Luke 2:8-20, Matthew 2:7-17

In each life, in each generation, there are unforgettable moments. My father remembered where he was in 1941 when he heard that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. (That was seventy-nine years ago tomorrow, December 7.) He remembered where he was when he heard that the war in the Pacific was over. In my life I remember where I was when I heard in 1963 that President Kennedy was shot. I remember where I was in 2001 when I was told that planes had flown into the World Trade Towers in New York City. These are unforgettable generational moments. Most people in a country can remember where they were when national events within their lifetime took place.

But there are personal unforgettable moments as well. I was having supper with a friend in Azrou when I received word my mother had died. I was working in an abandoned building behind our apartment, preparing the building to be renovated, when Annie came back from the doctor to tell me she was pregnant with our first child – very unexpected news. I have pictures of Annie that stay in my mind. In the summer before we were married I was living in New Jersey with my parents and Annie drove down from Boston to see me. I came home in the middle of the night from the auto assembly plant where I was working and saw Annie walking on the lawn in the mist of the early morning and the light of the moon. I will never forget that picture that is locked in my memory.

I remember sitting in a church in Chicago, listening to a young man telling about how he had recently become a follower of Jesus and saying to God, “OK, I will give my life to you but not here in front of all these people.”

I remember sitting in a chair at university, waiting for someone I was going to have lunch with, and praying. All of a sudden I found myself saying to God that I would give up my three month long resistance to his call and go to seminary.

I have never seen an angel, other than that beautiful, young woman walking on the lawn in the moonlight, waiting for me to get back from work. But if I had, I would never forget that moment.

The shepherds were out in the field, probably in the springtime, watching their flocks. They had to be awake to be on guard for any predators who would come to take one of their sheep, but there was not a lot that happened that was eventful during these nights. They had a fire to keep warm and fires tell lots of stories as you watch the flames and embers moving and dancing in the fire. And they had the stars to watch which told stories as well. Although they moved far more slowly than the flames and embers, they moved through the sky in an annual dance.

In the quiet of this night, as they were keeping watch over their flocks, the sky opened up with a brilliant display of light and an angel appeared saying: (Luke 2:10-12)
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

They were terrified by this intrusion into the quiet of the night and then: (Luke 2:13-14)
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Over the years the young men who came to learn how to be shepherds would sit around the fire and listen to stories of what had happened in past nights as they watched over their flocks. They heard stories of bears and lions who crept up and how they were chased away or killed. They heard some exciting stories, but there had never, ever been anything like this.

An angel appeared and then a host of angels and told them about the birth of the Messiah, a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.

So they left the field and went to Bethlehem to see if what the angel had told them was true. And then, there he was, a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger, just as they had been told.

As the people of Bethlehem woke up that morning, the whole town was buzzing with the news that this young couple who had come from Nazareth had given birth to a baby boy and that the shepherds were telling everyone that angels had appeared in the night sky telling them this baby boy was the Messiah.

This was an experience etched in the memory of the shepherds, never to be forgotten.

In the following year, the shepherds came by the street where Mary and Joseph had found a house of their own to see the baby boy. They looked at Jesus and remembered the angels. Neighbors saw Mary come out of the house and walk to the market to buy food supplies and remembered the story the shepherds had told. No one forgot. Everyone watched. Who was this child? When they looked, they saw that he was a baby boy like all the other baby boys. He had to be nursed and changed and carried. He cried like other babies. And they asked themselves, “What did all this mean?”
I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.

Could this baby boy really be the Messiah?

Sometime in that next year there was another amazing experience that had all of Bethlehem talking once again. Wise men came from the east in a caravan and asked where they could find a baby boy who had been born within the past year. They talked of being led by the stars and so the people in Bethlehem told them about the experience of the shepherds in the field and directed them to the house where Mary and Joseph were living. The Magi came to the house, were offered hospitality by Mary and Joseph, presented their expensive gifts and told why they had traveled so far, and then left to return home.

Not everyone in Bethlehem had seen the angels but everyone saw the Magi and now all the speculation about who Jesus was rose up once again. Who was this baby whose birth was announced by angels and who was visited by Magi who had traveled a great distance, guided by the stars, to honor him and give him expensive presents?

It was just a few days later, perhaps a week or so later, that a woman who had woken up in the middle of the night to nurse her crying baby heard a sound in the street and looked out to see that Mary and Joseph were rushing out of town. This was strange. Why would someone leave in the middle of the night and be in such a rush?

