Shepherds and Sheep Interrupted
In this series, we’ve been looking at the Scriptures about the birth of Jesus which we don’t get to very often. The first three have been the stories after the birth of Christ but today we come to our first story before the birth of Christ. This is a familiar passage as I preach on it at least every other year and we sing about it in Christmas. When we think of shepherds, we tend to romanticize them. While Psalm 23 portrays the role of a shepherd in a most honorable way, but by the time of Jesus, shepherding and shepherds were despised– one scorned by observant Jews as unclean. In the first century, shepherds were on the lowest socio-economic rung of the social ladder. The Egyptians consider shepherds dirty and unclean. Jews were from a long line of shepherds. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were all shepherds. But shepherds were people who were less educated and even illiterate, they lived in poverty. You might own sheep but if you were tending sheep at night, you were either the youngest child of the family or a hired hand. And it’s stil that way today in the Holy Land. There are still shepherds throughout Israel who keep watch over their flocks. The problem with shepherds is that their sheep roam for food and so think that if a flock wandered onto your home’s property and began to eat your shrubs and flowers, how you would feel about that? Now you may understand a little better why shepherds were not liked and often thought negatively. Shepherds were dirty and smelly since they lived with the sheep and smelled like the sheep. They were considered, small, insignificant and nobody wanted much to do with them.
Some rabbis in Jesus’ day held that shepherds, because of the wandering trespass nature of their profession, could never be forgiven because they could never make retribution for the grasses their flocks ate (stole) from someone else’s land. The religious culture of that day therefore considered shepherds reprehensible people practicing a shameful profession. It was to just this kind of a hopeless person living in chronic, cultural shame that God directed the angels to announce His incredible Good News! In other words, when he wanted to announce the birth of His son, he went to the lowest of the low, reminding us that God chooses and uses and has a heart for the low and the humble. Over and over again, we see this lesson in the people God chooses to accomplish His will. Joseph was a poor carpenter who lived in a place so insignificant that it was even listed on the map. When Jesus was born, he was born in a stable and his first bed was a feeding trough. And that’s what we find in the story of the shepherds. God chooses and uses the lowly and the humble. It’s kind of like the Garth Brooks song, “I have friends in low places.” This is the spirt and the heart of the God we serve who has friends in low places.
From the very beginning, God seemed to be saying that the birth of His son was for the lowly, the poor, the destitute, the outsiders. We need to be reminded that no matter your station in life, whether you are receiving governmental assistance or are living paycheck to paycheck or are living comfortably, we are well off. We live in one of richest countries in the world and to have a shelter over our head, food in our stomach, clothes on our back, electricity in our homes, clean, disease- free running water and a bathroom makes us rich in comparison to third world countries. Almost half the world, 3 billion people live on less than $2.50 a day. At least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day. 1 in three have inadequate shelter. 1 in 5 have no access to water. 1 in 7 have no access to health care. The world’s richest, of which you and I are a part comprise 20% of the world’s population but consume 80% of the world’s resources. I think one thing that God was saying by coming to the shepherds is that Christmas, Jesus’ birth, is about the poor, the least and the last. I think that raises a question of how much of our focus this Christmas and in our Christmas giving is focused on the poor and those in need in our community and across the world? What have you done this Christmas to alleviate the suffering, hunger and disease of those living in poverty and by doing so, letting them know that Jesus shares in their suffering and came to them.
Normal practice was that a shepherd would lead the sheep to water and fields to graze on during the day and then put the sheep in a pen at night, usually in a cave which only had one way in and one way out. These sheepfolds made protecting the sheep a lot easier. But that raises the question, Why were the sheep in the fields late at night when it was so dangerous? What might have caused that when normal practice would be to have these sheep secured in sheepfolds? Two possibilities are suggested. Either these herds are too large to fit in even the largest of sheepfolds; or it may be the time of birthing so that the sheep needed to stay in the feeds rather than a crowded pen.
There is strong indication from the Mishnah, the first Jewish commentary or explanation of the Old Testament, that these sheep in Bethlehem’s fields may have been one of many large Temple flocks kept in the greater Jerusalem area (remember Bethlehem is only 8 miles south of Jerusalem). Some estimates suggest that 200,000+ newborn Pascal lambs were needed every year for Passover sacrifice because “the influx of pilgrims at Passover from all over the world was immense and amounted to several times the population of Jerusalem.” Consequently, Temple flocks had to be enormous in size for tens of thousands of lambs to be birthed each year. Since no one field could hold all these sheep, they were dispersed to various fields around Jerusalem. Even these dispersed flocks were so sizeable that no sheepfold was large enough to hold them for night-time protection. So on the same night that Jesus – the Lamb of God – was born, Pascal lambs destined for the Passover sacrifice were also being born in Bethlehem’s wheat fields. Wow! The connectedness of Christmas and Easter is already established. Jesus is the Paschal Lamb.
These Temple shepherds were expected to provide 24/7 watch over these flocks and the Pascal lambs being born to ensure their unblemished nature and suitability for Passover sacrifice. How significant and ironic that these very same Temple shepherds nevertheless decide to leave those Temple sheep and newborn lambs to come and pay homage to the newly-born perfect Pascal Lamb who would likewise be sacrificed without blemish.
