Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella
A Pocket Paper
This is the first Sunday of the Advent Season, and today I’m beginning a series of messages based on a handful of nearly-forgotten carols of Christmas. All of us know “Joy to the World” and “O Holy Night,” but as you might imagine there have been hundreds and hundreds of hymns written about the marvel of Jesus Christ coming into the world. Through the years, as the centuries have passed, most of those great hymns have been forgotten. This month, we’d like to learn six “new” old Christmas carols. The one we’ve sung today isn’t really a great hymn at all, but light-hearted children’s French carol—“Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella.”
The words say:
Bring a torch, Jeanette,
Hasten now, good folk of
The music for “Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella” is very old, dating the 14th century. Evidently it wasn’t originally composed as sacred music at all, but as a lively court dance tune for the nobility.
The words were evidently composed by an unknown author in the 1500s. The carol, with both words and music, first appeared in a French book of Christmas Carols published in 1553. In French, it is called, “Un Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle.” It appears to have come from the region of Province. To this day in Province, children dressed as shepherds carry torches and candles as they go to church for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve while singing this and other carols.
Who was Jeanette and who was Isabella? Our best clue is that shortly after this carol became popular, the great French painter, Georges de La Tour, apparently inspired by this song, reportedly painted a nativity scene in which two milkmaids had come to the stable to milk the cows on that first Christmas morning. They were so filled with excitement that they took their torches and ran to the village to spread the news that the newborn Christ as sleeping softly in the hay. The whole village, bearing torches, thus came to see the Christchild.
As I said, this isn’t one of our great theological Christmas carols, but it emphasizes two things—first that the great secret of that first Christmas wasn’t revealed to the theologians and clergymen and rabbis of the day, but to simple farming people—shepherds and milkmaids. And second, it speaks of the excitement we should feel as we come and see the newborn King and as we run to share the news with others.
This is the theme that shows up in Luke’s version of the birth of Christ. I’d like to for us to read about it for ourselves today in Luke 2:
Now there were in the same country shepherds living out
in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood
before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were
greatly afraid. Then the angel
said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings
of great joy which shall be to all people. For there is born to you this day in
the city of
As I read this passage again this week and studied over it as carefully as I could, there was one question that kept coming up in my mind. Why shepherds? Why didn’t the angels appear to… well, milkmaids or to some other group? Why didn’t the angels appear to the rabbis—to the clergy of the day? Why didn’t the angels appear to fisherman or potters or farmers or to a quaint little family or clan who had gone strolling that evening? Why didn’t the angels appear to princes and politicians? Why specifically to shepherds?
Well, I don’t know for sure, but I have six ideas about it.
1. God Does the Unexpected
First, because it was unexpected; and we have a God who loves to do the unexpected. He seldom works the way we expect Him to work. I think this attests to the authenticity of the story. If you had been a Jewish writer and you had wanted to make up a story about the entrance of the Messiah—the Savior of the World—onto the stage of world history after 2000 years of prophecy and prediction, would you have invented a story in which He was born in a stable and laid in a feed bin? Would you have the announcement made to an angelic choir to a bunch of despised shepherds?
In the Jewish mind, He was
a coming King, coming to redeem His people from political tyranny, coming to
fulfill earth-shattering promises that God had made. If you were going to invent a story
about His entrance onto the stage of history, would you have thought of such
a bizarre and unexpected story as the one that unfolded on this night of
One Jewish scholar put it this way: “(The circumstances Luke records) afford the strongest indirect evidence of the truth of this narrative. For if it were the outcome of Jewish imagination, where is the basis for it in contemporary expectation? Would Jewish legend have ever presented its Messiah as born in a stable, to which chance circumstances had consigned his mother. The whole current of Jewish opinion would run in the contrary direction.”
2. Jesus was the Son of a Shepherd-King
Second, Jesus was the son
of a shepherd-king. There is
great emphasis in the Gospels on the fact that Jesus had descended, as to His
earthly nature, from the line of David.
Look at verse 4: Joseph
also went up from
Who was Christ? He was the Son of David, the long-awaited heir of David’s throne. And who was David? He was the shepherd-king who had once kept flocks in those very fields. One thousand years before, it had been the boy David down among the flocks in those rugged fields. And now another Shepherd-King—the Son and Descendant of David—had been born. And it was to a new generation of shepherds, to the vocational descendants of the shepherd who became a king that the announcement was made as to the birth of another Shepherd who would become King of the Jews.
3. The Angelic Choir Needed an Outdoor Audience
Third, and this might be trite and inconsequential; but as I visualize the scene in my mind’s eye it seems like a very practical consideration. These were perhaps the only people out of doors that night, and the announcement had to be made out-of-doors. Why? Because no house or temple, no chapel, synagogue, cathedral, or cave could have contained the angelic host that night. These angels evidently emptied the highest heavens and filled the earthly sky with their glorious songs. So the announcement had to be made to outdoors folk.
