Now perhaps you would turn with me to Luke's gospel chapter 2 and verse 10, which is really our text for this morning - 'The Fear Not That Was Spoken Unto The Shepherds'. "And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people".
If the Lord Jesus Christ was going to be Messiah, He would have to fulfil many of the prophecies within the Old Testament Scriptures, indeed all of them - but I mean many of the prophecies that regard Messiah's coming. The one in particular that is contemporary to us today in this passage and at this time of year is Micah 5 verse 2, where the prophet Micah said: 'But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting'. Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem. If He was not born in Bethlehem, He could not be the Messiah.
Now Luke's emphasis, or at least one of his emphases in his nativity scene is this fact: that the Lord Jesus Christ fulfilled this prophecy of Micah, and indeed was born in Bethlehem - and being born in Bethlehem, at least in that sense, qualified to be the Messiah. But I want you to see today that his chief concern in verses 1 to 7 is not just to show us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but to explain how He came to be born in Bethlehem. Now why do I say that? Well, I say that simply because there was a problem. Mary was not in Bethlehem, Mary was in Nazareth. The pregnant Mary, with the child Jesus in her womb, was not in Bethlehem; and that prophecy could not therefore be fulfilled - so she needed somehow, in some strange way, to get to Bethlehem.
Before I go on any further, please do not think that Joseph and Mary in some way engineered circumstances to fit into Scripture. Some people are highbrow enough to think that this is possible, that Mary and Joseph, of their own volition, made their own way to Bethlehem so that their son could at least in this sense fulfil the prophecy of being Messiah, being born in the city of David. Nothing of the sort! In fact, what is true, and what is abundantly satisfying and thrilling to the Bible believing Christian is this: God's providence ordered things in such a way, in such an extraordinary fashion, against all the odds, that Jesus should be born in Bethlehem.
The staggering thing about it is that God used a man, who was probably the supreme organising genius of the ancient world, to arrange that Jesus should be born in Bethlehem. Who am I talking about? Caesar Augustus. It was Caesar Augustus' fault that Jesus was moved from Nazareth to Bethlehem, because Caesar Augustus was the man who ordered the census. Simply what a census was, was that everyone had to return to the city from which their family sprang - not the city of their birth, but the city from which their family sprang - and therefore this was not a choice of Joseph and Mary to return to Bethlehem from Nazareth, they were compelled by law to do it, compelled by none other than Caesar Augustus the Emperor of the Roman Empire.
Now this is tremendously satisfying, because we have learnt in previous weeks that God works regardless of opposing historical circumstances of the day. I think we can clearly say that: God works regardless, in spite of what is going on in the realm of politics, in the realm of our particular society, the laws that are being passed. But this is something further than this, this is telling us that God not only works regardless of opposing historical circumstances, but God actually works through historical circumstances - even those which oppose His revealed will.
Now let me tease that out for you in introduction to this 'Fear Not' today. I'm sure you're aware that Augustus knew nothing of what the effect of his census would be. He didn't know that he was going to move the Messiah from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be confirmed as the Messiah. The last thing he would have done, and his vassal King Herod would have wanted to happen, was that he would strengthen the credentials of a Messianic claimant to the throne of Israel. That was the antithesis of everything that they stood for. In fact, he was employing this census across the whole of the Roman Empire to get a greater control over parts of the Empire. But the irony of it is this: he, wishing to get greater political and religious power over his Empire, in an attempt to tighten the grip, as it were, upon them, was actually organising the affairs - geographically speaking - to get the son of Mary, the son of David, the Son of God who was destined to sit on the throne of Israel in Jerusalem, and on the throne of the world one day, exactly where the Scriptures said He should be born. No 'Amens'?
It's tremendous, isn't it? How Caesar Augustus, a godless man, through a will that was opposed to everything that God's will was, actually was found to be the fulfilling instrument of Micah 5:2. Now if that doesn't cause you to believe in the sovereignty of God, I don't know what will! I was reminded, as I was meditating upon this, about the Psalm 76 verse 10, where the Psalmist exclaims: 'Surely the wrath of man shall praise Thee'. Even the anger of a godless man, God can use to bring to fruition the counsels of His own will - Proverbs 21 verse 1 says: 'The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will'.
Can I just say in passing: this is the great paradox concerning God's providence and the apparent freedom that mankind has. This is something that has baffled theologians and philosophers, and the sages down through the ages: how can God be supremely sovereign, providential in everything that's going on, yet man still has a free will? Well here's the evidence: Augustus had his own reasons for taking the political actions that he did, and he did exactly what he wanted to do - yet not realising that what he did, in fact, had been predetermined by the counsel and foreknowledge of God long before Augustus was even named.
