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The Shepherds: Advent Week Three

When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;  and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” – Luke 2:17-18  (NRSV)

If you remember, we began this Advent blog series exploring this question of why, exactly, God would invite us feeble, fickle, and fallen creatures into the climax of His grand narrative; namely, the Incarnation.  We first looked at how God invited Mary, a teenage virgin leading a quiet and humble life, to carry in her womb the promised Messiah. The next week we studied John the Baptist and how God placed a special calling on His life to “prepare the way” for the cosmos-altering ministry of Jesus.  Both of these examples prepare our hearts not only through foreshadowing the Messiah to come, but by providing us a glimpse into our own roles in God’s story of redemption.

However, there is another group in the story surrounding Jesus’ birth that gives us an even clearer grasp of God’s radical invitation and His infinite heart for us: The Shepherds.

Luke’s gospel records for us in 2:8-20 that a host of angels appear to a group of shepherds in the fields at night in order to unveil the good news that would echo on for eternity: “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (NRSV).  These words are familiar.  I remember listening to them repeated every year as a child at the Christmas Eve service, followed by the exciting candlelight ceremony where we would inevitably sing “O, Holy Night” and I would wonder if the sprinkler system would go off.

Let’s not let our familiarity with these words strip away the immensely crucial message behind them: God loves to include the excluded.

You see, shepherds at this time were very much outcasts.  They were considered a “despised” class of people.  For one, they were considered ceremonially unclean.  Due to their constant exposure to dirty sheep, animal carcasses, and all that comes with living on the far edge of society, shepherds could not meet the standards of ritual purity needed for access into the Temple.[1]  This is no small matter.  In Jewish culture, since being ceremonially unclean cut you off from worship in the Temple, it consequently cut shepherds off from access to God since He “resided” in the Temple.  Secondly, shepherds were considered untrustworthy because of their low position on the social ladder, making the testimony of a shepherd unreliable and thus prohibiting them from being able to testify in the local courts. This essentially meant that a shepherd had no access to legal rights.[2]  Lastly, because the work of a shepherd entailed leading a flock to distant pastures in order to graze, shepherds were constantly on the move away from society and community.  Shepherds were an isolated lot without much access to the benefits that come from having a network of family and friends.

Shepherds had no access to God in the Temple, no access to the law in the courts, and little access to community in homes or neighborhoods.  I can imagine shepherds sitting on top of the hills surrounding Jerusalem looking down on the city, longing for participation, connection, and relationship. They are the epitome of those “on the outside looking in.”

Yet, yet.  In an act that completely upends the elitist and exclusive standards of Israel’s culture, God decides to send His angelic heralds of the greatest message human ears have ever received to these excluded ones first.  And not only does God allow the lowly Shepherds to be the first to hear the good news, but He entrusts His mission to them to spread this news.  Do you see how radical this is?  Can’t you just feel the heart of God at work?  God bypasses the trivial and misguided barriers that we humans construct in order to include the lonely ones and invite them into major roles in the greatest Story that could ever be told.

It is absolutely fitting that God would invite the shepherds, the ones that typified being on the outside looking in, to be the catalyst for the news of Jesus’ birth.  Jesus, God’s love incarnate, is the one to establish a new kingdom where the last are now first (Mt. 20:16), where the poor and lame are invited to the King’s banquet (Lk. 14:13), and where the meek now inherit the earth (Mt. 5:5).  The inclusion of the shepherds in Luke’s gospel previews this new Kingdom where God’s love subverts all of our feeble standards and establishes a new economy of grace for all.

We cannot let the familiarity of this story keep us from recognizing and reflecting on the reality that God has a deep, mountain-moving, cross-bearing, veil-tearing kind of love for those on the outside looking in  because this is the very same love that would prompt God to become man.

During this last week of Advent as we prepare our hearts for Christ’s coming and reflect on how God is inviting us into His great drama, let us not forget God’s heart for the “shepherds.” Let us at New City, as citizens of this new Kingdom where God’s gracious love reigns through Jesus, reflect and act on what it means to be first in inviting the outcast and first to entrust God’s message to the one on the outside looking in. Most importantly, if you yourself feel like you are on the outside looking in, remember that God is longing after you, eager and excited to include you in His great Story; so much so that He sent His Son to rescue you, embrace you, and to become your friend.  If we accept this invitation, we will join the shepherds in “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

 

[1] Morris, Leon. Luke an Introduction and Commentary. Inter-Varsity Press, 1983, 84-85.

[2] Morris, Leon, 84-85.

 

 

John the Baptist: Advent Week Two

“A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” – Isaiah 40:3 (NRSV)

The beginning of Luke’s gospel is structured in a very particular way.  In chapter one, John the Baptist’s birth is foretold (Lk 1:5-25), followed by the foretelling of the birth of Jesus (Lk 1:26-38).  Shortly after, the birth of John the Baptist is documented (Lk 1:57-66) followed by the birth of Jesus (Lk 2:1-7).  Luke then records John the Baptist preparing the way for the ministry of Jesus (Lk 3:1-20), followed by the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (Luke 4:14-15).  This dynamic of John the Baptist preparing for Jesus climaxes when John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River (Lk 3:21-22).

