37. Local Leaders – Elders

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 6 – Thinking about Leaders

37. Local Leaders – Elders

Acts 20:17,28  Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church…. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.

1 Pet 5:1,2  To the elders among you …Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be

So eventually: Yes, eventually we get here, to think about elders. The word appears 127 in the O.T. and 64 times in the N.T in the NIV. When it was first used in Exodus (mentioned 11 times), the ‘elders’ were simply the most senior men of Israel there in Egypt. The Patriarchs were gone as the nation grew in number and there were simply those who were, no doubt, the oldest and most mature of the community. As such we see them involved in things with Moses from which others were excluded. In Leviticus it was the elders who had to step up and offer a sacrifice on behalf of the people when the nation had sinned (Lev 4:15); they were the senior representatives of the people before God. The elders of a local community were to act as judge and jury when the occasion required it (see Deut 21:19,20, 22:15-18, 25:7-9) and they were to be bearers of the law and the testimony to next generations (Deut 31:9,28, 32:7) and they led national repentance (Josh 7:6) and took punishment for community failure (Judg 8:16) and clearly showed they were the leaders of their local communities. And so it continued through the Old Testament period into the New, where we find they are leaders of the community, sharing in the rejection of Jesus with the chief priests. Throughout the Gospels they are simply senior members of the community.

But then Church: The first mention of ‘elders’ in the Church, in the historical accounts in Acts, comes right at the end of Acts 11 where the church at Antioch, “decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.” Acts 11:29,30) A little later we find Paul and Barnabas returning on their first missionary trip, checking each of the churches they had established and we see, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church.” (Acts 14:23) There is no mention there of qualification (which is found elsewhere in Paul’s letters) but for the church to accept the apostolic appointment of these leaders, would suggest they were people who were simply being recognized for what God had already done in them. When it became necessary for Paul to go to Jerusalem to resolve a theological debate, we find numerous references to not only the apostles in Jerusalem but also the elders (plural) in the church there in Jerusalem. (see Acts 15:2,4,6, 22,23 etc.) There had clearly been an appointing of men to act as leaders of the church at Jerusalem, as well as the apostles. The remaining 8 references to elders in the letters come as teaching or instruction. The 12 references to elders in Revelation all refer to the twenty-four elders around the throne of God.

The Teaching: We have seen previously how the term elder, overseer and shepherd are interchangeable (see Acts 20:17,28 above) To Timothy, Paul spoke of, “The elders who direct the affairs of the church,” (1 Tim 5:17)  and had instructed Titus to, appoint elders in every town,” (Titus 1:5) meaning every church. James expected the elders to be channels of Christ’s healing in the flock: “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.” (Jas 5:14,15) Is this one of those verses that parts of the Church conveniently forget or make excuses for (now the canon of Scripture is complete)? What a challenge! “Is anyone among you sick?”  Half the modern church is sick! What are the elders doing about it?

And so? What have we seen so far, what can be implied in the general usage of the term ‘elder’? First and foremost the historical picture shows men (and it would only have been men) who were older, mature and hopefully wise. Their age and wisdom was used to settle problems within the community and, on occasion, to answer to God for the community.  Translating that into the church, again there is the implication that ‘elders’ are those of mature age and who exhibit wisdom and, we might suggest, godliness. Linked with the term ‘overseer’ their role is also to protect the flock and there goes with that accountability and a responsibility before God. If I look back over my years as an elder, I am grateful for the Cross for no other way can we fallible leaders stand. So how do the teaching elements of the epistles fit with what we have said so far? The two main passages are found in Titus 1 and 1 Tim 3.

Titus: “An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” (Titus 1:6-9) Intriguingly, this is largely about character with little about spirituality, although both must be tied together. Note it says he “manages God’s household” not, we suggest, as a business or organisation but in the protective way we have considered previously.

The standard that Paul sets here is so high that I suggest it excludes those who have been divorced, and I realize in the modern church in some places that may cause immense difficulty. His requirement is for impeccable men, whose families hold together in faith and godliness, because they are to be an example to the rest of the world, and in the utterly confused and messed up West where divorces abound, cohabitation is almost the norm, and relationships are so often unstable, this has to be an area where leaders must stand out as salt and light, showing an alternative way. I suspect that ‘being filled with the Spirit’ was something Paul took for granted, for how otherwise can such men pray for the sick and see them healed? Similarly, when it comes to Deacons (who we will consider later on) for those who simply serve the church rather than protect or spiritually feed it, the one time when these is seen in the narratives, deacons were required to be men “known to be full of the Spirit.” (Acts 6:3) Surely elders, with all we have seen of their responsibilities could be nothing less.

