When the glory of the Lord shone upon the shepherds, they were filled with fear — great fear. Why? Why were they filled with fear? A couple of reasons. One could be a physical reason, when a bright light shines on a dark night. When you’re in the dark, your pupils dilate to try to get every little scrap of light they can possibly get. And when a bright light shines, your poor pupils that have opened wide to consume all the light they can possibly receive suddenly are flooded. And so, that is why we wince, that is why we pull back, because your pupils are screaming, “Shut the door! Shut the door! Contract, let less light in.” So, there’s a physical response that they’re having on a dark night with a bright light shining.
But there’s more than that. And you also see a spiritual reason why they are filled with great fear. And this is even a greater reason, because as Luke 2:9 makes clear, a pure radiance is shining on impure hearts. Verse 9, “The glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.” This is not an ordinary spotlight. This isn’t just about too many lumens. The shepherds are overwhelmed by the glory, the radiant glory of God shining on them. Now we know the angel responds to calm them down physically, “Fear not,” It’s okay. And spiritually, “I bring you good news of great joy.” It’s okay, I haven’t come to judge you. We’re not here to punish you.
But there’s another element that I think it would be good for us to be aware of, and that is what we might call the personal reason why they were filled with great fear. And that is, when extraordinary news comes to an ordinary person. When extraordinary news is spoken to an ordinary person. We are taught in life, we learn pretty quickly, that when something sounds too good to be true, it is what? Probably not true. And when you go through your life on the outskirts of life, as the shepherds would both physically and socially, and all of a sudden, you’re confronted with this magnificent light. And then in response to your fear, you’re told that “I bring you good tidings of great joy,” there’s a part of you that is going to have a hard time believing that this good news of great joy is for my kind of people. Good news of great joy does come to other kind of people, but not my kind of people. That’s just never been my experience, imagining these shepherds, it’s never been my experience for good news of great joy to come to me. And that seems to be why the angel goes out of his way to say in verse 10, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for [whom?] all the people.” All the people.
God chose to shine the radiant glory of his splendor first, this announcement came first to ordinary, smelly, live-in-the-shadows-of-the-night shepherds. And there is an ongoing debate as to how ordinary or lowly the shepherds were. The traditional view has been that shepherds were the lowest of the low, right down there with tax collectors, prostitutes, primarily for a couple of reasons. One is they lived with dung-covered animals, so they were defiled. Secondly, they had a reputation for being dishonest and uncultured. Obviously, you have very little chance for an education. Smelly, defiled, lazy. But more recently, scholars have questioned that interpretation, and they’ve argued from a couple perspectives. One is those Jewish writings that demeaned shepherds are non-contemporary. In other words, they were before these events or after these events. The Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud and other Jewish writings that describe shepherds as the lowest of the low were non-contemporary.
Also, the Bible does give a positive portrayal of shepherds, right? Moses was a shepherd. Psalm 23. Pastors are described as shepherds in the New Testament. David was a shepherd. The problem with that argument is that it is true the Bible gives a positive portrayal of shepherds, but even when it does, at times, it has to qualify. Let me give you one example in 1 Samuel 16:7 when Samuel was told to anoint David as King, the lowly shepherd. God had to counsel Samuel before Samuel would affirm this decision and tell him, “Don’t look on outward appearance, look on the heart. Look at David like I look at David.” So, even though, yes, David was exalted, but it was despite his being a shepherd, not because. Does that make sense? He was a shepherd.
Also, we know the Romans, the Greeks, and the Egyptians all despised shepherds. And it’s interesting that the Gospel of Luke is written by Dr. Luke (Luke 1) to Theophilus, who was most likely a Roman magistrate. And Luke is the only gospel writer who records the shepherds as the first people to hear the announcement. So, there seems to be some reason why, and I believe it’s this: the low status of shepherds is vital to communicate the nature of the gospel as a gospel that God chose to be communicated first to the ones who feel ashamed. The lowest as 1 Corinthians one makes clear.
So, I believe there’s a direct connection between the shame of shepherding and the scope of the good news, and that’s what we’re talking about. How wide is this good news of great joy? Who does it really… who is it being offered to? Who gets to hear this good news as good news? It is not enough to hear good news of great joy if we believe that the good news of great joy is for someone else. You know what that’s like when the UPS truck pulls into your driveway and then you hear some thumps on your front porch, and you go running out thinking, “Yeah!” And sure enough, the biggest box was mistakenly put on your porch and actually belongs to the neighbor. And then all the other boxes as you rifle through them, they have other names on them that belong to other family members. And there ain’t nothing for you on that front porch. It’s not enough to hear good news if you believe the good news doesn’t apply to you. And some of us, I fear, hear the good news of great joy as if it is addressed to someone else.
So, what might have prevented the shepherds from personalizing this good news of great joy? And I know that’s a huge question, a lot of hypotheticals. There’s evidence we could go in multiple different directions. But I want us to focus in on one answer to that question and lock in on that this morning, and that is the possibility that shame is the primary cause for all of us, including the shepherds, to potentially hear good news of great joy as if it was addressed to someone else.
