Expressions of Christmas: Shepherds
Rev. Michael F. Bailey
December 27, 2015
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
I’m so glad Christmastide has 12 days. I’ve needed them. We had Christmas with Lauralee’s family last Sunday. We had Christmas with my extended family—my sister and father—last night. And Monday night we have our immediate family’s Christmas with the arrival of our youngest daughter. Christmas can contain within it the full emotional matrix of humanity. Many, in the midst of the merriment, have grief because there is an empty place around the table. We’ve had that as a family this year. But Christmas also brings with it surprise and joy. Let me tell you why I’ll be even more outspoken about my grandchildren in early summer: Michael, Jr. and his wife Kelly informed us last night that they are due to have twins in June! I will double the number of grandchildren insix months. Christmas has highs and lows for many.
So, since we’re in the 12 days of Christmas (which the world often doesn’t know is rooted in the life of Christ and his body, the church), “Merry Christmas!” That likely is our favorite expression this time of year. We’ve been talking about the expressions people use around Christmas: perhaps Happy Christmas for our British friends, Season’s Greetings to everyone, Happy Hanukah for our Jewish friends, and Merry Fesitvus for our Seinfeld friends. We even delighted some Georgians a few weeks ago noting their unique shouting of “Christmas gift” as a way to lay claim to a gift from a family member. We’ve noted these in the context of our series Expressions of Christmas, where we’ve examined the birth narratives of Jesus and delved into the expressions of the first Christmas. We’ve considered the expression of worldly power through the lenses of Caesar Augustus and Herod the Great and how the Prince of Peace overcomes such. We’ve noted the obedience in action of Joseph. We looked at Mary’s expression of joy in her hymn, the Magnificent. Last week, we considered the expression of the angels sharing God’s message about the Christ. Then, of course we looked on Christmas Eve at God’s ultimate expression of love in sending his Son to us. Next week, we conclude our series looking at the expressions of the Magi. Today, we look at the original Christmas expression of the shepherds.
I love the character of the shepherds for so many reasons but a few stand out. The shepherds, for me, are emblematic of in the words of the hymn, “that there is a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” And the shepherds show God’s mercy is wide enough to include you and me. You see, the shepherds show that God loves even the unsavory and the unreliable, and he trusts them to be the first human bearers of the Good News of His son’s birth. The shepherd’s reveal God’s target audience to be as broad as humanity itself!
While there were Biblical times when shepherds were idealized and honored (think the Lord is my shepherd from the 23rd Psalm) by the time of Jesus’ birth no one would dare compare the Lord to a shepherd! Shepherds were the last people you’d think would show up for, and God was the last being shepherds wanted to encounter. They likely knew themselves so well that an encounter with the divine would mean certain destruction in God’s justice. It is little wonder that they were so afraid, and I wouldn’t be surprised it they wet their tunics when the angels come. And it might be that we, too—if we’re honest about our faults, failings, sins and attitudes—really don’t want the divine to disrupt our lives either.
Shepherds were about the lowest-regarded profession in ancient Palestine; only tanners were held in lower esteem. The shepherd’s reputation was so bad that it was against the law to buy anything from a shepherd, particularly milk or wool; the law of the land assumed if a shepherd had something to sell, it was likely stolen. Shepherds were considered so dishonest that they weren’t allowed to testify or give witness in a court of law. Shepherds were notorious for trespassing and grazing on the fields of others without permission and were fined for this all the time, ancient documents show. And you’ll remember, from one of Jesus’ stories, that shepherds sometimes abandoned the flock at the first sign of danger.
In terms of family, shepherds were thought to be the worst family men in the nation. To be away from you family at night, in those days, was thought to be akin to abandoning, not protecting and not caring for your family.
On top of all of this, shepherds were seen as spiritual outcasts, hopeless cases, really, when it came to faith life. Shepherds couldn’t keep the ritual laws of cleanliness, Sabbath or Temple obligations.
But consider this: Apart from the Holy Family, these unreliable and unsavory sheep herders were the very first folks God told about Jesus. There were the very first people to meet Jesus.
How odd of God this is!
We can fit everyone else in the manger scene and the birth narratives. Mary with her obedience belongs in the manger. Joseph with his loyalty and care fits well. Angels and their song are a must for the birth of the Son of God. The Kings of Orient are with their gifts are a must for the Lord of the Universe’s birth. They all fit, don’t they? But shepherds? Unclean, thieving, poor providers for their homes; unscrupulous shepherds; people who were dire fearful of the divine, from their sins, don’t seem fit for the manager!
Why would God choose them for the birthday of a King?
The answer is in the angel’s message to the shepherds: “I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people, for to you is born a savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
That’s it, then! For those who have never heard anything but bad news, God brings good news in Christ! For those whose life was one of hard, grinding poverty and drudgery, God brings joy in Christ! For those who were the least, last and lost, but socially and spiritually, God’s gives a savior in the Christ; for those with no hope for the future and no direction in life, God gives a sovereign, a Lord in Christ!
Could it be that God’s trying to tell us something by starting with the “worst cases first,” the shepherds? Might it just be the God’s telling us that His son is a savior for all the people—and that all means all!
So, the shepherds went to Bethlehem to see. They went to the manger. They gathered around Jesus and talked about their knowledge of Jesus, gleaned from the messenger angels of God. In a sense, they were the first congregation, this motley crew, centering on Jesus.
But more, the time came and they left the sanctuary of the manger and returned to work, went out into the world still glorifying and praising God for their experience of Jesus.
What a marvelous story! It’s the story of God’s divine initiative in the Incarnation for all the people; worst cases first! What hope there is in that fact for us and those we love who think they are beyond the scope of God’s love! God never gives up and neither should we!
What a marvelous story of how church is! People of all kinds—savory and less so—gathering around Jesus, sharing their knowledge of Jesus, and then reentering the world and life praising and glorifying God for their experience of Jesus.
What a wonderful story this is, this story of God’s grace extending to people who are marginal in so many ways. What a grand story this is, this story of the shepherds. And beautifully, the shepherd’s story is our story as well.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen
- Share with your group about your experience of Christmas this year.
- Share with your group a sorrow and a joy from Christmas this year.
- Share with your group the image you had of shepherds in the Bible while growing up.
- Share with your group what message God is sending in choosing shepherd’s to be the first one’s to meet Jesus and go forth and share the good news.