As people woke up to the new day, once again there was a story to tell and once again, it was a story concerning this strange family who had come from Nazareth. Why had they left so suddenly? Why had they not left during the day? Why had they not said goodbye?

Maybe it was that day or maybe in the week after this, but as the speculation was buzzing, the sound of soldiers coming into Bethlehem was heard. What was happening?

And then the slaughter began. The soldiers grabbed every baby boy they could find and killed him. They entered house after house, looking under beds, behind furniture, grabbing the baby boys and killing them. The cries of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and grandparents, the cries of Bethlehem rose up as the slaughter continued.

Then it was over and the soldiers left with the weeping and wailing behind them.

It must have been that some of the shepherds who had been in the field that night were in Bethlehem when the soldiers arrived. It could be that one of the fathers who grieved at the murder of his son was one of those shepherds. Did anyone put it all together? The announcement of angels to the shepherds, the visit of the magi, the hurried departure of Mary and Joseph, and the arrival of the soldiers, how were these connected?

The angel had announced that the birth of Jesus was good news of great joy for all the people. How was the slaughter of these baby boys, in any way, good news?

This question sat unanswered for thirty years. A lot happens in thirty years and the memories of the birth of Jesus faded. Mary and Joseph left Bethlehem for Egypt and then returned to Israel, but not to Bethlehem. They returned to Nazareth. Nazareth is an eight to ten day journey from Bethlehem. When they came for the annual festivals in Jerusalem, did they make contact with the families they knew in Bethlehem? There is so much room for speculation, but if they did meet during the festivals, Jesus was working as a carpenter in his father’s shop. He did not seem that much different from others working in trades.

Thirty years after the birth of Jesus, when people from all over Israel came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Passover, were any of the shepherds who had seen the angels that night present in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified? Were there any of the parents of the murdered baby boys present in Jerusalem that last week of Jesus on earth? Were any of them present at Pentecost when the promised Holy Spirit descended?

Bethlehem is only nine kilometers from Jerusalem so it seems likely that many of the people of Bethlehem would join the pilgrims in Jerusalem for the annual festivals. It must have been that some of them were present and if they were, then, after a long thirty year wait, they could begin to understand what the angel had announced that night in the field:
I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.

The experience of the shepherds is a condensed version, a microcosm, of our own experience. Jesus promised that he would return, but that was almost 2,000 years ago. His own disciples thought his return would be within their generation. Generation after generation has thought that Jesus would be returning soon and that “soon” has stretched into twenty centuries.

And like the shepherds, we have lots of questions to ask as we experience tragedy. Some of us have family tragedies that weigh heavily on us. How can a loving God allow such suffering? But when we extend our view to the larger world and then even farther to the larger world over time, what we see crushes us. The news bombards us with stories of massacres, sex trafficking of women and young children, exploitation of young children in sweat shops to produce goods for the Western world, slavery, physical and sexual abuse, famines, earthquakes, typhoons and hurricanes, floods, volcanic eruptions, pandemics, economic depressions and exploitation – the list goes on and on and on without end.

Throughout history questions have been raised. The Black Plague killed half of the population of Europe in the 14th century. Between 20-50 million people died worldwide in the 1918 flu pandemic. My grandfather’s brother, Alfie, and his father, Johan, were two of those who died in that pandemic.

So we, like the shepherds, have lots of questions to ask. The angel said:
I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.

Really? Tell me how this is good news for all those who suffer so terribly. How was this good news for the parents in Bethlehem? If the gospel of Jesus is good news only for those who lead relatively comfortable and affluent lives, then it is not much of a gospel. How is the gospel good news for those who suffer in this world?

Let me present three reasons and an observation about why the birth of Jesus is good news that will cause great joy for all the people.

First, suppose you are walking in the woods and all of a sudden the ground beneath your feet gives way and you fall into a hole, an abandoned well. When you recover from the fall, you discover that except for some scrapes and bruises you are ok, but now what do you do? It is not possible to climb out. There are no handholds or footholds. You yell and yell but there is no response. You sit at the bottom of this hole and wonder what is going to happen to you. Will snakes and rats and spiders find their way to you? As you consider all these terrible images, you decide to yell again. But nothing. You sit for hours in the hole, yelling occasionally. Finally just as it is getting dark and you are facing the prospect of spending the night in the hole, you hear footsteps. You cry out and hear a voice respond. A face appears, a young boy, and he tells you to wait, he will go get help.

