December 19, 2015 | Luke 2: 8-18 | Rev. Nancy Talbot –
I always knew that the shepherds were the most marginalized characters in the Christmas story, the lowly ones who are first to hear the good news in Luke’s gospel, the ones I often refer to with the children as the smelly ones because living out in the fields it only stands to reason they wouldn’t have access to laundry soap and bathtubs; but not until this week did I learn that the shepherds weren’t just marginalized, devalued due to their low status occupation, apparently shepherds were thieves and scoundrels.
Just listen to this description of first century Palestinian shepherds I found in a reputable book this week:
“Shepherds were not overly popular at the time of Jesus, especially in the Jewish world where they were thought to be dubious characters who operated on the shady side of the law. They neglected their religious observances, and they were associated with trespass and dishonest sheep-dealings. The idea of a loving and gentle shepherd doting peacefully on his little lambs in a starlit field is not true to first century Palestine.” * Another source I read said shepherds were despised and disreputable because they left their women unprotected for weeks on end while watching their flocks by night.
So much for Linus wrapping his blanket around his head and taking the part of the shepherd in a Charlie Brown Christmas, according these sources the part of the shepherd should have been reserved for hard-hearted Lucy.
So all this week while I’ve been trying to imagine what a group of shepherds who were used to sleeping rough could possibly have been afraid of, a wolf that might nab one of the weaker sheep; a sudden change in the weather; a raid on their flock from neighbouring herdsmen; what I really should have been imagining was a group of guys with nerves of steel for whom nothing could rattle their cage.
Which actually makes the story all the more strange when you think of it, because something did rattle them didn’t it? And of all the things that could have done it, whoever would have imagined that what did it was a message of love, good news of great joy.
A couple of weeks ago, when we were planning this morning’s worship service and talking about the 4th Sunday of Advent as the day we would light the candle of love, Marcus said an important thing about love. He said “you know, most people think that hate is the opposite of love, but really its fear that keeps us from loving the way we were meant to love.” The opposite of love isn’t hate, its fear.
Of the very few things that could ever frightened a bunch of steely nerved shepherds watching their flocks by night, the thing that terrified them was a message from an angel about Good News, peace and love.
What is it about love that makes us so afraid?
Those of you who are familiar with researcher Brene Brown will know that Brene says that the thing about love that makes us so afraid is that it causes us to be vulnerable. It challenges us to believe that we are worthy of being loved despite our human frailties. So if the shepherds were actually shady characters, one of the things that might have scared them in the fields that night could have been that their shadiness was being exposed by the great light that shone all around them.
Being called to love exposes our imperfection, because we all mess up when it comes to loving one another not to mention loving ourselves. To be open to love is to be open to failure because not one of us here today has the capacity to love one another perfectly. To experience love despite our imperfections can be a very humbling experience.
No one wants to be vulnerable, no one wants to fail, and yet Brene Brown’s says vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity and belonging.**
How brilliant for the writer of Luke’s version of the Christmas story not only to pick lowly shepherds to be the first recipients of the good news of Jesus birth, but to choose law-breakers and liars to boot. The message for us in that is, if there’s hope for these guys having their world shaken apart by love and being chosen to bear the good news, then surely there is hope for the rest of us.
Yesterday’s Globe and Mail profiled one of world’s most knowledgeable leaders on the subject of vulnerability and love. Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche network of communities for people with intellectual disabilities around the world, was interviewed in his home in France by Ian Brown. In the face of all that’s been happening in our world these days, after Charlie Hebdo, the Paris massacre, San Bernardino, passenger planes blown out of the sky, unstoppable climate change and so on… Ian Brown was searching for peace of mind and a reason for hope and he thought maybe Vanier could help him. When Brown asked Jean Vanier why he thought so many young French men and women were attracted to the Isalmic State here’s how Vanier replied.
“Fear” he said. “It’s because they’re frightened. What are they frightened of? Violence. Insecurity. Maybe change. Maybe frightened of themselves. Because they don’t quite know who they are and what they want to be. They’re in a humanity that is so geared to winning that those who are unable to win are pushed down. Right from the beginning, except during the first months of the life of a child, its success. You have to be the best….But we’re losing something about community, about accepting people who are different. If we have a culture of winning, a culture of success, a culture of knowledge, those who have less knowledge are not winning. So we’re in a culture of huge divisions.”***
Some scholars speculate the reason Luke chose shepherds to be the first recipients of the good news of Jesus birth was to contrast the lofty Magi found in Matthew’s gospel. Instead of the wise ones running to the manger, Luke has the unlearned ones “in the know,” making known to others what have been made known to them. Here is good news that is accessible for all.
In response to the angel’s message Luke has the shepherds discussing with each other whether or not they should go and see this great thing that had taken place and then after they have seen the child sharing the news with others.
In contrast to the politics of fear and division touted by Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor of the Day, the Good News of the kingdom of Jesus immediately ushers in a new reality, a community of mutuality, reciprocity and respect. In ancient Israel, Good News referred to Royal Proclamations made about the emperor. So the use of the term “Good News” is very intentional in the Bible. But this Good News, unlike other Royal Proclamations of the day, was news not just for the powerful, but for everyone.
And one can’t help but wonder if in the light of that kind of great and powerful love, the shepherds didn’t give up their old sheep stealing habits in favour of a kinder and more law abiding way of life. This was Good News that changed peoples lives. Perhaps they wouldn’t have to rob anymore to make a living.
The hillsides of ancient Bethlehem may seem like a far cry from the North Shore of modern day Vancouver, but the world we live in is not so very different than the world in which the shepherds lived.
As Jean Vanier has pointed out we are immersed in a culture of division, where the powerful still rule. People still live on the margins and feel deeply the despair of those divisions. There are real and present dangers all around. For the most part we still return violence with violence. Our personal worries keep us up at night. And love? It still scares us to death. Will we ever find it? Will we ever be able to truly claim it for ourselves? Will we ever share it in the way we really want to?
It takes courage to love our neighbour as ourselves, it takes courage just to say hello to them most days. It takes courage to welcome refugees to our shores. It takes courage to make a life-long commitment to another human being, to say that we are sorry and to let ourselves be seen for who we truly are and to embrace our children when their choices aren’t the choices we would have them make. It takes courage to let go of our dependency on fossil fuels, to stand up to a bully, to stand up and be counted and to share what we have received and trust that what we have be enough. It takes courage to change an institution, to stare a life-threatening disease in the face and say I will not let you get the best of me and as Antoine Leiris has taught us it takes courage to say to the person who just murdered your wife “I will not give you the gift of hating you.” It takes courage to love in the face of hate.
Thank goodness the message of the angel is as relevant today as it was so long ago. Fear not, I bring you good news of great joy for all the people, today a child is born for you. Look and you will find him in the most unlikely places.Thank goodness there are still those like the shepherds and folks like you and me who find ourselves awestruck by the wonder and possibility of peace and goodwill and curious enough about love to risk abandoning ours fears to embrace it.
When Ian Brown went looking for peace of mind and a reason to hope from Jean Vanier, his simplest, yet most profound piece of advice was this. “The greatest thing to calm anguish is love.”
*Horsfield and Horsfiled, Beyond Bethlehem, CBC Enterprises, 1989
* Brene Brown, The Power of Vulnerability, TED talk, Ted.com
*** Ian Brown, Jean Vanier’s Comfort and Joy, The Globe and Mail, December 18, 2015.