Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

“Shepherds Watched Their Flocks”

Shepherds, Annunciation, Oxford Bodlean Library

Luke 2:8-20 (2:8) – December 23, 2018

Birth announcements are often greeted with great excitement and joy. In the United States, they can be detailed and specific, with details like the time of delivery, the sex and the weight of the baby, and of course, the name of the new child. The new parents are so proud of their new bundle of joy, and the new grandparents often show everyone the latest photos of their new grandchild, sometimes before the baby is one hour old.

Nothing is new about babies being born. As long as humans have been on earth, babies have been born. As the old saying goes, “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should continue.” One particular, super-special birth announcement happened one night, two thousand years ago. Not with fancy paper, balloons, or glitter, but with something a lot more special.

We need to back up a bit. We all are familiar with the basic details of the Christmas story. Since the Roman Empire wanted to discover exactly how many people they had living in all the provinces and regions of their vast empire, a law was passed that said every adult male needed to go to their ancestral town to register, or report. So, Joseph, descendent of King David, needed to go to David’s home town, Bethlehem, to report in.

Except, Joseph and Mary find themselves on the road at an awkward time. Not only were there lots of other people traveling to their ancestral towns, but added to that, Mary was greatly pregnant. So pregnant, in fact, that soon after she arrived in Bethlehem she went into labor. Mary delivered a newborn boy, as Dr. Luke tells us in the verses previous to our reading.

There was something quite different about this birth. Several somethings, in fact.

In most birth announcements, one of the main things people want to know is the baby’s name. This newborn baby had a great name: Jesus, Yeshua, or Joshua, meaning “he saves.” We know—because one of the prophecies from the book of Isaiah told us so—that this Baby, this Child is also known as the Prince of Peace. Plus, the newborn baby is also of the house and lineage of King David. Added to which, the birth of this particular Baby was prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures. Impressive bloodline and backstory, indeed.

After all this build-up, many people would expect a grand birth announcement, sent to the very best people. People like nobility, royalty, other V.I.P.s. But who is it who receives this birth announcement? Shepherds. Common, ordinary, lowly shepherds. As Dr. Luke records in his Gospel, “shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” For the shepherds, it was an ordinary night. Nothing special, they were just minding their own business. And, if you have worked on a farm or with farm animals, you might know what herding animals smells like. Not very appealing, to modern minds—or noses.

Shepherds were not considered well-to-do, upright citizens. Quite the opposite! Dr. David Lose tells us “And the shepherds? These were the undesirables of the first century, the folks on the lowest of the low rungs of the socio-economic ladder.” [1] Today, we might look on people like these shepherds as street sweepers, or rag-pickers, people who emptied latrines, menial workers of the lowest variety. One step above indigent, homeless people.

Yet, these demeaned shepherds were the super-special chosen ones, the ones God favored with a super-special, divine birth announcement. Complete with a light display that lit up the whole sky, an angelic spokesperson, and angel chorus, God wanted the shepherds to know first of all. Not the rich people in town, or the president of the synagogue, or the elders on the ruling board. Not the King of Judah in his palace in Jerusalem, or the nobility who lived in fine houses with fancy clothes, or the Pharisees or members of the Sanhedrin. No, God wanted the lowest of the low to find out, first.

Isn’t it strange—or odd—or funny that God wanted these shepherds to be the first to know? Actually, no. Since God could choose absolutely anyone on earth to hear about the divine birth first, God must have had a really good reason for choosing these despised shepherds. And, God wants all people to know of the birth of the newborn King, the Prince of Peace.

“In spite of their poor reputation as a class of people, these shepherds seem to have been godly men, men who were looking for the coming of Israel’s Messiah. All the others of those who were directly informed of the birth of Messiah in Matthew and Luke were described as godly people, and so it would seem to be true of the shepherds as well.” [2]

Believe it or not, these despised shepherds were sometimes compared to God, in the Bible. God being the shepherd, and the people of Israel the sheep. As uncomplimentary as it may be, people are often compared to sheep in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

As I have noticed before, the behavior of sheep and the behavior of human beings do have some similarities. Yet despite all of these negative attributes, the Jewish and Christian holy writings repeatedly talk about people being compared to sheep.

I found this lovely poem by William Blake (1757-1827). A poet and visionary, he was a committed Christian. He also was a creative writer and some called him even mystical.

As long as we are considering the shepherds coming to see the baby Jesus, I also wanted us to reflect upon the sheep—the flocks, shepherded by the workers on those cold, windswept hills around Bethlehem.

 

Meditation on the Lamb

 

Little Lamb, who made thee?

Dost thou know who made thee,

gave thee life, and bid thee feed

by the stream and o’er the mead;

gave thee clothing of delight,

softest clothing, woolly, bright;

gave thee such a tender voice,

making all the vales rejoice?

 

Little Lamb, who made thee?

Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee:

He is called by thy name,

for he calls himself a Lamb.

He is meek, and he is mild;

He became a little child.

I a child, and thou a lamb,

we are called by his name.

Little Lamb, God bless thee!

Little Lamb, God bless thee!