All of a sudden you begin to relax. Why? You are still sitting in the bottom of the hole. Your physical situation has not changed. But now help is on the way. Knowing you will be rescued makes you relieved and hopeful.

The suffering in this world is not permanent. Peter wrote to followers of Jesus who were suffering from persecution and encouraged them, (1 Peter 1:3–6)
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.

We will not always be sitting at the bottom of an abandoned well.

Jesus has promised he will come for us. Help is on the way and he has promised us that he will prepare a place in his kingdom for us. (John 14:1–3)
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

Jesus has promised to deliver us from all the evil and suffering of this world and take us to where (Revelation 21:3–4)
God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

As difficult and as terrible as the circumstances of life can be, the promise of Jesus gives us encouragement because help is on the way. This circumstance, whatever it is, will not last forever.

The first reason for hope is that help is on the way and the second is that while we wait, we are not alone. When Jesus ascended, he sent the Holy Spirit to be present with us. While we sit at the bottom of the hole, facing whatever difficulty we are enduring, we are not alone. God is present with us.

These are the two great promises of God: He promises to be present with us through all of life’s events. No matter how difficult the circumstance, we are never alone. God is present with us. And God promises that when it is time for us to die, he will take us to be with him in his kingdom. These are the two absolutely best promises we could hold on to. These are promises that give us hope at the bottom of an abandoned well with night approaching.

Help is on the way. God is present with us. A third reason for hope as we wait is that while we wait, the Holy Spirit is at work in us, preparing us for our eternal future.

This time of waiting is not wasted. While we wait, we are being transformed. This is the work of the Holy Spirit in us, to transform us to be holy and righteous. We have to cooperate with the Holy Spirit, but we are not alone in our efforts to become better people. As we open the doors to the rooms of our lives, the Holy Spirit helps us to clean them out, one by one. This is a process that will go on up to the last day and hour of our earthly life.

While we sit in the bottom of the hole, wondering what will happen to us, God is at work in us. Our character is being tested and refined. As long as we remain open to God’s work in us, our time on earth is never wasted. Valuable, life-changing, character-transforming work is being done in us and we will take the fruit of this work with us into eternity.

Help is on the way. God is present with us. The Holy Spirit is at work in us, preparing us for our eternal future. This allows even the most desperate of us to be encouraged. This is good news of great joy for all the people, even people who suffer.

Fourth, the birth of Jesus is good news that will cause great joy for all the people – especially to those who know how desperately they need help.

Why did the angels appear to shepherds watching their flocks in the fields outside Bethlehem? Why not people in the town of Bethlehem? Why shepherds?

Karen Smith is chaplain at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane and a few years ago I went to her church during Advent. She preached a sermon about the angels appearing to shepherds and I want to share a bit of what she said.

She pointed out that one of the blessings of living in Morocco is that we are able to live in a culture similar to the culture of Jesus. Moroccan Arab culture is similar to the Palestinian culture of Jesus.

Karen shared her experience of working with the shepherds and their families in a community called Tarmilat, right outside of Ifrane.

Most of us have very little contact with shepherds. We see the sheep each year during the feast when sheep are killed to commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son, but we do not have neighbors who are shepherds. We may see them when we drive in the countryside, but we don’t know them or the life they live.

That wasn’t the case for families living in Bethlehem. Most families would have some sheep and goats to provide food and wool for themselves, but in the year after Jesus was born, Joseph most likely made his living as a carpenter. This was a good thing because those who were shepherds by profession were considered to be “sinners”, just like tax collectors and prostitutes because it was impossible for them to keep themselves ritually clean.

Karen said,
Indeed, it is dirty work, being a shepherd, a dirty life. When I mentioned to Fatima, who works for me, that we had started a project with Tarmilat, she wrinkled her nose and said, “Those shepherds are so dirty.” And honestly, one of the first things that struck me when I went to Tarmilat was how dirty the children were. To make matters worse, the community of Tarmilat is located right next to Ifrane’s city dump, so garbage litters their “yards”.

And their houses are “dirty” in the most literal sense – the walls are made of mud and the roofs of rough hewn logs and plastic sheeting. They sleep on rugs thrown on the hard ground. It’s really simply one step up from a tent. There is a spring that waters the land, there, creating good grazing land for the animals, but it’s no easy thing to keep clean.

