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Advent 3: The Shepherds

By Jim Taylor

 

Luke 6: 20 

Luke 2:8-18

 

Of all the unlikely people to star in a Christmas drama, you have to work hard to surpass the shepherds.

 

Author Frederick Buechner says, “If we didn't already know but were asked to guess the kind of people Jesus would pick out for special commendation, we might be tempted to guess men and women of impeccable credentials morally, spiritually, humanly, and every which way.

 

If so, we would be wrong. Maybe those aren't the ones Jesus picked because he felt they didn't need any additional commendation. Or maybe he didn't happen to know any.”

 

In the BEATITUDES, Jesus never mentions the upright, the moral, the pillars of the earth. It is all the outsiders:

Luke 6: 20-22

“Blessed are you who are poor,21 “Blessed are you who are hungry,“Blessed are you who weep,22 “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on my account. Those who are poor, hungry, reviled and excluded – that would be a pretty good description of shepherds.

 

We have this idealized version of shepherds in our minds. Perhaps that’s because Jesus called himself the good shepherd. He spoke of the shepherd caring for the least and lost of his sheep. The 23rd psalm imagines the Lord as our shepherd. Who leads us to still pastures and quiet waters. Idyllic images.

 

So we visualize them wearing nice white robes. With washed feet, and clear blue eyes.

 

Just by way of interest, here’s what they probably wore. It was, I’m told, the standard clothing for men. It’s like a heavy woolen blanket, folded over on the sides, with an armhole. In the day, you wore it loose, like a cloak. At night, you wrapped yourself up in it.

 

If you were wealthy, you could afford fine fabrics for your cloak, maybe trimmed with gold or silver threads. If you were a shepherd, you wore the roughest unbleached wool, probably pretty close to burlap.

 

Shepherds lived with their flocks. Ate with their flocks. Slept with their flocks. They smelled like their flocks. If you’ve spent your entire life outdoors in the rain and fog and snow and dirt, you are not going to smell very pleasant.

 

I remember the first time we took Sharon to Ireland. It was raining, of course. The rain didn’t just fall, it came almost horizontally. The car windows were all steamed up. Sharon wiped a clear spot on a window and looked out at an impossibly green field. She asked, “Dad, what are those fuzzy looking rocks out there in that field?”

 

At that moment, one of those “rocks” rose onto its feet and shook itself. They were sheep. Big blobs of soggy, wet wool. And that’s what shepherds live with.

 

Yet these are the people to whom the first announcement of the birth of Jesus was given.

 

By a choir of heavenly angels yet.

 

Luke 2:8-15

 8 Now in that same region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 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: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace and goodwill!”

 

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir does not perform in fields. One would expect that angels are found in the holy temple, not out among sheep. If shepherds sang around their campfire, their songs would probably be to bawdy to repeat in polite company.

 

And yet the angel song inverted the social order. It came to “the least of these, my people.”

 

It’s as unlikely as the Bank of Canada choosing the needle-strewn back alleys of Vancouver’s downtown East side to announce its latest interest rates.

 

If God’s going to deliver a message, shouldn’t it come first to the Cardinals and Archbishops? Shouldn’t it start with the prime minister and filter down to the common people? Shouldn’t corporate CEOs in the corner office on the top floor be the first to know about changes that might affect their profits?

 

But it didn’t happen that way.

 

The good news came first to people who couldn’t understand it. Who were used to being ignored. Overlooked. Shut out.

 

These are the folks that Hilary Clinton classed as “deplorables.” Or worse. They’re Joe the plumber. Kentucky rednecks. The drunk holding up a lamppost on a skid-row street corner.

 

And so the Shepherds fortified themselves with a shot or three of moonshine, and then set out through the fields to the little town of Bethlehem. Bethlehem was small enough that no one could miss them. Whatever time it was in the morning, I doubt if they tiptoed through the streets and lanes to avoid waking the good people of the town. They roistered. They came singing and shouting.

 

They probably sounded like hockey fans after the Canucks actually win a game.

 

Luke 2: 15-18

15 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.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.

 

They were celebrating because someone or something had recognized their existence. Someone, or something, had given them status. Raised them up from the dust and dirt. Made them special.

 

And they ended up at the stable of the Holiday Inn.

 

There’s no record of how the town reacted to them. Possibly they didn’t stay long enough for the bylaw officers to ticket them. Or maybe they spent the night in the local jail – the Bible doesn’t say.

 

All the Bible says for sure is that the first revelation of the birth of Jesus came to the most unlikely people – those shepherds. And that’s a pattern we need to recognize. Just as the first revelation of his re-birth at Easter came to the unlikely witnesses – the women. Unlikely, because in Jewish law women could not be witnesses in a trial. Their testimony was not considered trustworthy.

 

And yet the good news came to shepherds. And to women. Those facts are incontestable. It should make us wonder. To whom is the “good news” being revealed today? And what might that “good news” be?

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