Timothy: “Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,  not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect.  (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)  He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.” (1 Tim 3:2-7) Similarly, because both have the same author, we find ‘above reproach’ instead of ‘blameless’ but carrying the same meaning, especially in respect of family life and general character. The Titus verses finished with the need for maturity in respect of knowing the word, whereas here to Timothy, he is simply to “be able to teach,” and “not a recent convert” both imply maturity again. But there is something about this ‘maturity’ we have been referring to, and we will pick it up more fully later on when we consider ‘Teachers’ and it is the thing about not merely ‘knowing about’ (which is an essential starting point for an elder) but includes actually doing. Maturity is measured by obedience and availability and that is see in the believer who is well-rounded in both character and service.

And so: Because we have taken three studies to consider this matter of local leadership and the names and roles expected of such men, we really need to get an overview that draws together and highlights these things. For that reason, if you will excuse us stretching this out, the next Study will be a recap that draws all things together and asks two questions: 1. What sort of church or what picture of church is conveyed by all these verses? and 2. What effect should that have on the ordinary believer, the person who has just come to Christ and finds themselves part of the Church?

36. Local Leaders – Shepherds

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 6 – Thinking about Leaders

36. Local Leaders – Shepherds

Acts 20:17,28  Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church…. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.

1 Pet 5:1,2  To the elders among you …Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be

1 Pet 2:25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

Eph 4:11,12 Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors (shepherds) and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up

What next: I almost tossed a coin, figuratively speaking at least, as to whether to take overseers or shepherds first before elders. As Paul said to the, “elders… the Holy Spirit has made you overseers so (implied) be shepherds.” (Acts 20:17,28) i.e. if you are an ‘elder’, recognize God has called you to be a protective overseer, so consider yourself a shepherd of God’s flock in this particular local church. Peter basically said the same thing. The word for shepherd comes up more in respect of the Lord than it does his leaders but, nevertheless, they are called to shepherd his flock. Indeed in the list of gifts to the church of ministries, shepherds (or Pastors, the old English for shepherd) are seen there.

A Caring Role: Notice what both Paul and Peter say: “Keep watch over …. all the flock…” (Acts 20:28)  and “God’s flock that is under your care.” (1 Pet 5:2) I gave a clue to their role in the previous study when I said, ‘shepherd encapsulates, caring for, providing for, as well as protecting.’ Perhaps nowhere can we better see the role of the shepherd displayed than in the famous Psalm 23. Having said that we must note that in that psalm David refers to the Lord as his shepherd and, would suggest there are some things the human shepherd needs to leave to the divine shepherd. So let’s see what we can see from that psalm:

“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.” (v.1) Our role, I would suggest, is always to direct our people into a relationship with the Lord, in which HE will provide everything they need. My God will supply all that you need from his glorious resources in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:19) The under-shepherd will always point the flock towards the Chief Shepherd.

“He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters,  he refreshes my soul.” (v.2,3) i.e. he provides for me sustenance, and guidance into a place of peace and refreshing. The under-shepherd does this, I suggest, as he leads the flock into the presence of the Lord and shares His heart with them through His word. Teaching is thus a key element in the ministry of a shepherd which is why in Eph 4:12,13 there are often questions as to whether “pastors and teachers” are one and the same or two different ministries. I believe the answer comes to Paul’s words to Titus when speaking about elders (who we see above are also shepherds, He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” (Titus 1:9) Yet he said to Timothy, “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching,” (1 Tim 5:17) which implies that not every elder will be so gifted. Combining the two, I would suggest that every elder must have a firm grip on the word of God to be able to help and guide others with it (and refute error) although not all of them will be equally gifted with preaching gift.

“He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.” (v.3) The role of the shepherd (who is also, don’t forget, an overseer) is thus that of a guide, which implies a) he has walked this path before, i.e. a person of maturity, b) he shows the right way ahead, i.e. a teacher, and c) he walks it with them. This calls for a level of closeness which is rarely seen in modern churches, especially the bigger they are (which reinforces Francis Chan’s call for small churches that replicate easily). The reminder is always to be, “The Lord is with you – Immanuel” but having said that Christ-incarnate today means Christ expressed through his body, the church, and especially through loving, caring and available leaders.

