Yes, we’re jumping the gun a little bit this year. Typically we don’t hear the story of the shepherds going to see the baby Jesus until the Sunday before Christmas or even Christmas eve. This year we’re getting a head start.
As you know, we’re using the worship program called Calm and Bright as our guide to the Sundays of Advent and Christmas this year, and the author of the program, Marcia McFee, acknowledges that in a way it’s a bit early for this story. She says, “But I think it isn’t a bad thing to spend a little more time with the birth account this year since most years we don’t linger there. The twelve days of Christmas (which describe the time after Christmas until Epiphany) are mostly lost on us these days and so lingering at the manger and
taking in the parts of the story of that night with slow intention is like rolling the chocolate over your tongue for a while instead of chewing and gulping. So let’s just focus on those shepherds for a bit.” The letting the chocolate linger image certainly speaks to me, so maybe we’re ok going to the shepherds’ field a bit early.
It’s important that we not pass lightly over the shepherds. Remember that the shepherds are the first people to be informed of the birth of Jesus. Not kings. Not priests or the biblical scholars of the day. Not even the members of the town council of Bethlehem. You would think they would want to know.
Remember too that we’re reading from Luke, and Luke has the shepherds and Matthew has the wise men, who arenot necessarily kings. They are apparently astrologers, who study the stars. Matthew has his reasons for telling the story of the wise men, and Luke has his reasons for including the shepherds.
Shepherds were the bottom of the social totem pole. Being a shepherd in those days required no special skills or training, as far as we know. It would have required zero formal education. It was probably one of those, if you can’t do anything else, you can always be a shepherd, sorts of jobs. It would have required a degree of courage, because your job was to protect the helpless sheep from wandering off and from wild animals and perhaps sheep rustlers. If I had been a shepherd in those days, I would have had my Maglite flashlight, the biggest one they make, and a spare nearby.
Anyway, Luke wants us to read this story and say, “Shepherds!? An angel came to tell shepherds that Jesus is born? Why in the world would God want them to be the first to know? Why not notify the higher-ups, the important folks?”
The answer is that it’s one of Luke’s clues about who Jesus is. It’s not the first clue. In what we call the Magnificat, the words of Mary, we find, “God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” So…what God is doing in sending Jesus is for everyone, not just the people who are at the top of the social totem pole, not just those who think they’re something, not those who believe they have God in their hip pocket. This new thing God is doing through a baby born in a stable to very ordinary parents is for everyone. Even lowly shepherds. Maybe even us.
There are a few other things about this story that are worth noting. Probably more than a few, but I realize that time is an issue. One is the reaction of the shepherds to the appearance of the angel. At first there’s just the one angel, but he or she scares the bejeesus out of the shepherds. They’re out in a field in the night and apparently without warning there appears an angel, “and the glory of the Lord shone around them,” whatever that was like. As a result, Luke reports, “they were terrified.”
Very understandable, isn’t it? I suspect we would have the same reaction. We’re outside at night, minding our own business. The stars are out. And out of nowhere, there’s an angel? It’s actually very hard to imagine, isn’t it? We’re just not looking for an angel to come our way. I don’ t think. So we can understand the shepherds being terrified. Any sort of appearance of the holy probably should cause such a reaction.
Second, the shepherds have to trek into town to see the baby. When I was in college I had a chance to go to Israel for a few days. I was on my own, and as a result I discovered that there were certain limitations to my ability to be a tourist. For example, I wanted to go to Jericho. I wanted to be able to say I had passed the spot where the good Samaritan helped the man who had been robbed and beaten. And I wanted to see the ruins of that ancient city.
So I went to the tourist office and told the nice man I wanted to go to Jericho. He replied, “Why do you want to go there?” And he proceeded to tell me that there was no public transportation to Jericho. I didn’t make it to Jericho.
I did make it to Bethlehem, however. But again, public transportation was an issue. I was able to get a bus to a place identified as Jacob’s well, but then I had to walk the last half mile or so. The upside of that journey was that I walked by the supposed location of the shepherds’ field. We of course don’t know if that’s where it was. It may have been on the other side of Bethlehem. But I contented myself with thinking, the shepherds had to walk some ways to go see the baby Jesus, so I get to be like one of the shepherds.
Maybe it was a half mile. Maybe longer, maybe shorter. Luke just says the shepherds were “In that region.” Butperhaps the fact that they had to travel tells us something. All four gospels depict Jesus as a traveler. He never seems to stay put in one place very long. We are told that people often travel to see him. They follow him, even at times into barren places.
So is it possible that Luke and the other gospel writers are trying to tell us that following Jesus means we don’t sit still, that we always need to be on the move? Maybe not so much physically as spiritually. To be in relationship with God through Jesus the Christ is to always be alert to where God may be leading us, how God might be speaking to us, where and how God might be at work in the world around us. Life in relationship to God through Jesus is always a journey, a journey from self-centeredness to love of God and love of neighbor.
The question I have about the shepherd’s journey is, what about the sheep? The shepherds’ job is to protect the sheep, to make sure they come to no harm amidst the dangers of the night. And here they head off into town to check out a newborn baby?
Luke leaves us hanging when it comes to the sheep. The angels don’t hang around to look after them. They leave, and then the shepherds go to Bethlehem. We don’t know if the sheep are alright or not. What gives?
Perhaps Luke is telling us that being a follower of Jesus may throw us off our game, may disrupt our normal routines. In fact, following Jesus may even entail risk. It sounds like the shepherds are taking a chance that the sheep will be ok while they are gone. The shepherds make the decision that going to see the baby Jesus is the most important thing they can do, even if it means leaving what they are otherwise supposed to do. They’re willing to take the risk. Because it’s worth it. Could that be another clue for us?
They do go back to work. They return to the sheep, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” It is a night to remember all right! It is a night filled with joy.
Joy is different from being happy. The best example I can think of is that playing golf may make us happy, but a hole in one would be an occasion for joy. I’ve never had a hole in one, but I can imagine. Ok, if you’re not a golfer, how about the birth of a child. Certainly there’s room for fear, knowing that one day he or she will be a teenager, but at the moment, it is all about the joy.
I suspect that joy just about always, or maybe always, comes as a gift, one way or another. We can go play golf or take in a movie or do something else that helps us be happy. I’m not sure we can manufacture joy. And in the world in which we live, it may seem like joy is in short supply. But it still comes to us, sometimes in very unexpected ways, as it did for the shepherds. But it does come, as a gift from God. So let’s not give up on joy. Amen.