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12.20.09 The Message of the Shepherds. Luke 2:1-10, Isaiah 40:9-11, Jeremiah 31:10-14, Psalm 28:8-9

by on December 22, 2009

Advent and Christmas are full of great symbolism. This year I’ve been impressed with the symbol of the Shepherds. Their message tells us something about God, and something about ourselves.

When you search the scriptures for references to shepherds, you’ll find they span the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation. There are good shepherds and bad ones. There are literal ones and metaphorical ones. There’s the shepherd turned king (David), and there are “shepherds” referring to rulers, pastors, the church, Christ, and God.

When Luke uses the term, what is trying to tell us? What is the message of the shepherds? If we look at the first and the last verses of this story, we get an answer.

The first message is about God. The shepherds in Luke 2 represent God, who, like they, is “keeping watch over his flocks at night” (Luke 2:8). Darkness and light, nighttime and dawning day—these are two of the great symbols of Advent. And Luke is reminding us, with the story about the shepherds, that God is the shepherd, come in Christ, to watch over us through the night.

To help us understand the significance of this reference, consider the following characteristics of God as shepherd as given to us in Isaiah 40:9-11, Jeremiah 31:10-14, and Psalm 28:8-9.

God as shepherd is our protector and deliverer. The LORD will ransom Jacob and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they (Jer. 31: 11). The LORD is the strength of his people, a fortress of salvation (Psa. 28:8). (As a passing observation, if the 23rd Psalm, the so-called “shepherd’s Psalm” is a little to idyllic and gentile for your situation, try the edgier Psalm 28.) The Sovereign LORD comes with power to fulfill the role of the shepherd (Isa. 40:10).

God as shepherd is our gatherer. God will gather the lambs in his arms (Isa. 40:11). God who scattered ancient Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd (Jer. 31:10).

God as shepherd is our leader: God gently leads the mother sheep (Isa. 40:11).

God as shepherd is our intimate fellow journeyer: God carries the sheep in his bosom (“close to his heart”) (Isa. 40:11).

God as shepherd is our provider: The sheep will rejoice in the Lord’s bounty: grain, wine, oil, water (Jer. 31:12). Don’t let the sacramental reference elude you. This is part of the reason why we eat bread, drink wine, anoint with oil, and baptize with water. All these are symbols of God’s generous and providential grace.

And God as shepherd is faithful to the end: Be our shepherd, Psalm 28:9 says, and carry us forever.

The first message of the shepherds is this: In Jesus Christ is born a Savior, the shepherd of our souls, who will never abandon us, who will deliver us to our destiny as the people of God.

The second message of the shepherds is that they teach us what to do. Luke tells us, after everything, that the shepherds “returned, glorifying and praising God for what they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20). It’s instructive to note that it isn’t enough to hear God’s message. We can’t just come to church, read the Bible, or sit in meditative prayer. We have to do what the shepherds did: hear God’s Word, and then go and see for ourselves.

In going to see for ourselves what God has done in Bethlehem, we have to leave our worlds behind for a time. We have to leave our responsibilities and concerns and distractions, our “sheep on the hillsides.” When we receive Communion by coming forward, think about leaving your world in your pew. It will be there when you return. Hear the Word of God’s grace and presence, then leave your world behind and come and see for yourself.

And then the shepherds returned, grateful to have been in God’s presence, and transformed by having been so.

So the message of the shepherds is to remember that God is our shepherd, faithful in all the ways we need him to be. And their message is an invitation to follow their example: Hear God’s Word, go see and share it, then return to our lives transformed by God’s presence in Christ.

Questions leading to application

  • In what ways do you need God to be a shepherd to you? Did you know God fulfills the roles of a shepherd listed here? Do these characteristics of the divine shepherd address your needs? If not, search the other biblical references to God as shepherd and see what you find.
  • What have you heard from God that you still need to see and verify? Why haven’t you done it already? Can you really say you believe God’s Word to you if you neglect to go, see, and share?
  • What aspects of your life is God calling you to leave behind for a time? How might your perspective on these things change after you enter Christ’s presence?
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