And there were shepherds

“…and there were shepherds…”
The Gospel of Luke, chapter 2

What is a nativity? A nativity is a snapshot of the scene surrounding Jesus’ birth, a display of the main characters of Christmas. I’m not talking about characters like Tiny Tim or the Grinch, though sometimes they end up involved anyway when children are around. Sometimes our family’s nativity includes a nutcracker and a couple of Christmas hedgehogs. Creative and touching, probably not historically accurate.

The first Christmas nativity was staged in Italy by Francis of Assisi back in the 11th century, where he even borrowed a few live animals to bring the story to life. I had a little nativity growing up and used to love letting my imagination take me back into that ancient story. There was a Mary, a Joseph, and of course a baby Jesus. In some nativities the baby Jesus is quite small, so there’s a real danger he’ll get lost year to year among the other Christmas decorations. You always breathe a sigh of relief when you find him. Thank goodness we didn’t lose the baby Jesus – what’s Christmas without him? Many nativities include an angel or two and a smattering of wise men, but, of course, everynativity needs some shepherds.

Shepherds really are in the original cast of Christmas. We’re told that on the day Jesus was born in Bethlehem only a few people were present for sure. Mary was definitely there (as any woman who’s given birth will attest), you’d hope Joseph was around, and, as Luke’s gospel also tells us, there were shepherds who were informed of Jesus’ birth by an angel, and then told where to find the baby, “wrapped in cloths and laying in a manger”.

We don’t know much about those Bethlehem shepherds, but generally we know that in those days shepherds weren’t well off and lived on the fringes of their society. Living on the fringes with animals, shepherds in Jewish communities back then were often considered unsanitary, so they weren’t very welcome in the more sacred spaces and places. Some shepherds also moved around a bit, so people in that line of work often had a reputation for having sticky fingers, catching the blame when things went missing. Add to this that shepherds weren’t allowed to give testimony in a court of law, and a picture begins to fall into place. A shepherd in Jesus’ day was thought of as a bit scruffy and untrustworthy, the kind of person who might be described as a sort of non-belonger.[i]

So, it’s a little strange that shepherds are recorded as witnesses of Jesus’ birth, and the first people in fact to spread the news of Jesus’ birth in Luke’s gospel, because that kind of detail wouldn’t exactly give your reader much confidence. If shepherds weren’t considered clean or credible, why on earth does Luke include them in his biography of Jesus? Why do shepherds still sit on our mantlepieces today?

About ten years ago I was reading up on shepherds and came across a scholar who spelled out all the usual facts about them: a bit scruffy, a bit untrustworthy and so on. But then he came to a conclusion as to why the shepherds we meet in Luke’s gospel were invited to bear witness of Jesus’ birth. After painting them in a rather negative light, the writer concluded that there was no reason to think these particular shepherds weren’t devout people, else why would they be given the privilege of such a special invitation? He concluded that these shepherds, the Bethlehem shepherds, were invited because they must have been very nice shepherds, really, and not at all unsavory types, certainly not on the naughty list. Now, I want you to know that I’m not in a habit of arguing with dead scholars – especially at Christmas – but when I read that I worried if this well-meaning gentleman was in danger of missing the point. Because you have to wonder if one of the reasons shepherds were invited to see Jesus was because they sat in a category of people thought to be unclean and uncredible. Isn’t it possible that these shepherds got an invite because they were non-belongers, invited now to belong because of Jesus’ birth.

In Luke’s gospel the shepherds are an early example of outsiders welcomed into Jesus’ inner circle. The first in a long list who, on paper, people assumed were undeserving of God’s interest or favour. And yet there they are. You can read all through Luke’s gospel and meet all kinds non-belongers for whom Jesus makes room. A common reaction to the inclusion of the non-belonger was that people grumbled about it – what are they doing here? 

So, at the very beginning of Jesus’ life, who do we find peering into the face of this world-changing newborn? Who are the first people to spread news of his birth? Shepherds. Shepherds are a line in the sand in the nativity story. It’s as if the gospel writer is saying: if you think Jesus has been born to build something only polished and put together people can enter, think again. Jesus’ arrival means good news, of great joy, for all people, including all the non-belongers – and here’s a shifty shepherd to remind you. Stick that on your mantel piece and don’t forget it!

