The Rev. John Stott, a longtime friend of Billy Graham and one of the world’s most influential figures in the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ during the past half-century, died this past July at the age of 90. This article is adapted from a sermon he preached on December 17, 1995, at All Soul’s Church in London, where he served as rector for many years.
There is something extremely attractive in the story of the shepherds in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 2: 1-20). Apart from Jesus Himself who of course was the very center of the Christmas story, flanked none ide by Joseph and on the other by Mary, it is surely the shepherds who are the most popular characters, and they are always featured prominently in every nativity play.
For myself, I am so glad that God did not choose to announce the birth of Jesus to the Roman emperor, Augustus, who is mentioned in verse 1 as part of the background to the story (I doubt if Augustus Caesar ever heard of Jesus). Nor did God announce the birth of the Savior of the world to Quirinius, the governor or procurator of Syria at that time (verse 2), or to King Herod the Great (pompous fool that he was), although of course Herod came to hear about the birth later and did his best to destroy Jesus. Moreover, it was not announced either to the high priest or to any of the other priests in the hierarchy of the temple in Jerusalem. And it was not even announced to those mysterious magi, although they, too, heard about it and came later.
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No, the wonderful thing is that God chose to announce the most stupendous news that the world has ever heard to simple shepherds, to ordinary blokes like us. Isn’t that marvelous? The shepherds were going about their everyday business, making sure that the sheep had adequate pasture. At night, in particular, they had to be on the alert because wolves were around. But those shepherds had no expectation whatsoever that anything out of the ordinary was going to happen that night. In fact, when the vision of the angels and of the glory of the Lord around them appeared, they were at first filled with terror, not joy-the joy came later.
So the question I want to ask and try to answer is this: what did the shepherds do after the angels had gone back to Heaven and the glory of the Lord had disappeared? What did they do after the first Christmas carol had finished and the darkness and the silence had descended on the fields again, and after everything had become normal once more? What did they do, and what should we do?
I think the answer to this question may be found as we consider the implications of Luke’s account-a story of how love came down from Heaven at Christmas, and how the shepherds responded to the love that came.
EXAMINE THE EVIDENCE
The first thing we are told is that the shepherds went to Bethlehem to see for themselves. They said to one another: “Let’s go see” (verse 15). I love that. They were not content with hearsay but determined to go and find out for themselves if what they had been told was true, and what it all meant. So they neither laughed it off and dismissed their experience as hallucination, nor accepted it without critical investigation. They hurried off and found exactly what they had been told they would find-Joseph and Mary, and the Baby lying in a manger.
Dear friends, I pray that we can learn from those shepherds that the right response to the Christmas story is neither credulity nor incredulity, for neither of those extremes is right. The correct response is an open-minded, unprejudiced inquiry as to whether these things might be true. I wish there were more of this “Let’s go and see” mentality among us today. And I wish there were more willingness to move away from agnosticism into investigation.
Now, of course, we cannot go to Bethlehem as the shepherds did. Or at least, we could go, but it would not help us very much. Oh yes, we could find there are fields outside Bethlehem and we could sense the atmosphere, but we would not find the Jesus we were seeking.
So where shall we look for this Jesus in order to find Him today? He is not in a manger cradle now, so where is He? Martin Luther, the great German theologian reformer at the beginning of the 16th century, said, “Scripture is the cradle of the Christ,” which is a beautiful phrase describing the Bible as a kind of manger in which the Baby Jesus is lying. Here then lies the answer-if you want to find Jesus, you must pick up the Bible and read it, for I think I can say without fear of contradiction that the major, if not the overriding, purpose of the Bible is to point people to Jesus Christ.
The Bible-Old and New Testaments alike, and especially the New-points us to Jesus Christ. He is the center of the biblical revelation, and the Bible is God’s book about Christ. So I am distressed by the number of educated-I am tempted to say otherwise educated-people who have condemned Christianity unheard. They have not read the New Testament since they were kids, nor ever investigated the credentials of Christianity; they have never read the foundation documents, the Gospels and the Epistles, and they have rejected them unheard. That is not intellectually honest.
