We began the Season of Advent last week by looking at John the Baptist and his message of our needing to ‘get ready’ for the birth of Christ. Today, we are looking at what Luke wants us to understand about our readiness for Christ’s coming by specifically mentioning certain unnamed shepherds and their angelic visitation.
Shepherds have an interesting place in scripture, from the earliest pre-historical days where sheep & shepherding was a way of life for a nomadic, pastoral culture. It was good, responsible work. Abraham was a shepherd, as was Moses at one time and, later, King David. During their 400 years in Egypt their status began to change. Egypt was an agricultural culture where arable land was precious. Shepherds were despised by the farmers whose land was for growing crops, not grazing sheep. In Gen.46 Joseph actually told his brothers that “Every shepherd is detestable to the Egyptians” One writer[i] describes how over the next 400 years the Israelites became used to settled living and forgot all about their shepherding roots. And so, after the Exodus and their return to Canaan, shepherds lost their sense of social acceptability. The religious leaders maligned their good name; rabbis even banned pasturing sheep, except out on desert plains. They were deprived of all civil rights. They could not fulfill judicial offices or be admitted in court as witnesses. Officially labeled “religiously unclean” and “sinners” which was a technical term for all despised people…
And so it’s deeply curious and significant that it was to these lowly types, utterly without social or religious status, that God chose to send the Herald Angels announcing Christ’s birth! What are we to take from that? What do ‘shepherds’ draw from us if we are ever able also to sense that same announcement of Christ’s presence in our lives? I’d like to suggest 2 things: (1) The need for us constantly to be letting go of our pride and instead embrace genuine, self-deprecating humility (2) Our call to be the faithful stewards of whatever/whomever we have in our care, without domination or possessiveness[ii].
How does self-obsession somehow stop our readiness for embracing Christ’s presence within us? To what extent is our determination to own and dominate everything get in the way of appreciating what Christ may actually be doing – or longing to be doing – in and through us?
That’s the Shepherds, but then there were also the people of Bethlehem (‘place of bread’) They represent all those who were NOT present at Christ’s birth! …who just missed it. Some missed it, probably, because they were simply going about living their lives without an agenda that readied them to be looking out for any kind of spiritual reality! They were busy! Distracted! So much to do! It never occurred to them perhaps to look up, notice the star! There was stuff going on in their lives that took their focus away from what was happening in some little stable/shed/cave somewhere on the edge of town. I think that’s why we may miss it as well! We make our plans, set our agendas, and then get so very busy – too busy to notice what may be happening RIGHT HERE on some beautiful spiritual plain – closer than our breathing! And so, many were simply distracted by their own agendas…
Others may have missed out on Christ’s birth because they had absolutely no intention of going there! We may call them the ‘NO-ROOMERS’ who, when confronted by the opportunity to have Christ be born in their homes, chose other priorities and so forcing His stable birth![iii] To be distracted by our own ego-created agendas is one thing, but to be a deliberate ‘NO-ROOMER’ who chooses ‘own’ over ‘Christ’ life-priorities, well, that seems to be something else!
Which are we, most often? How are we that, I wonder? And how do we do that?
Kaitlin Curtice[iv], a Christian writer and an enrolled member of the Native American
POT-A-WAT-OMI, wrote an article in a 2017 copy of Sojourners entitled This Advent, Listen To Those Who Feel Unwelcome In The Church. She addressed the discrimination that still somehow perpetuates the rejection of those Bethlehem innkeepers!
‘…we do need to remember that Jesus was not white (and was most certainly not part of any privileged elite!) It’s in solidarity with that truth that we need to make space in our Advent season for the church to lament how we’ve often stood on the side of the oppressing elite and not on the side of the oppressed. …we need to close our mouths and listen when people of color, and indigenous people, as well as people of every minority, speak about feeling unwelcome in our institutions and churches. …we need to listen when our Muslim and Sikh siblings speak about hate crimes committed against them. …or to when immigrants speak of how they are scared to walk outside. …we need to listen to how our conversations about privilege and power often bear more weight than simply our caring for people. As Christians we have to stand with Joseph, and people of every minority, who are still asking “Is there any room for us?”
It is outrageous that there is still so little room for people who are different from what we choose to say is the norm: not in our churches, social circles, school systems, government – and all because there is still so little room for them in us. Tragically, until we do make room, people of color, and of fluid sexual identity or orientation, or of other faiths, or challenged by poverty or substance abuse, or with mental health issues – will still be forced out to the hidden places, just like the cave Jesus was born in, like the cave his mother, a woman of color, birthed him in. And if we cannot make room for them we cannot claim to know and honor the true story of a King born as a poor Jewish baby to a world that even then, didn’t want him.
Dear God, as Christ-followers, may that NEVER be what we do, or even what we are perceived to be doing… Because we know, Jesus is birthed in them, and is with them,
and is with us as well, through them…
This Advent season, may we reach way beyond our sense of personal ownership, status and privilege, set aside our small, ego-centric life-agendas, and, TRULY, recognize and bring God’s Peace – in Jesus Christ – not just to those who are like us, but to all.
HEVENU SHALOM ALECHEM
(We bring God’s Peace to You)
Rev. Robin Jacobson reserves all rights © 2019.
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[ii] The sheep they watched were typically not their own – they were the stewards of what was not theirs to possess… They were looking after other people’s sheep! Their job was simply to protect them from predators, guide them away from dangers and towards good and safe grazing… And return them safe & sound to their owners whenever required to do so…
[iii] See Matthew 25: 42,43 for how we miss the Christ presence in our lives
[iv] https://sojo.net/articles/advent-listen-those-who-feel-unwelcome-church I am quoting loosely, with some paraphrase.