My question is, why do we forget it? Why did that scholar think that the Bethlehem shepherds must’ve been somewhat holy to warrant a welcome? We forget it because we forget the surprising truth of the gospel, the good news. So, it’s at Christmas we had better hear it plain and simple. And the good news is, as Tim and Kathy Keller sum up, “We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”[ii]

People are messy. It’s tempting to polish the shepherds’ reputation because we tend to polish our own reputations. We assume people are only welcomed by God because they’re living the right way, that God’s love is conditional based on good or bad behaviour. But that’s not the good news at Christmas. The good news is that everyone’s mess is no match for God’s holiness and love wrapped up in Jesus. Christmas tells us that Jesus’ light is clearing away the darkness in the world, including our inner darkness. It tells us that God’s not intimidated by our track record or reputation. In other words, Christmas tells us we don’t have to get holy enough for God to love us. Jesus’ very presence, his birth, life, death, and life again, makes us holy. And for those of us who’ve spent our lives on the margins, forgotten, even stigmatized, Christmas tells us that we belong in that nativity scene too, right alongside the shepherds. Christmas is good news, of great joy, for all people.

There are couple of other reasons shepherds are included in Jesus’ birth story. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which was also the hometown of a shepherd-boy turned king, David. So, like David, Jesus will grow up to be a shepherd-king, leading and guiding the people. But, also in the ancient Scriptures, and far more importantly, the creator God himself was pictured as a shepherd. The image reoccurs. God is the providing and protecting shepherd, and the people are like sheep – prone to wander, prone to danger, prone to foolishness.  

People need to be led and fed. Now there’s an image we can identify with too. For all our technology, all our education and work ethic, humans are pretty vulnerable and hungry. For all our self-assurance, we know how lost we can get, how wrong we can go. You only need to look at the news to see the messes we ourselves into. Wide-spread self-absorption, insatiable consumerism, devastating addiction, cold indifference to suffering, even hatred of other unlike us, volience, war. Humanity gets lost. And do we even need to look at the news? The first place I see lostness is when I look in mirror in the morning – because that guy needs some work! He doesn’t have all the answers, he needs to be led and fed.

That’s why shepherds were also invited to see Jesus. They’re a sign than humanity gets lost, and that Jesus is our good shepherd – searching for, rescuing, directing all his lost ones away from self-destruction and into hope and life. The child grows up into a man, who gives his life in a supreme act of sacrificial love, showing us unparalleled mercy and kindness. The manger points us to the cross. As Jesus himself says in John’s gospel, he will lay down his life for his sheep. That’s a very good shepherd.

On top of all this, remember that shepherds lived among their sheep. So, what better image for Jesus, God in amongst us, arriving to the humblest of spaces, a food trough for animals, a cross?

So that’s why shepherds belong in nativity sets. In Luke’s gospel we see shepherds peering into a manger, at the shepherd laying in a manger. They’re present to tell us that our true shepherd is here, and is calling all his beloved people to abandon the foolish idea that they can find their own way, and instead to follow him. Belongers, non-belongers, all the categories we create, the labels we stick on one another are dissolved as we all huddle together around Jesus, warmed by his light and life. The shepherds are a sign that because of Jesus we each belong in God’s company. Laying there in the in the folds of Mary’s apron, the whole world is welcomed into one beloved sheepfold.

The Bethlehem shepherds got front row seats to Jesus’ arrival. But we get a front row seat, too, because Jesus is still here with us right now by his Spirit. Imagine that, Jesus among us still, with all our mess and questionable reputations, making us holy, teaching us to love one another as he loves us. We are, even now, still huddling around the holy fire of his light and life.

I’ve often wondered if any of those Bethlehem shepherds got to hold Jesus the day he was born, and the fact is that we just don’t know. The question I have for you this Christmas is this: what does it mean to take Jesus in your arms, into your heart, to welcome him even right now? The good news is that you’re very welcome to hold him and know him, an invitation that is still given to you and to me this very Christmas.

[i] Rowan Williams, Candlemass homily, Ely Cathedral, 2016

[ii] Tim & Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage