Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve and a word about Shepherds

Several years ago, I played organ and piano for my former church's Sunday School Christmas program.  The focus for the program that year was the shepherds from the familiar Christmas Story.  No one ever thinks twice about shepherds showing up at Jesus' cradle but really, they were social outcasts.  It is always interesting how God goes to the "unworthy" people first.  Jesus regularly hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors.  Even in the Old Testament, prophets like Elijah were sent to live with non-Israelites.  Something we should consider when we feel too unworthy for God's great love.  I found a nice little sermon about the shepherds and have put excerpts below.

Also, if you haven't seen The Nativity Story, I recommend renting it this holiday season.  If there was one thing I got out of it, it was how Mary was actually viewed.  We see Mary's song in print and think, "oh, yeah, she's definitely blessed among all women" when in actuality she was a pregnant teen and the townspeople either thought she was a slut who slept with someone other than Joseph or that Joseph was a bad boy who just couldn't wait to get it on with Mary.  I doubt they would label her "blessed."

So, now I leave you this Christmas Eve with the familiar words of Luke 2 that I recited almost every year (being a good Lutheran girl) and parts of the sermon on shepherds.

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ1 the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest,and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.  The Following is taken from this website  They were unlikely heroes of faith, these shepherds. They weren’t the sort of men whom the general populace expected would receive angelic announcements. Those sorts of messages should have, by all human reckoning, gone to men like the three wise kings of the east. But no angels come to them. Instead they receive a star to guide them. God, perhaps as a way of showing that faith is best grounded in real life rather than much formal learning, sends the heavenly singers to the shepherds – men who consult no books, study the skies for nothing except clues for the weather, and have no social standing.

These men, huddled on the foresty hillsides of Palestine, warm beneath their ram skins, eyes vigilant, on guard against roaming wolves, were of low station. Shepherds of Jesus time were considered, by the general populace, generally untrustworthy (which makes Jesus’ later stories centering around the shepherd’s role in the life of faith all the more remarkable). Even worse, their work made them ceremonially unclean.

The idea of uncleanness is something we don’t know much about, but was an important part of Jewish life. The division between clean and unclean was fundamental for Israelites. They were commanded by the Law to be physically clean, ritually and ceremonially clean (having offered the right sacrifices and been through the correct ceremonies), and morally clean. When people or things became unclean, they had to be washed to be considered clean again.

The shepherds were considered unclean because they had daily contact with carcasses of animals and came into contact, however incidental, with all sorts of unclean animals. Common unclean animals included spiders, flies, bugs, rats, and mice. A dead rat was not something to be overlooked. It was carefully taken out and buried. It’s a distinction we don’t think about today, but was strongly enforced in those days and had solid medical reasoning behind it, in the days before refrigeration and Orkin pest control.

So, surprisingly, when the angelic announcement arrives, it comes first to the social outcasts of Jesus’ day. These men are unclean and there is no mention of them stopping off to become clean before they make their trek to Jerusalem to see the new born babe. Which has further significance for us today. It tells us that we are called to God, in a paraphrase of the old gospel song, just as we are. The invitation to return to God’s good graces is the invitation to a “come as you are” party.

1 comment:

  1. Joy,
    Thank you for writing about the shepherds. What a beautiful post.


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