Isn't it tremendous? But can I just say, before I go on any further, that there could be someone here this morning and you're trying to avoid God's will: you know what God's will is for your life. Maybe you're not even converted, and you know that you ought to be, and you ought to repent of your sins and believe the Gospel - and you think in some simplistic, futile way that you can attempt to avoid God, to run away from God. Psalm 139 would be a good meditation for you, the fact of the matter is this: God can even work through the godless to bring His purposes to pass. You need to beware, you cannot run from God. You cannot hide from His will.
Let's move on. We thought a couple of weeks ago about how Luke primarily is a historian, and what Luke is showing us is that ungodly men and rulers do what they will, but God even moves through their reasoning to bring about His will. Do you remember this in the story of Joseph? You remember everything - we don't have time to contemplate everything that Joseph went through - but then at the end of it all in Genesis 50 and verse 20, Joseph said: 'But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive'. 'Your intention was evil, but God turned evil into good'!
We don't have time to look at it, but in Acts 18 and verses 1 and 2 Luke again records for us another incidence of how an imperial decree unintentionally helped to forward the gospel at a crucial stage. How Priscilla and Aquila were in a certain place because of another decree that was made, and then Paul came across them and there was an opportunity for the Gospel in that. Do you remember Paul in prison, and in Philippians chapter 1 and verse 12 he again testifies how God can work through such adverse circumstances that come from the evil mind of godless men. He said: 'But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel'. Now isn't this tremendous? Whatever is against us in our age that we live in, whatever is against us - the godless laws that our government may or may not pass in the days that are to come, the laws that are upon us at this very moment, maybe the enemies that are in your personal life, the obstacles that you are facing - isn't it amazing to think that our God's sovereignty goes to such a deep extent that He can even work through their actions and their will to bring His own will to pass?
I love the Reformers, and I love reading about Christian history - and of course, there is no greater Reformer than Martin Luther. Of course, he faced the whole force of papal Rome in the whole of the continent of Europe during the Reformation period. I love to read his writings, but one hymn that's particularly dear to me that he wrote, and it is 'A Mighty Fortress Is Our God'. I remind you of this verse, tremendous theology in it concerning the sovereignty of God:
'And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us...
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill;
God's truth abideth still;
His kingdom is forever'.
So what Luke wants to point out to us first and foremost is the very highest place that earth affords, the throne of Roman Empire, he wants to show us how its counsel - though independently arrived at in a godless manner - is fulfilling God's eternal counsels and decrees. But now he takes us on further, and he wants to show us how God's Son came into the world. Now he's moving from the highest place that earth affords, the heights of earth, to the depths of earth. We're asking the question now: how did God's Son come into this world? Verse 7 gives us the answer, Luke chapter 2 and verse 7: 'And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn'. He came in humiliation. It says 'wrapped' - that was like any other child who would be wrapped in swaddling bands, that was the custom of the day. But no other child would be wrapped in swaddling bands and laid in a manger - that was unlike any other. In fact, the inference is that Mary had to wrap the child herself after birth, she had no help - no help to bring the Son of God into the world.
This is tremendous to our minds, it blows our minds and boggles our thoughts to think that there was no regal palace into which the Son of God was welcomed. His bed was a meagre manger, and such indignity that never, perhaps, had been seen before on the face of the earth was reserved for the Lord of glory, the Creator, the Sustainer of the worlds and the universe entering into human history not as a conquering military hero, not as a great prophet called to be such, but a little babe in a manger, in a feeding trough. Even that He should be called 'a babe'!
We don't have time to dwell on this, but is this not the mystery of godliness: God manifest in flesh. Second Corinthians 8 and verse 9: 'For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich'. J. N. Darby put it like this: 'He began in a manger and ended on the cross, and along the way had not where to lay His head'.
We ask how He would come into the world, that's how. We ask to whom, first, the annunciation of His birth was given - and I'm not talking now about Joseph and Mary, I'm talking about apart from them. Who were the first people that received the announcement of His birth? There's a theme running throughout this, we've come from the heights of the Roman Empire down to the depths of the lowly manger - and now we're still staying in the depths, for when God announces the coming of His Son, does He announce it to a high priest? Does He announce it to a King, or to a Scribe? No, the answer is in verse 8: 'And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night'. Again what God is telling us is: 'Look, my manoeuvres are not yours. My ways, my devices, my policies are not able to be understood by the human mind'. The vision of the annunciation of the birth of the Son of God on earth was not given to these highbrow, sophisticated individuals, but given to people who effectively were the unexpected ones to receive it - in fact, in this day and generation, were despised, a despised group of people.