“Even though I walk  through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil,  for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil;
 my cup overflows.” (v.4-6) Again, we have to emphasize, our teaching is, “God is with you (Heb 13:5b,6) and for you (Rom 8:31), working all things for our good (Rom 8:28), and we are seated with him in the heavenly realms (Eph 2:6)”  These verses remind us that there are dark days in every life, whether caused by mourning or simply by difficulties and opposition. That takes us into the realm of spiritual warfare (see Eph 6) where we need to teach the flock that opposition comes from the enemy and our call is simply to stand and hold the ground (the Christian life) God has given us, and we do that with His grace and with the comfort of fellow believers around us, which includes shepherds who learn to use the authority (the rod and staff)  that God gives them (More on this perhaps in a later study).

A Starting Agenda: From, these verses, we can perhaps set out a framework of some of the teaching etc. that the shepherd will bring to the flock, learning:

  • how to feed on the word,
  • how to sense the presence of God,
  • how to come into a place of peace ‘in Christ’ and ‘in the Spirit’,
  • how to receive guidance,
  • the nature and character of the path we are called to walk,
  • how to empathize which those who mourn and weep (Rom 12:15),
  • how to stand and triumph in spiritual warfare,
  • what it means to be more than conquerors, seated with Christ.

Shepherds go ahead: Each of these things will not be mere theory but will be things put into practice by the shepherd who will, by going ahead, be an example to the flock: set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity,” (1 Tim 4:12) and,  In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech,” (Titus 2:7,8) and, “Be shepherds of God’s flock … being examples to the flock.” (1 Pet 5:2,3)  As is fairly obvious from all this, shepherd-leadership is not for the novice, the new Christian or the faint-hearted, but for the mature, and that leads us into the whole subject of elders that we will consider next.

34. Led

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 6 – Thinking about Leaders

34. Led

Acts 20:17,28  Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church…. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.

Eph 4:11,12  Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.

Taken for Granted: We have been, may I remind us, considering facets of what the church is, if possible by going back to basics and starting from scratch. The difficulty, as I sought to point out a few studies back, is that church has been around for two thousand years and we take certain things for granted, no more so than when we come to the subject of leadership. In this Part, the following will be the studies before us:

  1. Led
  2. Local leaders – overseers
  3. Local leaders – shepherds
  4. Local leaders – elders
  5. Local Leaders – The Nature of the Church (1)
  6. Gifts of Ministries – Introduction
  7. Gifts of Ministries – to plant
  8. Gifts of Ministries – to build up
  9. The Servants – Deacons
  10. The Nature of the Church (2)

Where Angels fear to Tread: To try and consider from scratch the whole area of leadership in the church is potentially a hotbed for hostile responses. The Church changed dramatically from that first century after Christ and so our perspective on church leadership is, in many places, set in the concrete of tradition and passing centuries, a concrete that is staggeringly different from that found in the decades after Christ.

Balance: It is too easy to attack modern structures but we should never attack the leaders for many are the godliest men you can find – not all, but many (you only have to follow the news to see ongoing child-abuse scandals to note that not all are godly). Some of these leaders use their roles in very good ways to demonstrate righteous living. Never write off leaders of a part of the Church that is alien to your way of thinking because at the worst these are men or women considering they are following a vocation, a job with a calling, even if some are not sure of their calling when it comes to it; often, in the middle, are godly men and women trapped in an institution, trying their best, even if that falls short of the New Testament teaching; at the best it is men and women with a godly call on their lives seeking to be God’s servants with whole hearts and blessing those in Jesus’ kingdom.

Madness: Having been a church leader for well over twenty-five years, having known many leaders, and having watched many more, my long-term conclusion is that anyone who wants to be a church leader without a very clear calling from God is mad. Sorry to be blunt but leaders are God’s ‘out-front-people’ and as such they are the first to receive brickbats from the enemy, and I know very few leaders who have not been wounded along the way, and some who have had serious mental or physical breakdowns because of being ‘in the ministry’. One has to be honest and say that often the causes of such breakdowns are the people of God, as tragic as that is, and we will seek to cover how to avoid that in the days ahead, as we consider plurality of leaders.

A Difficulty: The presence of these established institutions, because we take them for granted, makes it very difficult to put aside all our presuppositions and start from scratch. Why, some might immediately ask, do we need to do that anyway? Supposing (and it doesn’t) the world said that child abuse, for example, was acceptable behaviour, that would not mean that it is right, especially when we measure it against New Testament teaching. We who are church leaders are not to measure what we do by way the world does things, but by the way God does things as revealed through the New Testament, and the responsibility for holding on to that sits on the shoulders of God’s leaders at large. It is important that we try, therefore, to truly get to get to grips with this subject which is why this Part will extend to at least ten studies.

