And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round them, and they were sore afraid. But the angel said unto them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2)
The universal nature of the Christmas good news comes from the angel to the shepherds. I’m so glad!
For as the late Lutheran pastor Walt Wangerin reflects,
“This time the angel grows bright before a bunch of nameless folk. First it was Zechariah, next Mary, next Joseph, all of whom had roles to play in the coming of the Christ — but now…shepherds! These, not even the owners of their sheep, they are working stiffs who don’t even get a name….and here comes Gabriel again, and what he says is “good tidings of great joy…for ALL people!” Well, of course. That’s why the shepherds are first: they represent ALL the nameless, ALL the working stiffs, the great wheeling population of the whole world.” (preparing for Jesus)
Some years ago I tried to reflect on what the shepherds must have been thinking….I wrote: “Why us?” was the common topic. We were the last who’d expect such a visit, and any news of a messiah. We’re shepherds, with least privilege and power, many of us never even called by our names. Surely this arrival was meant for the rabbis and scribes keeping vigil at the temple in Jerusalem, a holy place where we aren’t even allowed. Why us, why us? Yet here we were, running down the hills through the city gate to look for a baby in a barn, we strangely blessed, excited and fearful to see. And we found them, I know not how, but we found them.”
The shepherds seems a parable of the whole utterly astonishing surprise of the Christmas story. Just consider it. A teenage unwed mother-to-be, and a virgin at that. A sleepy, little, out of the way village becoming the epicenter of God’s incarnation. The messiah — envisioned to come as a warrior king to take over the world by power and force — instead shows up on the scene as a baby, utterly dependent on Mary and Joseph for even one day of life. He is laid not on a throne but in a cattle trough. And to top it all off, the news comes first to shepherds at work in the fields. They’re the ones who take care of things so that others have time to be religious — domestic servants you might say. In this sense, the unexpected involvement of the shepherds at the center of the story fits perfectly, because everything about the coming of Jesus is so very surprising.
The challenge for me, for us, is to overcome our familiarity with the story, and our romanticizing of it. How to allow my life and everything about life as I know it to be turned upside down by the surprise of it all? That’s the holy question. While we, like those unnamed bedouin, just zip through life, exhausted by all the cultural trappings around us, imagine, just imagine, if you were to hear the story for the first time, and encounter an angel somewhere on Hibbard Road?
I’m so thankful for those shepherds, who are the exclamation point on what seems like only a tall tale. Without even trying they widen the net of this good news of great joy to include ALL people, everywhere, and especially those least considered and most unexpected.
I hope sometime in all your plans and parties, maybe in an anticipated moment when someone you love looks into your eyes and hands you a gift, you might get more than you bargained for — a still small voice speaking to your spirit tidings of comfort and joy that suddenly take your fear and sorrow all away, until you raise your hands to your cheeks and welcome the coming of Jesus, as if for the first time, not knowing if ever the Savior would come. And the Savior has come.
And in your own way, join the shepherd parade to go and see this thing that has taken place. SHEPHERDS!
Joy and Peace, and hope to see you Saturday at 4 p.m.!