This month at South Side we are going through a very special sermon series entitled “The Cast of Christmas” where we are looking at how each character from the Christmas story applies to our lives today. Last week we talked about angels and how we too are called to share the good news of Jesus with others. This Sunday we will unpack the shepherds. I wonder what kind of expectation that shepherds had that day for their night? I’m sure it wasn’t even close to what was about to happen. There they were, the shepherds, watching their flocks of sheep, protecting them from predators just like any other night of the year. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, the angels of heaven appeared to announce the greatest of all news in the history of news! The common story goes that the shepherds were poor, stinky, and ragtag. But like many stories, sometimes they get spun by culture over time. Yes, they may have been stinky and perhaps a bit disheveled, but they were not poor, country-bumpkin farmers scratching out a living as we’ve always been told. No, they were actually higher up the social scale than that.
So, who were these shepherds then? If they weren’t the poorest of the poor and specially chosen by God because of it…then why these guys? A quick look at Jewish priestly duties explains it all…without popping the romantic bubble surrounding that first Noel. The usual version we hear about these shepherds is that they were poor and dirty. It’s usually followed up with the idea that Jesus appeared to these poor shepherds because it was God’s design to first appear to “the least of these.” That by appearing to them first, Jesus was conveying His heart to reach the have-nots of society before appearing to any authorities because it was disenfranchised He was most concerned with.Well…that’s at least partly true. Jesus, of course, had (and still has) a heart for those who are downcast and hurting and everyone else. But these shepherds, they were not outcasts of society. The shepherds we read about in Luke were actually fulfilling Temple duties, and the only ones who could perform Temple duties were priests. We know they were priests because of the Mishnah. The Mishnah is a group of documents that recorded oral traditions that governed the Jewish people during the time of the Pharisees. One of its regulations states it “expressly forbids the keeping of flocks throughout the land of Israel except in the wilderness — and the only flocks otherwise kept would be those for the Temple services (Bab K.7:7; 80a).
These shepherds were in the fields surrounding Bethlehem, not out in the wilderness where regular sheep were kept. So, they must have been priests. Why would priests perform menial shepherding duties for the Temple? It’s because the sheep were intended to be sacrificed for Passover. It was the priests’ job to make sure the lambs were without blemish and completely unharmed before being sacrificed. The belief that the angels appeared first to poor, uneducated, country shepherds makes a lot of sense, but the truth is even better. See, these priests were a part of the animal sacrifice system of the church. It was their job to prepare the sheep for Passover and other Jewish ceremonies. Then, out of nowhere, breaking the silent night, an angel from heaven appears to them with an update to Moses’ Law. Though the shepherds probably weren’t fully aware of what was happening, the angel was hand-delivering a message telling them the time for animal sacrifice was nearly over, and they were the first to know. “For there is born to you today, in David’s city, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:11
The Christ, the promised Messiah the priests had heard about from the prophets, the Savior of the world was finally born. Animal sacrifices were no longer necessary. Now, Jesus would be the ultimate and perfect sacrifice to pay for man’s sin once and for all through His death and resurrection. No wonder these priests ran “with haste (v.16)” to see the baby the angel spoke about. I’d be running too, wouldn’t you? I can only imagine how big their eyes got and how far their jaws dropped when they found a baby lying in a feeding trough, wrapped in swaddling cloth, just as the angel said. One side note about the swaddling cloths…these weren’t ordinary cloths. They weren’t rags Mary and Joseph brought from home or happened to find in the stable. No, they were the same cloths used by the church — specifically, the shepherd priests — to keep the lambs clean and free of blemishes as the lambs were prepared for the sacrifice. How Mary and Joseph got the cloths is unknown, but theologians speculate they were from the priest, Zacharias, whose wife, Elizabeth, is Mary’s cousin. Remember Mary stayed in their house for three months while she was pregnant, and the cloths may have been a sort of baby shower gift. So, the shepherds found baby Jesus wrapped in priestly cloths. Sounds perfect to me. Since Jesus is the lamb of God (John 1:29) and the great High Priest, it’s only fitting because one day He would be sacrificed like a lamb for all mankind.
I believe that the good news these shepherds celebrated was the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah. Soon there would be need to sacrifice animals anymore because of the price Jesus paid for us. He came to earth to be the perfect Lamb, without blemish and sin, so we never again have to be separated from Him. After the shepherds saw Jesus with their own eyes, the Bible says they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen (v. 20).” I believe that knowing the Savior of the world has come should move all of us toward praise not just on Sundays but on a daily bases. So let me ask you this question, how much are we like these shepherds at we wait for the coming of Jesus today? This Sunday at South Side we will unpack the message of the shepherds further. We have an amazing children’s ministry for all ages. Be sure to come early and enjoy a fresh cup of coffee at Café Connect. Elevate Worship begins at 10:45, and we would love to see you there!