Who is a Leader? All, whatever shade or hue of ecumenical life they come from, would agree I believe that church leaders, meaning those at the top of the pile, if I may put it so crudely, are to be those called of God; let’s agree on that. It starts with God. But the difficulty is knowing or recognizing such a call. There are, essentially, two different approaches to recognizing calling. The main traditional denominations usually go along with the sense of calling that an individual has, and if other ‘senior’ leaders agree to what they have sensed, they tend to send them off for training and then after a period of education and training, formally release then into a church context. A second approach is to simply watch and observe the life, gifting, and emerging ministry of a member of the church, and give them space to work that out even more and, as the body recognises them, openly accept them as leaders. Training may or may not follow. Both approaches have both pros and cons. But, I suggest, there are two bigger questions to be asked and answered: first, why does the church need leaders (not so obvious as you might think) and then, second, what actually is a leader?

Why do we need leaders?  Put aside my earlier analogy of a desert island where a number of survivors find the truth of the Bible impacts them, and they turn to God through Christ as they find it in the New Testament. Instead take them back to the mainland where they all happen to live in the same area. They decide to continue meeting together and now they are a ‘church’ living in a Western nation, say. Let’s consider various things that they might experience:

(i) They are now in an environment where the world imposes questions on them. They talk among each other about issues raised.  One or two have taken the trouble to dig more deeply into the Bible and come up with suggested answers.

(ii) Life goes up happily until one day some newcomers arrive sowing doubts about the way they are conducting church and life in general. The group now shows signs of confusion that might best be described as that which is seen when a flock of sheep are disturbed and potentially scattered. The ones and two’s who had previously shown signs of leadership step up to the mark and with authority refute the false teaching being brought in from outside. Peace is restored.

(iii) Then one day, two of the members of the group have a disagreement. It could be theological, it could be ethical, it could be over material or practical issues in life. It has the potential for causing division in the group. The ‘leaders’ step in and with wisdom and grace bring about reconciliation, and peace and order are restored.

(iv) A need appears within some in the group and they call on the group to help. The ‘leaders’ preside over that help and ensure it is fair and adequate.

Leaders, we have seen are those who oversee and seek to resolve these various problems or difficulties for the good of the greater body.

So what is a Leader in the Church? Because of the nature of the church and all that we have said about how people become Christians, they are first and foremost believers, Christians who have been born again of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, we would hope in the light of what we have said about ‘life’ and the Holy Spirit, they would clearly be Spirit-filled believers.  Moreover, because we have said our starting place is God, we would hope these are clearly godly people, people who demonstrate a depth of relationship and experience with the Lord, people who put prayer high on their agenda.

Because the church, we have said, is also a place (a body) where lives are founded on the New Testament, we would want these ‘leaders’ to be clear examples of those who understand and keep to that teaching and whose lives are righteous, who are examples to others of right and good and godly living. We would want them to demonstrate maturity, a maturity that is demonstrated by wisdom and the fruit of the Spirit. But as we look at the teaching on loving and caring for one another, we realize that we are looking for people who care about people: first and foremost caring about God, but then second, very clearly putting people as their next highest priority on the agenda.

And So? What have we said in these last two paragraphs? First, problems occur. Problems to do with belief, problems to do with relationships, problems about the way we go about life as Christians, the way we go about the corporate life as church, and the way we fend off heresy, and the way we ensure the church is a place of goodness, righteousness and caring. In other words, these are the needs that arise when any group of Christian people gather together. Second, we find that there are those who rise up to meet these needs but, more than that, they do it out of a living, vibrant, Spirit-filled relationship with God, demonstrating the life He reveals in the New Testament, an example for others to follow. Now that is clearly our starting point and there is much more to be added which we will go on to consider shortly. What I have sought to do, is put aside all we know of ‘what is’ and reflect on why there are ‘leaders’ in church, the needs for leaders and the type of people who will meet those needs.

To finish with, let’s move into Scripture next and note Paul’s instruction to Titus and highlight the things we’ve just seen: “An elder must be blameless, …  Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it,” (Titus 1:6-9) and tomorrow we’ll reflect more on some of the names given to leaders. This is just the starting place.