In the year 2000, Jerry
Carraway and I led a worship service in this very Shepherd’s
Field. We had a group of forty or
fifty people, and we walked among the rocks on that acreage. Now, of course,
4. Jesus Came to the Poor and Humble
Fourth, the angels appeared to the shepherds to show us that Jesus Christ came to redeem common, ordinary people like you and me. The appearance of the angels to the shepherds is the perfect compliment to His being born in a stable and laid in a manger. It symbolized His poverty. He had left the Ivory Palaces of heaven to come into a world of woe. He who had been rich became poor that we through His poverty might become rich.
Alexander Maclaren said, “The appearance to these humble men as they sat simply chatting in a rustic row symbolizes the destination of the Gospel for all ranks and classes.”
There is some evidence, actually, that shepherding during this day and age had become a contemptible occupation. It was scorned. One of the older commentaries I consulted said that shepherds were not allowed to give evidence in courts of law, because their honesty was questionable. It was also possible that these shepherds were young people, perhaps teenagers. The most famous Old Testament shepherd was David as a child and as a teen, keeping watch over his father’s sheep. So these men were of no great rank or status in life. They were lowly, poor, and of humble means.
That’s the kind of people Jesus specializes in helping. Near the beginning of His public ministry, Jesus quoted from Isaiah 61 and applied the message to Himself: The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn, to console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord that He may be glorified.
Jesus came especially for those who are poor, brokenhearted, captive, bound, who are mourning. He came to the downtrodden. And he came to common workers. Do you know that every occupation, if it isn’t immoral or illegal, is a noble occupation if God has placed you there? You might be a homemaker or a cook or a businessman or a school teacher or a factory worker or a ditch digger or a city councilman or a kid who cleans up the kennels or mucks out the stable. It doesn’t matter. Jesus Himself was a carpenter, and the disciples were fishermen.
1 Corinthians 1 says: “For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise….”
Here in the
I would rather have been
a lowly shepherd that night in
Now we do want to balance out this point by remembering Matthew’s account of the Christmas story in which the Star of the East appeared to the Magi, the Wise Men, of the Chaldeans. These men were the exact opposite of the shepherds. They were Gentiles, and the shepherds were Jews. They were cultured, and the shepherds were as rough as corncobs. They were educated, and the Shepherds were unlearned. They were wealthy, and the shepherds were poor as dirt. There were probably older men, whereas the shepherds were probably younger men, perhaps as I said even teens like David.
Put Matthew and Luke together and what do we learn? We learn that Jesus came to all the earth, to every man and every woman in the world, to Jew and Gentile, to young and old, to rich and poor, to the educated and to the illiterate, to men and women of every race, tongue, and social level. All of us are in there somewhere, between the shepherds and the Magi. He came for all the world, and He came for you.
5. A Lamb Was Born that Night
Fifth and perhaps most importantly, I think this message was given to the shepherds because of the nature of the message itself. The Lamb of God had just come into the world. The picture of a Lamb is the Bible’s most consistent type of Christ. We first see it in the Garden of Eden.
When Adam and Eve sinned against God in the Garden, they recognized their nakedness, they became self-conscious, and they tried by their own efforts to cover themselves up and to hide their guilt. But it was impossible, and so God introduced us to an immutable spiritual law that He had built into the universe at the creation—that we can only be forgiven and redeemed by the shedding of the blood of an innocent sacrifice, a lamb. It says that God clothed them with the skins of an animal slain. What kind of animal? We don’t know, but in the very next chapter, we have Abel bringing to the Lord a lamb, the best of his flock, as a sacrifice.
In the book of Exodus, the Passover Lamb was slain and its blood painted across the doorposts of the homes of the Israelites, and the Lord said, “When I see the blood I will pass over you,” referring to the angel of judgment.
In the book of Leviticus, the Israelites were told to offer the best of their flocks as a sacrifice to atone for sin.
The great prophet Isaiah, as he predicted the coming of the Messiah, said, “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth.”
When John the Baptist came introducing Christ to the masses, he used these words: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
In the crucifixion accounts, Jesus was sacrificed on the cross just as the Passover Lamb was being slain at the temple.
Peter said, “Knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct… but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.”
In the last book of the Bible, just as in the first book, we see the importance of the Lamb of God. In Revelation 5, the assembled host of heaven sang out: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing!”
In the very last chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22, we read: “And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him.”
Who in the world would be a more appropriate audience for the Good News about the entrance of the Lamb of God into the world but an audience of shepherds?
