The Announcement to the Shepherds


A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.  For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord (LUK 2:10,11).

With these familiar and beloved words, the angels announced the Lord’s birth to the shepherds, guarding their flocks that night in the fields surrounding the town of Bethlehem in Judea.  It was an event of such importance that it would completely redefine how people thought about their world, an event so striking that the whole of the Western world has adjusted their calendars to begin with that date.  However, when we study the historical documents from that time, we may be surprised to note how little there is, that the leaders and scholars of that day and age did not feel moved to comment at all about the happenings in Judea in those days–if they even knew anything about it.  The most important date in the history of the world, and it passed entirely unnoticed by the people of the day.

There were three groups of people who received the announcement: the principals, Zacharias and Mary; the Wise Men; and the Shepherds.  The announcements to Zacharias and to Mary were of conceptions, not births, and so came much earlier.  It’s possible that the Wise Men saw the star before the Lord was born, but if they only saw it for the first time at the same time the shepherds did, on Christmas Day, it would explain why they arrived with their gifts about a year later, as it was a long, difficult, and dangerous journey from Syria to Bethlehem.  But, on the day of the birth, the gospels record that only the shepherds saw the angels.  So the question becomes, why, of all the people in the world, was the birth of the Lord announced to the shepherds first of all?

In order to answer that question, we need to remember that the way that a shepherd handled his flock in Judea in those days is quite different from the European tradition where one drives the sheep with the help of dogs.  In Judea, the shepherd leads the sheep from sheepfold to pasture to water, and they willingly and obediently follow their own shepherd.  At night, many herds can be kept together in the sheepfold, and in the morning, when the shepherd calls them at the gate, only those from his own flock will come.  It was this kind of image the Lord was trying to invoke when He taught that He was the good shepherd.

The shepherds, keeping watch over their flock by night in the field near Bethlehem, represent all those simple good people who cling to kindness and goodness even when they cannot find anyone to tell them about the Lord and His truth.  To such people knowledge of the Savior comes as a great burst of light.  They welcome it and hurry to learn more and to tell everyone else about it, just as the shepherds did.  And the message of the heavenly host, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men,” expresses the very heart of heaven, love to the Lord and love to the neighbor.  The Lord came into the world to teach us both by His words and by His example, that it is these two loves which make heaven both in the other world and here in this world in the heart of everyone who is willing to overcome his selfishness, learn of the Lord, and try to obey Him.  (Dole, Bible Study Notes, Vol. 5, p. 203)

Thinking further about those shepherds and the part they played in the events of that first Christmas Day, we have to be careful with our thinking about the sequence of events.  Our tendency is to picture Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem late in the day, which explains why the inn was already full.  We unconsciously assume that Mary is already in labor when they arrive, which adds a great deal to the sense of urgency and drama that we feel for them, and the relief that we feel when we picture them finding the stable soon after.  We then continue along with this rapid sequence and think that the child is born that evening, so the shepherds, keeping watch in the fields by night, can have the announcement.  Thus, we slip into thinking that the Lord was born on Christmas Eve–which, since even He couldn’t be born on the day before the day He was born, is impossible.

Therefore, we must remember that the shepherds came not on Christmas Eve, but on the evening of Christmas Day.  We know this from two sources:  first that the shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night, and secondly, that night represents the state of spiritual darkness that the Lord was born into, and had come to dispel.

Still, the question remains, was the birth announced only to the principals, the Wise Men, and the Shepherds?  Apparently, for we know that when the Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem after following the star all the way from Syria, and even though it had appeared to the shepherds in the sky over Bethlehem only five miles from Jerusalem, no one in Jerusalem had seen it.  This indicates that the star was not a physical object, but rather a spiritual star, something that could only be seen with spiritual eyes that had been opened by the Lord for a particular use.  Many eyes swept the heavens in those days, but only a few saw this particular sign, because only these few were truly ready in heart to receive the Lord.

It is similar with the Word today.  Stars represent truths, and the Word, like the sky, is full of truths.  Many people read the Word without ever really thinking about the things they discover there, but those people who read the Word with the heart-felt conviction that it is the Word of God, and that it will provide them the things they need to know to prepare themselves for eternal life, do clearly see for themselves the truths that they need shining forth, leading them, as it were, to Bethlehem as the Lord is born in their hearts.  Meanwhile, those who do not think of the Word as holy see nothing but stories and myths from ancient peoples, thereby missing the essential nature of the Word itself.

As said above, the spiritual state of the world that the Lord had chosen to be born into was a state of spiritual night.  We read in Matthew:  for the heart of this people has grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, (13:15) and in John:  And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil (3:19).

The depth of this spiritual darkness is further illustrated by the fact that the shepherds told many people about the things they had seen, and even though many people were amazed by their story, and no doubt enjoyed telling it to others, they did not do anything at all about it.  None of them came to Bethlehem to visit the Messiah, even though Mary and Joseph may have lived there for more than a years after the child was born. (See LUK 2:17,18)

Of all the people in the world, the Lord chose to announce His birth to only three small groups of people.  If we are to learn something of value to our own lives, we need to see if we can find a common denominator, some factor that set these people apart from all other people in the world at that time.

What happened when the angel appeared to Mary?  She controlled her fear, she thought carefully about the things the angel said, and without more than a moment’s hesitation committed herself to follow the Lord’s leading down a very difficult path:  she said, Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” (LUK 1:38)

What happened when the angel appeared to the Wise Men in the form of the star?  They immediately prepared themselves for a long and difficult journey to an unknown destination, carrying great treasures as gifts to the child, no doubt selected because they knew what they would mean.

