Toorak Uniting Church

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Shepherds and their role in the story of Jesus' birth

Luke 2: 6 – 20
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
9 am, 10 December 2006

The Christmas story is the most widely read story in the bible, and although it is often treated that way, it is actually no children’s story, but a story that needs study and background before it can be fully appreciated.
The story was written for an audience of Greeks, Greek-Jews and Jews. Something that becomes obvious when reading the text and the way Luke goes about writing his story. There is something in there for each and every one of them, connecting and moulding the different contexts and backgrounds of these groups into one, comprehensive theologically charged framework.

At the time it was custom to compose stories around the birth of heroes and other people of fame that would artfully weave fact and fiction together foreshadowing events and characteristics that would later mark out their lives.
Shane Waugh for instance might have been portrayed as a baby Shane who preferred a cricket ball over a soft toy from the start. Or Robbie Williams would have been pictured being pacified with a microphone instead of a dummy.

At the courts, in the time of Jesus, the constructing of the biographies of the famous and powerful was an important part of the culture, fact and fiction being not nearly as clearly distinguishable as we would expect it to be in our day. People believed that the lives of important people could not be other than comprehensive, consistent wholes, therefore they reasoned, whatever was there at the end of their career would have had to be there in some shape or form at the beginning as well. And that is not as weird as it may sound: Most of us will assume that cricket would have played a big role in Shane Waugh’s life from the beginning and that Robbie Williams did not start singing and performing shortly before the release of his first album. In the same way Luke would have assumed that what Jesus eventually became would have been part of him from the beginning.

Luke was a citizen of the global village, a learned man well acquainted with both Greek and Jewish cultures, and he writes as his culture and education would have taught him: He throws all his story telling skills and his understanding of the culture and background of both his audience as well as of his subject matter behind the composition of a magnificent birth story to honour his Lord and saviour.
The result is a mind bogglingly rich and profound tale, which, on the surface may read like a fairy tale but is laden with cultural and religious meaning and understanding underneath.

One of the story telling tools Luke works with, here and in the rest of his gospel, is contrast. Contrast that aims to enhance and strengthen the characteristics of his main character.
He starts this particular part of the birth story contrasting the mighty emperor Augustus with an ordinary couple from Nazareth who are forced to travel to Bethlehem at a very inopportune time because of his summons. A baby born in a stable poignantly illustrating the antagonism between the whims of an emperor and the needs of his subjects, placing the blind power of the empire over against the suffering it causes for its subjects. The power of the emperor over against the vulnerability of a newborn baby.

It is at that point that the shepherds are brought in, tending their sheep in the fields. They are figures rich in historical and religious connotation: The shepherd being, in both Jewish and Hellenistic, conceptions the image of true and worthy King. Tending his people like a shepherd his flock, putting his own life on the line if necessary. King David was such a King, Jesus, later on, will be worshipped as such a shepherd king (window) but, and here we find a lovely example of Luke’s sense of humour, in official documents Augustus is also being referred to as a shepherd.

But there is more:
On the positive side: In the Hellenistic world shepherds are part of the rustic idyllic setting of a quiet life in the country, while in the Jewish tradition they provide the environment in which Abraham, Isaac and Jacob live their lives, where Moses finds his destiny, and King David his first career.
On the negative side: In the Jewish world shepherds were seen as ruffians who congregated with thieves and robbers outside the city gates at night, who were not allowed to testify in court because they were deemed unreliable. The lowest of the lowly, making a living outside the boundaries of the city and no part of decent society.

All these connotations come together and resonate as the shepherds enter the story: They conjure up the image of King David and his rule of peace, and of the Messiah who according to the prophets will be a true king and come to be a shepherd to God’s people. At the same time however they are creatures of the night, living outside the city gates, the lowest of the lowly.
It is all here, in one word: the true king, descendant of David, fulfiller of the promises of the prophets, the suffering servant who finds a home among the lowly where there is no place for him at the inn, destined to take on the powers that seem to rule this world and are not what they should be: shepherds for the people.
And there is even some idyllic undertones: The Christ is born away from the halls of power and the intricacies of court life, in a stable, outside in the quiet night of moonlit fields and grazing sheep when angels appear and the glory of God suddenly surrounds those lowly shepherds in the fields.

Beautiful isn’t it? This intricate and multilayered pattern that shows up when we look at the story close up?
I’ll have to leave it at the shepherds today, and leave the angels and their message for another time. Their role in the story is as profound and full of meaning as the shepherd’s and it would take another whole sermon to tell you about them.

The shepherds go out with a bang:
At the end of the story we find them virtually running into the stable and out again. With the shepherds becoming a first wave of evangelists who spread the amazing news about God coming to earth in this baby through the night.

Once again there is contrast: Over against the feverish activity of the shepherds coming and going, we find Mary, contemplating what has happened. Presenting us with two types of response to hearing and seeing God’s word in action: one goes out into the world with energy and conviction, the other seeks the quiet contemplation of what God has done. Both are appointed a rightful place from the beginning in the gospel of Luke, resurfacing later in people like Mary and Martha, Peter and John, Paul and Ananias.

Those shepherds give us a lot to think about as the place of choice for the Messiah to enter human history. In just about the darkest corner of the empire, among the lowly is where God comes to birth and not in the halls of power or the centres of organised religion. It is there he finds the response he is looking for: excited activity and quiet contemplation. It is with them he identifies: people who care and tend and put their life on the line if need be for the sake of the weak and vulnerable. It is there that the glory of the Lord starts to shine.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2006

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