Shame. Did you know that the Bible talks about shame more often than it even talks about guilt? The reason we don’t think that is because its description, the Bible’s descriptions of shame, come in such a variety of forms that we often don’t realize the Bible’s talking about shame. For example, nakedness, dishonor, defilement, loss of face, all of those are forms of/expressions of shame. And shame reroutes good news as if it’s addressed to someone else.
The contrast between shame and guilt might help us understand a little bit of what shame is. Don’t push this too far because there is clear overlap in the Bible between shame and guilt. But guilt generally says, I have done wrong. What I did was unacceptable. Shame says I am wrong. Who I am is unacceptable. Guilt, I have failed. Shame, I am a failure. I’ve lost face before God or before man, people. Guilt tends to fear punishment. Shame fears abandonment. Guilt can be forgiven. Shame feels like it can’t be erased without erasing me. Shame gets so tangled up with identity that if I erase my shame, I lose who I am.
Shame is different from embarrassment. If you ask a woman when she’s due and she says she’s not pregnant, you will feel embarrassed, as you should. But that embarrassment over time … Yes, for a while, every time you see her you will feel that embarrassment again. But that embarrassment generally will fade away over time. Shame is different. Shame feels like it’s written on us with a permanent marker. It feels impossible to erase.
What are some common sources of shame? Ed Welch, my advisor up at Westminster, has written some books on shame. The main one, he gives common sources of shame. I’ve added a few here, but most of these are his. Violation, any kind of violation that crosses healthy boundaries. I know we have kids in here, so I’ll leave it general. Violation can produce shame. And this is a good moment maybe to explain the relationship between what we call real shame and false shame. The violator should feel real shame, but often doesn’t. Often their real shame gets passed on to the person who was violated as a false shame. There’s a difference between objective shame that is right shame. You do wrong, you should feel shame. But often we don’t feel objective shame. We pass on subjective shame or false shame that ends up defining the person who should not feel shame. The person who should feel shame doesn’t feel shame. Violation.
Betrayal in marriage or friendship. Humiliating speech in the form of daily criticism or verbal abuse or angry, unpredictable words can leave a spouse or a child clothed in shame. Shame-based parenting is a huge source of shame. Being treated as an object. Rejected by a loved one whether through divorce, or many adopted children feel this kind of shame at times. Any kind of failure in school or work or sports can leave us feeling benched or shelved, which can be a form of shame. Physical, intellectual or financial differences can whisper “I’m ugly. I’m a failure. I’m a loser.” Same sex attraction or gender dysphoria can whisper “You’re not like anyone else. You’re different. It’s not just this struggle, it’s who you are.” Racial differences when you’re living as a minority in a majority culture. Cancel culture. Cancel culture is a shame/honor system that is shame-producing. Addiction — substances tend to promise relief and happiness, and they invariably leave us feeling shame. And then a big one for many of us, an overactive conscience. An overactive conscience can leave us living with a low-grade sense of shame perpetually.
Shame lies. It hears good news, and then it tells us that good news is for someone else. On January 13, 1784, William Cowper wrote his friend, John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace,” these words.
“Loaded as my life is with despair …” [This is William Cowper writing to John Newton.] “Loaded as my life is with despair, I have no such comfort as would result from a supposed probability of better things to come, were it once ended … You will tell me that this cold gloom will be succeeded by a cheerful spring, and endeavor to encourage me to hope for a spiritual change resembling it — but it will be a lost labour … My friends, I know expect that I shall see yet again. They think it necessary to the existence of divine truth, that he who once had possession of it should never finally lose it. I admit the solidity of this reasoning in every case but my own. And why not my own? … I forestall the answer: – God’s ways are mysterious, and He giveth no account of His matters.”
So, the voice of shame is so strong in Cowper’s ears that he can hear good news, know good news, write. He was poet laureate of his age, writing beautiful poetry, magnificent theology for everyone else. He believed he was an exception. Now humanly speaking, we can understand that. Cowper was six when his mother died. His father pretty quickly sent him off to boarding school where he was horribly abused by a 15-year-old boy. And he battled with these seasons of despair.
Shame blinds our eyes and blocks our ears to the good news. And this is why in verse 10, the angel said to the shepherds, “Fear not, for behold.” “Behold” is an old word for “look.” Look! Shed shame and see and hear this “good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
God takes special care to help the people who hear good news as if it’s for someone else. And that’s why he sent Jesus. Shame tells us that we are the exception. Jesus shuts up shame by coming down into it. He was abused. He was vulnerable and poor, despised. Let me give you one example, Isaiah 53:3.
“He,” [this is God’s chosen one, his suffering servant] “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows [Notice it’s not just he experienced sorrow, but he actually was defined by them.] He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces; [That is, he was viewed as subhuman, defined by shame.] he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
You could put your name there. You could put the shepherds’ name there. The shepherds were despised and rejected by men. You feel, some of you feel despised and rejected, esteemed not. But the shame that Jesus experienced was not his own, it was ours. He was overlooked so that we would not be.