Now although, as you read the Old and New Testament, you will be familiar with the fact that a shepherd was often a respected individual, it was often used as a metaphor for care, it was a symbol, perhaps, of political or religious leadership - and it was even used of God: 'God, the Lord is my shepherd', Psalm 23. But in late Judaism, where we are now in time, after the exile from Babylon, the Pharisaic Jews, the rabbis, brought about a striking devaluation of the occupation of a shepherd to such an extent that a shepherd was considered to be an outcast socially and religiously. They were poorly paid - that wasn't a reason for being an outcast, but if you were poorly paid people suspected that you were pinching pennies, and therefore they were thought - often rightly - of being dishonest. The religious people were forbidden to buy wool or milk or meat from them. Certain civic practices were debarred from them, functions such as a judge or a witness in the court - a shepherd wasn't allowed to be one of those. In fact, people were to withdraw from a shepherd in the same sense as they would withdraw from a tax collector.
Their work not only made them ceremonially unclean, but it kept them away from the temple for weeks at a time on end, and that meant they could never be made clean even if they wanted to. The Midrash, a Jewish commentary on Psalm 23, makes this comment: 'No position in the world is as despised as that of a shepherd'. So we do well to ask the question: why did the first annunciation, other than Mary and Joseph, of the birth of Christ on earth come to a shepherd? Well, here are the two reasons why that I believe take us from the heights of Roman imperialism, to the depths of Christ's humility, to the heights of glory that the angel sang of at the end of this passage.
Here's the first reason why the shepherds heard it first: because God does not call the rich and the mighty, He calls the poor and the lowly. In Luke chapter 1 and verse 51 we read these words: 'He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away'. Is that not what Paul said in 1 Corinthians chapter 1:26: 'For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty', and so on.
Shepherds, for some reason, I don't know why, weren't even allowed to testify as a witness in the court - but isn't it striking that when God wanted to testify to the world that His Son had come, who did He testify to first? The outcast, the lowly shepherd! James 2:5 says: 'Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?'. Do you know what this tells me? Faith is for the ordinary working man - faith is for everyone, no matter your class, or your creed, or your ability. Moses was keeping sheep, just like the shepherds, when God came and called him. Gideon was threshing wheat when God called him. Elisah was ploughing in the field when God called him. When these men received the revelation and the call of God they were working, because they were ordinary men - not the emperors of this world!
Like Jacob, these shepherds, as it was said of him, were plain men dwelling in tents. Is that not an encouragement to all of us? It's an encouragement to me. Do you remember when I spoke of Mary a couple of weeks ago I quoted J.G. Bellet (sp?) who said: 'How often we see a poor unlettered soul that knows more of the simplicity of the truth of God than many who can talk much of the Bible'. James S. Stewart, the preacher, put it like this: 'Is there not a world of meaning in the fact that it was the very ordinary people, busy about very ordinary tasks, whose eyes first saw the glory of the coming Lord. It means first that the place of duty, however humble, is the place of vision. It means second that it is the men who have kept to the deep simple pieties of life, and have not lost the child heart to whom the gates of the kingdom most readily open'.
Do you know what I'm going to tell you? These shepherds had more insight and understanding of Christ and who He was than many theologians even in our world today, for they recognised in verse 15 that the message they were hearing was the very word of God! They recognised God was speaking, and they made haste to see the King. Their earnestness spoke of a spiritual desire that many do not have today, and in verse 17 they testified of what they heard, they became evangelists! Is that not our responsibility today? To see the glory of the King, to go and to tell? We must move on, but what I want you to note this morning is that the shepherds were the only ones, as far as we are told, to hear or see the angels - and after they visited the manger and told their story, they went off singing praise to God, and they're never heard of again.
God does not call rich and mighty, he calls the poor and lowly. But secondly, the reason why the shepherds were told first is: God's messengers reflect His message. What was the message of the annunciation given to the humble shepherds? Verse 10: 'Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people'. What God is saying to them here in this whole chapter through Luke is, 'I can do and work through, indirectly, the high and lofty people in human empires like Caesar Augustus. I can work, indirectly, My will through them, but when I want to work directly I do it through the meek and through the lowly - the reason being that My message is a message of grace to the meek and the lowly'. Do you understand? What He is saying is: 'Behold, I bring you good tidings' - that word actually in the Greek is the word for 'evangelise' that you find throughout the Acts of the Apostles, where Luke talks about the preaching of the gospel. He's saying: 'Behold, I evangelise to you great joy, good news that has never been. This good news, shepherds, is not that a soldier has been born. It is not that a judge, like those in the Judges, like Gideon, has been born to deliver you from the Roman Empire and the stiff grip of the iron fists. It is not that a great religious rabbi and reformer has been born - but it is this: a Saviour has been born! A Saviour to meet man's deepest need'.
