles in the humble heart, it deepens our study and magnifies our praise. The goal is not to let the wonder fade, to know that your thrilling encounters with God are not only in the past… Treasure up and ponder this scene of the glory of God in the birth of a Savior born unto you.
We shouldn’t romanticize the shepherds. They had a reputation for a reason. Sin makes all of us unworthy. However, your sense of unworthiness is the very thing that brings you to a place where you might see with greater clarity the infinite worth of Christ!
All have access to the Father through the Son.
The original audience would have likely listened with as much wonder as you and me. Hopefully, we are still amazed when we think about that heavenly choir filling the night sky. Hopefully, we are still moved by the humility of our Lord and Savior.
But, even more important, I hope we still treasure up this gospel story. I hope we still ponder it with fresh insight and excitement.
The shepherd witnessed the heavenly choir, then after seeing the Savior in the manger, they joined in. God invites you to join the heavenly choir. You only have access because a Savior was born, obeyed, died, and rose.
Go in haste to worship Him! (You can do so tonight at 4!)