One of the most beautiful transitions in Isaiah is between Isaiah 53 and Isaiah 54. Isaiah 53 is the suffering servant we just heard about. Isaiah 54 are the benefits from the suffering servant. What did his suffering produce for us? Let me show you one example. Isaiah 54:4 is the shame-shunning promises of God. And it is so dense. It is the most dense expression of God’s … Do you know what I mean by dense? It’s like a Brick Street Cafe sweet potato cake. Yeah. You can work out with the cake and then eat it to burn off the calories. It’s so heavy. That’s this verse. Five different words for shame to communicate how passionate God is to see you shun your shame. Look at these words,
“Fear not, [These are same words spoken to the shepherds.] for you will not be ashamed [You will not be put to shame.]; be not confounded [That is, don’t feel humiliated.], for you will not be disgraced [put to shame]; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach [another word for shame, dishonor, indignity] of your widowhood you will remember no more.”
Now notice the span there. It’s from your youth to your widowhood. And it’s almost like watching a positive assassination attempt. You know, when an important person is surrounded by their bodyguards, and you hear a gunshot. What do the bodyguards do? They immediately surround that person, wrap them up. And that’s what’s happening here. God is using five synonyms to wrap up those who feel defined by shame to protect them from being assassinated by shame. Shame thrives in broken relationships, perverted broken relationships. And therefore, God moves near and replaces our disgrace with his grace. The answer to shame is not to spend your life to try to erase it, but to replace it. And that’s what God does here a few verses later. Look at verse 5.
“For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth, he is called. For the Lord has called you.”
Do you see how he’s moving near? He’s not just trying to erase your shame from a distance, he’s coming close. He’s in relationship with us. “The Lord has called you like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit … [a few verses later] with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer.”
So, here’s the question we need to wrestle with. What if you’re not an exception? And I want you to answer that right now. What would happen in your life if right now you realized you’re not an exception, that the “good news of great joy that is for all people” is for you? And it’s not for you next week, after you’ve proven that you’re worthy of that. It’s for you right now. Right where you are in all your messed-up-ness, in all your weakness, all your failure.
Christ did not come to give good news to the well, the healthy. He said he came to give good news to people who need it. The ones who are shrouded in shame. The ones who feel like the bright light is too bright and is going to expose too much. The ones who feel like this is good news, but this is good news for the guy down the road. This is good news for the other people who have their acts together. This is good news for someone else. This is not good news for me. I know Jesus is true. Like Cowper, some of you are saying, “I know the gospel is true. It’s just, it doesn’t feel true for me.”
Well, what if it is? What if right now God’s view of you is one of everlasting love? Not because you’re so great or I’m so great or any of us are so great. We’re not gathered here because we’ve got our act together. We’re gathered here by God’s grace. He sent his Son to die for our sin. He took on our guilt and our shame, and he takes it away. And some of us are carrying it as if it’s ours to wear. And he’s saying to you this morning, “What if you’re not the exception?” We can’t hide in a big group. The Spirit is saying to each one of us, “I have good news of great joy for you.”
Let’s pray. Father, you shine shame-shunning light and love into the darkness of our dishonor. In Jesus you smother our shame with favor and honor. “Those who look to you are radiant, and their faces will never be ashamed.” And Father, there are some in here whose shame goes so far back and is so deeply woven into who they are, such deep hurt that they feel like an inoperable tumor. If they try to gouge out that shame, it will kill them. So, Lord, they’re going to need help. So, maybe this message for them is simply to be willing to get help, a wise counselor helping untangle these cords of shame. But Father, I pray that they could hear the good news today, that you did not send your Son to leave us in bondage and shame.
I pray for those who are living under a low grade sense of shame perpetually. It makes us brittle, prickly. We end up passing this shame onto the ones we love the most with harsh words, a critical spirit, and we’re unwilling to hear the good news of great joy, as if it feels inauthentic or addressed to someone else. So, I pray, Lord, right now, there would be some who would say to you, “I am not the exception. This good news of great joy is for me.”
Father, I pray that all of us right now could bask in your smile. And if there’s anyone who is rejecting Jesus, I pray that right now they would look to you, Jesus, and believe your death, your burial, your resurrection is our only hope to wash away our guilt, to wash away our shame, to cover us with garments of grace, not fig leaves of our own making.
Lord, let us be like the shepherds who received this good news of great joy, and it sent them running, and it sent them praising and glorifying you. It sent them telling others. They had confidence. They didn’t care about their status anymore. They were unashamed. And some of us are so timid. We don’t think we’re shameful, but we are so silent about the good news. There’s no joy in us and yet we are shrouded in shame. And you are saying to us this morning, that is not what I have for you. So, wash away the shame in the smile of your favor, Lord. Please, Lord, let the heat of your steadfast love melt away the shame, and then send us out with joy.
And Father, we need our minds renewed. Shame is sticky. It loves to keep coming back. So, help us by your Spirit. The first fruit is love. Pour your love into us now. In Jesus’ name, amen.