In Advent of 2014 we looked at the shepherds who led us towards the stable: previous entries explore Abram, Moses, and David. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we take at look at the only shepherds who were actually there – the shepherds of Bethlehem mentioned in Luke 2. Isaiah 56:3-8, although not specifically about shepherds, is instructive here as well.
There are a lot of times when I look at my life and think, “Holy smokes…I can’t believe I did that.” Sometimes, those are words of regret – I’m filled with remorse at doing something unthinkable. Other times, I’m in awe of some great privilege that was extended to me. And some times, I just can’t figure out how my parents let me do something that I’d never let my own child do.
For instance, when I was a teen, I spent several weekends a year working with the Shrine circus when they rolled into town. I was there, my parents thought, to put on my clown makeup and suit and assist wheelchair-bound children as they experienced the show. And I did that. But they let me sleep in a trailer with five or six other teens on the circus lot. We got there early, and watched as the carnies set up the big tops. Late at night, after the crowds went home, we’d wander up and down the lanes, where I saw more bad teeth, hip flasks, tattoos, and what I might politely call “adventurous behavior” than I thought possible. When my parents came to see the show, they saw the fresh-faced college kids who’d been hired to take the tickets and operate the children’s rides. I liked watching the rough assortment of humanity charged with setting up the tents, clearing away the elephant dung, and running the sideshow. These weekends did more to enlarge my vocabulary, my understanding of human nature, and my appreciation for human anatomy than anything I ever saw in National Geographic, I can tell you that.
I thought a lot about carnies – the rough-edged men and women who travel with the circuses and shows – this week as Sharon and I set up our Christmas decorations. You may know that my bride collects nativity sets. We’ve got several dozen scattered around the house now, and more in the basement. All of them have at least Mary, Joseph, and a baby Jesus. Some have the wise men. And most have a few shepherds and some sheep.
Mostly, when we think of the shepherds to whom the angels sang about the baby’s birth, we think of simple, gentle folk who must have enjoyed a tranquil, pastoral existence as they tended the little lambs under their care. I would imagine that many of us think about shepherding as a noble profession and an accepted vocation. I mean, “The Lord is my shepherd”… Abraham, Moses, and King David all spent time with the flocks. And look at the shepherds in our nativities – the strong, silent, types. It’s pretty easy to think about one of these fellows grabbing his son and pa-rum-pa-pa-pum-ing it all the way into the stable, right?
Those might be the shepherds that you see on my coffee table, but they are not the men invited to the stable on that first Christmas Eve. At the time of Christ, shepherds were people on the fringe of society – that’s what brought the carnies of my youth to mind as I decorated this week.
Shepherding was a despised and lowly occupation in first-century Palestine. Those who were hired to do this work were without rights or any stature in society. Jewish law forbade them from testifying in court, which means that if someone attacked you in broad daylight in front of a dozen shepherds, each of whom could identify your attacker and knew him by name, nothing would happen – because, by law, no one could believe what a shepherd says.
The Mishnah, which is the written record of the Jewish oral law, refers to shepherds as “incompetent”, and says that if you happen to encounter a shepherd who has fallen into a pit, you are under no particular obligation to help him out. In fact, it was forbidden to buy wool, milk, or a kid from a shepherd because that would be equivalent to receiving stolen property.
Shepherds were considered to be ritually unclean, which meant that they were not able to present themselves for worship in the Temple.
Whereas my mother would have been horrified to find her oldest son sitting at the feet of circus carnies like the contortionist woman or the elephant keeper, a good Jewish mama two thousand years ago would have done everything she could to make sure her son steered clear of low-lifes like shepherds and lepers.
And yet, those who are, by definition and understanding, called “unclean” are invited to worship by the angels themselves. The ones who are prevented from entering into the Temple for worship are now called to the feet of the Lord himself. People who are not “good enough” to watch the priest make the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement are summoned to greet the One who represents God’s greatest, and most deeply self-sacrificial, gift.
Here in the second chapter of Luke, the illiterate bumpkins who are presumed to be untrustworthy and unreliable now find themselves in the position of telling other people in the village about the new thing that God is doing! Before any king gets word of the Messiah’s birth, it is these transients and oppressed, these “undesirables”, who are given a glimpse of what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like. People who have been told for their entire lives that there is just no place for them in civilized society have a privilege and a responsibility with which none can compare.
