Shepherds and Sheep

         Here we are, finally, at Christmas. Ready or not. Did you finished all your preparations? My parents wisely insisted that we open presents together as a family, enjoying the process by taking turns and opening one box at a time. I’ll never forget the Christmas morning when my older sister kept us waiting to begin. My parents sent me to knock on the door to her room and ask her what was taking so long. She said to be patient because she was wrapping her gifts! Apparently, knowing that Christmas comes around every December 25th wasn’t enough warning.
         Even though there had been prophesies about the Messiah for centuries, the Jewish people weren’t ready for him to appear right then. They were busy living, working, raising kids, attending synagogue, and dealing with the Roman officials and soldiers who could make their lives miserable.
         During the Roman Empire, the government considered the Emperor be a god. Augustus decreed that “all the world” should be registered for the purposes of being taxed, and his word was law. The Roman high priest of the time described Augustus as a savior who would end all war and arrange all things, bringing in a new era of peace and prosperity. All while taxing the poor at up to 75% of their crops and occupying their countries. As British historian Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
When you consider that the Roman empire, although large, covered only the area right around the Mediterranean Sea and parts of Europe, calling it “all the world” was pretty egotistical of the emperor. But God had a plan. As we know, this decree led to the Holy Family making the trip to Bethlehem, fulfilling the prophecy that Jesus would be born in the city of David.
         The world has had egomaniacs with armies for at least as long as we have written history. Despite the claims of Rome and the emperor, we know that our God is the only one who can and will bring peace. There is no coercion, no force, just good news proclaimed with our help. Those who choose to follow become God’s people, his flock.
The writers of the Old Testament used shepherds as a metaphor for good rulers several times. People without leaders were described as sheep without a shepherd, while in Psalm 23, God is described as our Good Shepherd. Sheep need someone to protect them, not just from predators, but also from their own ignorance, stupidity, and tendency to follow each other into danger. If one sheep gets spooked and starts to run, the others will follow it, even if that means jumping off a cliff. The idea that God sees us as sheep isn’t very flattering, but the metaphor tells us more about the deep love of God than about our resemblance to sheep. There’s no need to feel sheepish. God loves us tenderly and protectively in spite of our relatively simple nature, wanting to guide us to the best food and the sweetest water, to safety and community.
God liked the way shepherds took care of the animals they guarded. Unlike high government officials such as emperors and kings, shepherds knew all their charges as individuals, knew their personalities and quirks, needs and wants. When the sheep were penned, the shepherd slept across the opening called the sheepgate to prevent the sheep from wandering off and to keep hungry predators from entering. Their love was sacrificial, like God’s in Christ.
In Luke 15, Jesus likened God to the shepherd who will leave the flock of 99 sheep in the wilderness in order to find the one that was lost, then rejoices with his friends when he finds it. The story shows how important even one sheep is to the shepherd, how God loves each of us as if we were the most important person alive.
         So now we get to the shepherds who were watching over their flocks by night, listening for signs of danger in the darkness, trying to be ready for anything, when suddenly, a chorus of angels came out of nowhere and broadcast the good news that Jesus was born. Of course the shepherds were terrified! They were startled and surprised while they were watching for danger, not waiting for good news. They’d never seen angels before, let alone loud and joyful ones. It takes faith and courage to take in something so unexpected, so unusual.
They weren’t ready for Christmas either.
God often takes the expectations of the culture and upends them. The angels who sang to the shepherds could have appeared to Emperor Augustus or to King Herod, people who actually considered themselves to be highly important. They could have had far greater exposure by showing up during the gladiator games at the Colosseum in Rome and flying over the crowd with their joyful message like a small plane pulling a banner over a Bronco game.
         The angels appeared, instead, to a group of shepherds, ordinary people who worked hard and considered themselves to be responsible but not special. This joyful news is not meant only for the rich and powerful, but for all people in all places, including those living on the edges of society.  The angels told them to look for something miraculous and significant in something that happens every day in any given town – the birth of a child.
The word translated “inn” where there was no room is better translated “guest room”. Mary and Joseph may have stayed with Joseph’s relatives and had to use a roofed porch where animals would shelter in bad weather. I wonder how long the shepherds had to search in Bethlehem before they found a newborn in a manger. It’s not like the angels gave them a name and address. But they were full of joy and excitement, ready to find the Messiah in the form of a baby.
Later in his life, the disciples weren’t ready to watch Jesus die on a cross. They were surprised and overjoyed when he rose again from the dead. Now we have the joy and peace of knowing that God has saved us from sin and death, that we have the Holy Spirit to guide us, and that we will be with Jesus in paradise. That is God’s perfect gift.
         This Christmas, I’m asking you to prepare your heart, to be ready, for the gift of Jesus by looking for the miraculous in the mundane like the shepherds did. Really see the beautiful faces of the people you love in your family, in this church, as you celebrate the joy of Christmas.
Be thankful. Thank God for loving us enough to send Jesus to save us. Take in the blessings that God gives us here and now, that we live in a place where we can have comforts much of the world lacks. And remember to pray for the people who don’t have a Savior, or a home, or food, or other needs. Listen to the Holy Spirit’s directions. Donate to the missions of the church like Community Ministries or to whatever cause you choose. God gives us so much! The spirit of Christmas is one of giving. Let’s give back to our Good Shepherd, thanking God for ultimate gift of Christ. Are you ready?

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