Expressions of Christmas: Shepherds
Rev. Virginia Reynolds
December 27, 2015
This is the fifth Sunday in a series where we have been exploring the “Expressions of Christmas.” Voices and experiences of the Christmas story characters have been our window into the first Christmas and those same voices have helped to inform our modern season’s attitudes and expressions. Today our focus is on a group of unnamed shepherds who appear in a prominent way in our story. Listen anew as we hear their story from Luke, chapter 2.
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.
This is the word of God for the people of God.
“So, what did you get for Christmas?” I remember as a child, and then as a parent of a child, that this seemed to be the most popular question after the Christmas break when life returned to the doldrums of post-Christmas winter routines. What followed was a litany of items from under the tree or from grandparents, and maybe a recounting of a trip or excursion. But I always wondered…. What did any of that have to do with Christmas? After all, Christmas—or Christ-Mass—is about the worship of the Christ child, right? So why is everyone talking about earthly things that moths and rust will destroy?
Take a look at most nativity sets and you will likely notice a reverent and quiet shepherd standing guard at the manger side. The shepherds are included in our hymns, pictures, and costume sets of the season. But what do we know about them on the night in which Jesus was born?
If we take a look back into the Old Testament, we will see that “shepherding is one of the oldest professions in the world. Adam was charged to have dominion over the animal kingdom, and Abel is called a ‘keeper of the sheep.’ Throughout biblical history, significant men were experienced shepherds—Jacob and his sons, Moses, and David.”
In scripture, we see images of God as a shepherd caring for us, the sheep, as in Psalm 23. Jesus defines the role of a shepherd when he says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays his life down for the sheep… I know my own sheep and they know me.” However, these idealistic stylings of a shepherd are great poetry and comforting when we are the sheep in need of a shepherd, but not realistic images of the life of a shepherd.
In the days of Caesar Augustus, the local hierarchy was set by the Pharisees and piety of religious life. Those in authority and position lived inside the city, while all the others lived outside of the town and thus the sphere of influence. At the bottom of the social hierarchy were the shepherds, who due to work duties and living with the animals, rarely met the requirements to be socially, much less religiously, acceptable. They lived on the fringe of society, both physically and metaphorically, with little to no societal voice or influence. Like many minimum wage or underemployed people of our society, they were largely unnoticed by those in power and rarely heard. Who were these shepherds, and why did the angels reserved their most magnificent announcement of Jesus’ birth for these least likely recipients? It is through the story of the shepherds that we discover three gifts offered from God for us this Christmas.
Gift 1: In the presence of God
In the beginning of our passage, we note that the shepherds were about their usual business, protecting and providing for their sheep. It is night time, and they have slumped into their standard routine, probably tired and ready for bed. (Sounds a lot like parenting). “The Lord’s angel stood before them… and they were terrified.” You don’t have to have been camping with the Boy Scouts in the woods to get the picture that when someone unexpected appears, you can be frightened. But it is easy to gloss over the really amazing and frightening part of the encounter. Looking again at verse 9, “Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.”
Throughout the Old Testament, the glory of the Lord is evident and often called the Shekinah glory, indicating the dwelling or presence of God. Shekinot, in Hebrew, means to “dwell WITH God.” In Scripture, shekinah is seen—as fire in a burning bush with Moses and later as a “cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night” to the Israelites. The chosen people of God in the wilderness take note as Moses descends Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, his face radiant from his encounter with the “Glory of the Lord.” He is so radiant with God’s glory he must cover his face because it frightens others. Yet he is not the source of the light, but merely the reflection of God’s presence. In 2 Chronicles, the Israelites see the glory of the Lord and it causes them to kneel and worship God with thanksgiving. Repeatedly the Psalmists refer to the glory of the Lord as a call to worship as in “May they sing of the ways of the Lord, for the glory of the Lord is great.” Even the prophets, like Isaiah, made reference to God’s glory in their prophesies. “And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.” There are more than 60 different references to the glory of the Lord as God’s presence in the Old Testament. The people of Israel are familiar with God being present in amazing ways, and then it is followed by 400 years of silence and waiting. Waiting by a people for the coming of the promised Messiah. Waiting by a people under deep persecution and lost from their shepherd. Waiting by a people lulled by religious routines into spiritual complacency.