8. I didn’t see that coming!

The Impossibilities of God in a Broken World, the story of Christmas, Meditations:

8. I didn’t see that coming!

Lk 2:8,9   And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

 Indifference: Familiarity not only breeds contempt, it also breeds indifference and that really is the only word to describe a malaise that can so easily creep in when we have heard the same story time after time after time. And I think that applies no more strongly than in the case of the story about the shepherds – but it’s not just ‘a story’ it is history, significant history.  I don’t know what it is about the shepherds’ story but almost more than the nativity scene it seems to engender an, “Ah, isn’t that lovely,” response, but actually that was not what the shepherds thought about it until afterwards. Our verses above reveal that they were terrified and that means scared out of their wits.

Night-time scene: I mean, imagine this scene. It is the middle of the night. It is up in the hills above Bethlehem and there are sheep and there are shepherds who look after them. The shepherds have to live out there to guard the sheep because then, just the same as today, there was always the possibility of rustlers, even if it was just one person wanting to obtain a single sheep for some free mutton.  But sheep are valuable and so you guard them in this fallen world otherwise someone else whose ethics are not very good will take a fancy to one or two of them. It’s a mixed blessing life being a shepherd. Yes, you are out on the hills in the beauty of the countryside where there is peace and quiet and freedom from petty village politics, but on the other hand ‘they’ think of you as outcasts because you are separated off from ‘polite society’ and, being answerable to no one except the owner of the sheep, you tend to be a law unto yourselves. Then there was the weather which wasn’t always wonderful, but you grew used to that. In fact you grew used to the lifestyle and days came and went, weeks, months and years passed and there was the security of ‘same old, same old’. Until an angel turned up. We weren’t expecting that! I didn’t see that coming!

Angels: There are two tricky things about angels. First, not many people see them and second, when they turn up you can’t be sure about them. First, it seems, there are the dead ordinary ones who just look like anyone else – until they start doing spooky things (check out Gideon in Jud 6:11-22, esp. v.22 when he realised who it was.) Second there are the glorious ones, ones who are big and shiny, powerful and even coming from the sky (Num 22:31, Judg 13:6,20, 2 Kings 19:35, 1 Chron 21:16, Rev 7:1,2 [77 times angels are mentioned in Revelation]) and they can be scary!

Hillside: So here are the shepherds in their natural environment, possibly some of them asleep around the main campfire while a few remained awake and on guard, minding their own business, doing what they do every night, sitting there quietly, gazing into the flames and making desultory conversation when one of the scary sort of angels turns up “and the glory of the Lord shone around them.”  Whaaaat? Little wonder they were terrified. Again I fear that those of us who tend to be regular Bible readers may tend to be somewhat lackadaisical when it comes to angels because, as we’ve already noted, they appear quite a lot, and no less so throughout the Christmas story. Zechariah, we’ve already noted was “gripped with fear” (Lk 1:12) when he first saw the angel Gabriel. Mary wasn’t so much afraid at the appearance of Gabriel as at his words: “Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.” (Lk 1:29) Seeing an angel in a dream was not so scary for Joseph (Mt 1:20, 2:13,19), but a glorious angel in the middle of the night on a hillside, that is something altogether different!

Responses to the Unusual: Our problem in the West in the early part of the twenty-first century is that so much of the time life is predictable. Trains and buses and planes run on time (well they are supposed to), shops open and close at regular times, work tends to start at regular times, holiday dates are set, and so many other things say we live in an orderly predictable world – until either God turns up or some unanticipated crisis occurs. That is the thing about this fallen world. The nature of Nature is what makes scientists investigate it, observe the seasons or the movements of the sun, moon and stars, check the tides and so on. Yet there is still much disorder. We sound smug talking about El Nina or El Nino and we now observe jet streams as a determining factor of the weather, but none of these things seem predictable. We spend millions on great computers to forecast the changeable weather but still they often use words such as, “we think it might….” and are then proved wrong. We Brits are world-experts at this.

I think we’re actually better at handling unforeseen crises than we are God turning up unexpectedly. When He does, in big ways that affect the church, there are always those at the heart of it who are relishing the wonder of His presence, but further afield the Christian world generally is extremely good at being sceptical. In fact there are parts of the church where the unusual is almost guaranteed to be heretical. Permanence is here to stay!  Well, actually with God, no, He sometimes breaks in, in unexpected ways. If you hear of revival breaking out somewhere around the world (that isn’t your back yard), don’t get sniffy and gritty, you might be opposing God. Never be part of that Christian world that says, “It’s impossible, God doesn’t do things like that!”  Well He does; it’s just that you have never experienced it like that, so don’t be so insular and ignorant.  Gamaliel’s wisdom in Acts 5:33-40 is worth emulating.

