Fear Not, Shepherds!

Fear Not, Shepherds!

Luke 2:9-10     By Rev. Richard Choy

It is Christmastime!

Perhaps you’ve noticed that our TVs are already streaming shows and movies highlighting the spirit of the season. The stores we frequent have festive displays of products to make this time of year memorable. It is the season of good cheer and merry celebrations. It is the season of being thankful for family and friends. It is the season of caring and sharing our blessings. The world is caught up in the spirit of Christmastime, yet deep down, we realize that it is merely a varnish of sentimentality over the way things are.


The reality of daily life and troubles in the world, both near and far, worry us. We wonder about our loved ones who are dealing with illness. We lose sleep over the direction of the economy. We hope that the distant conflicts will not plunge the world into war. We see the collapse of what were once mighty businesses, hoping our livelihood will persist through the uncertainty. All this to say that beneath the outward cheer of the season, there is simmering anxiety and fear.


But Christmas is not about a season. The real meaning of Christmas neither glosses over nor denies our fears. Christmas is about the birth of the Saviour, Jesus Christ, who was born into the world as a human baby – the One who reconciles poor sinners to the righteous and mighty God.


There is so much to the Christmas story, but there is at least one part of it that speaks to us about the meaning of Christmas as it relates to our FEARS. It is the account of the shepherds we read in the Bible: And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:8-11 (ESV).


Shepherding is not a great job because sheep are rather uncooperative and somewhat smelly animals. Shepherds were generally looked down on in Israel, but in the Bible, God had a special place for shepherds throughout history. There was the time when an exiled Hebrew man from Egypt was shepherding the flocks that belonged to a priest in the land of Midian when God appeared to him in a burning bush (Exodus 3) and appointed him to lead his people out of slavery. There was a time when God appointed a shepherd from Bethlehem to become Israel’s greatest king (1 Samuel 16:1-13). And later on, God called a shepherd by the name of Amos to be a prophet (Amos 1:1).


We don’t know for sure, but it most likely fits into the Christmas story that these shepherds at Bethlehem were watching over flocks of sheep that would eventually be used for sacrifice on the altar in Jerusalem. Whether or not this was the case, it was not to the leaders, the prominent, or the cultural elite that the angel appeared. The angel of God appeared to these lowliest of people, the shepherds.


We are told they were filled with great fear when the angel appeared. Let’s ask the question, why were the shepherds afraid? First, they were worried because the glory of the Lord shone around them. It is an expected and normal response to the sudden appearance of an angel and the glory of the Lord lighting up the surrounding area. If an angel suddenly appeared to you or me, I think we, too, would be slightly startled but more likely somewhat terrified!


Second, the shepherds were filled with fear because of God’s glory and greatness. You see, when they, the lowly shepherds, suddenly found themselves surrounded by God’s glory – when they were suddenly thrust into God’s presence – they became intensely aware that they were standing in the presence of God who is almighty and infinitely majestic. They were lowly shepherds who lived ordinary lives in a little corner of the country. When we get even a momentary glimpse of God’s glory and greatness, we understand how small we are. How can we have standing in God’s presence? The shepherds were filled with fear, overwhelmed and awestruck in God’s presence.


Third, the shepherds were afraid of the unknown. What is this that was happening to them? What is this angel? This glory of the Lord? None of this was a part of their day-to-day expectations. It was all something that created uncertainty. It interrupted their routine and would change things from this point forward. You and I know something about the unexpected interrupting our lives and upsetting the patterns we’ve become used to, especially in our present troubled world. Our days are all about the unknown. Our recent experiences have often been about the unexpected. What we anticipate is often uncertain. Circumstances have come about that are troubling and continue to resist easy resolution. If we are honest, we, too, have been, and perhaps still are, afraid of the unknown.


Fourth, the shepherds were filled with fear because of their sin and unworthiness. They knew that it was the glory of the Lord that shone around them, and being in the presence of the Lord made them acutely aware of their own unrighteousness, that there was nothing about themselves that would commend them to God. They would run and hide, but they could not, for the glory of the Lord shone around them.


Well, those are the reasons for the shepherds’ fear. But what is the answer to the shepherds’ fear? How is their fear addressed in the Christmas story, revealed to us in the word of God? The answer is in the angel’s words to the shepherds: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:10-11 (ESV).


To the shepherds’ fear of a sudden change in their routine and God’s glory surrounding them, the angel answers. The angel said, “Fear not!” and he explained. You see, when God breaks into our world, there is legitimate reason for fear because he is God, and we are lowly human beings. But there is another perspective. This particular breaking into the shepherds’ world by God brings reason for great joy. At Christmas, the birth of Christ the Lord, the reason for joy overwhelms the reason for fear. The shepherds have been given a Saviour in their situation of lowliness and obscurity. We have been given a Saviour even as we go about our quiet and undistinguished daily business. Those who are usually ignored or forgotten are not forgotten by God.


To the shepherds’ fear of God’s glory and greatness, of being overwhelmed by the might of God, the angel announces the birth of a Christ, who comes as a baby in the little town of Bethlehem to an unknown couple. God has chosen to come among humankind as one of us, not in glory and prominence, but very quietly and unnoticed. The birth announcement, though out of the ordinary, was made to common, quiet folk – the lowly shepherds. God has come humbly for all people and, indeed, for ordinary people like you and me.


To the shepherds’ fear of the unknown, the angel connects the events of the Saviour’s birth and the shepherds’ need. There may be many things of which the shepherds are unsure and uncertain, but the one thing they most need to know is revealed to them. This baby that is born is the Saviour, the one who comes in the lineage of King David. He is the Christ, the long-foretold Messiah, anointed by God to restore the people to a relationship of promise with God. And he is come for all the people. All who accept him as the Saviour and Lord will find great joy. The shepherds were told that their most profound need as sinners needing a Saviour had been met. The One who would accomplish their reconciliation to God has been born among the people who need him. God uses scary and troubling events for his perfect purposes in the shepherds’ lives.


To the shepherds’ sense of their sin and unworthiness, the angels said, I bring you good news of great joy. God’s rescue plan for unworthy sinners is being carried out. It is the good news, that is, the gospel of Christmas. The child born in Bethlehem, the city of David, is the Saviour. He is the Son of God – God himself comes among humankind to be one of us, to live life perfectly and sinlessly among us, and then to go to the Cross to die in our place to pay the price of our sin for us. The shepherds tending lambs used for sacrifice on the altar at Jerusalem would find this good news indeed. The angel announced the gospel, the good news, to the shepherds and, by way of the shepherds, to all people. The Lamb of God has come for you and me.


Those are the questions, along with the answers, that surround the shepherds at Christmas. They had their fears as they tended the sheep, but God revealed what they needed to know to allay those fears. Fears are common to all people – we know that more than ever in a world beset by difficulties. What fears do you face today? Hear what the shepherds heard, and understand that the gospel is still the answer to your anxiety, whether great or small. God speaks to you through his word in this account of the shepherds on that first Christmas.


Christmas is the good news that God has come among us in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, to be our Saviour from sin and our Lord. Won’t you cast your fears and your cares on him and trust him to lead you amidst the things that are unknown and uncertain? Surely, he has come among us for just a time as this.


“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”


(Reference: Richard Choy is grateful to God for his grace in serving as the lead pastor to the English-speaking Congregation at North York Chinese Baptist Church for 37 years. He and his wife live in Thornhill, Ontario. They are blessed with three children and their growing families. )