Luke 2:8–9 (ESV) 8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.
This year I decided to use the Sundays in Advent to talk to you about the Advent wreath, its purpose and symbolism and significance. When we started two weeks ago I told you that there are different traditions that name the candles. One tradition uses Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. The tradition I am using for this sermon series calls them PROPHECY, BETHLEHEM, SHEPHERDS and ANGEL Candles. Last Sunday I spoke about the BETHLEHEM Candle. No one was here because of the ice storm, so I did it on a podcast that had about 4 viewers. And the recording function didn’t work, so that one is gone. (A printed copy of the message is on the website.) On this third Sunday of Advent, I’m going to use both traditions, because the Shepherds’ Candle has a message of JOY.
When you picture those shepherds on the hillside, minding their own business, joking around and maybe dozing off, what was it like when out of nowhere the angel of the Lord appeared? They were filled with great fear, and rightly so, I would think. After all, these were angels, and angels can be frightening. Think about what Scripture tells us about angels.
–One angel killed 186,000 soldiers in Sennacherib’s army in the days of King Hezekiah.
–At the sight of six-winged seraphim, Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips.” That is a statement of fear!
–Two angels struck the men of Sodom blind before the Lord’s fire fell on those wicked cities.
–The angel of death went throughout Egypt to slay the firstborn in every unprotected home there. A night of fear.
–The angel with the flaming sword was fearsome too, stationed at the entrance to the Garden of Eden.
Some of this fear is tied to the one whom these angels represent. After Adam and Eve sinned, when God came looking for them Adam said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden and I was afraid!” And no wonder, for if God himself shows up, it could be really frightening. And think about it. The message of the Christmas angel is that God is showing up! “God is with you, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” That could be a real cause of fear, if God is here.
But the angel said “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring your good news of great joy.” And what was that good news? “God is with you, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” It sounds like the same news that should strike fear into human hearts, but this time it is different. For this time the Lord comes not with a flaming sword or in a pillar of fire or some other threatening manner, but as a baby, one of us, “wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” A baby isn’t frightening.
FEAR THAT TURNS TO JOY–that is the message of the third Advent candle, the Shepherds’ candle. FEAR IS TURNED TO JOY. And in the examples of the two most famous shepherds in the Old Testament we can see that theme at work.
DAVID was a shepherd once, right here in Bethlehem. And his career began at a time and place where fear was very evident. The Philistine giant Goliath stood day after day taunting the soldiers of King Saul: “I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.” When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were afraid. But David, a young shepherd went out to face the giant: “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel.” You know what happened then–the sling, the stone, Goliath fell … and then, “the troops of Israel and Judah rose up with a shout …” The message of the Shepherds’ Candle: FEAR IS TURNED TO JOY.
“Let the righteous rejoice in the Lord,” David wrote in his psalms. And of course: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil … for you are with me.” That was the message of the Christmas angel, wasn’t it? “God is with you, a Savior who is Christ the Lord. Fear not! Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.”
MOSES was a shepherd too. And he knew fear, fleeing from Egypt to the wilderness where he thought he would die. The burning bush was waiting there–almost like an Advent candle, the Shepherds’ Candle, with the message that God was with his people in their need: “I have heard the cry of my people who are in Egypt, and I have come down to deliver them.” FEAR WOULD TURN TO JOY.
Fear was in the air the night of the tenth plague, the night the angel of death passed overhead to kill the firstborn in every house in Egypt. Fear was in the air. But in the homes whose doorposts and lintels were painted with the blood of the sacrificial lamb (a lamb, please notice–something shepherds would appreciate)–in those protected homes, FEAR GAVE WAY TO JOY: “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you,” they were told. “You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord.” And so they did: “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously … the Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.”
Ancient shepherds came to know the presence of the Lord, and to rejoice in that presence. And now the Lord draws near again. He comes to meet us even in our fears: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” … and turn those fears to joy: “For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” That is the message of the third candle on the Advent wreath, the Shepherds’ Candle: “God is with you, a Savior who is Christ the Lord. Fear not!” He came to accomplish your salvation with His perfect life, which was offered as the sacrifice for all sins on that cross. That means your sin has been paid for by Jesus. The Lord is come! Hosanna to the Son of David! Rejoice! LET FEAR GIVE WAY TO JOY!