And what happened when the angel appeared to the shepherds?   First, they immediately went into Bethlehem to see the newborn King (LUK 2:15), and when they had seen Him, they told as many other people as they could about what they had seen (LUK 2:17), and then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them (LUK 2:20).

The common denominator of these three groups is a willingness to believe in the Lord, and at the same time a readiness to act upon that belief.  The importance of this is illustrated by a common experience among members of the New Church.  You have perhaps heard people say, “Your belief is beautiful; I wish I could believe as you do.”  You might answer, “Do you really wish that?  Do you wish it enough to study the grounds for our belief and, if you find them to be sound, to change your life accordingly?”  This is the real test.  Belief is primarily a matter of the will.  (Dole, Bible Study Notes, Vol. 5, p. 204)  This is not only the real test for those who are new to the church, but to each and every one of us.  Do we really believe in the Heavenly Doctrines?  Do we wish to understand the Heavenly Doctrines enough to regularly study them?  Are we willing to change our lives in accordance with the truths we find there?  Do we really want to turn away from the things of the world to prepare ourselves for eternal life in heaven?

The Lord teaches us in the book of Revelation, Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” (3:20)

We have to choose to believe, to be open to the reception of new truth.  If instead we choose to close our minds to anything which upsets our accepted way of life, the Lord knocks at our door in vain. (Dole, Bible Study Notes, Vol. 5, p. 204)

So far we have been thinking about the people to whom the announcement was made.  Let us conclude by thinking about the announcement itself.  Luke tells us that after the angel told them about the birth, the multitude of the heavenly host said, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men! (LUK 2:14)  If one studies the original text in the Greek, it becomes apparent that this should more properly be worded, “Peace on earth to men of good will.”  And the interesting thing about it is that both translations are correct in their own contexts!

The usual translation, by wishing peace and good will to all men describes the Lord’s Universal Influx of life into all men, both good and evil, just and unjust.  It tells us that the Lord’s love for each and every one of us is unconditional in that no matter how far we may turn from Him in the exercise of our spiritual freedom, He will never turn away from us, He will never take away our eternal life.  This universal view is, in providence the translation that most people know.

However, those who approach the Word more closely, who study its detail know that the traditional translation is made more from sentiment and wishful thinking than a correct translation of the meaning.  The Greek clearly says that peace should be given “to men of good will.”  This also reflects the truth, for we know that although the Lord is present with all people, He is more closely conjoined with those who love Him and keep His commandments from conscience.  While all men live to eternity, only those who do what is good from conscience live to eternity in heaven.

In thinking about how the Lord announced His birth through the agency of the angels, it is important to note that it is not just the announcement that is important, but our response to it.  Let us then, as we reflect on the miracle of the Lord’s birth into the world, remember that the Lord came into the world for only one purpose, and that was for the sake of our eternal salvation.  He has done His part.  It is now up to us to respond, to learn of Him through the Word, and to bring those truths to life, each of us in our own unique way according to our own character.  Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them. (LUK 2:20)  AMEN.

Lessons:  LUK 1:26-38; LUK 2:8-20; AC 2921 (port.)

AC 2921.  That it is said “Lord” where good is treated of, is evident from the Word of the Old Testament; for there Jehovah is now called Jehovah, now God, now Lord, now Jehovah God, now the Lord Jehovih, now Jehovah Zebaoth; and this from a hidden cause which can be known only from the internal sense.

In general, when the subject is the celestial things of love, or good, it is said “Jehovah;” but when it is the spiritual things of faith, or truth, it is said “God;” when both together are treated of, it is said “Jehovah God;” but when the Divine power of good or omnipotence is treated of, it is said “Jehovah Zebaoth,” that is, “Jehovah of Armies,” and likewise “Lord,” so that ” Jehovah Zebaoth” and “Lord” are of the same sense and signification.

That “the Lord” in the New Testament is “Jehovah,” is also evident from many other passages, as in Luke:–

The angel said to Mary concerning Jesus, He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of David (i. 32);

“the Lord God” here is instead of “Jehovah God.” In the same:–

Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath exalted itself upon God my Savior (i. 46, 47);

here too “the Lord” is instead of “Jehovah.” In the same:–

An angel of the Lord stood by the shepherds; and the glory of the Lord shone round about them (ii. 9);

an angel of “the Lord,” and the glory of “the Lord,” instead of an angel of “Jehovah,” and the glory of “Jehovah.”

[6] Among the hidden causes of their calling Jehovah “the Lord,” were the following. If at that time it had been said that the Lord was the Jehovah so often named in the Old Testament, men would not have accepted it, for they would not have believed it; and moreover the Lord did not become Jehovah as to the Human also until He had completely united the Divine Essence to the Human Essence, and the Human to the Divine. The full unition was accomplished after the last temptation, which was that of the cross; and for this reason, after the resurrection the disciples always called Him “the Lord”

That the Lord was Jehovah is also meant by the words of the angel to the shepherds:–

Unto you is born this day a Savior who is Christ the Lord (Luke ii. 11);

He is called “Christ” as the Messiah, the Anointed, King; and “Lord” as Jehovah; “Christ” in respect to truth, and “Lord” in respect to good.  One who does not closely study the Word could not know this, for he would think that our Savior was called Lord, like others, from the common title of reverence; when yet He was so called because He was Jehovah.

Copyright General Church of the New Jerusalem, 1982 – 2008
Author:  Rev. James P. Cooper, M. Div
Page updated October 21, 2008

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