Let’s fast forward to Palm Sunday for a moment. It was the Passover celebration and tens of 100’s of Jews from all over Israel and the Middle East descended on Jerusalem. Scholars believe that Palm Sunday was the very day “that the thousands of Passover lambs that were to be sacrificed were taken up to Jerusalem and kept for three days in the homes of those who were to eat them.” Think how long it would have taken to herd all of these tens of thousands of Pascal lambs through Jerusalem’s various city gates. Probably all day! Thus, on Palm Sunday when Jesus came down the Mt. of Olives from Bethpage, through the Kidron Valley and (most likely) entered the city through the southern entrance of Temple Mount, Passover lambs were simultaneously entering the city gates and crowding many of Jerusalem’s streets. On that day, both Jesus and 1000’s of Passover lambs (some who were born in Bethlehem’s fields) shared the same thing in common – both were going to be sacrificed four days later.
Where were the shepherd’s led to? Contrary to what “tradition” has long presented to us, it suffices to say that it appears there wasn’t an “inn” with a “no vacancy” sign when Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, and it really wasn’t a “stable” where Jesus was born. And there were no cows and horses present to observe this humble birth. And there was no raised wooden manger to place the Christ Child in. It was probably a sheepfold where sheep were kept overnight. From the perspective of Joseph’s Bethlehem clan, this scene really wasn’t glorious at all. In fact, for those who knew of Joseph’s non- wedding-feast status (needed before consummating the marriage), from their perspective it was an off- putting event most likely saturated with the stench of adultery. In its first-century setting, Jesus was most likely seen as being borne in culturally perceived shame. While His birth was indeed glorious from Heaven’s perspective, the opposite would have most likely been true for Joseph’s Davidic clan in Bethlehem. How appropriate, then, that Jesus’ birth was first announced to shepherds earning a subsistence living in a shameful profession, and thirty-three years later He died on a shameful Cross. And for much of His three-year ministry, Jesus lifted people out of the shame to which the religious culture had relegated them. In doing so, Jesus gave them a hope and a future. But He also invited them into a new community of restoration (salvation) – The Kingdom of God. For these people, mired in culturally imposed shame and with little or no hope of ever being set free from it, this truly was “Good News!” And Jesus still lifts up those who likewise have lived shameful lives (haven’t we all!), who are poor, powerless and outsiders and feel there is no hope for them to ever be in an intimate, lasting relationship with God.
Jesus came to serve the poor, the least and the lost and it started first with the shepherds. The announcement and the birth of Christ was an act of mercy and grace. John Wesley, our founder, called all Methodists to Works of Mercy. The works of mercy are how disciples live out their love for God in the world by loving their neighbors as themselves in acts of compassion and justice. These grow out of our relationship with Christ and the practices to grow that are called, works of piety. Works of piety are how Christians grow and mature in their relationship with God. They include prayer, worship and the Lord’s Supper, reading and hearing Scripture, mutual accountability and support in small groups (Christian conference), and fasting (or abstinence). Works of mercy come from Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:31-46. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). It’s important to understand that the two go hand in hand. They create a life of harmony and balance. For if we are paying attention to God in prayer, worship, and Scripture reading, we will be compelled to service in the world; loving those whom God loves as God loves them. It is in serving these that we impact their lives but we are also impacted ourselves. You can’t immerse yourself in the life of the poor, the downtrodden, the homeless, the powerless and not be changed. This how we live out of our faith.
When we come to Christmas, we begin to understand that it’s not really about us but about the least, the last and the powerful, those who have no voice and no hope. God came to them to let them know He is one of them and he is one with them. And in coming to the shepherds, God was saying this Savior is not just for the wealthy or the religiously faithful or those who are in power but it is for all humanity. Think how powerful an experience for these outsiders to be standing next to the wealthy, royal wisemen before the Savior of the world. What a profound message of who God is for and what this birth is really about. And so when we focus on the poor at Christmas, we not only become like God but we come to understand the true meaning of Christ, allowing us to truly experience Christmas as God intended.
Adam Hamilton tells the story of leading his youth group in Dallas, TX to south Dallas, a part of town that was largely forgotten and the remaining people who lived there had been largely forgetten as well. The neighborhood was filled with empty lots, boarded up homes and drug house. But there were two poor elderly women who probably hadn’t had their homes painted in 3 decades. So the youth group went down and scraped and caulked and painted. These women came out and made a wonderful meal for the group and they sat and talked. When Christmas came, the youth group decided they wanted to go back to south Dallas and to these two women and give them Christmas giftas and sing Christmas carols to them. They had raised more than $400 and bought gifts and cards and then wanted to give each $200 to do as they saw fit. 45 white kids got out of a bus in an all black neighborhood in the dark of night and began singing as they walked down the street. Miss Violet peered out the window but didn’t come out. So they knocked on the door and told them who they were and that they had painted her house and just wanted to sing Christmas carols to her and give her some gifts. She came out and they sung tom her and then one of the kids came forward and give her a gift with a card and inside one of the youth had written, “This gift is our way of reminding you that God has not forgotten you.” Tears started to fill her eyes. And she said, “After my husband died, I was sure God has forgotten me. Tonight I know because of you and what you have done, He still remembers me and knows I am here.” And then Adam writes, It was then that I saw Christmas.”