Posts Tagged ‘shepherds’

Sleeping through Christmas

December 24, 2018

Christmas-2018

Luke 2:1-20

Marian Free

May the child in the manger open our eyes to see God’s presence in unexpected places and in unlikely people. Amen

Our Christmas cards and our imaginations give us a romanticized view of shepherds in first century Palestine. This view is enhanced by images of God as shepherd, and of David as the shepherd king. The reality was in fact quite different. In the time of Jesus shepherds were social outcasts, classed together with ass drivers, tanners, sailors, butchers and camel drivers. Theirs was an occupation for which there was no respect. They had no land of their own and their work kept them away from home at night which meant that they were unable to protect the honour of their wives and daughters (if indeed they could afford to have a family). What is more, because they grazed their flocks on land that did not belong to them they were considered to be thieves. In fact many of them were thieves. They were at the very bottom of the social hierarchy – dishonored and despised – certainly not the sort of people you would welcome into your home or seek to associate with. Yet it was to the shepherds that God revealed the birth of Jesus, it was the shepherds who were the first to respond and to see Jesus and it was the shepherds who were the first to spread the good news of Jesus’ birth.

Extraordinary as all that is, it is consistent with Luke’s view of the world that God would chose a woman of no social status or wealth to bear God’s son, that the son of God would be born in a stable and that God would reveal Godself to a disreputable group of shepherds with no social standing whatsoever. What is even more extraordinary and inexplicable is that, despite the cacophony of a multitude, an army of the heavenly host and the glory of the Lord that attended them, no one else saw or heard anything.

The townsfolk of Bethlehem might be excused for not noticing Jesus’ slipping into their midst, but how could they have been blind and deaf to a sky illuminated by the heavenly host singing praises to God? It almost defies belief. In this instance, God’s presence is not subtle or discrete, but bland at and obvious. Even so the presence of God goes unnoticed by all except a bunch of disreputable shepherds, who not only notice but who act on what they have seen and heard. What is more, having seen for themselves that the what the angel had told them was true, they spread the word and caused amazement to all who heard them.

Christmas is layered with sentimentality – the hay in the stable is clean, the shepherds are respectable, Jesus is worshipped. Beneath the sentiment however, we find rejection, apathy, blindness and even outright hostility (if we add Matthew’s version of events).

Only the angels greet Jesus with the appropriate fanfare and even then no one notices. The great irony of the gospel is that God is fully present among humankind and only a few people (and then not the ‘religious people’) even recognize that God is there.

It is easy for us to fall asleep, to allow ourselves to be complacent– satisfied with our relationship with God, confident that we know right from wrong and certain that we would know Jesus when he returns. The problem is this – if we fail to pay attention, if we stop noticing what is going on around us, if we begin to take God and God’s presence for granted we will find that we, like our first century brothers and sisters are blind and deaf to what is really happening around us. We will miss God’s presence in the unusual, the underestimated and even in the disreputable. We will fail to see God in the manger and God in the cross,

Let us not be like those who, not only through Jesus’ birth, but who failed to be stirred to wakefulness by a whole choir of angels.

What is God asking you to do?

December 23, 2017

Advent 4 – 2017 

Luke 1:28-38

Marian Free

 In the name of God for whom nothing is impossible. Amen.

 If you read the beginnings of the four gospels, you will notice some substantial differences. For example, Mark launches straight into an account of Jesus’ ministry: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” Mark is not interested in where Jesus has come from, but only in what he has done and what it means for those who believe. The gospel attributed to John is cosmic in breadth and poetic in expression. Jesus is identified as the Word who coexisted with God from the beginning of time and who, in fact, is God. The author of John’s gospel is not interested in Jesus’ earthly birth and childhood, only in his divine origin.

If we want to discover anything about Jesus’ human history, we have to rely on the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Unfortunately they are not reliable sources. Their accounts of Jesus’ birth have at least as many differences as they have similarities. Luke has much more detail than Matthew making his account nearly twice as long. Even the style is different. Luke’s is rather like an overture to an opera, two of the main characters burst into song. Matthew’s account is more sedate and includes to fewer details.

In Matthew’s gospel, Joseph, not Mary plays the central role. It is to Joseph that the angel appears and it is Joseph who is informed that the child is to be called Jesus (because he will save his people from their sins). Joseph makes no protest and asks no questions, but simply does as the angel has commanded. There is no census, no crowded city and no manger. We are simply informed that Joseph formally married Mary and that he didn’t consummate the marriage until after the birth of the infant. We are to assume from this that Joseph and Mary were already in Bethlehem. (Jesus only goes to Nazareth because after Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt they learn that it will not be safe to return to Bethlehem.)

