The Shepherds

On the first day of school, Daniel the goat found himself having to choose a study partner. Only two other students had not yet chosen partners. One was a wolf. He was dressed in black, had numerous body piercings, smelled bad, and was possessed of a perpetual scowl. The other was a sheep. She dressed in white, had imaculate wool, was always smiling and laughing and smelled like lilacs. everyone was sure Daniel would ask the sheep to be his study partner. That afternoon, Daniel tripped and fell in front of both of them. The wolf knelt down to help him up. The sheep just laughed. Daniel knew whom he wanted.

In the first century, Bethlehem was a very small town. Nevertheless, there were a wide variety of people there on Christmas night. There were priests and rabbis, inkeepers and grocers, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, carpenters and pharmacists, doctors, lawyers, bards and even the crazy old lady down the street with all the cats. So out of all these people, why was it the shepherds whom God chose to be the first witnesses to the birth of the Christ? Why not priests, rabbis or CNN?

The best way I know of to answer that question is to look at the actionas of Jesus. After all, Jesus told us repeatedly that He and the Father are one. To know Him is to know the Father. In the past few sermons, we've seen many examples and metaphors of this. Jesus is a raibow. He is not seperate from the light of His Father, but He comes to us in a different way, more easily observable, allowing us to examine individually the many aspects of God's nature.

Fast forward about three decades.

In Luke 19, we see the meeting between Jesus and Zacchaeus. How many of you remember the famous song about Zacchaeus? Let's remember it together...

Zacchaus was a wee little man
and a wee little man was he
He climbeed up in a sycamore tree
for the Lord he wanted to see
But the Lord said
"Zacchaus, you come down.
For I'm going to your house today."

To truly know what's going on here, we have to understand a few things. First, Zacchaeus was a tax collector. I don't mean that he was merely an IRS agent. Israel was under the control of the Roman empire, who had conquored the Hasmonean kingdom (the last free Israel before 1948), was now occupying it and was collecting its resources, shipping them back to Italy. Zacchaeus was considered a traitor because he was assisting Rome in this endeavor. He was not only a tax collector, but head of the tax collectors for his area. To top it off, he was small. The fact that he had to climb a tree in order to see over the crowd tells us that he was probably shorter than five feet tall. Whether perfectly proportioned or stumpy, Zacchaeus was, in all probability, a dwarf. It has only been recently that dwarves have even been considered human. Dwarves were seen as freaks by the Israelites and were not permitted to enter the temple. In the eyes of the religious establishment, Zacchaeus was triply unclean.

The second thing we must understand is that to a Hebrew, the act of eating together is a demonstration of a sacred trust. Even today, our Jewish friends may invite a casual acquaintance out for tea and bagels, but to invite someone into the house for supper is a statement of close friendship or a desire to have a close relationship. There are exceptions, of course, such as the Pharisees who invited Jesus to dine with them, but as the records show, this was a public meal with plenty of spectators, not an intimate sharing. Most likely, they just wanted to be seen with the popular rabbi.

It seems that by this point in His ministry, Jesus had gained a reputation as a rabbi, at least judging from the crowds assembled to meet Him. How surprising it must have been when this Holy man invited Himself into the home of this thrice unlovable little man for dinner. Of course, it is little surprise to us, who know the rest of the story. We know that our Lord reaches in to those who reach out to Him. The fact that Zacchaeus made an effort just to see Him was sufficient to grab Jesus' attention and cause him to love this marginalized Jew. That same day, Zacchaeus gave his life to Christ and became a true saint. If you look at the collage I created for the bulletin cover for All Saints' Day a year ago, you'll see Zacchaeus sitting in his sycamore tree.

But Zacchaeus was not the only tax collector whom Jesus loved. There was also a man by the name of Levi. Jesus called Levi to be an apostle. We know him as Matthew. So overjoyed was Matthew to know the Lord and to be transformed inwardly by Him that he threw a party and invited all of his friends. Of course, when you're a tax collector, who are you going to invite? Other tax collectors. So there was this gathering of tax collectors, considered traitors by the jews, having a grand old time, and there was Jesus, right there in the middle of them. Why? Because He loved these people. He didn't care what the public thought.

Jesus made a habit of keeping company with those considered sinners, unclean or inferior. His friends included former demoniacs, prostitutes, rebels, the crippled (though they tended not to remain crippled) and would you believe it? ...Even women and children.

Now I know what you're thinking. "But Pastor Otter," you're thinking. "What does any of this have to do with the Shepherds of Bethlehem Ephratha?" Okay, I've kept you waiting long enough. Here's the payoff.

Would you believe that Shepherds were considered sinners by the religious establishment? Odd, isn't it? Some of the greatest heroes of Hebrew history were shepherds. Abraham was one. Lot was one. Isaac and Jacob were both shepherds, as were all of the Patriarchs, save Joseph. Moses was a shepherd. Saul and David were both shepherds. The word "Pastor", which appears more than once in the Old Testament, means "shepherd". Yet because shepherds dealt with animals, worked out in the fields and frequently had to deal with manure, they were counted as unclean by the pharisees, just the same as if they'd been caught in fornication.

I'm sure that there were a few shepherds who were less than upright, but these shepherds did exactly what Zacchaeus and Levi would later do. When the angels told them about the Messiah, the first thing they did was go and look for Him. The second thing they did was go around and tell everyone they knew what had happened. Had the angels revealed this truth to a typical pharisee, he might do little more than praise himself for being holy enough to receive such a revelation. Had the angels revealed it to the king, Jesus would have been murdered prematurely. It was the shepherds who did as God wanted. They sought the Messiah and they honored Him.

Shepherds were an appropriate sign for the Messiah both historically and symbolically. Like Abraham, Moses and David, they left their flocks and accomplished the task God gave them. They demonstrate the work of the Messiah, who is known to us as the Good Shepherd. But they also reflect the character of the Lord by showing us that He is not interested in outward appearances. He doesn't care if you've been shoveling manure. He doesn't even care what you've done in the past. What matters to Him is where your heart is now.

This means pretty much the same thing for the saved and unsaved alike. If we wish to have God's favor, it doesn't matter what we wear, what we look like, or even how many limbs you have. It doesn't matter who your ancestors are or what you do for a living. It doesn't matter whether you've done something unforgivable in the eyes of man. What matters is that we seek Him and that we love Him with an undconditional love.

Today's Reading: Luke 2:8-20
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.
9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
10 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.
11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."
15 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."
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.
17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child,
18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.
19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.