I wonder if the shepherd’s fear described in the passage was merely from the angel’s appearance or from the glory of the Lord—the shekinah—engulfing their spiritually sleepy existence? They, like their ancestors, had come face to face with the presence of God, and they were awestruck and terrified.
What about us? Has our routine life, our spiritual practices, or our complacency toward Godly things lulled us into a darkness and place of hopelessness? Are fear and worry dictating our priorities? What would it take to awaken us to hear and believe the good news of Christ again? When was the last time we were awestruck, dumbfounded, or terrified at standing in the presence of God?
Our first gift this Christmas, just as in the first Christmas, is freedom from our fears. “Do not be afraid! For unto YOU is born a savior, who is Christ the King.” Our earthly fears pale in comparison to the almighty and awesome God who gives us peace—a peace that is not dependent upon outward and earthly circumstances—and this is good news! Like the army of angels on the hillside that night, let us sing and worship the one whose Glory shone around us because he came to be Emmanuel, God with us—everyday.
Gift 2: In the presence of the Messiah
The “Christmas let-down.” You know that feeling that can over take you when all the presents are opened, the trash bags are full of the wrappings and the festivities have come to an end. But that is not how the shepherds felt. Our scripture records that they quickly ran in search of what the angels had told them. They did not run seeking evidence of the truth, but rather their belief caused them to run out of expectation. This crew of dirty, religious outcasts were rewarded for their faithful acts by getting to see the newborn King. Not a king born in a lofty palace, but a King for them and born in the only accessible place for a shepherd—a stable.
This encounter with Mary and Joseph also served another purpose. How do you tell someone you saw an army of Angels? The people were exceedingly familiar with the Roman Army’s presence, but this army shared good news, and told them not to be afraid. Where else could they practice sharing their story of their encounter with God, except with two people who had had similar stories? Both Mary and Joseph had nighttime visits by heavenly messengers. Both of them were initially afraid and then readily obedient. Hearing stories from the shepherds must have served as affirmation of all that they were experiencing. Did they sit there and talk about the experiences for a while, or did they merely gaze upon the Christ Child in awe of God’s amazing gift? The Bible does not tell us those details, but a stable filled with God worshippers must have been a radiant place!
Today, you are the faithful and obedient believers—after all, you came to church the Sunday after Christmas. What story of your encounter with God this year would you share to inspire and affirm others in God’s amazing work? Do you ponder about the greatness of God, the majesty of the Messiah, or the presence of the Holy Spirit? The second of God’s gifts of grace this Christmas is the joy of treasuring all these things in our hearts as assurance of our salvation and faith.
Gift 3: In the presence of humanity
Courage comes in many forms. For some people, it takes a lot of courage to speak publicly; while for others it is the intimacy of a private conversation with an employer or new romantic interest that requires uncommon strength. When you sense you are on the bottom end of social system, it may take more than courage—it may also take some new skills, some determination, and a great message. Scripture tells us that the shepherds returned home. But on their way, they made a point of “spreading the word concerning what had been told them about this child.” Can you imagine the excitement-born courage the shepherds must have had to share the good news? The outcast shepherds who normally would not venture into the town went. The shepherds, who had no voice in society, told anyone who would listen about the Messiah. Shepherds are not historically known for being great orators, but they may have been good storytellers. The Shepherds did not hold high office or positions of authority, but they made an effort to share the story of their encounters with everyone who would listen.
Consider what would happen to our community if each of us made a commitment to share our faith story with everyone we met. Yes, it might mean having to put ourselves in a vulnerable position or having to muster some courage. We might even have to learn a new skill or polish up our personal story of God’s presence in our lives. For the shepherds, their life as usual had been transformed to a life of praise and worship. Our third gift from God this Christmas is a transformation to a life eternal! “For God so loved the world that He gave us His son, that we can have eternal life.” God’s desire is to empower and excite you with God’s story of grace and redemption. You have been given the gift of transformation to move from fear-filled workers to awe-filled worshippers!
Through the life of the shepherds, we have received gifts of freedom from fear, joy of our salvation, and eternal life. When you are asked next week, “So, what did you get for Christmas?”—go and tell it from the mountain and from the carpool line, and in the conference rooms, tell the good news that Jesus Christ, God’s son, is born.