This past weekend we had the chance to watch our kids perform in our church’s Christmas pageant. It was fun to watch the children dress up in their Christmas best with other kids dressed as angels, wisemen, and shepherds. In fact, if you’ve spent any time around the church, you are probably pretty familiar with these images. For myself, the image of the Nativity has become a pretty standard Christmas image, with Mary and Joseph kneeling near the Christ child, with handsome looking shepherds, cuddly lambs, and wisemen looking on in reverence.
However, as I have thought about this story some more, something really stands out to me. In most, if not all, of these Nativity images the people included all look pretty good. The shepherds are well dressed and clean. Mary and Joseph’s robes are neatly pressed and colorful. Even newborn Jesus looks like he popped out of the womb with a full head of hair looking like a three-year-old. And this has really forced me to ask the question, “Who is Christmas for? Is it for the cleaned up and presentable?”
The reason I think that this is such an important question is because, when I read the Christmas story as it is recorded in the Bible, I see a very different picture of who the Christmas story is for. Specifically, I think it is interesting to note who first hears the news of Jesus’ birth. In Luke 2:8-20 we read that on the night Jesus was born…
8 ….there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”
Now, when I say the word “shepherd,” who from the Bible comes to mind? For Christians the answer is usually “Jesus”. But other answers include men like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Amos, to name just a few. You see, often we associate shepherds with these great men of faith. So when we read the Christmas story we miss the irony of this scene.
The truth is, back in the first centuries B.C. and A.D. shepherds were a rather unsavory lot. You see, shepherds were often viewed with some suspicion back then. They were seen as outcasts and thieves; men who had to live out in the wild places overseeing animals because they were not welcome in broader society. They were a ragtag bunch of rough-and-tumble men.
And another interesting element of this story is that, because of the proximity between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, it is very possible that these men were watching the sheep that would have been used in the Temple as sacrifices to God. And therein lies the irony: these men are watching over the Temple’s animals, and yet, they probably would never have been allowed to set foot on the Temple grounds. They are outcasts and rejects in every sense of the word.
And it is to these guys, that the angel comes. These outcasts and rebels are the ones to whom Christ’s birth is announced. Furthermore, they become the first evangelists of the New Testament, for we read that after hearing the angels’ message
…they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
The shepherds, not the religious leaders, were the first to learn of God’s plan of redemption. And they found the promised King not in Herod’s palace nor in the halls of Caesar, but sleeping in a feeding trough in a humble stable. With their own eyes they saw God Incarnate and they become His royal messengers.
In the story of the shepherds we learn the truth that God comes not to the powerful or wise of the world, but to the rejects, the outcasts, the unclean and unkempt, and He invites them in. He makes them a part of His plan of salvation. He makes them His messengers to a world lost in darkness.
That is what is at the center of the Christmas story: God making himself known to the outcasts and rejects, to the sinners and the unsavory. God coming not to the perfect, but to the imperfect. God redeeming and bringing hope to those dwelling in deep darkness.
Furthermore, we see that God is a god who identifies with the shepherds; one who is born not in palaces of gold, but in a stable of straw and hay, among the people He has come to save and redeem. This Christmas we are invited to remember that every person is precious to God, even those whom society places on the margins. Each person is the object of His love and redemption. May our Advent meditations remind us of our calling to be bearers of Good News to all, serving them and pointing them to Christ, the True Shepherd who rescues all of His sheep and brings light and life to even the darkest and most forlorn places of the world. Praise be to Immanuel, God with us. Amen.