Maybe this Christmas somebody will be challenged to get that book down and read especially the Gospels that tell the story of Jesus. There is plenty of evidence there on which to base a rational conviction about the truth of Jesus Christ. For example, there are the stupendous claims that Jesus made. Here was a simple peasant from the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, who said that He had the authority to forgive sins.
Moreover, Jesus claimed that He was going to be the central figure of the Judgment Day, that He would come back and sit on the throne of His glory and that all the nations would be gathered before Him, and He would separate them from one another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats, and our final destiny would be revealed (Mathew 25:31-46).
Consider next the beauty of His moral character, for Jesus never sinned. His was a life full of love, humility and gentleness that have been the envy and admiration of the world. And then, there is plenty of circumstantial and historical evidence of the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. But I fear that often we make up our minds before we have investigated the evidence. The shepherds did not do that-they said “Let’s go see; let’s find out.”
One final thing to consider is the promise Jesus made in the Sermon on the Mount: “Seek and you will find,” He said (Cf. Matthew 7:7). So everybody who seeks will find what they are looking for. I wonder if the reason you may not have found Jesus Christ is because you have never sought Him?
REACH OUT WITH GOOD NEWS
Secondly, when the shepherds had seen the Baby Jesus, they spread the word concerning what they had found, and what they had heard about Him. They could not keep the good news to themselves but wanted other people to hear it, too.
We need to notice how natural their witness was-what the shepherds had seen and heard was such a joyful thing that they wanted to spread it abroad. In the same way the Apostle Peter, when the Jewish Council forbade him to teach any more in the name of Jesus, boldly responded: “We cannot help speaking about the things that we have seen and heard” (Cf. Acts 4:20).
For us, too, people are unable to stop us from talking about it once we have seen and heard Jesus Christ and come to know Him in a personal way. We are so overflowing with the knowledge of what we have found in Jesus Christ that we long to speak about Him. It is sad that there are so many of us in the church who seem to be so hesitant and tongue-tied, when we ought to be spontaneously sharing the good news of our discovery with others.
LIVE THE TRANSFORMED LIFE
Thirdly, the shepherds returned to the fields near Bethlehem. From verse 20, we see that when they went back they were glorifying and praising God for everything that they had seen and heard. In other words, they worshiped as well as witnessed.
I like those words-they returned. The shepherds did not spend the rest of their lives in the stable. They returned back to their flocks, and back in due course to wife and family and home. But they went back different, for the shepherds returned to their old jobs and to their old homes in a new spirit. They had been changed by meeting Jesus, and the spirit of wonder and worship had entered into their hearts; they had heard the angelic choir praising God, and now they wanted to praise God themselves.
We, too, have to return to the same spouse, the same kids, the same home and the same job. But not in the same old way! The discovery of Jesus can change our lives, for it is a transforming experience. As Billy Graham has often said throughout his ministry, “Christ will put a new spring in your step and a light in your eye and a smile on your face.”
And it is true-we go back to the same old context but in a brand-new way. Do you understand now why I find those shepherds so attractive? I am very grateful to those shepherds, for I have learned a lot from them. I admire the sequence of events in which they were caught up-first they went to see for themselves, then they went to tell, to spread the word, and then they glorified and praised God. What is the common denominator of those three things? It has to do with their eyes. First they said, “Let’s go see.” When they got there, they saw Jesus, and as a result of what they saw, they spread the word. But they could not have spread the word if they had not first seen for themselves. Then they glorified and praised God for all that they had seen and heard.
We cannot see Jesus with our physical eyes today. But the Bible has a great deal to say about spiritual eyesight, the need to have our eyes opened to see truths to which otherwise we would be blind. The eyes of our heart can be enlightened, as the Bible says again and again. And this is the essence of being a Christian. Being a Christian is not just about believing certain things in the creed, important as that is. Nor is it about coming to church, although it is important to belong to the community. But you can come to church and still not be a Christian. And finally it is not just a question of being baptized, or even reading the Bible and praying.
So how can we define being a Christian? When you boil it down to its essential ingredient, it is knowing Christ-it is coming to know Him personally.
So I urge you to do business with God today, and whatever the resolution you need to make, make it now, for the glory of His great name.
©2011 JOHN STOTT’S LITERARY EXECUTORS
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