If that’s true – that is to say, if in fact, shepherds were as despised and mistrusted and ill-treated as the literature suggests that they were; and if, in fact, those shepherds were actually called to the scene of the holy birth by an angelic choir in the manner that Luke records – then I have three questions for our consideration this morning.
Who are you to think that somehow you are not “good enough” for God to use in a meaningful way? I mean, sure, if all shepherds are to be held to the standard of Abraham, Moses, or David, then we have the right to be a little intimidated. But the angels didn’t invite any of those men to witness Jesus’ birth – just the group of outcasts who were pulling the night shift in Bethlehem that week. And if God decides that God can use people like that, then how dare you take it upon yourself to say that you, of all people, are just not up to God’s standards.
You’ve got baggage, I’ll give you that. The things that happened to you when you were little. That massive amount of debt that you’re sitting on right now. Your secret sin – that brokenness that you’ve managed to hide so well for so long. I get it. You’ve got baggage. Do you think that the people sitting in front of you don’t? Do you think that you alone are supremely unqualified to participate in that thing that God is doing in the world?
Look: if God can use first-century Palestinian shepherds, and God can use me, and God can use people like that guy just behind you…God can use you. Who are you to say otherwise?
And before you turn around to look at the person behind you, let me ask my second question: who am I to judge you? What gives me the right to think that because of the way that you look, or speak, or walk, that somehow the image of God is clearer and more pronounced in me than it is in you?
Now, listen to me: obviously, there are certain areas of life in which we expect there to be some qualifications present. I mean, there is a reason that the doctors hang all those diplomas on the wall. Certain tasks require specific expertise. I get that. But for me to look at another person and determine that someone like that is too far gone even for God to mess with? That kind of thinking has no place in the Christian walk. I have been incredibly blessed by the wisdom of dirty, barefoot men – men who didn’t look like much, but who walked with God. My spirit has been revived by the prayer of a smelly, clumsy, schizophrenic woman. Who am I to call “unclean” those whom God has called to himself?
And the final question that comes to me from the mute and rough faces of the shepherds in Bethlehem this morning is this: who are we to tolerate, or, even worse, to actively participate in systems that contribute to the tendency to render another faceless or voiceless?
When the people who wrote the Bible talked about Jesus’ birth, only one person mentioned the shepherds being present. Do you know why? Because no one else saw them. Not that they weren’t there – they were invisible. They were only shepherds, after all.
It seems to me that, increasingly, our way of life is built on rendering gifted, beautiful people of God into anonymous objects. We used to get the things that we needed from the people who were close to us. We made them, we borrowed them, or we bought them from the guy at the corner store. But increasingly, we turn on a machine, click a few buttons, and the things we want show up on our front porches. How? Who knows. Where did they come from? Who cares. Were the people treated well? Not my problem.
It used to be that we had real relationships with real people. Today, more people will use their computer to click on porn sites than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined. Because the people on the porn sites are always beautiful, always available, and never demanding.
Who do you see when you go through your day? The people who wash your dishes? The ones who clean the bathrooms at work or school? The farmer who grew your food or the trucker who brought it to the store? Who do you see? And who sees you?
The miracle of Christmas is that God became one of us and moved into the neighborhood. He has a face. He tells his story, even to outcasts and those who other people think are invisible. But by this very act of becoming enfleshed and sharing that news with those on the margins requires us to honor all flesh-wearers and seek out especially those who have been marginalized.
Is Pastor Dave telling you it’s God’s will to send your kid on the road with the carnies, or that everybody is always good and there’s no reason to fear? Absolutely not.
What I am asking is this: who are you to be so quick to assume that God isn’t interested in using you? And who am I to presume that I’m better than those folks over there? And who are we to participate in systems that dehumanize and depersonalize those humans, those persons for whom Christ came at Bethlehem?
Today, let me ask you to embrace Christmas by standing for the dignity of those who have been given the gift of being made in the image of God. Start with respecting yourself. Remind me to respect the other people we know. Get yourself to that stable and offer who you are, right now, in worship. And don’t be surprised who else shows up right next to you. Amen.