I went to Tarmilat with young teenagers, and one of them actually asked one of the women how they take baths. The woman told us that they have a bath day: they move everything out of one house, heat a bunch of water on the wood stove and let all the women bathe together; then they repeat the process with the men. But it’s an ordeal; I’m sure it doesn’t happen very often. So being dirty is the norm. One woman told us, “We live like donkeys;” it is close to the truth – the animals most often live under the same roof as the people, divided only by a mud wall. Still, it was quite the disparaging comment in Moroccan society where to call someone a donkey is a great insult.

The shepherds in the Biblical account were also “abiding in the fields”, living a life not that different from the lives of the sheep they kept, being exposed to the weather, experiencing the tediousness of the routine of simple survival. People wrinkled their noses at them when they came into Bethlehem on market day. They were accustomed to disapproval, disfavor, disdain. That was their life in the lowest caste of society. Indeed, shepherds were and are outsiders, in most every sense of that word: literally living outside in the elements, outside of the city, outside of respectable society.

But that night in the fields outside of Bethlehem everything changed forever for those shepherds. Because that night they heard and saw things they could scarcely find words to speak of. Light brighter than the sun, the flashing of all the stars of heaven, the fluttering of wings, a voice, a thousand voices. And of course, they were afraid, as anyone would be afraid, but they are told to not be afraid, because this miracle of the most color-filled light breaking into darkness is not going to destroy them. No, on the contrary this is good news, the best of news, unfolding before their very eyes and ears: a savior is born, Christ the Lord. And he is born unto them.

If you are interested, I can send you her full sermon.

Why is it good news of great joy for all the people that the angels appeared to the shepherds?

It is good news of great joy because Jesus came for those who are rejected by society, for those who live in the lowest caste of society.

When the world makes choices, they choose the smartest, the strongest, the most beautiful or handsome, the ones with family wealth and influence. We learn this early in school. We observe who gets elected as class president. We see who hangs out with the most popular groups in school. And we see who exists on the margins. We see who sits at the bottom.

After graduation some in school will go on to university and others will get jobs nobody else wants. Those who go to university see the same thing happening. There are some who are at the top and others at the bottom. We see the same thing in the workplace. Some advance and others are left behind.

Society does not offer encouragement to those who are left behind, who get what no one else wants. These shepherds in life hear the birth of Jesus with angels appearing to shepherds in the field as good news of great joy because one of their own was chosen. God appeared to the shepherds, the garbage collectors, the street sweepers, the parking guardians, the invisible people, to be the first to hear the good news that Jesus the Messiah was born.

The angel announced, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” All the people, including them. It was not by accident that the skies opened up and shepherds happened to be there to hear the angel’s announcement. It was by design. God chose the shepherds to hear this good news.

Why is it good news of great joy for all the people that the angels appeared to the shepherds?

It is people who know how much they need Jesus that love him the most.

When Jesus ate at the home of Simon the Pharisee, a prostitute came into the room and washed the feet of Jesus with her tears, dried his feet with her hair, and anointed them with perfume. Simon thought to himself that if Jesus knew what kind of woman this was, he would reject her. But Jesus knew his thoughts and told a parable about a moneylender who forgave two men a debt – one a large debt and the other a small debt. He asked Simon who would love the moneylender more.

And then Jesus brought the point of the parable home by pointing out that Simon had not washed his feet when he entered the room but this woman had washed his feet with her tears. So Jesus told Simon, (Luke 7:47)
Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

Think about who the people were who followed Jesus. Make a list of those Jesus healed or delivered from demonic possession. Who are the people on that list?

Desperate people came to Jesus for help. It was in desperation that four friends lowered their paralyzed friend through the roof and into the room where Jesus was teaching. It was desperate beggars who would not keep quiet and continued to cry out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” It was a desperate woman who was unclean because of her continual bleeding who made her way through the crowd around Jesus, violating the rules that required her to keep away from other people. It was desperate lepers who came to Jesus to be healed. Nicodemus, a respected Pharisee, came to see Jesus in the dark of night because he did not want people to see him talking with Jesus. He took the risk of coming to see Jesus because he was desperate to know who this man was who was stirring his heart and mind. Later Nicodemus was willing to be seen in public with Jesus and took his lifeless body from the cross to be buried in a tomb.