So, try and understand something of both the wonder and the scariness of what was happening on this Judean hillside as God breaks into the mundane lives of a bunch of outcasts in this well-known part of the Christmas story and perhaps allow it to challenge us as to how open we are for God to speak to us, perhaps even in ways we have not experienced before. Let’s make sure the complacency that we have over the predictability of living in this part of history, doesn’t rob us of the wonder in the story and then make us see God’s activity in our lives or the lives of others around us as a stumbling block. Let’s not close our ears to the wonderful, whether it was two thousand years ago, or today! We’ll look at some more of this story tomorrow.

8. The Bottom of the Barrel

Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 8. The Bottom of the Barrel

Reading 7: Luke 2:8–16

Luke 2:8,9  And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them

Context: Whoever it was who set up this service and put headings over each set of verses, really excelled themselves with this one: “The shepherds go to the manger” which sounds as mundane as ‘the hungry person went to the fridge’ but, in fact, covers up a most incredible experience. Now before we get into the  reading itself, we need to recognise there is something slightly different about these  verses. The verses from the Old Testament pointed towards a Coming One, then in the last two studies we have seen the angel coming to Mary and then the baby being born in Bethlehem.  There is a sense with this reading that it is about events that don’t actually change the circumstances of the baby, but maybe simply bring a little encouragement to his parents. Yet, I am going to suggest, there is an amazing lesson here.

The Reading: Luke recounts this incident involving shepherds somewhere out on the hills near Bethlehem (v.8), looking after their sheep, when an angel appears to them. Now I’ve never thought of this before  but quite often when angels turn up they come in simple human form and initially at least, the person they are coming to doesn’t recognise them for what they are. This one turns up with the glory of the Lord shining all round and it scares the life out of the shepherds (v.9). Now forgive me if you don’t like this comment, but it seems to me that the Lord is putting on a show here; it’s like He is making a point – be under no illusion guys, this is my angel, yes from heaven! So when he speaks, you want to listen! So the angel reassures them that he’s come with good news (and by implication, not bad news – you’re not in trouble!) and this news will be for everyone (v.10). In Bethlehem, the Messiah has been born (v.11) and you’ll know this is true if you go down there and look in a stable and see him in a manger – yes a manger! (v.12) Now as if that wasn’t enough, there suddenly appeared an immense crowd of angels all singing and praising God (v.13,14), and then they were gone and it must have gone silent again and dark. So impacting was this that they determined to go and see what God had said (v.15) and when they got there they found it exactly as they had been told (v.16). And that’s it. No explanation, just the story.

Lessons? Now it may be that we have heard this story so many times that the familiarity of it means we’ve lost any sense of wonder. Also, as an account of something that actually happened, it is quite difficult to see any lessons within it that might apply to us. It is unlikely that these events are ever going to be repeated and so we are left scratching our heads and are left pondering, well, what actually happened here? Why did it happen? Why did it happen as it did?

God’s excitement? Again you may not like the idea of God being ‘excited’ but the picture of an angel with the full glory surrounding him, then “a great company of the heavenly host” turning up singing, speaks to me of an air of celebration about all this. It has the feeling that heaven cannot contain itself, there is such excitement that God has come to the earth in human form; it is that incredible.

Now the question that must follow, and this surely must be one of the lessons here, is, do you and I get excited about God, about Jesus, about the Christian faith, about church, about prayer, about the Bible, about evangelism? Are we, I wonder, sober, conservative, unemotional Christians? The other day I saw the portrayal of the British Royal Family back in the 1950’s, when Billy Graham first came to London. The response of some of the ‘top people’ was that this was un-British emotionalism (one has to say that was not the response of her majesty the Queen). British churchmanship did not have room for emotion, but the truth is these things ARE exciting, they are thrilling. This account with the shepherds IS mind blowing! The Bible is wonderful. Prayer is wonderful. God is incredible. Jesus is incredible. The Christian faith is unique. If we remain coldly unemotional we have either lost something or never found it!

Bottom of the barrel: Yes, this is the heading I’ve put at the top of this study, because I have written on this story a number of times in the past and this is the expression that I have this time round. The shepherds of Jesus’ day tended to be outcasts. They lived out in the hills with their sheep or the sheep of their master, and so existed out there and clearly would not be able to participate in any of the religious life of Israel. For that they would be looked down on by the religious leaders. They would not be the best dressed and they probably smelled.  Socially, they were the bottom of the barrel, we might say today. And this is where it gets thrilling. Why should God choose scruffy, outcast shepherds to whom to announce the arrival of His Son on the earth, unless He is sending a subtle message to all similar ‘outcasts’, those who have made a mess of life, those who are excluded by the great and the good, those who don’t turn up at civic receptions, those who aren’t invited to special religious celebrations, and the message is – I see you, I know you, I love you and I don’t reject you. I am here for you and I want you to know the wonder of the salvation I have laid on for whoever will receive it.

