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Lessons From the Shepherds

At Christmas we are once again introduced to programs, cantatas, and musicals that have all the familiar characters of shepherds, magi, and the manger. We are use to seeing boys dressed up in a bathrobe with a towel wrapped around their head, and holding a staff in one of their hands. They are absolutely adorable but they are far from what the shepherds were actually like at the time of Jesus birth. The shepherds were hardened men who lived lonely, obscure lives and were scorned by most people of that day.

The shepherds were the people group who were given the privilege of being the first to know about and be told the good news of Jesus birth. They were very uneducated, untrained, and unskilled laborers. They were smelly, rough characters and probably the most unlikely people of that day to be invited to the party. These shepherds offered a meager but necessary service of watching over the herds believed to contain the sacrificial lambs being raised for the temple and the Passover.

Shepherds were not trusted by very many people back then. They were not allowed to testify in court even if they were eyewitnesses. It is quite ironic that the very men who were not permitted to testify in court are chosen by God to be the first to testify of the virgin birth. Yet, when the Pharisees referred to the tax collectors and the sinners the shepherds were most likely at the top of their sinner list. Wow, what a God that announces the birth of His Son to the poor, uneducated, despised shepherds.

What can we learn from these shepherds and their involvement in the birth of the savior?

  1. This Bible story makes it very clear that God loves the outcast. God always reaches out to those who will come to Him no matter what society may say or think of them. Those who the world sees as the least important are the first that God seems to be interested in. Even the religious elite of the day wrote shepherds off as unclean and pagan but God chose to reveal the truth of Christ’s birth to them.
  2. God reminds us that following Him requires sacrifice. Jesus did not come to just make slight alterations to our lifestyles but has called us to live for a completely different Kingdom. We are commanded by Him to die daily and to take up our cross and follow Him. The shepherds knew what it meant to sacrifice for their sheep as they cared for them day by day. They understood that the sacrificial lambs they helped care for were a picture of the coming Messiah, the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world.
  3. The shepherds and the manger scene remind us to never interpret God’s love based on our circumstances. Jesus was not born in a palace with a silver spoon in His mouth but rather of the most humble beginnings. You would think the creator of the universe should of made sure that Joseph and Mary had a reservation for a room in the inn but they didn’t. Just because God does not provide for us the way we think He should does not mean He does not love us and have our best in mind.
  4. The manger and the cross settle forever how God feels about you. He loves you and you should never doubt that truth. Whenever your circumstances make you wonder where God is you must remember that He has already proven how much He loves you by dying for you. Even when He does not answer every prayer request the way you think He should you should be very careful of ever trying to use Jesus to get what you want more than you love Him for who He is. As the good shepherd He always has your best in mind.
  5. The shepherds teach us that Jesus invites all to come to Him. He invites those who are poor, uneducated, despised, and outcasts like the shepherds.   He also invites the rich educated, respected, and well thought of like the Magi. John 3:16 and Romans 10:13 reminds us of God’s invitation to everyone because “whoever believes will have eternal life” and “whoever calls on His name will be saved.” Whether they are outcasts or the uppity ups Jesus invites all to come to Him.

The shepherds teach a lot about the heart of God for the lost, the last, and the least. Most people of that day were unaware of the shepherd’s existence because they did not see them nor were they around them. They never gave shepherds a thought nor would they have given them the time of day. They had no desire to get to know them personally; but God did! Isn’t that just like Him? He pursued a relationship with them and sent angels to invite them to worship Him.

The shepherds show us the heart of God. He takes the initiative to invite those considered last on the social ladder to be first on the heavenly invitation list. J.D. Greear in his gospel prayer says, “As I pray, I’ll measure Your compassion by the cross and your power by the resurrection.” The shepherds teach us that God’s love is not based on our earning it or deserving it but rather totally based on who He is; a God of love. Oh, that we would learn first hand with this truth the shepherds experienced that first Christmas morning.

May we testify of his greatness as they did of His in Luke 2:20, “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard, just as they had been told.”