Joseph plays only a supporting role in Luke’s version of events. In fact, we are half way through the story before Joseph appears and then he is only mentioned as the means by which Mary gets from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Mary takes centre stage here. The angel (named) appears to Mary (in person, not in a dream) and tells her that she is favoured in God’s sight. Mary is informed that she will bear a son who will reign over the house of Jacob forever. Unlike Joseph who simply accepts the angles word and responds immediately, Mary reasons with the angel (reasoned is a better translation than “pondered”), and she challenges him: “How can this be?” It is only when the angel reminds Mary that nothing is impossible with God that Mary acquiesces to God’s plan.

After Jesus’ birth, the gospel writers again present two quite different scenarios. According to Matthew the magi come from the east following a star and bringing exotic gifts. From the way in which Matthew tells the story, we can infer that Bethlehem was Mary and Joseph’s hometown. And from Herod’s over reaction we can guess that by then Jesus was about two years old. In place of the magi Luke records the appearance of the angels to the shepherds who visit the newly born Jesus in the stable.

Both Matthew and Luke are determined to show that Jesus didn’t simply emerge from nowhere. They make it clear that from his birth Jesus was set apart as God’s anointed. Not surprisingly, the way in which the gospel writers tell the story reflects their different interests and different audiences. Matthew wants to make it clear to his readers that Jesus fulfills the Old Testament promises. He also wants to demonstrate that the new community of faith is the true Israel. Those who believe in Jesus cannot be considered a breakaway sect because they exist in continuity with all that has gone before. In Matthew’s account, Joseph has dreams as does his namesake in Genesis, Mary’s pregnancy and the gifts brought by the magi fulfill events predicted by Isaiah and Bethlehem is the place where according the Old Testament, the King of Jews, God’s anointed one was to be born.

Whereas Matthew is writing for an audience that is primarily Jewish, Luke is writing to a largely Gentile readership. Luke’s audience knows that they are not Israel – new or otherwise. They are more interested in the power of the God revealed in Jesus and through the Holy Spirit. This God, Luke tells them, can achieve the impossible and can create something out of nothing. Other characteristics of the Lukan author are evident in his account of Jesus’ birth – his interest in contextualizing the story against the events of the time, and his concern with the poor. It is important for Luke to ground Jesus in the history of the time, so (even though he gets both the date and the ruler wrong, Luke connects the birth of Jesus with the census ordered by Quirinius in 6CE). Mary’s hymn affirms that the “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty”. It is uneducated shepherds with no resources who are the first to worship the infant Jesus.

All of this is interesting and we could spend much more time examining the differences between all four gospels and exploring the reasons why they emphasise different aspects of the beginning of Jesus’ story. But these are not quaint stories written so that we can exercise our brain. They are stories of faith and as such they continue to speak to and challenge us today.

Joseph and Mary are ordinary people going about their ordinary business when an angel bursts into their lives and demands that they trust God and that they join God in a grand and costly adventure. The response of Mary and Joseph force us to consider:

Is our relationship with God deep enough and intimate enough that we are able to recognise the voice of God when God speaks to us?

And if we do hear:

Is our trust in God strong enough and confident enough that we are able to believe that God will empower us with the courage and skills we need when God asks us to do the seemingly impossible?

And if we do trust:

Is our faith robust enough and important enough to us that we are comfortable with the idea of taking risks and not worrying what others might say about us?

In their different ways, Mary and Joseph answered God’s call to bring Jesus to birth. Are we paying attention, are we aware of God’s presence and if so, are we ready and willing to respond to God’s call?

Shepherds and sheep

September 7, 2013

Pentecost 16

Luke 15:1-15

Marian Free

 In the name of God who will not be bound by human convention or constrained by human wisdom, and whose love extends to all. Amen.   

When we were in Tanzania, we observed the local Masai herdsmen (often children) herding their sheep to pasture in what seemed to be a harsh and unforgiving land. Each person had somewhere between ten and twenty sheep and they were kept together with a switch. I don’t know, but I assume the loss of one sheep due to carelessness would have been a serious matter when the total number was so low.

How different from the Australian experience! When I was young I visited a sheep station that was 100 square miles in size. The boundaries were fenced as were the interior paddocks – no opportunity for sheep to wander off. Shepherding was required only when it was time to move the sheep from one pasture to another and then it was done from the back of a motorbike – no switch and no personal relationship between shepherd and sheep. I can no longer remember how many sheep the landowner stocked on the property, but I clearly remember a delivery of sheep. A double, two-layer sheep trailer disgorged its contents in front of us – probably in the vicinity of two hundred sheep. In the crush of the transport one had died. The farmer immediately took out his knife and skinned it in front of us. Before our holiday had ended, that sheep had contributed to at least one evening meal. When such large numbers of livestock are involved, there is no room for sentimentality. Pragmatism rules the day.

