Upon your walls, O Jerusalem,
I have posted sentinels;
all day and all night
they shall never be silent.
You who remind the Lord,
take no rest,
and give him no rest
until he establishes Jerusalem
and makes it renowned throughout the earth.
The Lord has sworn by his right hand
and by his mighty arm:
I will not again give your grain
to be food for your enemies,
and foreigners shall not drink the wine
for which you have laboured;
but those who garner it shall eat it
and praise the Lord,
and those who gather it shall drink it
in my holy courts.
Go through, go through the gates,
prepare the way for the people;
build up, build up the highway,
clear it of stones,
lift up an ensign over the peoples.
The Lord has proclaimed
to the end of the earth:
Say to daughter Zion,
‘See, your salvation comes;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.’
They shall be called, ‘The Holy People,
The Redeemed of the Lord’;
and you shall be called, ‘Sought Out,
A City Not Forsaken.’
But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
What happened to the sheep?!
That’s what I want to know. What happened to the sheep?
We hear the account of Jesus’ birth every year. We sing our Christmas carols and remember the angels, the shepherds and the wise men and quiet peaceful stable scenes. We learn the story from an early age, taking part in nativity plays which often stretch the bounds of credulity with the variety of exotic animals they manage to cram in to that stable!
We hear the story time and time again. But how often do we stop, go back to basics and read it more carefully? How often do we check out the details again and listen to the things they really tell us? How far removed from the reality have we become?
What can we learn from the shepherds?
What relevance can they have for us city dwellers here in Manchester today?
Luke tells us the shepherds were living in the fields. After the Exile the shepherd’s task became devalued and by the time of Jesus’ birth they were a despised class. Poor, lowly, uneducated types, often labelled as unclean or even dangerous! Far removed from David the shepherd boy who was to become the famous king and from whom Jesus’ family was said to be descended.
So, these dirty, poor men, living on the edge of society, at the bottom of the social scale, are working, watching their sheep in the fields, when they are visited in the middle of the night by a host of angels and are told of the birth of the Messiah.
Now if that weren’t unexpected enough they’re also told that this Saviour has been born for them and for all the people and that this momentous event has taken place not in some grand palace but in Bethlehem and that they can find him!
Minding their own business, in the middle of the night, doing their job, and suddenly, out of nowhere, they meet with the deafening noise of a host of angels. And it must have seemed deafening in the dead of night! And we know, because we’re specifically told, that they were terrified.
But, these humble shepherds know the angels to be messengers from God and so, after the angels depart, what do they do? Do they linger and debate this strange news that they’ve heard? Do they round up their sheep? Do they plan an itinerary? Do they go and tell others about it?
They just do it!
They don’t wait. They don’t carry on doing their job. They don’t remain there in shock and amazement. They don’t waste time debating what it all means. Rather they “hurry off” to Bethlehem to meet and pay homage to Jesus for themselves.
They know the angels speak for God, heed what they say and travel to find that baby in a manger.
Just like those fishermen disciples do years later; they drop everything for Jesus.
Now Bethlehem was only small so searching mangers for one with a baby might not have taken them that long.
Good scholarship has rightly questioned whether Joseph and Mary were in a stable or inn at all because simple village homes in Palestine back then would have had only two rooms, one for guests and one where the whole family ate, slept and lived, and into which the family cow, donkey and sheep would be brought for shelter at night. Such rooms had mangers so it may just have been that guest rooms were full and Joseph and Mary had to share a family room. In which case the place the shepherds encountered, far from being quiet and peaceful may have been rather noisy and chaotic I venture to suggest!
Add to that a bunch of dirty, lowly shepherds arriving and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Mary, as a new mother, presumably exhausted after giving birth, might not be too thrilled about the arrival of these less esteemed guests. Indeed, the shepherds themselves might have been anxious about how they would be received as they sought out the baby. Would they be admitted?
Perhaps they were fortified in their quest by the knowledge that they weren’t seeking entrance to some grand upmarket mansion but to an ordinary family home, of the type with which they’d be familiar. The Messiah was to be found in an ordinary place and the unclean shepherds were welcome at the manger.
So, when we look more closely, what do we find? Scenes of busyness, noise, rushing about. Dirty people, tired mother, cramped conditions. Ordinariness.
Dirty, noisy, messy, ordinariness.
There’s a dissonance, a disparity, isn’t there, between what was probably the reality and the sanitised version to which we’ve become so accustomed.
Which version speaks more profoundly to you? In the midst of your busyness? And as you walk the noisy streets of Manchester where the hungry and sometimes unwashed homeless (despised by so many) huddle in doorways listening to the carols booming out from the shops and watch the Christmas rush?
It’s the lowly that God singles out first to hear the good news. It’s the shepherds who get to meet Jesus first. It’s the despised who are made welcome by Joseph and Mary.
It’s the shepherds who drop everything, not because they’re told to, but because they know that meeting Jesus is more important than anything else, even than doing their job.
It’s the shepherds’ witness that Mary treasures and ponders in her heart.
Later, considerably later, Mary, Joseph and Jesus will be visited by the wealthy Magi, the intellectuals, who will shower the baby with material gifts. I can’t help but imagine their train of camels laden with their luxury gifts and reflect upon the preparations they must have made and the length of time it took them to get to Jesus. No angelic proclamation or direct message from God to them. That came instead to the shepherds who arrived with nothing for the baby (no suggestion, as one Christmas carol might have us believe, that they offered him a lamb!) They simply gather before him to pay homage to him, bringing only themselves. Then they return home glorifying and praising God and proclaiming the good news.
Unexpected news, at an unexpected time came to unexpected people. Jesus was to change the world through the lives of very ordinary people, people prepared to drop everything for Him, something He continues to do today.
But I still wonder…………..what happened to those sheep?!
Richard Young (Rector)