A Fresh Look at Christmas…through the Eyes of the Shepherds

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everyone!

SCRIPTURE – Luke 2:8-20
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. But the angel said to them, “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. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

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.” 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.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

SERMON
“A Fresh Look at Christmas…through the Eyes of the Shepherds”
Luke 2:8-20
December 27, 2009

When Molly was born in 2004 Leigh and I couldn’t wait to tell everyone the good news. We wanted to send birth announcements to every person we knew, every person they knew, every person they might have known and every person we might someday know. It’s your new baby, you want to brag! But even though the US Postal Service was thrilled for us, they have these things called stamps that cost money. So we had to prioritize our birth announcement list and decide who made the cut. Naturally, we sent them to the people we knew and loved the most. We didn’t leave one for the garbage collector, we didn’t send one to our congressman and at the last minute we took the Pope off the list. In the end, the announcements went to our closest friends and family.

Our scripture this morning from Luke is God’s version of a birth announcement. Nowhere else in the birth narratives does God directly proclaim to anyone that Jesus has been born. This is it. This is God’s one birth announcement. Pretty impressive, huh? Leigh and I sent a picture of Molly in a cute little dress; God sent the glory of the Lord and an angel choir.

Imagine for a second you don’t know this story, and I told you God went to someone to announce the birth of Jesus, God’s only son. To whom do you think God would go? Who would make the cut? You might first think of Caesar, the emperor of Rome. That’s a natural thought. What about King Herod, who ruled over the region? Makes sense. Maybe God went to the High Priest in Jerusalem, the religious elite. Or maybe God went to the Mayor of Bethlehem: “Organize a parade, Mayor, I’ve got good news.” All of these people would be logical recipients of God’s birth announcement, wouldn’t they? Of course they would be on the birth announcement list.

But the palace doesn’t hear. The Temple doesn’t hear. Jerusalem doesn’t hear. This birth announcement that God gives out goes to a group of anonymous sheep herders on the outskirts of Bethlehem – sheep herders! These shepherds are forever immortalized in our Christmas hymns and nativity scenes. We picture them with their crooked canes and flowing robes, as if they actually belong at the birthplace of a king. But the reality is they didn’t belong there. In fact, they didn’t belong anywhere.

To see Christmas through their eyes, we have to understand their situation. There were few occupations more demanding or degrading than a shepherd. They were the last people you’d expect God to take notice of. First of all, they were religious outcasts. According to religious law, these men were unclean. Because their work was a seven-day-a-week job, it prevented them from participating in the feasts and holy days that made up the Jewish religious calendar. Why? Well, somebody had to watch the sheep. When everyone else was making the trip to Jerusalem to make sacrifices at the temple, they were out in the fields, watching over the sheep. A modern-day example might be a truck driver or shift worker, whose job keeps them from regularly attending church. It wasn’t really their fault. But they were excluded. They weren’t regular attenders, so didn’t belong.

Not only were they religious outcasts, but shepherds were social outcasts as well. Since they were constantly on the move to find new pasture for their flocks, they were looked with suspicion as untrustworthy nomads, the way people today might look at gypsies or carnival workers. They were often accused of being thieves. If something came up missing – it must have been those shepherds. They were not permitted to give testimony in a legal proceeding, because their word wasn’t considered trustworthy.

And on top of all that, they really didn’t have much contact with other people. Most of the time, they were “living out in the fields” (v. 8). This was not a job with regular hours. They didn’t come home every night for dinner. They were with the sheep 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. During the day, they led the sheep to grass and water. They watched while the sheep grazed. They kept an eye out for predators. And at night, they actually slept in the sheep pen to guard against theft and animal attack. They didn’t exactly smell like fresh holly and Christmas cookies, so shepherds didn’t get a lot of invites to Christmas parties. By profession and cultural status, they were loners. Do you see why the shepherds didn’t belong at the cribside of a newborn king?

Now, step back for a moment. Imagine you’re God and you want to announce the most amazing, incredible, joyous news ever, an event which will literally change the course of history – the birth of your only Son, Jesus Christ. The birth of the One who will be the Savior of the whole world, the One for whom the nation of Israel has been waiting and hoping and praying for thousands of years. Finally, He has come! Who gets the announcement? Who makes the cut? Who do you invite to come and see? 

Not Caesar. Not Herod. Not the Pharisees. Shepherds. Smelly, dirty, socially and religiously excluded sheep herders. Can you imagine how the conductor of the angel choir must have felt when she realized her audience wasn’t the royal family?  It’s as if the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rehearsed all year to perform Handel’s “Messiah” and ended up giving the concert for eight guys on the landscaping crew.

Why go to them? Were they outstanding believers in God? Nothing shows us that. Had this visitation been a prophecy? Not that we have record of. The shepherds were probably convinced God had no idea who they were. Didn’t go to church, rarely said a prayer, hardly read the Hebrew scriptures. Does God even know who they are? Everyone in the local synagogue had told them they weren’t welcome, they didn’t belong, that God didn’t care about their smelly existence. Is it any wonder, then, that when the angel of the Lord appears to them, they were absolutely terrified? How would they have heard the angel’s announcement?

The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy.” Not bad news? Not condemnation? Not any sarcastic remarks about only coming to synagogue for Hanukkah and Passover? “Today in the town of David (wow, David was a shepherd like us!) a Savior has been born to you (to us? God has given something to us?); he is the Christ, the Lord.”

And the shepherds, who are normally obsessive in their protection of the flock, who lived to watch over their animals, leave the sheep behind and race off to see the baby. And after they do, they spread the word concerning what had been told to them about this child. They became living birth announcements. And I love how people responded to this. The Bible says, “And all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” I bet they were! This is not the kind of information to which a shepherd is usually privy. The going rate for wool, maybe, but not good news of great joy about the Messiah.

At first, the shepherds may seem like a strange choice, but I think God knew what God was doing here. If God had gone to Caesar or Herod or anyone else in power, they would have tried to turn this miraculous event to their advantage. “How can we use this to increase our prestige? Can we make money off this announcement?” People in power are always looking for ways to increase that power. The shepherds? They had absolutely nothing to gain, and certainly nothing to lose. They were empty vessels, waiting to be filled to overflowing with God’s joy. They were proof that God’s message is for everyone, from the highest to the lowest, from the faithful churchgoer to the seeker to the skeptic. God’s word is for everyone. With God, everyone makes the cut.

I have another theory as to why the shepherds became the first-responders to the Christmas miracles. Maybe, just maybe, they were the only ones listening. They were alone in the fields, they were not distracted, they weren’t worrying about finishing their Christmas shopping or finalizing travel plans. So when God called, they were attentive and responsive. They listened. Are we listening this Christmas season to what God is calling us to do?

After the Christmas season, we too will return to our “fields and flocks,” our normal routines and responsibilities. But we are not the same people we were before. Christ has come. God is with us. Therefore, let us go forth humbly as the shepherds, forever changed, transformed by the experience of Advent, praising and glorifying God, and letting people know about the good news of Christ through the way we live our lives. Let’s go back into the world as living birth announcements. We can return to “business as usual” at the same places, but not as the same people. “When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about the child. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” What will you do?

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