But back to our Tanzanian experience which is a much better illustration of today’s parable. Small herds are not only more precious, they are better able to be cared for in a more intimate way. There is no need for them to be herded on to freight trains or abandoned to their own devices far from the homestead. Small herds can be protected from wild animals which Australian fences do not deter and it is easy to recognise when one is missing. Every evening the animals are returned to the village where they are contained behind a fence in the centre of the huts so that they will be safe until morning. Every morning they are taken from the pen to once again find pasture.

From what we can gather, herding in Jesus’ day was similar to that of the East African experience. There were some notable differences. The Palestinian herdsmen didn’t necessarily return to a village in the evening (think of the shepherds to whom the angels relayed the news of Jesus’ birth). Instead, crude walls out of stones were made in the pastures to protect the livestock from predators. These sheepfolds seem to have been ad hoc structures – in any case, they were constructed without a gate. In the evening, the shepherd would herd the animals into the enclosure and then lie in front of the opening so as to be able to prevent wild enemies from entering. The shepherds may have built fires for warmth and added protection, but all that kept the animals safe from harm was their shepherd’s ability to aim a sling or to otherwise deter or frighten off an attacker.

Seen from the perspective of shepherding in Israel, Jesus’ parable about the lost sheep is far from a benign, feel good story. Jesus’ audience would have justifiably been shocked and outraged. What sort of shepherd abandons ninety-nine sheep to the wolves in order to go off and search for one that is missing? Wolves or hyenas could cause far greater loss to the shepherd among ninety-nine unprotected sheep, than to one isolated sheep. In other words, for the sake of the one, the shepherd is risking several, if not all, of the others.

You can almost hear the gasps of Jesus’ listeners – the Pharisees, the tax collectors and the sinners. They are not herdsmen, but they have some idea of animal husbandry – even the biggest cities of Palestine are not far from the countryside. Is this shepherd crazy they must be wondering? What is one sheep when you have ninety-nine safe and sound? It gets even worse.  Not only does the shepherd abandon those sheep which have kept close to him, but when the shepherd recovers the sheep which has strayed, he calls all his neighbours over to rejoice with him. Surely that is an over reaction. A party for a lost sheep?

Jesus has almost certainly caught the attention of his listeners. They are probably beginning to wonder what sort of meaning he can draw from the story. How can he use a story about a lost sheep to defend eating with tax collectors and sinners which, in the eyes of the Pharisees breaks the codes of purity and implies that he overlooks their obvious sinfulness. What they have not realised is that the story is a not so subtle attack on their own arrogance and self-satisfaction and a challenge for them to re-assess their understanding of God. Jesus piques their interest and then he goes in for the kill. This is what heaven is like he says. God (we are to suppose) seeks out not the upright, not the law-abiding, but those who have strayed. The people whom the Pharisees despise, exclude and denigrate are the very people whom heaven will seek out and rejoice to welcome home.

What a slap in the face that must have seemed to the Pharisees.  From what we can tell these righteousness and law-abiding people, believed that behaviour set them apart from those around them and assured them of a place in heaven before all others. Jesus’ story about the lost sheep is an affront to everything they had been led to believe and it was a direct attack on their attitude towards those who didn’t achieve their high standards of behaviour. They think that entrance into heaven is something that has to be earned by keeping the law, by prayer and by fasting, that God has particular standards that people have to reach before God will grant them salvation. At the same time they are so sure of that they are right that they have made themselves both judge and jury of the behaviour of others. Anyone who doesn’t conform to their standards is, they believe, automatically excluded from the heavenly realm.

Jesus puts the lie to that belief. Contrary to God’s abandoning and turning his back on sinners, God does what for the Pharisees is unthinkable – God seeks out those who are lost and takes more pleasure in the return of a sinner than in those whose very goodness leads them to forget how much they need God and who believe that their righteous behaviour sets them apart from and above everyone else.

There are times in our lives when we wander from the path, and when we do, God seeks us out and brings us home rejoicing. At other times we find ourselves safe and secure in the fold. At such times it is important that we remember the love sought us out and that we do not begrudge the fact that God extends that love to those who in the present are lost. Having been found, it is important that we do not allow ourselves to be smug or self-satisfied, that we do not think that we better or more worthy than others. We are all beneficiaries of God’s love and we are all dependent on God’s forgiveness. God’s loving forgiveness seeks us out, overlooks our faults, restores us to the fold and welcomes us with rejoicing into the realms of heaven.


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