Thursday 14 December 2023

Who's There?

The first to hear the news of Jesus’ birth, according to the gospel of Luke, were shepherds. I wonder. They were certainly the first to hear The Formal Announcement that the messiah had been born. An army of angels singing is about as formal as you can get.

I wonder, though. We all have different visions of what the night might have been like, from the historically accurate to the romantic, but we don’t know for sure. I wonder if there might not have been others who ended up in the stable (whatever that might have looked like). Or maybe the owner was nearby or others who might have heard either Mary giving birth or the baby’s first cries. Or neighbours, even. Bethlehem wasn’t a big place. Perhaps there was even a midwife handy. They might not have got the “good news of great joy,” but I imagine they would have been happy for Mary and Joseph. 

Of course, they might not have cared, or they might have been cranky about being wakened or even concerned for the poor young couple, travelling with a newborn. I think it’s worth wondering about because we might come to the manger as one of those people, depending on where we find ourselves this Christmas.

But Luke’s not interested in that. He wants us to know that a certain group of people got the news first and, as a result, were the first to visit the baby.

Traditionally, you might have heard (as I did) that’s because the shepherds were the lowest rung of the social ladder, marginalized folks who were poor and lonely, dirty and rough, eking out a living in the fields, away from people. The point being that’s who Jesus comes for: the poor and marginalized.

Okay, good point. Of course, Jesus also came for the lost and for sinners. Don’t forget the sinners. And, besides, there’s some debate about whether or not that’s a true description of what people thought of shepherds in 1st century Judea.

See, shepherd was also an image of leadership in those days, of kingship in particular. David, the most revered king of Israel, had been a shepherd. And don’t forget that Joseph is a descendant of David, that’s why they were in Bethlehem in the first place. What about the 23rd psalm? God is my shepherd, it says. There’s even some suggestion that it’s possible the shepherds in the story could have been priests of the temple, charged with caring for the sheep raised to be used for sacrifice. Later, Jesus will be called the Good Shepherd, even later still, the sacrificial Lamb of God.

I know, I know: it’s a nice pastoral story, why are you clouding it with all these other possibilities?

Sometimes I wonder. Not that we got the interpretation of shepherds wrong or that there might have been other people there or even that it’s important who was first, but simply that it could be anyone. And that means it could be me.

If you want to be a character in the Christmas story, just be yourself. That’s who God’s here for. Maybe you can identify with the shepherds or the folks at the inn or even the animals that might have already been in the stable. Maybe you see yourself as an angel or Mary or Joseph. But, to come to Jesus this Christmas, you don’t have to be anyone but who you truly are.