Let’s not add anything more to these two ‘lessons’. You may have just thought that this was a nice, if not fascinating, little story in the Nativity play, but it speaks out these two powerful and profound lessons: God was thrilled when the time was right for Jesus to come to the earth to reveal the love of heaven for mankind, and it is a message for ALL mankind and no one is excluded. Whoever you are, wherever you have come from, whatever you have done, whatever has happened to you, this is for you. This is God’s calling card, this is the Lord saying, Hey, I am here, and I am here for you!

9. Anticipation – the Shepherds

Focus on Christ Meditations: 9.  Anticipation – the Shepherds

Lk 2:8,9   And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

We have moved from the Old Testament into the New and are observing the different ways that God communicates in His revealing the coming of His Christ. In the previous study we saw how He communicated with Simeon via the Holy Spirit. Two of these three studies focus on those who were anticipating the ‘Coming One’ but this study focuses on a most unlikely group who God came to – you’ve guessed it, the shepherds who turn up in every Christmas Nativity with little children with towels around their heads clutching their favourite toy sheep. Now there are two emphases to their story but they, the shepherds, are only one. They are very undramatic, in stark contrast to the angels who form the second and even stronger element to their story.

Most of us are not very good with angels because we’ve never encountered them, but I have heard enough plausible testimonies from very credible people to believe that there is no question but that they exist. I would love to start telling stories here but if I do that we’ll never have enough space or time to write the accounts. But angels appear over the Bible. The first reference to an angel coming to someone is in Gen 16:7 when an angel comes to Hagar in the desert to encourage and reassure her. After her child is born another angel comes to her son in the desert (Gen 21:17). Further we find angels turning up in Gen 22:11,15,  24:7,40, 31:11, 48:16,  Ex 3:2, 14:19 etc. etc. etc. Very often it is clear that the angel comes to convey the will of God and in the text it is often almost impossible to distinguish between God and His angel as far as the communication is concerned.

Scripture describes them as ‘ministering spirits’ (Heb 1:14) sent to serve God’s people, usually in human form and who exercise power (2 Pet 2:11) and they come to convey God’s will. They appear a number of times in the early parts of the ‘Jesus story’ on earth, for example it was an angel who came to Zechariah (Lk 1:11-), to Mary (Lk 1:26-), to Joseph in three dreams (Mt 1:20, 2:13,19) as well as to the shepherds in today’s verses.

Not unsurprisingly the shepherds were terrified, no doubt more from the bright light that appeared to shine from and around this individual. Now although these shepherds are quite possibly outcasts from society because they lived in the hills, day and night, seven days a week, it is probable that at least when they were children they would have been told Israel’s history, complete with angelic accounts. However it is a very different thing to be told about such a divine encounter and to have such an encounter.

The angel seeks to allay their fears by telling them he was the bringer of ‘good news’ Now watch this carefully! See what he says: Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (v.10,11) He tells them where to find this child (v.12) and then just to make it more dramatic, “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (v.13,14)

Now to shatter the complacency that so often accompanies the familiarity of this story, can I say I find this whole episode utterly mystifying! You don’t? Stop and think about it. Suppose you are God and you want to announce the arrival of your Son on the earth. Presumably you want to tell people who will be credible and who will respond well and no doubt go and tell others as well. So you look around the community, not very impressive, so you look wider afield and you come to Jerusalem. Herod is bad news, so he’s out. The chief priest is not known for his political and spiritual integrity so he’s questionable. Is there a local mayor or someone of that ilk who could spread the news? The trouble is that such people so often tend to be unbelieving. An angel, good news, a baby? It’s the middle of the night for goodness sake. Come back in the morning. So yes, it is a difficult job finding suitable people to tell, but shepherds, the great unwashed, the outcasts of society, who is going to believe them? At first sight at least, this is the last bunch of individuals I would choose.

So let’s see what happened: “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” (v.15) OK, good one guys, they go. They don’t keep talking about what an amazing experience they have just had; they go. They don’t settle by the fireside recounting their individual responses and then gradually fall asleep. No, they go. “So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.” (v.16) We tend to take this for granted but this may have needed a bit of perseverance and it is the middle of the night and the sheep are up there unattended????

