What the Shepherds Said

Some years ago a psychologist named
Jonathan Haidt published some very
intriguing data on what he called “elevation,”
which is the opposite of disgust.
We all know that there are any number of
things that disgust us or cause us to feel
revulsion. When we witness hypocrisy,
cruelty, and betrayal, we recoil–there are
even certain physical sensations we experience
when feeling disgusted such as a
tightening in our chest, a clenching of our
jaws, perhaps even a flutter of indigestion
in our stomachs.

Happily, however, witnessing acts of
moral beauty also has an effect on us: it
elevates us, changes us. Being exposed to
goodness and happy things can also elicit a
physical response that includes a feeling of
warmth, a tingle down your spine, tears in
your eyes, a lump in your throat. More importantly,
seeing acts of great moral beauty
elicits in us a desire to do likewise, to be
that kind of person ourselves, to help others
feel this way, too.

The shepherds of Luke 2 may well be
a good example of this kind of elevation.
They had witnessed something of profound
moral beauty and had heard a message of
radiant hope. The message of the angels
and the things the shepherds saw in Bethlehem
elevated their hearts into a realm of
hope and joy, and they spread it around,
becoming the first evangelists, the first
witnesses to start telling the gospel story.
Luke tells us that everyone was amazed at
“what the shepherds said.”

But have you ever wondered just what
it was they said? We’re not told directly
but maybe one of the things “the shepherds
said” was a direct echo of one of the most
remarkable things they had heard from
that bright angel in the sky. “Today in the
city of David a Savior has been born to you.”
It’s the “to you” line I find striking.
Eighteen years ago my first child was
born on a Sunday morning just a few hours
before I was supposed to lead an Advent
service at my first congregation. Needless to
say, I didn’t make it to work that morning.
Instead the vice-president of my church’s
council got up in the pulpit to tell the congregation,
“Scott and Rosemary’s daughter
was born this morning!” People were glad
to hear the news, but I would imagine they
may have been puzzled had that man said
to them instead, “People of God, there has
been born to you this morning a daughter!”
Why would my daughter have been born to
someone else?

“Today a Savior has been born to you.”
Those last two words get swiftly repeated
in the next verse when the shepherds are
told, “And this will be a sign to you.” We all
know what that sign was: a baby wrapped
in cloths and lying in a manger. A “sign”
is something that points to something else,
like an arrow showing you the way to a
wedding reception or a party you are attending.
If so, then to what did the sign of
the baby in the manger point?

We tend to think that the main thrust
of this particular sign was to back up what
the angels had said. In case the shepherds
thought that maybe that whole angel thing
had been a hallucination brought on by some bad wine or something, their actually
finding this baby in a feed bunk would
let them know for sure that the angels had
been no dream. Yet according to Luke 2:15,
the shepherds say, “Let’s go to Bethlehem to
see this thing that has happened which the
angel of the Lord has told us about.” They
didn’t say, “Let’s go to Bethlehem to see if
this is really true” but said right up front
that they believed it had indeed happened.

So to what did this sign of a baby in
a manger point? What truth did the shepherds
see when they trotted over to the stable
and found Mary, Joseph, and also that
baby, who was lying in a manger? The truth
they saw was that this Savior who is Christ
the Lord had indeed been born to and for
them! The sign in the stable pointed to the
truth that for the shepherds and for everyone
else like them in the world–past, present,
and future–the birth of the Messiah
was for them.

Luke tells us that people were amazed
at “what the shepherds said.” But of everything
the shepherds told people, perhaps
the single most amazing news item
was that the Savior who is Christ the Lord
had been born to and for those shepherds.
They probably did not seem to be likely
candidates to receive their very own Savior.
Surely God could have started with a higher
class of people! But no, this is the gospel of
grace in a simple dative construction in the
Greek language: the Savior of all had been
born to them, to those guys, to the simplest
folks around. That’s grace for you.

The times have changed but the message
has not. Every year at Christmas we
gather in churches and by the mystery of
the Holy Spirit the angel’s words get addressed
to each one of us: a Savior has been
born to you, to me, to us. Maybe we’re not the
most likely candidates either but there it is:
a Savior has been born to you, to me, to us.

An act of great moral beauty can elevate
us, change us fundamentally at
a very basic level. In the history of the
world, what act has ever been more beautiful
than the birth of God’s only Son?
And here’s the really good news that elevates
every heart: whoever you are and
wherever you are, this Savior has been
born to you. Thanks be to God!

Scott Hoezee is director of the Center for Excellence in
Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand
Rapids, Michigan, and co-editor of Perspectives.