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Luke 2:8-12
14th December 2003

My mother's great grandparents came to Australia from Scotland where they had been shepherds. I suspect they had been forced from their crofts by the lairds, who were renting out their properties to English mill-owners during a black period in Scottish history. Tens of thousands of crofters, forced from their lands, lived along the seashore where they died from exposure and hunger until boats took them to Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Having arrived in Melbourne, my ancestors walked to the hot plains north of Melbourne, to a place called Donnybrook. Mobs of 1,000 sheep were divided into three flocks, each with a shepherd who took them out to graze at daylight and brought them back to brush yards at night. The Shepherds lived in rough slab huts lit by slush lamps. Their life was hard and their wages were poor. At Donnybrook they herded sheep until eventually fences were built, barbed wire was invented to guard against loss in adjoining bush, and they were no longer required to protect sheep from attacks by dingoes or thieves. The dry stonewalls they built still stand. In the little Donnybrook cemetery, are the earthly remains of scores of my ancestors up until my mother's generation.

Australia and sheep are synonymous. Governor Phillip brought sheep for meat with him when the first fleet arrived in 1788. Within four months only a ram and 28 ewes remained. 88 more starving sheep arrived in 1792. The flocks multiplied under the care of convict shepherds. My Scottish grandparents and great-grandparents and as far back as I can trace, were on my father's side, bakers, and on my mother's side shepherds. Their interests combine in me. I care for the flock of God, feeding them on the bread of life.

Jesus said, "The Good Shepherd will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy." There are many in Sydney who abuse children; who roll and rob the homeless; who destroy the weak and addicted on the streets. I remember well poor Stephen Seymour, an intellectually disabled man from this congregation, whom wicked men kicked to death to steal a $5 watch given him by us for his birthday. They "steal, kill and destroy" said Jesus. But the Good Shepherd comes to provide acceptance, love, care, transformation and renewal. "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." There is no truth greater. Those who hear His voice and follow Him find life in all its fullness. They find "whoever enters through me will be saved." That is not religious talk. It is factual experience. The Shepherd of the streets saves them. They turn from fear to faith.

But there is the dreadful cost to it all. Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." Those hired by governments to care as shepherds but are often more concerned with their own conditions of employment than their charges. Hired people of all kinds: station guards, security men, city Council officials, government employees, social workers, personal case workers do not fight the predators, the pushers, the pimps, the paedophiles, the parasites - but flee. "Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep." There is a world of difference between a shepherd and a hireling. Shepherds were first to visit Jesus at His birth. Luke 2:8-20 The New Testament refers to "our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep." Hebrews 13:20 Jesus spoke of Himself as "the good shepherd" who would lay down His life for them. John 10:7-18

Jesus told Peter to feed His sheep. John 21 Paul likened the church and its leaders to a flock with shepherds. Acts 20:28 For three thousand years there have been shepherds. It was one of mankind's earliest occupations. Flocks and herds were prominent in Palestine. Sheep and goats were in abundance. Possession of these animals indicated power, status and wealth. One shepherd became King David, and the author on the famous Shepherd's Psalm.

Luke does not say how long in advance of Jesus' birth Joseph left for Bethlehem nor why he took Mary with him when he was required to enroll Mary also was a descendant of David, but women were not required for taxation enrollment. Luke simply states that the birth took place "while they were there." v6 Mary had stayed three months at cousin Elizabeth's home, and perhaps Joseph wanted to take Mary away from the gossips of Nazareth. When Mary's time came, the only available place for the family was one usually occupied by animals. It may have been a cave. In 325AD, the Church of the Nativity was built over such a cave. It may have been a part of a house or inn where farm animals and their fodder were kept. The eating trough, or "manger," was ideal as a crib. The shepherds nearby had a lowly place in society. They were uncouth, considered untrustworthy and ceremonially unclean. The gospel first came to social outcasts. The shepherds of Bethlehem symbolized all the ordinary people who have joyfully received the gospel and have become carers to others. Shepherds out in the fields at night raises an interesting question. What kind of sheep require watching on a winter's night? They may have been raising lambs for sacrifice at Passover a few months later. The shepherds were told they would recognise the Saviour when they saw a new born babe, wrapped in cloth lying in a manger.