And then, “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child.” (v.17) Here we have the first childlike believers who can’t keep it to themselves. Who are they telling? It’s still the middle of the night isn’t it, or has dawn broken or have they made so much noise they’ve woken up half the town? We don’t know, just that they shared it. And the result? “and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” (v.18) Not outright rejection, amazement. Perhaps shepherd-outcasts were just the right people to tell!

But perhaps also, there is a hint here of the way that God works. Already we have noted a number of times how God only gives part of the picture, almost as if He is wanting only those with seeking hearts to find His revelation. When Jesus came thirty years later it was so often with the poor and outcast sinners that he sat and talked for they were the ones most open to him. It is as true today as it was then, that those who are affluent, those who are ‘somebody’ rarely see their need and so rarely reach out to God.

What have we seen so far in this second part? An old man living on his own (probably), shepherds living on their own, and in the background, that we’ll see in later studies, a young couple and a baby, far from home, with their baby in either a stable or a cave. This is God reaching out to the outsiders, the less comfortable, the not-so-affluent, those who know exactly where they are in the food chain, those who are just ‘more aware of themselves’ and therefore more aware of their need. How about you and me? Are we comfortably well off? Does that make us spiritually lethargic? God reveals Himself to the hungry and thirsty and to the poor (see Mt 5:3,6)  Are we hungry and thirsty for God?

13. God of Encouragement (1)

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 13. God of Encouragement (1)

Lk 2:8,9  And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them

There are two prayers that I know God has answered for me, time and time again. They are, “Lord, please grant me wisdom to know what to do here,” and “Lord, I need your encouragement, please give it.”  And He does.  Sometimes people say, “How can you know that God is for you when sometimes He seems so distant?” My reply? “Yes, there are such times but there are these many other times when I pray like this and He answers very quickly, sometimes straight away and sometimes  within the day.

Mary and Joseph, in this stable out back of the inn would, I suggest, need a fair bit of encouragement. Previously we considered the many uncertainties of their situation, past, present and future, so a little bit of encouragement would go a long way to help here. Now God could have given the innkeeper or his wife a dream and, as clear as it might have been, like “Go and tell that couple in the stable I love them and am with them,” they might not have responded. But I have a bigger reason why God didn’t do that. It is because God is a big God, sometimes a flamboyant God, a God who really pushes the boat of celebration out; you’ve only got to read various passages in the Old Testament to see that, or even the times in Acts when He pours His Holy Spirit out on the Day of Pentecost and in Cornelius’s house. There are mega-blessing times of celebration.

So, no, just a dream isn’t going to do it here. This is a time that is worthy of something far more spectacular. Now if it had been China perhaps He might have used fireworks but I don’t believe Israel had them – I may be wrong, but anyway God has got something far better lined up, and He brings it in stages so He won’t blow away the recipients.  So, who does He come to?

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” (v.8) I love this! I love the whole Christmas story but this bit I always think is brilliant! Shepherds, because of their lifestyle, living out on the hillsides with their sheep, guarding them and protecting them and leading them to fresh pasture, were outcasts. They didn’t turn up for Synagogue time every Saturday and their personal hygiene probably lacked something (no hot showers on the hillside). So, yes, they tend to miss out on the life of the community, but God doesn’t miss out on anyone so, yes, in the middle of the night when the baby is born, who else is awake who I can tell? Ah, some of my shepherds on duty warning off the predators of the dark.

So, “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” Yes, well, there are going to be some downsides. An angel carrying the glory of the Lord is going to be pretty spectacular, so live with it, what’s a little fear, OK a lot of fear, between friends?

Now there is too much here to cover in one short meditation so we’ll continue this in the next one but, hey, here’s the point, here’s the question I want to ask as we try to penetrate the reality of these things. This angel, and the others who follow, comes to bring good news from God.  What sort of God do you and I believe in? Your answer will almost certainly be reflected in the sort of life you live and the sort of church you are part of. If it is a God of rules (er, wasn’t the Law the Old Testament?) you probably live a somber life and go to somber church services that are all about ‘serious’ theology.

Everything I find about Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels is all about celebration. The coming of the kingdom meant, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor,” (Mt 11:5) and Jesus also said, “he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18,19) Serious? I don’t think so! Celebration? Most definitely! Perhaps we are serious because we don’t have a Jesus who does these things today. Please pray what you dare now.