Shepherds

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
December 18, 2016

Luke 2: 8-20 (CEB)
8Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. 9The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

10The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” 13Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 14“Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

15When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.

SCUM.

That’s what shepherds were; the scum of the earth. In Jesus’ day, shepherds were the lowest of the low. Shepherding sheep was the menial task of the ancient Near East. The guys who were the shepherds were the ones who weren’t cut out for any “real” trade. They were the outcastes and the rejects of society. The only thing that could really put them in a lower position would’ve been to be ritually unclean—like a leper or something. In any case, I don’t believe we often think of shepherds in this way. I think we have sort of idealized shepherds in our minds because they play such a prominent role throughout the Bible, but the truth is, this is not a profession anyone really wanted. The job of a shepherd was nothing more than making sure sheep didn’t stray and wolves didn’t attack. And the bulk of this job took place in the night—which in that part of the world is almost always cold. To put it this way, this was a miserable existence, and nobody who was anybody was a shepherd. (Remember, even David was a nobody shepherd boy in the fields when Saul came to anoint him.)

So this morning, as we look at the characters surrounding Christ at the time of his birth and what those characters tell us about the new work God was doing in the world, we come to some shepherds in a field, “keeping watch over their flocks by night.” If there really was any silence that night, it would’ve been out in those cold fields among the shepherds—quietly dozing as sheep huddled around them. They had no inkling of what was happening a short distance away in the small town of Bethlehem. They had no suspicion of an abrupt visitation of angels that was about to break their silence. These were guys who didn’t expect any big news to come their way. Ever. Still, on the night Emmanuel was born, that was exactly what happened.

I have to tell you that I think of all God was doing in sending his son into the world, this message to the shepherds of Christ’s arrival is the most clear sign that God is turning the world upside down. Just think about this for a minute. When a king is born, trumpets are sounded, parades are formed, an official herald goes all throughout the kingdom informing the citizens of the arrival of their new king. Folks might even be invited to a great party to celebrate the king’s arrival. But really, the celebration would have occurred only among the powerful people, the people with status and prestige and land. The Cinderellas get left in the cellar to finish the laundry. The shepherds stay out in the fields to watch the flocks. This news isn’t for them. They aren’t important enough.

But on Christmas night, on the night that the greatest King in all of history was born, the sleepy, lowly shepherds were the first to hear the news. So why did God send the heralding angels to the shepherds that night? The answer to that question tells us something very important about the way God was going to change the world through this newborn baby.

You know, for hundreds, even thousands of years, God had been sending prophets among the Israelites. Prophets can have two roles—the one we most commonly think of is foretelling, predicting the future. But prophets also “forthtell;” that is, they shed light on the current situation, not just the future. So God was sending these prophets to his chosen race with a message about their current situation. And you can boil the basic message of all those forth-telling prophets down into a couple of sentences that would go something like this: “Hey Israel, you’re not doing it right. I told you to be a light to the nations and to care for the widow, the orphan, and the outcaste, and all you’re doing is worrying about yourselves.” So now, when the Savior of the people is born into the world, God doesn’t seem so concerned with the folks who have been hearing his messages for generations. Instead, God takes the message straight to the outcaste. No more beating around the bush, no more exclusivity—God’s chosen race is expanding, and there are no limits to who will be included. The angels’ appearance to the shepherds shows undoubtedly that this “wonderful, joyous news [is] for all people!”

But just give this whole scene some thought for a moment. Here are some young guys; probably nothing more than teenage boys sitting out in a field in the middle of the night. Suddenly, not one, but multiple angels bust on the scene to tell them the Savior has been born over in Bethlehem, and the sign that what they say is true is that the shepherds will find the baby lying in a manger. Remember, this is teenage boys. If I were to stop reading this story and imagine the rest of it based on what I know about teenage boys. The rest of the story would go something like this: “When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds turned to one another and erupted into laughter. They laughed so hard it startled the sheep, and they didn’t sleep anymore for the rest of the night as they joked about this crazy thing that had just happened in their midst. ‘Hey Zek, you should’ve seen your face, you were so SCARED!’ ‘Be quiet, Dan, you were the one hiding behind a rock!’”

Can you imagine this happening? The fact that it didn’t is a miracle only God himself could produce (as God clearly did). Instead, when the angels departed, the shepherds decided they’d go see about this baby supposedly resting in a manger, and here again we get this beautiful picture of the Kingdom God was building through Jesus the Christ.

After Owen was born, I didn’t want visitors while we were in the hospital. I didn’t know how the birth was going to go, I didn’t know how I would be feeling, or what Owen’s needs would be. So, in the weeks leading up to Owen’s birth, we let it be known in our congregations that we appreciated their thoughts and prayers, but we did not wish to be visited during the hospital stay. In the end, almost nobody knew which hospital we were in anyway because I was admitted unexpectedly, a week before the due date, to a hospital which we had not planned to use. So, aside from family, I had only four visitors in the days following Owen’s birth—the couple I was to marry the day Owen was born (I called them on my way to the hospital to tell them I would not be able to do their wedding; fortunately, we had a contingency plan in place), and Bishop Taylor and Rusty (or Dindy and Rusty as most of you know them).

Anyway, I share that with you to make the point that childbirth is a pretty messy undertaking that leaves mother, child, and father pretty exhausted and overwhelmed. It’s enough to field all the needs of the family, much less to play hosts to any guests who might stop by for a peak at the new baby. I’m pretty sure if I had been in Mary’s place, I would’ve been pretty frustrated to see a bunch of bedraggled shepherds who I didn’t even know heading my way. I probably would’ve turned to Ken and said, “You’ve got to go out there and talk to them. I just can’t handle visitors right now, especially a bunch of filthy shepherds. We’ve just gotten the baby cleaned up and asleep, you have to stop them!”

But Mary, God bless her, didn’t do that. (That’s clearly why Mary was the mother of Jesus, and not someone like me.) So these shepherds approach the stable and they tell Mary and Joseph everything that has brought them there. How they were just watching their sheep in the fields when these angels appeared and told them that the Savior had been born and the sign the Savior’s birth was true was that they would find a baby swaddled and lying in a manger. I can’t help but think there must have been a moment of silence when the shepherds finished their tale; quiet reflection as the gravity of this new birth sank in. Luke tells us that Mary “committed these things to memory and considered them carefully.” Even Mary, it seems, was still working on processing the fact that the Savior of the world was now among them. Here they were—a humble carpenter, an unwed mother, several animals, and some lowly teenage shepherds—huddled in a stable, staring at a manger where this tiny, newborn baby, who really was (they now all understood) the Savior sent by God.

You know, God could have sent his son into the world among Kings and rulers. Jesus could have been born in an opulent palace and his birth could have been announced with trumpets and heralds. Instead, the Savior was born in a stable and the only herald announcing his birth went to some hooligan shepherd boys keeping the night shift in the fields outside of Bethlehem. The news of the Christ-child would spread far and wide soon enough, but the fact that it began with some simple shepherds reveals just how much God was shaking up the world. Power doesn’t matter. Position doesn’t matter. Prestige doesn’t matter. Salvation has come, and there is nothing we can do to earn or deserve it. This tiny child is God’s love for all people—for some teenage boys watching sheep in the fields outside of town, for you, and for me. And if we are worthy of this Savior’s love, then everyone is!

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