 

Jesus is called a Lamb. We are called sheep. Not very flattering, is it?  The lowest of the low, the shepherds, heard of the birth of the Prince of Peace, the Lamb of God. However, it matters nothing to God about our position, or honor, or wealth, or influence.

God does care about our hearts, and how we receive God’s Son.

“In Christ we have the promise that God will not stop until each and all of us have been embraced and caught up in God’s tremendous love and have heard the good news [as proclaimed to the shepherds] that “unto you this day is born a savior, Christ the Lord.” [3]

Let us joyfully follow the shepherds’ example, “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.” Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1612

“Something More,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2011.

[2] https://bible.org/seriespage/4-birth-messiah-luke-21-20

Robert L. (Bob)Deffinbaugh graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary with his Th.M. in 1971. Bob is a pastor/teacher and elder at Community Bible Chapel in Richardson, Texas.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1612

“Something More,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2011.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Invitation to Wonder

“Invitation to Wonder”

Virgin Mary and Child - Russian Orthodox

Luke 2:17-18 – December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas! What a wonderful expression. People greeting each other on the street, in the stores, here at church. I know not everyone celebrates Christmas, but still. What a joyous time of the year. Merry Christmas, many people say!

But I want you to go back, two thousand years. Go back to a time when “Merry Christmas” was not even a phrase, a wish, an idea in people’s heads. Go back to the time that Dr. Luke describes in the second chapter of his Gospel. Back to the time when Israel was an occupied country, and the Roman Empire was the strong man. Back to the time when all people in Israel needed to be enrolled. The Roman government decided to have a census, so that they would be able to tax the people of Israel more accurately.

In our Gospel reading tonight, we heard this census described. The Holy Family, Joseph and his fiancée Mary, went to Bethlehem to enroll, because Joseph was a direct descendant of King David. I suspect there were many people on the roads. Today, traveling can be stressful and nerve-wracking. However, I am certain travel in the first century was much more difficult. Poor roads, with many people walking to get from one place to another. We might imagine that Joseph and Mary had a donkey, but nowhere in the Gospel is that mentioned. Travel conditions were challenging, at best.

So, there they are, in Bethlehem. A long way from their home, in Nazareth. I suspect Joseph took care of the enrollment business first thing. But Mary felt the pains of labor begin. What a scary thing! To be far, far from home, in an unfamiliar place, and to have such a significant event happen. Significant, and potentially life-threatening, too.

I have had several children. I can remember all four of the deliveries. All of them happened in the hospital, with nurses and doctors standing by. Quite possibly most of the women here who have delivered babies can remember all their deliveries, too. Don’t you think Mary and Joseph remembered this experience for the rest of their lives? Yes, delivering a baby is a special day for anyone. But—even more so, for Mary and Joseph. Because of the angels. And the additional special visitors, too.

As Luke tells us, there were shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Remember, there is no radio or telephone, no Internet or even telegraph. When messengers personally come to deliver a extra special announcement, it is a big deal. These angels coming to the shepherds, well, that was a super big deal, to be sure!

And the announcement? This isn’t the birth of a normal, ordinary baby. No! This baby is an extra special baby. The Messiah, who will save His people from their sins. Did you hear? This special baby, this Savior, Christ the Lord, is born to you—to me—to all of us, in the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.

Did you hear? The Savior, the Christ, the promised Messiah, came into this world as a Baby in Bethlehem. The Eternal Second Person of the Trinity, Creator of the whole universe, God the Son, emptied Himself of all God-ness. Took on humanity, and was born as a helpless Baby. That is not only good news, that is earth-shaking news. Good news of great joy for all the people. For you, for me, for all of us.

Yes, the promises of Christmas may sound familiar to us. The good news that the angels brought may be old news, to some. But those promises? They are so needed, today. What with uncertainty and fear, anxiety and hatred so common today. Peace and security seem way out of humanity’s reach. Don’t we need some good news right now?

This is good news, this Gospel the angels brought to the shepherds. And they, in turn, told everyone they could about the Child, which the Lord had made known to them. Just as Luke said, all who heard about the Child were amazed at what the shepherd told them.

After that special birth announcement from the angels, and the excited visits from the shepherds, we are left with Mary. Mary who was only a teenager. Mary, who had had nine months to consider this extraordinary pregnancy and upcoming birth.

I cannot imagine a teenager entrusted with such a serious task as bearing the Savior of the world. Yet, Mary must have been up to the task.

Mary must have been a reflective young woman.

We know from verse 18 that Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. All of these words, these unfolding events. Another translation has this verse as “Mary was keeping together (sunetare) all these words, bringing them together (sumballos) in her heart.” Keeping together, sunetare, has the sense of integration. Bringing these events together, or sumballos! She was fitting all the puzzle pieces together, bit by bit.

Can we do the same? Can we fit all the puzzle pieces together? Can we slow down, just a little, and wonder at the miracle of that night? I invite us all to listen to the good news of the shepherds.

Stop by that manger in Bethlehem, and be caught up in the wonder of what happened that night, so long ago. The eternal God, Creator of the universe, come to earth as the Babe in Bethlehem.

God gives each of us an opportunity, an invitation to wonder; an invitation to worship the newborn Savior.

O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!