Grace Presbyterian Church

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Sermon: Keep Watch: The First Witnesses

Grace Presbyterian Church

(Joint service with Covenant and Westminster churches)

December 25, 2022, Christmas Day A

Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:8-20

Keeping Watch: The First Witnesses

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

I’m going to guess that some of you are like me and remember the beginning of today’s reading in this rendering from the King James Version. Maybe you remember it simply from countless sermons, or maybe a few Christmas pageants or plays in which you were wrapped up in a bathrobe playing a shepherd. Or maybe you remember it from Linus’s recitation at the climax of A Charlie Brown Christmas. (That’s how it sticks in my head, in Linus’s voice.)

For all that this passage sticks in the memory, we have to admit we don’t know much about these shepherds. In fact, we can’t even be absolutely certain, no matter how many Nativity sets might insist otherwise, that they were men. The history of the people of Israel includes a number of women first encountered tending their family’s herds, such as Rachel, the daughter of Laban who eventually (after fourteen years of labor) married Jacob. Or there’s Zipporah, one of the daughters of Jethro, who eventually ended up marrying Moses. Hired-hand shepherds were more likely to be men, but if this herd of sheep was a family flock we can’t know for certain who might have been out there tending it.

Whoever it was, these shepherds were not high-status folk. Some accounts suggest that in first-century Palestine their testimony was not to be counted as legally reliable, so low was their reputation. At the same time, some shepherd-types had achieved higher standing in Israel’s history, none more so than David, the shepherd boy turned king of Israel (who performed his shepherding duties in that very region). Still, the one thing that seems clear is that the sheep being tended by these shepherds were more highly regarded and valued than the shepherds themselves. The sheep, after all, provided meat, milk, and wool – all very valuable and even needed in society. In the end, shepherds almost seem to be in a status not unlike those workers in our society who were labeled as “essential workers” at the height of the pandemic shutdown: much public noise being made about their importance, but no particular effort to improve their working conditions or hear their concerns about what was happening to them, or even to respect them, really.

It was these shepherds who would become the first public witnesses to the coming of the Messiah, the Son of God, the one born to set his people free from their sins. 

These shepherds are out in the fields doing their job, when all at once “an angel of the Lord stood before them” – no swooping in from somewhere else or descending from heaven, just all in an instant there was an angel standing where there had not previously been anyone or anything. Can you really blame the shepherds for being “terrified“? Little wonder that the first word an angel speaks to humans as recorded in scripture is usually some variant of “do not be afraid” or “fear not.” 

For all the terror the shepherds might have experienced, though, they paid attention. They heard the angel’s greeting; they got the message; and they even picked up on the hint that the best thing they could do was to get themselves into Bethlehem and see this “sign for you” the angel described. 

As if one angel appearing out of nowhere wasn’t terror enough, “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,” praising and glorifying God in song. Then the angels left them and went off into heaven, and the shepherds were as they had been before, alone with their sheep, and yet completely unlike they had been before.

They had to go see this. And that’s what they did. We don’t know if one or two got left behind to guard the sheep or if the sheep were just left on their own for a while. (For that matter, we don’t know how the sheep reacted to these goings-on; you have to think they’d be spooked somewhat too.)

Clearly the angel had meant for them to do this, giving that “sign” about seeing this baby lying in a feed trough. We don’t get much indication of how hard the shepherds had to look when they got to Bethlehem, whether they went straightaway to the right place of if they had to search through the town a bit, but they did find them, and indeed saw the baby lying in a feed trough. 

Their first reaction was to tell them what they had seen and heard from the angels. We, of course, know that Mary knew all about this; we have Luke 1 to fill in all that background for us. The shepherds don’t have that backstory, and they have to pour it all out. As usual, we get no indication of how Joseph felt about all of this, but it seems as if somehow this bearing witness was beneficial to Mary. Maybe after nine months of bearing all this in her own soul, the verification provided by the shepherds helped her keep the faith. 

As for the shepherds, we are told that when they tell their story, “all who heard it were amazed.” Who is this “all”? It’s easy to forget that they are in Bethlehem, which is at minimum a town; if nothing else there was an in full enough of people that Mary and Joseph couldn’t get in. It was also Joseph’s ancestral home; you’d think some relatives might have at least shown up, much less taken them in! We might also consider that a rowdy old rabble of shepherds searching about through the town might get the attention of the townsfolk. Again, we can’t know for sure that there were others present for the shepherds’ witness, but maybe there were? If there was a crowd of any kind gathered about, “all who heard it were amazed.” 

What we have here are the first witnesses. 

These shepherds, these societal nobodies, have become the first to receive the gospel, outside of Mary and perhaps her cousin Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, the parents of John the Baptist. They are given this good news by the angel and the chorus of angels; they see the sign that is given to them, the baby; and their first act is to bear witness to the one “born this day in the city of David,” the one who is “the Messiah, the Lord.” 

We have this witness to bear. We have way more than a sign of a baby lying in a manger. We have a whole lifetime that Jesus spent on the earth, teaching and healing and living and dying and living again. We have the words from the epistle of Titus about our Savior, the one who “saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy…“. We have so much gospel to which to bear witness, and it all starts with a bunch of unknown shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night. 

Keeping watch. 

Keeping watch is a theme through Advent, right from the first of the season with Jesus’s teaching to his disciples to “keep awake” and “be ready.” Now we are given this example of those who did keep watch and received the gospel as their reward. 

And then what did they do? When they had told everybody they could tell, what did they do? They “returned,” presumably to their fields and their sheep. They returned “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” They were still shepherds, after all of this, but they weren’t the same shepherds they had been before. Apologies to any grammar teachers for the double negative, but these shepherds were never not affected by what they had seen and heard.

How are we changed by this coming? Can we find it in ourselves to glorify and praise God while about the mundane tasks and doings of our lives? How do we, or how can we, or how will we be affected by what we have seen and heard?

For the first witnesses and their keeping watch, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #147, The First Nowell (v. 1 & 2); #135, There’s a Star in the East; #136, Go, Tell It on the Mountain

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