Why did God choose to reveal the good news of

LUKE 2. 8-20
It’s such a privilege to find myself preaching to you on this Christmas morning.
This is my very first Christmas sermon, so it’s a big moment for me. And what
makes it even more special is that I’m preaching on my favourite part of the
Christmas story, Luke’s account of a whole company of angels and a band of
shepherds in the hill country of Judea.
I suspect it’s my favourite part of the story because I grew up in sheep country
myself. And - though I have no memory of it - I spent my first three years in a
farm cottage on a hill farm in Yorkshire.
So I love this story of the darkened hillside dotted with sheep, and rough and
ready shepherds startled by angels.
I want to spend some time this morning thinking about these shepherds, what
sort of people they were, what became of them, and what they might have to tell
us. Why did God choose to reveal the good news of Christ’s coming to a bunch
of shepherds? What’s special about shepherds?
Well I think the first and most obvious answer to that, is nothing. What’s
special about shepherds is that they’re not special at all.
In an ancient agricultural society shepherds are ten-a-penny. Important
economically, yes, and in providing lambs for sacrifice in the temple. But, like
most people who have ever lived, and most people alive today, they will have
been poor people in the main. Many will have had their own smallholding but
they would hire themselves out to bigger landowners to make ends meet. Some
will have been desperately poor – the dispossessed - who had to hire themselves
out to survive. Others will have been better off, perhaps the owners of the
flocks or their sons.
What they all had in common was a hard and sometimes dangerous life. That
and the fact that they were people of no real importance in the eyes of the
And I find it so moving that God should announce his coming among us, not to
emperors, or kings, or priests, or prophets, but to these ordinary people of low to
middling social status, these hardworking ordinary folk.
I find it easy to identify with the shepherds. After all, as nativity plays
demonstrate, anybody can aspire to be a shepherd. My son was always a
shepherd in every nativity he was ever in. Which just shows that even the most
untidy and unruly little boy, the one who could never be trusted with lines to
say, or even be relied on to stand still in the right place, even he can find a place
on the back row of the shepherds.
And it was to these shepherds in their ordinariness that God sent his angels and
God’s glory shone that night, not in the temple where such encounters might be
expected, but there on the upland fields of a hill farm.
And that is the good news of Christmas, isn’t it? God’s Glory breaking into
every part of our daily lives?
It’s all of a piece. These shepherds camped out in the fields with their flocks.
A carpenter and his young wife from an obscure northern village. A child
wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in, of all places, a manger.
It’s about God taking the ordinary, and the everyday and transforming it. God
coming among us to share the ordinariness and make it holy.
And with that in mind, I’d like us now to look at what happens to our ordinary
bunch of shepherds.
Part of this story is very familiar. The shepherds decide to go to Bethlehem,
David’s city, the place where King David had been born and where he had been
a shepherd too. They find exactly what the angel told them to expect, a
swaddled child lying in a feeding trough.
And that, often, is where the shepherds’ story ends. At the crib service
yesterday, and at the midnight Eucharist, our reading of Luke’s gospel ended at
precisely this point. We’re left with the shepherds standing or kneeling at the
manger, as they do in all our Christmas crib scenes.
In our imaginations, we flesh out the story with details which we’ve picked up
from crib scenes carols and children’s addresses. We imagine touching scenes
in which the shepherds offer a lamb to the baby or kneel with their sheep at the
manger in adoration. All of which is lovely and may well be true, but doesn’t
form part of Luke’s account.
And we leave the story at the point where it’s all about the shepherd’s
wonderful experience of encountering the Christ Child, and understanding that
this is God, come to save his people.
What we rarely do is read to the end of shepherds’ story to find out what
actually happens. To find out why the angels have brought them to the manger.
God’s purpose in all of this is entirely missing. But this morning we did read to
the end. We did find out what happens and what we found is, I think,
Luke says: they made known what had been told them about this child. And all
who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
Here are our shepherds sharing the angels’ message. They’re telling others
about what God has done. How God has taken flesh and been born as a helpless
child, choosing to come to live among us and share our lives.
There’s a word for that, for what the shepherds are doing. Our ordinary
shepherds have been transformed into the first apostles.
They made known what had been told them about this child. And all who heard
it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
That shouldn’t surprise us. Not if we think about the others we meet in the
Gospels who become unlikely apostles. People like Anna, an elderly woman, a
widow, a byword for helplessness in the Bible, who encounters Jesus as a baby
in the temple and begins to speak about the child to everyone who was looking
for the redemption of Israel.
Or a man who is so troubled that his neighbours have chained him up. A man
who breaks his bonds and harms himself with rocks, but is healed by Jesus and
becomes the first to take the Good News to the Greek cities of the Decapolis
Or another woman, and a foreigner too. A Samaritan woman who has had five
husbands already and is living with a man she isn’t married to, but encounters
Jesus at a well and tells her neighbours to come and see.
Or Peter, who denied Jesus, or Paul who persecuted Christians. Or the women
who were witnesses to the resurrection but whom the disciples wouldn’t
believe, because they were only women, after all.
All these unlikely people, like our shepherds, became the means by which the
Good News of Christmas was passed on, ultimately to us.
Thinking about it, there are no more angelic messengers in Luke’s Gospel. They
tell the shepherds the Good News then disappear from the narrative. They’re no
longer needed.
The angels’ message of a saviour, the Messiah, God with us, becomes now the
message not of the angels but of the shepherds. God not only comes to live
among ordinary human beings but now entrusts to them, to us, the news that
once the angels brought.
I didn’t hear the Good News from an angel. I don’t suppose you did either. It’s
from ordinary people, from parents, teachers, friends, partners that we learn
about what God has done for us. And the people who told us also heard the
news from ordinary people. And back and back that chain of telling and hearing
goes through the centuries to people like our shepherds.
At the start of this sermon I asked: Why did God choose to reveal the good news
of Christ’s coming to a bunch of shepherds? What’s special about shepherds?
And my answer was: Nothing. What’s special about shepherds is that they’re
not special at all.
And that, I think, is why this story means so much to us. We readily identify
with these shepherds and their journey to Bethlehem. Look at us. Here we are
this morning come, like them, to worship at God’s manger throne.
But it’s also what challenges us in this story. For if these not-at-all-special
shepherds can take up the angels’ message and make it theirs, then surely that’s
what God calls you and me to do as well.
A Prayer for ourselves this Christmas morning
As we hear again of the message of the angels,
As we travel in imagination with the shepherds to the stable
And kneel before you manger throne,
Make us like them.
May we take up your message of peace and hope and salvation,
And, in the power of your Holy Spirit,
Carry it out with us into your waiting world.