Lessons from the Nativity: 7: Open for the Outcasts?
Luke 2:8,9 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them,
Now there are certain parts of the Nativity story that clearly have purpose. The angel coming to Mary has clear purpose. The angel coming to Joseph in a dream has clear purpose. So far so good. But then we came to the business of Caesar Augustus making a decree that meant the young couple hiking down to Bethlehem, when Mary was about to have her baby – not quite so clear. Perhaps we’ve moved into the realm of prophetic overtones, but not so clear. And now we come to the shepherds who see and hear angels and come storming down to town to look for the baby they have been told about. Why? There are those who link symbolically the lambs they might have been looking after with the Lamb of God they run down to see, but it is a tenuous link.
I have a pastor friend who talks about the Nativity story being all-inclusive, and I think he’s right, I think this is what this bit is all about. Because of their lifestyles, shepherds tended to be on the edge of society. They had to live out on the hills with their sheep – somebody had to be there warding off predators, human and the animal kind. A sheep is valuable and so sheep needed looking after; somebody had to do it but it wasn’t exactly conducive to family life. Perhaps that was why in Jesse’s family, the youngest son, David is the one out with the sheep.
There was a time in our society when certain groups were a bit like this, those who left their families at inconvenient times, nurses, oil rig workers and the like, but now it is more common with ‘flexible working’. But these shepherds were like that while the rest of the population was warm and snug in their homes, these guys sat around a camp fire and tried to ward off the cold as well as the predators. Not a very sociable life as far as the rest of society was concerned. That is why they tended to be outcasts, and maybe even sometimes they did it because they were no good at doing anything else.
So why were these men given the privilege of having this divine encounter? Let’s look at it. “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” (v.9) There is no question what is happening; this angel is not coming in disguise so you might think he was a mere human being. No, God’s glory shone all around him which was even more obvious in the night (which it was, see v.8) Now listen to his reassuring message: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” (v.10) Note the last bit – “for all the people”. That’s it – ‘all’ includes you. You may be outcasts but this is good news that applies to you as much as to anyone else. There will be those who will try and turn the Gospel into a religious message for religious people who do religious things, but I know you don’t have time or opportunity to do the ‘religious things’ (like attend synagogue regularly) but this is good news for YOU, whoever you are, how ever distanced from others you might feel.
THAT was why these shepherds were included in the Nativity story and so why a little bunch of little people with towels around their heads are part of the group standing around Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus in the crib scene. Actually, these are the great unwashed of society (there aren’t bathrooms and showers on hillsides!), the scruffs of society who probably lived in the same clothes day in, day out (there aren’t wardrobes on hillsides). Their language is probably pretty coarse because they don’t have the refining effect of women around most of the time. Are you beginning to get the picture? I’m afraid the representatives from year 3 don’t do them justice, especially when Mum made sure they were clean and tidy when they left for school.
No, meet the outcasts, the people we would rather not touch or even encounter. These are the ones God sends His angel to and then sends along a heavenly choir to really give them the full outdoor concert. Awesome! I don’t know if you have ever thought about how impacting this experience was on these men. Look: “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.” (v.15) Hold on, what about the sheep, what about all this warding off predators stuff? Supposing you had been there and challenged them. I wonder what they might have said? “Sheep, predators? You’ve got to be joking. We’ve just seen heaven open and it was absolutely incredible, and if that’s what God says to do, I’m sure He’ll look after our sheep for a couple of hours, so excuse us, we’ve got somewhere to be!”
Amazing! They have just been included in the plans of God. No, not the local doctor, dentist, priest, rabbi, councilor, town elder, not the nice ladies who dress up and drink tea together one afternoon a week and who are so proper. No, stinky, smelly outcasts who haven’t attended synagogue since…. well don’t ask! These are the people Jesus invites to his birthday celebration because most other people would feel out of place in a stable.
So here’s the lesson in just a couple of questions: Do we categorize people and exclude some because either “they are not like us” or “they will never be religious”? Do we exclude people that God doesn’t exclude? Enough said. Ponder on.
Not to lose contact with Mary, I once wrote a short piece envisaging Mary after the shepherds had gone, pondering on all that was happening. Here it is.
Mary again: a story
I am a mother! I really am a mother! It’s strange, I knew I was pregnant, there was no doubt about it, but somehow I almost didn’t believe it until he arrived last night, and now here I am, a mother! And I have a son!
And here we are, the three of us. Three of us! We’re a family! Me, my Joseph and now our baby, Jesus.
I almost feel that I have been living in a dream this past year. Did the angel Gabriel really come to me? Oh yes, it was so real, so vivid, I’ll remember it until the day I die. I’ll never forget his words to me. Initially he scared me for I wondered why God should send an angel to me, a twelve year old girl. What had I done? Was he about to tell me off? But no, it had been exactly the opposite for he said I had found favour with God. I remember being taught in synagogue about Noah, and he had found favour with God. I wasn’t sure that ‘finding favour with God’ was a good thing, but when he told me I would have a special baby I was overjoyed. And yet I wasn’t yet married so how could such a thing be? That’s when he told me it would because God would enable it to happen. How could such a thing happen? I had never heard of it happening to any other girl. Was this just a dream, a silly dream? But no, it was so real and I was wide awake. And then I started feeling sick and I realised it had happened, I was expecting a baby.
After the initial shock, Joseph was wonderful – with a little help from God, he told me.
Then I had gone to Elizabeth and stayed with her until she had her baby. That was an amazing time as well. It was clear that I was not the only one who had had dealings with God. But it was still all very dreamlike.
The reality hit when I returned home and tongues were wagging when they saw me, for it was quite clear what my condition was. I knew why, but few others would believe it when I told them.
Then came the orders from the Romans to go to the town of your family and so Joseph had to come here to Bethlehem to be counted like sheep. Then we ended up in this stable and my Jesus was born. Why does that expression ‘a little lamb’ stay with me? How very appropriate that a lamb was born in a stable. But he’s not a lamb, he’s going to be a leader, a ruler, the angel said.
Oh dear, what is the future going to hold for us? How are we going to live? I assume Joseph will carry on his father’s carpentry business and we would expect Jesus to follow inhis father’s footsteps, so I don’t know where all this stuff about him being a ruler comes in. Carpenters aren’t rulers.
I don’t know how long we’re going to have to stay here for the census. I don’t know what we do about that. I suppose there must be a census house somewhere here in Bethlehemthat we’ll have to go to and be registered.
It’s convenient that we’re near Jerusalem though. We’ll be able to go and make an offering for our little one as the Law requires, before we return home.
Yes, it all seems a bit dreamlike, but those men turning up last night were very real. I couldn’t get to sleep for some time after they left, wondering about all they said. More angels? Angels telling them to come and see my Jesus? There’s more in all this than we realise. What is the future going to hold for us? What will it hold for my son? I really don’t know and yet one thing seems very clear: with all of these angels appearing – to Zechariah, to me, to Joseph, and now to the shepherds – it seems like God is closer than we’ve ever known before. Somehow it feels like He’s really with us.