But that’s not
all. The Hebrew scholar Alfred
Edersheim tells us that the flocks near
Those were no ordinary sheep,
no common flocks,
huddled in sleep
among the fields,
the layered rocks,
theirs to atone
they had not done.
the angels should appear
6. These Shepherds Were Spiritually-Minded Men
Finally, the angels appeared that night to the shepherds because somehow for some reason these men were spiritually prepared. I wish we knew more about these men, but you can be sure there’s more here than meets the eye. I think we can read between the lines and assume that these men were not ordinary shepherds. Here was a handful of men who were really devoted to the Lord their God.
I have four reasons for saying this.
First, after He was grown and in ministry, Jesus would say that God the Father didn’t just share His secrets with everyone. He hides these things from the wise and powerful and reveals them unto babes. God doesn’t reveal His secrets to those whose hearts are hard and cold, but to those whose hearts are simple and trusting and obedient like those of children. And on this night of nights, I don’t think He would reveal His greatest secret to someone whose heart was cold and hard and dead.
These men must have been spiritually sensitive. They must have been serious about the Lord. Perhaps one of them was a student of prophecy. Perhaps one of them was a prayer warrior. Perhaps one of them was like the boy David of old. Remember that it was while David was out watching his flocks that God developed his spiritual life. God taught him obedience, for he had to obey his father. God taught him faith, for he had to face the lions and the bears. He taught him worship as he wrote his beautiful Psalms. He taught him about the relationship between God and us human beings by showing him the relationship between a good shepherd and the needy sheep, as we see in the Twenty-Third Psalm. It was while watching his sheep and while composing prayers and praises to God that David developed his spiritual life, and we have the book of Psalms as a result. So these may have been lowly shepherds, but they must have had a measure of spiritual receptivity and depth to them.
Second, everyone in the
nativity accounts of Matthew 1 and 2 and in Luke 1 and 2 who was privy to
God’s extraordinary secret of Christmas was a spiritually-minded soul
with a heart of worship. Every
single one was eagerly awaiting the Messiah. Zechariah and Elizabeth were godly
folk. Joseph was a righteous man,
and Mary found favor in the eyes of the Lord. The Magi had been searching the
heavens for some sign that Daniel’s prophecies about the Messiah would
be fulfilled. In the
But on the other hand,
those whose hearts were closed—the innkeeper, Herod the Great and the
Third, the Bible
indicates that God reveals Himself to those who are expecting Him to
come. Do you ever ask yourself if
you would have been a follower of Christ had you lived in that day and age? If you had been in
There’s a way to know. I can show you the person who is really going to understand the true meaning of Christmas. There’s one very interesting verse that helps us. Look at Hebrews 9:24ff:
For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with the blood of another—He would then have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.
If you’re all wrapped up in the truth of the Second Coming, if you scan the Eastern sky for His imminent return, if you study the prophecies to find out when and how He will come back, if you love His appearing, then you would have been doing the same thing as it relates to his first coming 2000 years ago.
He reveals Himself to those who eagerly await Him.
Finally, I believe these shepherds were spiritual men because of this—they trusted immediately and they obeyed immediately. Look again at the story:
So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into
heaven, that the shepherd said to one another, “Let us now go to
There was no questioning. There was just believing and marveling and worshipping and obeying. They came and saw the child, then they went out and spread the news.
I’ve been thinking a good deal the last few weeks about church growth. Here at TDF, we’ve had several years of rapid and sustained growth, and now as we’ve hit some saturation points our growth rate has leveled off. So how do we get moving again? How do we win more and more people to Jesus Christ? Well, obviously we have to make room for more people, we have to have the programming and staffing to provide excellence in our ministries. But one verse in the Bible has been much on my mind, and I’d like to show it to you. It’s 2 Corinthians 9:6: But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.
The immediate context here is about our tithes and offerings. Paul is promising that if we give faithfully to God’s work, God will provide for our needs in proportion. But this is a true principle that has many applications in both the natural and the spiritual world. As it relates to evangelism, it says that if we want to have a harvest of souls, a harvest of conversion, we’ve got to sow bountifully. We’ve got to share the message. We’ve got to plant the seed. And the more prolifically we sow, the greater will be the harvest.
This Christmas, you can be a witness. You can invite someone to church. You can invite someone to our Christmas Eve service on December 24th. You can invite someone to our choir production. You can add a word of witness to your Christmas cards. You can follow up the non-attenders on your Sunday School roll. You and I can do a multitude of things to expose men and women and boys and girls to the Savior.
So bring a torch, Jeanette, Isabella, and all the rest. Come to the manger and see the Savior of the world, then go and spread the news abroad. For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy that shall be to all people; for unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord!
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