In another of the parables Jesus told, a man invited guests to a grand banquet, but they all told the servant who gave them the invitation that they could not come. (Luke 14:21)
“The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’

Notice that Jesus did not say to go to the malls and gated communities. He said to go into the streets and alleys of the town. Jesus did not come into the world to save the respectable; he came to rescue the sick and broken.

Jesus came to rescue the sick and broken which stands in stark contrast with much of the church today. The church today, for the most part, seeks out the respectable and when they come into the church, the church rejoices. Respectable people are chosen to be deacons and elders. Respectable people are asked to lead the bible studies and ministries of the church. Churches want respectable people to be a part of their community and they push away those who are not respectable.

The angel announced, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”

The birth of Jesus is good news of great joy to those who are rejected by society, but is it also good news for those who are honored in society? Remember that the angel announced, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” All the people, even respectable people.

So it is good for us to remember the words of Eugene O’Neill who said, “Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.” The fortunate people in our world are the ones who realize they are broken and need a savior. Despite what any of us think about ourselves, we are all broken. We all need mending. We all need to be healed by God. Fortunate people are those who realize this and are desperate for the help Jesus offers.

We need to hear this truth: Jesus searches for sinners, not those who think they are already saints.

Why is it good news of great joy for all the people that the angels appeared to the shepherds? God takes us in our brokenness and begins his work to transform us into saints. God makes us respectable.

Paul wrote to the church in Corinth and we see who some of the people in that church community were. (1 Corinthians 6:9–11)
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

“That is what some of you were.”

Think of the first years of the early church. If you could go back in time and step into a community of followers of Jesus, who are the highly respected people you would meet? There is a gracious woman, beautiful inside and out. She is wise and radiates with the joy of the Holy Spirit. You ask her name and she tells you she is Mary Magdalene. She tells you of her life when she was demon possessed and how Jesus delivered her from those demons. There are also beautiful and gracious women, wise and gifted women, who had been prostitutes. There is a man, strong and healthy, with a beaming smile. He is a great bear of a man and children love coming up to him to be hugged and lifted up. And then he tells you about the day Jesus met him on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in the region of Gerasene. He had been a wild man, feared by everyone, put in chains that he would break. He had lived in a cave like an animal. And now he preaches and evangelizes, telling everyone about Jesus.

I have been privileged over the years as pastor of RIC to hear the stories of many people who came out of very difficult circumstances. I have met those who were drug addicts, male prostitutes, sexually promiscuous and if you met them you would never guess they had this past history. They are beautiful people with strong faith and a deep love for Jesus who rescued them. There is no past Jesus cannot rescue us from. The healing power of the Holy Spirit can make a saint out of any sinner.

Throughout church history the gospel has come to outcasts, to the poor and the oppressed, and they have been lifted up by the power of the love of Jesus for them. The wealthy and powerful have often used the gospel for their own purposes. It is the outcasts, the poor and rejected, who have been most grateful for the new life Jesus has given them. Their lives are testimony of the power of the Holy Spirit to transform us.

I was never sexually promiscuous and my only experience with drugs was to take a puff of a marijuana joint being passed around at a concert the year before I became a follower of Jesus. But my life was not heading in a healthy direction and I am grateful for the miracle in my life that saved me. I hold on to Jesus through good and bad times because I am grateful for what he has done in my life and continues to do in my life. I am a broken person and need the help of God as much as any shepherd in history.

Are you aware that you are sitting at the bottom of an abandoned well and need someone to rescue you? Salvation is a process. It is not a one-time experience. We continue to need someone to rescue us. We are sinners who have been made saints and we are being made saints.

We live among people who are lost. They may be wonderful people, good friends. But we are all moving toward the end of our lives and coming to the point where being a good friend and a delightful person will not be enough. The greatest Christmas gift for those you love would be for them to understand that they are sitting at the bottom of an abandoned well and need to be rescued. We are all broken and we all need to be rescued. We all need to be healed by Jesus.

This morning we will share in the meal Jesus asked us to eat and remember that his body was broken for us; his blood was shed for us. Come to the meal this morning with gratitude that when you were calling out for help, he answered you and said, “Do not fear. I am with you. I will rescue you. You will be safe with me.”

Come with prayers for those you want to share this meal with when we all come into the eternal kingdom of God. Come with prayers for family and friends, and for the people you see on the street where you live, in the stores where you shop, the people of the alleys and streets, the shepherds of your world.