Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen! Today is the first week in our special Advent series, While Shepherds Watched, in which we take a look at the way that God used shepherds like Abraham, Moses, David, and the Bethlehem shepherds to point the way to Christ. I don’t know if you’ve ever considered this, but shepherds play an important role in the history of our salvation. The patriarchs, King David, and many of the prophets all got their start as shepherds. And the shepherd motif was one of God’s favorite metaphors to describe his relationship with Israel in the Old Testament and the Church in the New Testament. Think of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd” (Ps. 23:1), or Ezekiel 34 or Revelation 7, “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water…” (Rev. 7:17). In the New Testament, the leaders of Christ’s Church are called shepherds (the Latin word pastor just means “shepherd”). And Jesus himself is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10).
Because God used shepherds in such surprising and important ways throughout history, it should come as no surprise that we shine a little light on them during the Advent and Christmas seasons. In fact, as pastor-writer Arvin Meade points out, shepherds feature quite prominently in many of our favorite Christmas carols:
• In “Silent Night” we sing, “Silent night, holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight” (LSB 363:2).
• In “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” we sing, “Shepherds in the field abiding, watching o’er your flocks by night” (LSB 367:2).
• In “Angels We Have Heard on High,” we refers to the shepherds: “Shepherds, why this jubilee? What your joyous strains prolong? What the gladsome tidings be/which inspire your heav’nly song?” (LSB 368:2).
• And, of course, it goes without say what the hymn, “Where Shepherds Lately Knelt” (LSB 369) is all about!
I could go on and on, listing more Christmas carols and songs about shepherds, but we don’t have time for all that! Let’s just agree that shepherds are mightily important to the story of Christmas—and all those Bible stories leading up to Christmas from the time of Abraham until the Gospels.
But shepherds also get a bad rap. They were dirty and smelly, supposedly uncouth and uncultured—certainly not polite company! By the time of Jesus, most Jews felt about shepherds about the same as some people today feel about minimum wage manual labor. Before he became a Christian on his deathbed, one of my relatives used to tease me about my faith in God’s Word. “You don’t really believe the word of a bunch of old sheep herders, do you?” Well, yes, actually I do! Why shouldn’t I believe “a bunch of old sheep herders” if that’s how God wants to speak to me? Our sinful nature always despises the seemingly vulgar and humble ways in which God works: water, wine, bread, and words written down thousands of years ago. Nevertheless, if God says it, it’s true, and I have no reason to doubt or not believe.
Tonight let’s begin with one shepherd in particular: Abraham, formerly known as Abram, before God gave him a new name. A few weeks ago, I preached on God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 that he would bless him to be a blessing. Now in Genesis 15, we read how God took Abraham outside and said, “Look toward heaven and number the stars, if you are able to number them…. So shall your offspring be” (Gen. 15:5). Abraham, look up! Count the stars, if you can! That’s how many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren you’re going to have. It was a wonderful promise! “And [Abraham] believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6; cp. Rom. 4:3).
I don’t know if you noticed, but all the elements of the Christmas story are here: stars, a shepherd, and the impossible promise of a baby. Because you’re talking about a pregnant virgin (Mary) or a barren, old woman (Sarah), it amounts to nearly the same: it takes a miracle for either one to get pregnant. Abraham and Sarah were old—the apostle Paul says “as good as dead” (Rom. 4:19)! Abraham was more than 75 years old when God first called him to faith, and Sarah was no spring chicken. When Sarah heard God’s promise that the Lord would give her a son, the Bible says she laughed (Gen. 18:12-15) because “the way of women had ceased to be with [her]” (18:11). But Sarah’s laugh was not joyful laughter; it was a dry, cynical, bitter laughter, the kind of laugh that only an old woman who never nursed a child can laugh.
Abraham and Sarah lived in the days before Viagra and in vitro fertilization, so only a miracle could give them a son. Fortunately for them—and for us—we have a God who is in the business of doing miracles. God promised Abraham a son: “Your very own son shall be your heir” (Gen. 15:4). And when God makes a promise, he keeps his Word. That’s why Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness.
I know that in our lives, we often struggle to believe the promises of God in the face of difficult circumstances and overwhelming odds. We question God’s promises to bless and provide for our daily bread, to forgive our sins, and to welcome us into his family. When you lose or job or get in a fight with your spouse or suffer under the weight of incredible guilt, it’s hard to believe that God is good and gracious. But God is who he says he is, and he does what he says he’s going to do. Above all, God kept his promise to send his Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross for our sins and rise again on the third day. Three times Jesus predicted his passion, crucifixion, and resurrection. And because he said it, he did it. God always keeps his promises.
It’s normal to doubt at times. I would be lying if I said that my faith is always rock solid. But because my faith is built on the rock of Jesus Christ, I know that ultimately I cannot be moved. When God speaks, we listen; we hear and believe. And when we believe the Lord and his wonderful promises, God reckons it to us as righteousness. Faith comes by hearing and believing the word of Christ (Rom. 10:17). And, as Walter Wangerin, Jr., writes, “Faith begins in weakness” (The Book of Sorrows). Faith begins in desperate situations with a shepherd and stars and the impossible promise of a son. God promised Abraham as many descendants as the stars in the sky. And, yes, that included Isaac, the son whose name means “laughter,” the son who brought laughter and joy back into the lives of Abraham and Sarah.
Yet the most important of all of Abraham’s children was the one born on Christmas Day nearly 2,000 years ago. In the first verse of his Gospel, Matthew calls Jesus “the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1). But even more importantly, Jesus is God’s Son. Jesus is true God and true man, begotten of the Father before eternity and born of the virgin Mary. And he is the Son given for you and me and our salvation. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…” (Isa. 9:6). “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Faith begins when sinners like us hear and believe the Word of God. “And he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). This Advent, I hope and pray that we will all receive Jesus in our hearts by faith in his Word. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of + the Holy Spirit. Amen.