As we listen to the Gospel story of the shepherds who, having received the message of Jesus’ birth from the angelic host, go to see the child in Bethlehem, and then go out and speak of what they saw, there’s one question that comes to my mind, and hopefully to yours: why them? We know that it’s shepherds being called, as opposed to priests or wealthy merchants, in order to show God’s great solidarity with the lowly and marginalised. But why these shepherds, specifically? All Luke has to say about them is who they were before the angels came – shepherds – and what they did next.
A look to our Epistle reading will give us a clue about why Luke is so vague. Paul’s letter addresses the church of Galatia, which is under the misconception that in order to follow Jesus, they need to follow the same moral and ceremonial law that He did, beginning with His circumcision which we heard about today. Paul tells the Galatians that they’re missing the point of both the law and the Gospel. Just before our reading starts, he’s explained to them how temporary the law of Moses really was, bracketed on one side by God’s promise to Abraham that “by [his] offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing” (Gen 22:18) and on the other by the work of Jesus Christ. The law, Paul says, was a paidagogos, a Greek word for a slave who would bring children to their actual teacher and administer corporal punishment when necessary (Gal 3:24). Paul tells them that the law which came 430 years after God’s original covenant with Abraham was never meant to earn God’s favour, but only to provide moral guidance until Jesus came (Gal 3:19), and the blessing of all nations promised to Abraham could be realised through Jesus (Gal 3:14).
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). We’ve heard these words many times before; this is why Paul says them. By “clothing ourselves” with Jesus through our faith and our baptism (Gal 3:27), the entirety of the old law, which distinguished Jews from Gentiles, is set aside. Instead of being under the discipline and guardianship of the law, Paul says in our Epistle reading, we become children of God through our faith in His promises, with the Holy Spirit sent into our hearts to cry “Abba! Father!” with us.
Why did angels appear to these shepherds and not others? Luke has absolutely no concern with showing that these shepherds were especially righteous and obedient to the law of Moses. He doesn’t even portray them as sinners particularly in need of repentance, like Zacchaeus. The shepherds’ previous life doesn’t matter at all. Instead, the angels appear to all of them and they all respond in faith: they go to see the great thing that has come to pass, they pass the angels’ message on to Mary and Joseph. Then, most importantly, they go out into the world, glorifying God for the revelation given to them (Lk 2:20).
Whether or not we see ourselves as “good people”, Jesus’ message of divine love and forgiveness comes to each of us in the same way, both as truly Good News and as a challenge. Like the shepherds, we have to go to Bethlehem and see what God has done for us, and then glorify God for what we have seen. If, instead, we focus our life on all the good things we are or aren’t doing, or the good things other people are or aren’t doing, we place our faith in the things we do rather than in what was done for us. No matter how many people we of the church help, in our community and around the world, the work we do can never take centre stage, because then we’ve created a hierarchy, inviting a comparison between us, the ones who do all these great things, and those other people who don’t.
Let’s be like the shepherds, glorifying God for all we’ve heard and seen, for the Word who was made flesh as a defenceless infant and dwelt among us. Let the work that we do for the people around us be an outpouring of our gratitude, so that the Holy Spirit’s cry from within us of love to God can resound through the lives of others, continuing the work that God began on Christmas Day. Amen.
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