Jesus Journey: 40 Days in the Footsteps of Christ

Day 4

Bright Lights & Birth Announcements

Read Luke 2:8–20

We had told ourselves before the trip to try to be cool, to try not to be obvious, wide-eyed American tourists.

Well, that lasted about an hour.

It’s our church tour group’s first morning in Israel. We’re driving from the coast to Galilee when our cool detachment is shattered for good. And by such a simple thing.

Our guide Kenny proclaims that our bus is fast approaching a real-life, Holy Land shepherd boy.

“On your right! On your right, everybody!! Sheep with a shepherd!”

All dignity is abandoned as cameras are whipped out of backpacks and we rush to that side of the bus, anticipating the stained-glass scene from our imaginations: Powder-white, freshly washed and shampooed sheep in a Thomas Kinkade landscape.

Instead we see a dozen dingy dreadlocked lambs that seem to be grazing on rocks, watched over by a boy of about ten years old wearing jeans and a dirty Manchester United soccer shirt. He waves and grins through a mud-streaked face as our bus rolls by.

“He’s Bedouin,” Kenny announces. “Not the Omar Sharif of your imagination, is he?” He explains that Bedouin tribes are rapidly leaving their nomadic lifestyles, partly because, as Israeli society grows, their roving bands of shepherds are seen as unwanted trespassers.

The same kind of stigma was attached to shepherds of the first century. Only worse.

They were despised by the “respectable” people — seen as thieves and tramps, because they didn’t own land for grazing their sheep, but wandered from field to field. Their livestock stripped vegetation and angered farmers. In fact, in the caste-like society of first century Israel, the only people considered lower than shepherds were lepers.

One rabbi of the time said this about shepherds: “Most of the time they are dishonest and thieving; they lead their herds onto other people’s land and pilfer their produce.” 4 Consequently, he warned people not to buy anything from shepherds because it was probably stolen property. Shepherds weren’t even allowed to testify in court because they were considered so dishonest. 5

They were religious outcasts, too, ceremonially unclean because of the dirty nature of their job, and therefore prevented from participating in the religious festivals at the Jerusalem Temple.

And don’t forget: The Bible says they were “living out in the fields… [with] their flocks….” If you do a word study on this sentence you’ll find it means they were living out in the fields. With their flocks. And I’m sure they smelled like it and looked like it.

And to them the angels came.


Listen to how the angel makes it so personal: I bring you news. Unto you. A sign to you. You will find…

Ron Mehl was a friend who pastored a church in Oregon for many years. He loved to tell about one memorable Christmas concert at his church. Ron watched a little boy he knew — a child with a severe hearing impairment — who sat in the audience and stared, somewhat bored, as the choir and soloists sang. Even when the children’s choir went on stage, this child was not interested.

Until, for one song, the children’s choir used sign language. He sat up and excitedly began flashing signs to his mom.

After the concert, Ron asked her what he had been signing with such enthusiasm.

It was: “Mom!! They’re singing to me! They’re singing to me!” 6

I’m sure the shepherds could hardly believe their ears. God sent the angel choir to sing to them. And God is singing to you. To you, who may feel as despised and isolated and religiously undeserving as a first-century shepherd. To you he comes with an amazing message!


Did you notice how the angel characterizes his announcement? It is good news.

As Tim Keller points out, this is different from how we perceive religion. Religion is fundamentally advice. The gospel begins and ends with news7 These are completely different things. Most religions are based on the principle that you connect to God by being good, and so they give advice on how to be good. There are a thousand variations, but “they all have the same logic: If I perform, if I obey, then I’m accepted.” 8

The gospel is news rather than advice because it announces something that has happened that changes everything: God has come to earth, making a way for me; therefore, I am motivated to follow him out of love.

Do you see how good this news would have seemed to the shepherds, of all people? They were unable to follow the advice of their religion because of their occupation. It made them ceremonially unclean even as they were raising sheep for potential use at the Temple, an aggravating catch-22. The angels’ message of a Savior for them was truly great news.


The phrase “favor” in the angelic announcement is the same word the angel Gabriel earlier applies to Mary the mother of Jesus: “Greetings, you who are highly favored! (Luke 1:28) It’s also the word translated elsewhere in the New Testament as grace.

The message is not that God is rewarding the shepherds for their Temple sacrifices or their synagogue tithes or their religious purity. They could claim none of that. It was that they were simply the objects of God’s favor.

Just like you and me.

Before writing this devotional today, I received an email from a man who reminded me of the shepherds:

I thought that while everyone else may have been loved and saved, I was a lost case. I was positive God judged me because I was unable to stick to what I thought God’s rules for being a good Christian were.

I stopped going to church after a while and eventually stopped praying all together. I was convinced that I was this terrible person and if my deep dark secrets got out, everyone, not just God, would hate me.

I am blessed with friends who care and convinced me to visit church with them. I didn’t make it easy. I fought them the whole time.

Well, my friends never gave up on me and I eventually made it to church. I had never understood how people could cry when talking about God’s love, until I found grace. I felt the ice break off my heart. I felt my demons leave me. I felt free. I am God’s beloved and he loves me no matter what. I believe in Jesus Christ who died on the cross and through him I am forgiven. I come to church smiling now. I’m not a perfect being. But I know…
God loves me and knows my heart.

Maybe you, too, feel unclean; you’re disqualifying yourself from the presence of God because of your shame.

But that’s why Jesus came.


One last detail: The angels then tell the shepherds the sign of the Messiah. I’m sure the shepherds were waiting for something dramatic. In those days, signs were expected to be amazing, heavenly, astrological miracles. For example, at Caesar Augustus’ birth, a blazing comet was said to be the sign of his “divinity.”

So what would be the sign of the Messiah for the shepherds? Not a star in the sky. The Son in a stable. A baby lying in a manger. Don’t miss it. A manger… that was a feeding trough for livestock. Now, how many feeding troughs do you think the shepherds had seen? Lots! They had probably used every manger within the vicinity to water or feed their flocks.

Only this time, one of their own feeding troughs would be holding their Savior.

The point? When God comes down, he comes all the way down. All the way to your world. All the way to you.

From the very start, his message was all about grace. From the start, he did not judge by outward appearance. From the start, it was about the heart.


Thank God today that he gives his favor to the least deserving.