Summary: God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.
Shepherds – rejected by men, honored by God
Last Sunday we talked about Mary. I tried to remove some of the mystique that surrounds her. She was a woman, albeit a special woman chosen for a special purpose, but still just a woman who yielded herself to the will of God. She experienced the pain and the exhilaration of childbirth just like every mother before and since. And she needed a Saviour just like everybody else.
When we examine the Christmas story we need to take away the tinsel and the halos. As Tim reminded us a couple of Sundays ago, the birth of Jesus was an actual historical event that took place in this very real and very imperfect world where women experience excruciating pain giving birth and where babies cry and where mangers are cold and hard. We set up our nativity scenes and sing our Silent Nights and catch ourselves painting a rosy glow over a scene which was decidedly less than rosy.
Take the word manger for example. It has a nice sound to it. It sounds kind of romantic to talk about laying a baby in a manger. If we would take the time to think about it we’d realize that a manger is actually a feed trough. If our translators would have said “she laid her baby in a trough” we would either have a better idea of what really happened or we would have a much higher opinion of feed troughs than we do. We would have elevated feed troughs to some kind of special sacred status – something to decorate our churches with. I have a feed trough at home. I thought about bringing it here today to illustrate my sermon, but feed troughs don’t belong in church. Feed troughs are rough and dirty. There’s no honor involved in sleeping in a trough. It’s just one step above sleeping on the cold hard ground and you would never put a newborn baby down on the cold hard ground.
And then there are those shepherds. They look so nice on Christmas cards and in children’s picture books. We like shepherds - as long as we don’t have to sit next to them. We like shepherds as long as they’re abiding in the hills around Bethlehem. Think about it. What does it mean to abide in the hills? Do the words “of no fixed address” mean anything to you? Abiding is such a nice clean church word. These guys were not clean-cut, sweet-smelling picture book characters. Think about how you or I might look or smell after a couple of days or weeks of “abiding in the hills” looking after sheep. We might be okay with each other’s company but we wouldn’t be invited onto any maternity wards.
And it wasn’t any less that way in the days when Jesus was born. Of course Jesus wasn’t born in a hospital so the shepherds didn’t have to get past security or a hundred over-protective nurses with their hand sanitizer, but, in the days of Jesus, shepherds were categorically unclean. With their semi-nomadic outdoor lifestyle there was no way they could keep up with the ritual cleansing demands of the Jewish religion. It simply wasn’t practical for them to wash themselves as regularly as the law required so they were constantly in violation of the law. Everything I’ve read about shepherds in first century Judea suggests that they were outcasts and misfits in society. They were unclean and constantly on the move. When they were in the neighborhood and something would go missing or get damaged it would be natural to blame them. They had a bad reputation – sometimes they probably deserved it but probably not always. They were unclean, shiftless and they were looked down upon – kind of like gypsies used to be and maybe still are. But you don’t read about that in the picture books and you can’t paint that into a Christmas card picture. The shepherds were rejects. They were rejected by men, but not by God.
And this was not a new state of affairs. It’s not unusual for shepherds to be rejected. It’s as old as sibling rivalry and it shows up as early as the fourth chapter of the Bible.
Adam and Eve had two sons to begin with – Cain and Abel. Abel was a keeper of flocks – in other words a shepherd. Do you remember what happened to him? His brother killed him. That’s the ultimate form of rejection. But Abel was accepted by God. In fact that’s what got him killed. Jesus called Abel a prophet - the first in a long line of prophets among whom Jesus numbered himself. And the writer of Hebrews tells us Abel is still speaking to us even though he’s long gone. Abel, the first shepherd was rejected by man but accepted by God.