Just Check the Box

A couple of years ago my son, Matthew, asked me why I use to be so legalistic. My first reaction was to justify and emphatically convince him that I was not legalistic. Point made. There are a lot of reasons for leaning toward legalism such as your personality and/or your environment. In my case it was both. It is very easy to have a checklist of what makes you think you are spiritual and others unspiritual. We must, however, fight the temptation to add our specifics where the Bible is very unspecific. Unfortunately, I had drawn lines in the sand where God has not.

We do this in many areas of our lives such as dress, music, and others. Matthew likes to remind me of the time he asked me if he could listen to Phillips, Craig, and Dean and I told him we were not going to listen to rock music. Oh, by the way, I really enjoy them now and a couple of their songs are among my favorites. There are some who will see this as compromise and I have even wondered about that myself at times. When I asked one friend if we were compromising he wisely, I think, said, “Nope, we are growing up and maturing.”

J.D. Greear has written, “You’ve been waiting for the bottom line. Fallen human nature loves laws, because we love self-justification. But laws keep us from dealing with the real issue—the heart. The law is easier to preach too—. Laws preach nicely. But the gospel writers resist the temptation to reduce Christianity to laws. They focus on the hearts.” If we are not careful we can be like the Pharisees found in Matthew 23 who appeared beautiful on the outside but Jesus said that on the inside they were full of every impurity.

Legalism has been defined many different ways but here I am referring to it as a preoccupation with the obeying of rules and regulations. The tricky part is that my list might be completely different than yours. For example, there are cultures where if you smoke there is no way in their minds that you are born again. If we are not careful we become very judgmental and place all of the emphasis on obeying rules instead of a daily relationship with Jesus Christ. Yes, there are commands we are to obey and we must never minimize what God is specific about.

Alistair Begg says it well, “The main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things.” So often we get caught up on the things that are not plain in God’s word and we hold other Christians to our standards instead of God’s. My music, my clothes, or how many times I am in church each week makes me far more spiritual than you. Romans 14:1, “Accept anyone who is weak in faith, but don’t argue about doubtful issues. Paul lists different preferences and then in verse 13 emphasizes that we should not criticize one another.

First, we must be honest about our nature.

We must never forget the total depravity of man. We are shaped from birth with the sin curse that causes us to naturally lean away from God and lean into sin. The power of the flesh in our life is real and if we are not walking in the power of the Spirit daily we will lean away from God’s best. This can cause us as Christians and churches to become hyper critical of anyone and everyone who does not have the same checklist that we have.

Second, we must not allow our freedom in Christ to be reduced to a set of manmade rules.

Then our faith becomes a religion of human achievement and we want others to notice how spiritual we are by how much we give, how much we fast and the rest of our checklist. Colossians 2:16-17, “Therefore, don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food or drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. These are shadows of what was to come; the substance is the Messiah.” The reality is that many settle for the cheap substitutes instead of Christ.

Third, remember that Jesus said the world would know us by the love we have for one another.

This has been referred to as the final apologetic. “The word apologetic comes from the Greek word apologia. The original idea was that it was a defense or an answer given in response to a charge…So in Christian apologetics, we’re making a case as to why what we believe is true and accurate and logical.” The world will know that what we have in Christ is real and true when the love of Christ for one another is evident.

Fourth, be careful about how you use social media.

It is sad to see many Christians seemingly airing their dirty laundry or pet peeves in a way that a lost world must be shaking their head saying, “And they are suppose to be all about loving one another?” Social media is a wonderful tool that enables us to share the good news and encourage one another to love and good deeds. The temptation seems to provide a venue where you can hide behind a keyboard and say things you probably would not say to that person if they were present.

Fifth, lets build churches that are gracious, longsuffering, and kind.

Nowhere did I mention being weak.  I love this quote a pastor tweeted recently, “I refuse to be a Christian who is generous with damnation and stingy with grace.” Am I more focused on my checklist than I am on knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection? Am I more disturbed by some things Christians are not doing on my checklist than people who are lost and far from God and headed to hell? Is my life characterized by love and encouragement for my church and the body of believers?