The reason for this sign through the Old Testament: after Adam and Eve sinned their son Abel brought a lamb from his flock and sacrificed it as a sin offering to God. Noah took a lamb after the flood had subsided and the animals and birds were multiplying, and sacrificed it to God. Abraham built an altar and sacrificed a ram that had been prepared for Him as a sign of His dependence upon God. The Israelites sacrificed lambs in Egypt and smeared the doorposts with blood that death would pass over them. Moses gave the people of Israel instructions how they were to sacrifice a lamb for their sins each year. John the Baptist looked at Jesus coming for baptism and said: "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" whom Isaiah had foretold who would be without spot and blemish. Peter, spoke of "the costly sacrifice of Christ, who was like a lamb without defect or flaw." 1 Pet 1:19 Paul, described what happened in the death of Jesus as "Christ, our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed for us." 1 Cor 5:7 John saw the Heavens opened and "then I saw a Lamb, standing in the centre of the Throne... the Lamb appeared to have been killed...and I heard angels, thousands and millions of them...and they sang in a loud voice: "The Lamb who was killed is worthy to receive power, wealth, wisdom and strength, honour, glory, and praise!" Rev 5:6 13

Palaces were proper places in which princes would be born, but a manger in Bethlehem was the proper place for the Lamb of God. The shepherds identified the Lamb of God. Any shepherd could recognise a sacrificial lamb! Archaeologists found a sign, from the time of Jesus, indicating the special lambing fields. The Lambs were sacrificed for the sins of believers, and "according to the Law almost everything is purified by blood, and sins are forgiven only if blood is poured out." Heb 9:22

The Messiah would suffer and die as a sacrificial Lamb for the sins of the world. Lambs without defect or flaw were kept five miles south west from the Temple in Jerusalem in fields called Migdal Edar, which means "the Tower of the Flock". Temple shepherds cared for the sacrificial lambs watching over them 24 hours a day every day of the year. The Wise Men had to be guided to the place of His birth by a star, but the shepherds had no need of a star. They knew the manger in the fields of Migdal Edar! Here, where sacrificial lambs were born was the right place for the birth of the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world.

The Shepherds were terrified! Only a single angel appeared but when you are out in a paddock at night, and you have had a few wines, even one angel is enough! "They were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." Luke 2:9-12 "Filled with fear" I like the old King James translation, "they were sore afraid". Immediately, the angel told them not to be afraid. Just as they tripping over their things in their confusion, just when they thought it couldn't get any worse, "suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!" When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger."

The fear and astonishment melted in the faith and delight of their eyes. They couldn't stop talking about it. Without even realising it, those shepherds became the first people ever to tell the good news about Jesus being born. God had made Himself known to ordinary people as they went about their ordinary tasks. That resulted in a fearful reaction that could only be confronted by faith.

Forty seven years ago, as an eighteen year old Bible College student, I was appointed youth pastor to the slums of inner North Melbourne. At Christmas 1957, I organised a Christmas pageant, with children taking the parts of various characters in the Bethlehem story. One played the part of wicked King Herod, others plays soldiers - these were the most desirable parts - others wise men and shepherds and some, cows and sheep. It was one thing to write and produce the play. The next task was to get an audience from among the slums and the new high rise Housing Commission flats. I visited people, knocking on doors, handing them a leaflet and inviting them to attend. Not many were interested. One lady in one of the new flats, shyly stood at the door with it opened only a few inches. She was a new comer to the area. She said she could not come because she was Jewish. I told her the play was about the birth of a Jewish king. That caught her attention. We chatted and the door opened a little. I asked her name and she replied: "Mrs Sherberg." Rather rudely I said, for 18 year old ministers are inclined to say whatever comes into their heads: "Sherberg does not sound very Jewish." She replied, "No, it is German. I was a Jewess. My name was Weizmann. I married a gentile named Sherberg here before the war, and my family disowned me. I have never seen them since." I understood the ramification of a Jewish girl marrying a descendant of a German immigrant family.

I replied, "We have some people called Sherberg in our church. One of the names on our World War 2 Honour Board is a Pte A. Sherberg. In fact, one of the sheep in the Christmas play is a Sherberg." The lady went white. She asked questions of that family. She did not know any of them. By now I was in her sitting room. She lived on her own. Their marriage had broken up and she was committed to Laurundel Mental Hospital. Her husband took her only daughter and she never saw them again. The whole thing upset her greatly. I encouraged her to attend the play, but she said she could not enter a Christian church.

Two weeks later, the play was on. I was rushing round the church with electrical extension cords and last minute things to do, when I noticed this lady standing just inside the door. She was trembling with fear. I introduced her to some other ladies and she sat down. The play told the story of the birth of a Jewish King. The Wise men and the shepherds all did their part, and the cows and sheep were very noisy, but not at noisy as King Herod's soldiers who carried out the massacre of the innocent children of Bethlehem with great relish.

I would love to tell you that after the play Mrs Sherberg met her long lost daughter and that it was her grandchild playing the part of a sheep. But that did not happen. What did happen, was that Mrs Sherberg found her fears left her, when she had enough faith to enter the church and to hear about the Good Shepherd. And she did find a family, not hers, but God's. Every Christmas is the right time to turn fear into faith. To take the Shepherds option, come and worship the new born King lying in a manger, the Lamb of God who was to take away the sin of the world. But especially, to realise it was for your sin.


  • Freedman, David Noel, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Doubleday, 1992.
Wesley Mission, Sydney.