Tuesday, December 21, 2010
A Shepherd's story
Living in a culture far removed both in time and distance from that in which Jesus was born, we are unfamiliar with life in biblical times and it is easy for us to accept without question the traditional romanticized images that have come down to us about the events surrounding the birth of the Messiah and persons who appear in the Gospel accounts. Our lack of knowledge can leave us vulnerable to all manner of alternative and bizarre teaching. For example, in the magazine of a mainline Christian denomination a couple of years ago, a writer stated that he knew Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem who were descended from shepherds to whom the angels appeared!
Although some of Israel’s greatest men – including Jacob, Moses, David and the prophet Amos – were shepherds, in the great collections of rabbinic law the Mishnah and the Talmud, shepherding was a despised profession. According to the Mishnah, “A man should not teach his son to be an ass-driver, or a camel driver, or a hairdresser, or a sailor, or a shepherd, or a shopkeeper, for their craft is the craft of robbers.”
Because many shepherds were hirelings and the flocks they tended were not their own, it was easy for them to steal wool, milk and goats and blame the loss on bandits. Therefore there is a passage that forbids buying wool, milk or goats from shepherds. A Jewish commentary on Psalm 23:2 says: “There is no more disreputable occupation than that of a shepherd”.
A biblical shepherd’s life was independent, responsible and – in view of the threat from wild beasts and robbers – dangerous. Although some sheep owners looked after their flock themselves, the job was usually was done by hired shepherds, who often did not justify the confidence placed in them, Also, shepherds couldn’t help but tread in sheep excrement and touch dead animals which, according to the book of Leviticus, placed them in a permanent state of ritual impurity and ceremonial defilement. Because of that, shepherds were excluded from the temple and the synagogues.
Bethlehem “Which Literally means the House of Bread “had a long association with shepherds and the grazing of sheep. The patriarch Jacob pastured his flocks there almost 2,000 years before the birth of Jesus, and Genesis records that when Jacob’s wife Rachel died, she “was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). And Jacob set a pillar on her grave, which is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day. Then Israel journeyed and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder.”
The “tower of Eder”, Migdal Eder, means “tower of the flock” and was a watch-tower built for the protection of flocks against robbers or wild beasts. The Mishnah tells us that the flocks for the temple sacrifices were pastured there: Quote, “Of the herds, in the space between Jerusalem and ‘the tower of the flock’ and on both sides, the males are for burnt-offerings, the female for peace-offerings.
These sheep that the shepherds were watching were destined for Temple-sacrifices. The same Mishnaic passage also tells us that these flocks lay out all the year round, since they are spoken of as in the fields thirty days before the Passover -- that is, in the month of February, when in Palestine the average rainfall is nearly at its greatest.
The "lambing season" for sheep is in February in Palestine. Could it be that Jesus, being the "lamb of the world" was born at exactly the same time the literal lambs were born. If so then Jesus was born when the lambs were born and he died when the Passover lamb was slaughtered
So, Bethlehem, “House of Bread” became the birthplace of the “bread of life” (John 6:35) and the Lamb of God was born within a couple of miles of the place in which the sacrificial lambs for the temple were pastured.
The Shepherds lived most of the year outside, away from the townspeople Flocks were kept outside in this way from February to November, They were constantly with their sheep, since the sheep were vulnerable to all kinds of trouble. The shepherds made sure that the sheep were safe from wandering off and injuring themselves, as well as dangers from thieves and wolves.
So I want you to imagine for a moment what it might have been like on that night in the fields. It is cold; perhaps it had even rained earlier so you are damp and dirty. It is one of those uncomfortable nights. The skies have since cleared and you are with you companions watching over the sheep.
One minute you are talking quietly in the blackness of the winter sky. The next moment the hillside is ablaze with light and booming with the sound of an angel's voice.
An angel of the Lord appears to you, and the glory of the Lord Shines all around you.
This appearance isn’t at a distance, but upfront and personal. It is very sudden, you jump for it is unexpected and it is something even beyond your human comprehension that you are witnessing. You and your companions are so scared you can’t move and can hardly breathe.
The brightness is more than just mega-candlepower. It is Blinding and confusing. In this case the glory shines around the whole area and the result is absolute terror.
The angel moves first to calm your fears....
The angel says; 'do not be afraid.’
Needless to say this voice is not comforting at all for it is not spoken aloud but is heard from within, it is hard to comprehend how you are understanding this for it is coming to you from all around you and yet in you as well, in your heart and in your mind.
The Angel says to you again “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 Christ the Lord.'"
The message the angel brings is very good news that results in joy. But this isn’t simple happiness this joy is overwhelming, it is filled with the Glory of the Angels, their voices and the news that the Messiah is born, this is the greatest joy you have ever experienced!
Notice how broad is the angel's message. It's not for just the pious or the Jew, but "for all the people." What wonderful news for those who are estranged from God and struggling under oppression! The baby is not just born to Mary and Joseph. The Angels has said that the baby is born "to you" -- to the shepherd, to the one who is shunned, forced to live outside of society, the one who it has been said: “There is no more disreputable occupation.” A simple shepherd.
After the angel's startling declaration, the heavens reveal a huge crowd of angelic beings:
"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 all on whom God’s favor rests.” (2:13-14)
Imagine you are just getting use to the idea of the one voice and suddenly all of heaven appears to you singing God’s praises and proclaiming salvation for all of humanity. The joy and the panic arising in you are almost too much to bear, you actually forget to breath for a while.
How would you know that the angel's message is true?
"This will be a sign to you:, said the Angels You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." (2:12)
The sign consists of two elements. The baby is:
1. Wrapped in cloths, and
2. Lying in a manger.
The phrase "wrapped in swaddling clothes” there were perhaps several newborns in Bethlehem wrapped up in this manner that evening.
However, the second sign was that the newborn would be found in a manger -- that was unique! This would indicate the location in some kind of stable -- a Second Century legend indicates that this was in a cave.
Now the scripture tells us the Angels leave them and return to heaven. Suddenly the night is calm, clear and cold again. As a Shepherd you have a responsibility to the sheep yet you just had the most amazing experience. So you talk it over with your fellow Shepherds and decide to “go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So you start searching stable to stable, looking to find a baby in a feeding trough.
As you search the city, a place you are not very welcome in, you get nervous, you begin to doubt what you have seen, and perhaps it was some sort of dream. Knowing you are so marginalized why would this news would have come to you? Then you see it, a manger with a new born babe and couple there just so happy to have a healthy baby.
Then it hits you all over again everything you just saw, you heard and felt, coming to you, one of the outcast of society, it is too much, you fall to your knees overwhelmed at the whole night. Once you are able to gain you composure you retell all you have seen and heard then you go and tell others as well.
For it is written that "They made known what had been told them about this child." The angel's announcement of "a savior, Christ the Lord" is spread throughout the area, resulting in amazement in the hearers.
Yet you still have a responsibility you must return to the fields. It is still cold and damp. But you can barely notice it. You return giving praise to God for your life and the gift that has been granted to you. There is nothing in the world that can take your experience of this night away from you and it will carry you for the rest of your days.
Please pray with me
Blessed creator, what an amazing night the shepherds had! To, be chosen as the first of the marginalized, to have a glimpse of your heavenly glory, to hear a mighty Chorus of praise, to see the Messiah-Child, to listen to the angel recite the glorious title -- Savior, Messiah-Lord. Thank you for letting us hear the story again. Write it large and indelibly in our hearts that we might be fervent Good News tellers, too. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.