The Pax Romana, the Roman peace, had lasted since 27 BC up to this time - a peace from a political source, from the rule of Rome. But the stoic philosopher of the day, Epictetus, wrote these words: 'While the Emperor may give peace from war on land and sea, he is unable to give peace from passion, grief and envy. He cannot give peace of heart for which man yearns more than even for outward peace'. And suddenly, onto the scene of time God declares to humble shepherds this peace that passes all understanding, 'Shalom'. That's not a political peace, that's a deep peace in the hearts of men; and at that announcement the pent up ecstasy of heaven erupted: 'Gloria in excelsis deo' - glory to God in the highest! This was the message of the ages: good will and peace towards men.
Can I say: that Greek word 'good will' is really a bad translation, because what is spoken of here is basically 'grace'. You could translate it 'peace towards men on whom God's favour rests' - and that is not a reward to those who have good will, but that is a gracious gift to those who are the objects of God's good will. Now what's being said here? 'I work indirectly through the thrones of the empires of men; but when I want to work directly, I come to the lowly, to the poor and the humble of the world, because my messengers reflect my message, and my message is this: that there is grace for those who will humble themselves before the mighty hand of God. My favour rests on those who will bow before me'.
I wonder: is the fact that these were shepherds who were abiding in the fields, tending flocks that probably would later go to the temple to be sacrifices, was this not a metaphor of the fact that in John chapter 10 the Saviour would say: 'I am the good Shepherd, the good Shepherd giveth his life for the sheep' - the Chief Shepherd, but one who is also the Lamb of God who would take the sins of the world away.
Now in verse 10 here is the 'Fear Not': 'Fear not: because I bring you glad tidings of grace'. Now can I apply this in the closing minute or two please? There are many reasons in these past studies why we should fear not, but what God is literally saying through the angels to the shepherds is this: 'Stop being afraid, stop being frightened, because I am God, and I can work indirectly my sovereignty through the thrones and dominions of men; but I can work directly through you, whatever humble, lowly state you find yourself in. How are you impoverished today? Through sickness? Through sadness? Through bereavement? Don't be afraid, because you've still got my grace!'. When your strength is low, His grace is greatest. Was it Annie Johnson Flint, I think it was, who said:
'He giveth more grace as our burden grows greater,
He sendeth more strength when the labors increase;
To added affliction He addeth His mercy,
To multiplied trials He gives multiplied peace.
His love knows no limit, His grace knows no measure,
His power knows no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again'.
Do you fear today, anything? Why should we fear when we have the grace of God? Can I leave you with a poem, it's by a man called Paul Raider, and I heard it quoted by a missionary who was in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II, Darlene Deibler Rose. She quoted this when she was in prison, and she was locked in that prison cell - and, all of a sudden, she prayed to God, because she looked out of the barred windows, and she saw a banana tree. She just said to the Lord: 'Would you give me just one banana? Just one banana?'. A number of days later she grew up a friendship with one of the Japanese commanders, and he was a nice man. All of a sudden one day, the door of the cell burst open, and a whole big bunch of bananas came flying in onto the floor. She wept, and she thought to herself: 'Oh Lord, how full of unbelief I am'. Then, as she gives her testimony, she quotes this poem called 'Fear Not, Little Flock':
'Fear not, little flock, whatever your lot,
He enters all rooms, the doors being locked,
He never forsakes; He never is gone,
So count on His presence in darkness and dawn.
Fear not, little flock, He goeth ahead,
Your Shepherd selecteth the path you must tread;
The waters of Marah He'll sweeten for thee,
He drank all the bitter in dark Gethsemane'.
Fear not, little flock, whatever your lot, for you have the grace of God in Christ Jesus. I trust that message, and that series, has been a blessing to all our hearts. I wonder are you here today, and you're not converted? Oh, dear friend, would you not see this, that this is for all men who will believe; and God's favour will rest upon you if you will believe this Gospel. All of us today, let us embrace the grace of God that is available for us - unmerited favour to the humble and to the lowly, and to the undeserving, yet there for everyone who will recognise it.
Lord, we thank Thee this morning that the very heights of Imperial Rome in their godlessness were actually executing the will of God on the earth. Yet, when You chose to bring directly the message of the revelation of the Gospel to men, You did it through the meek and the lowly, those in the depths of earth's status system and class system. Even the Saviour, as He came, the sign would be He would be wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. Even He came as a lowly Saviour, but we thank Thee this morning that He has now been lifted to the highest place, not that earth affords, but heaven affords. He is given a name which is high above every name. Lord, we thank Thee that one day we're going to get there too, but Lord may we be there in spirit even this day, and join the angels and say: 'Glory to God in highest, and peace on whom God's favour rests'. To the glory of Christ we pray, Amen.
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This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the third recording in his "The 'Fear Nots' of the First Nativity" study series, titled "Fear Not, Shepherds" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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