Dealing with Conflict and Criticism

How do you please people without being a people pleaser? Pastors have a desire to get along with their members and have a strong burden for unity. Sometimes that is quite a challenge with so many different opinions on how people think churches should be run and what they believe the pastor’s responsibilities are. People can sometimes be difficult and when conflict comes we must be ready to have a plan in place for how we will handle it. Will we handle it biblically?

The greatest challenge is to make sure you respond to conflict rather than reacting to it. The biblical standard given multiple times throughout the Word is that we are to refuse to guard (hold on to) resentments. We must refuse to carry grudges or nurse hatred and anger. Oh, we will get angry and we will get hurt so we must be ready to zealously banish all resentment and anger from our life. We will have to choose over and over again whether we will get better or get bitter.

When you do get hurt or mad the first thing to do is take a really good deep breath. While taking that moment it is your opportunity to ask God for strength and wisdom. You might not be able to handle the stress and conflict but He always can. The key here is choosing to be under His control and direction instead of your own. It is hard but it is possible because we can do all things through Christ who gives us the strength we need when we need it.

I Peter 2:23 says, “When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He was suffering, He did not threaten but entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly!” Jesus did not retaliate! When conflict or criticism comes we will have to decide how we will respond to it. Will we choose to allow Him to be in control or will our flesh be in control? Jesus chose to not retaliate and to trust the Father to handle the judgment end of things. Do we trust God enough to allow Him to handle that end of it?

There are a lot of options but let’s take a look at four. We must choose how we will handle difficult people and difficult situations daily. You should not judge a church by whether it has problems or not but by how they handle their problems. That same principle applies to leadership because the real litmus test is how we respond to and handle conflict. A pastor posted this sentiment on Twitter, “I refuse to be a Christian who is generous with damnation and stingy with grace.”

First, you could choose to give in and pander to the criticism or conflict. The temptation is to just agree with them even when you do not agree with them. You do not want to offend them, upset them, or rock the boat. Everyone has a desire to be liked but that desire should not override the truth and must confront the difficulty in love. Remember that Proverbs 15:1 says that, “A gentle answer turns away wrath.” So often it is not what we say but how we say it.

Second, you could choose to isolate yourself from them or ignore them. The temptation here is to hope that if we ignore the problem it will just go away or solve itself. The truth is that almost never happens. It is sad when people in a church will avoid certain people and use a different entrance to make sure they do not have to speak to them. That could be called stealth avoidance but a more correct description would be escapism and an unbiblical approach to conflict resolution.

Third, you could get defensive and power up for the confrontation. This is where you try to overpower the difficult person using intimidation. You have the mindset of straightening them out, showing them once and for all, and telling them a thing or two. The focus becomes more about changing them rather than being the person Christ wants you to be. Powering up is where you want to blow them away with what you say and shut them up once and for all.

Fourth, you show courage and stay calmly connected to them. This is the most biblical approach where you speak the truth in love. You refuse to see them as the enemy and ostracize them. Your focus is on biblical resolution and restoration of the relationship. In Acts 20:17 Paul said, “For I did not shrink back from declaring to you the whole plan of God.” Later in Galatians 4:16 he says, “Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?”

The biblical response to conflict and difficult people is found throughout the scriptures in verses like Romans 12:17, “Do not repay evil for evil.” And also in I Peter 3:9, “Not paying back evil for evil or insult for insult but, on the contrary, giving a blessing, since you were called for this.” Once again, the key is not necessarily what you say but how you say it and the love you have for the one to whom you are saying it.

Nehemiah is an excellent example of handling conflict but not allowing it to distract him from the task God had assigned him. You must continue to labor and press forward even when you conflict and criticism comes. Nehemiah in chapter 5 says he was “extremely angry” when he heard their outcry and their complaints but in verse 16 he says he “devoted” himself to the work. When the detractors asked him to stop the work and come down and discuss it he refused.

Nehemiah made it clear that there was nothing to the rumors they were spreading and even told them in Nehemiah 6:8, “you are inventing them in your own mind.” He knew that their attempts at intimidating him were focused on trying to discourage him and bring their work to a screeching halt. Then in Nehemiah 6:11 he says something we should all remember when faced with conflict and criticism, “Should a man like me run away?”