Why does Luke use this pattern of John the Baptist going before Jesus? Well, it was prophesied in the Old Testament that there would be a “voice in the wilderness” that prepared the way for the Son of God (Isaiah 40:3, Malachi 3:1).  Luke, a student of scripture, understood that prophecy was being fulfilled in the life of John the Baptist.  But beyond the fulfillment of prophecy, it is clear that the calling and purpose of John the Baptist was one of preparation. Preparation for something—Someone—much greater than himself.  John’s own father, Zechariah, prophesied these words over his son’s life:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
 By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.  (Lk 1:76-79)

John the Baptist’s role as the forerunner for Jesus and his Kingdom provides a crucial reminder for the Church this Advent season. We often view Advent as going through the motions of idle and patient waiting until we celebrate Christ’s birth at Christmas, and though there is a powerful lesson for the Church in waiting, Advent is more than idleness—it is a season of active preparation.

John the Baptist’s life models this active preparation well for the Church today:

The Church as a prophetic “voice in the wilderness”

  • The same prophetic Spirit that was poured out on the prophets, including John the Baptist, is poured on all believers today (Acts 2). Therefore, we as the Church have a unique role in the “wilderness” of our modern world, a world characterized by sin, haste, striving, and a desperate grasping for any semblance of contentment.  This Advent season, let’s be reminded of our voice and our context so we can echo the invitation of Jesus: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28 NRSV).

What is a “wilderness” in your life that you can speak the truth of Christ into?

The Church as counter-cultural

  • Luke describes John the Baptist as wearing “clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him” (Mt 3:4-5 NRSV).  John the Baptist was completely sold out to his calling as the one to prepare the way for Christ, leading him to stand out from the rest of society.  We need to recover this posture of being so committed to our call that we, as the Church, look and act in a way that clearly contrasts with the world around us.  The result of this is that people will come to see what is different about you and your community.  This is why, I think, right after Matthew describes John’s strange appearance and message, he says that all the people “were going out to him.”  Being counter-cultural  attracts people to a different, better Kingdom.

Here at New City, one of the counter-cultural practices we focus on is resting in the promises of God. What is a counter-cultural practice that you can incorporate into your daily rhythm that would witness to others?

The Church must give all glory to Christ

  • Many people who came to see John the Baptist thought that he may be the Christ. John, instead of reveling in the fame and glory, immediately shifted the glory to Jesus: “He who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (Lk 3:16 NRSV).  Oftentimes in our lives in the midst of our working, volunteering, helping, parenting, and listening, we begin to think of ourselves as saviors. This Advent season, we need to remember that in a world that craves credit and acknowledgment, whatever good we accomplish is because of Christ in us and it should always point to his eternal fame.

What is one way you can practice giving glory to God in your workplace, school, or home?

The Church as the preparers for the Kingdom of God

  • John the Baptist’s ultimate calling was to “prepare the way of the Lord” and “make his paths straight” (Lk 3:4 NRSV). Our primary calling, too, as we eagerly wait for Christ to come again, is to “make straight” the way of the Lord.  We do this by loving those not yet loved, seeking justice for those on the outside looking in, speaking truth in the midst of chaos, pursuing reconciliation in all of our relationships, and being the hands and feet of Christ in a world that has lost its way.  This is precisely why when the onlookers asked how they should prepare for the coming of Jesus, John the Baptist responded by saying, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Lk 3:11 NRSV). 

How are you “actively waiting” for the coming of Jesus this Advent season? Who in your life needs the light of Jesus? Is there someone at work that needs someone to listen to them? Do you have a neighbor who is in need? Is there a relationship in your life that needs mending?  

If we as the Church, the people of God, follow the example of John the Baptist, Zechariah’s prayer will be just as true for us today as it was for John: We will “go before the Lord to prepare his ways” by giving “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” so that God may “guide our feet into the way of peace.”

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

Mary: Advent Week One

 “Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’”  – Luke 1:38 (NRSV)

This response by Mary comes directly after she is visited by the angel Gabriel and is told that the “Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Lk 1:35 NRSV).

In order to understand how radical Mary’s response is, we must get a grasp of the context.  Even though Mary was not technically married to Joseph, scripture tells us that they were “betrothed” (Lk 2:5). In Jewish culture, as with today’s western culture, the first step towards marriage was “engagement.” This was when both the father of the man and of the woman would agree to marry their children.[1] The next step was betrothal. This meant that the man and woman entered into a covenant of faithfulness to each other, but were forbidden to have sexual relations until after the marriage ceremony.[2] That Mary is “betrothed” to Joseph is significant because it tells us that Mary was publicly and spiritually committed to Joseph and to be seen as unfaithful would have meant public humiliation.

But public shaming was not all Mary would have to endure.

You see, Mary lived in Nazareth, a seemingly insignificant town in southern Israel (Jn 1:36). Nazareth, like many small rural villages in Israel was very conservative and held closely to the Law as laid out in Torah. Beyond being scripturally legalistic, Nazareth was part of the larger patriarchal culture that did not see women as reliable and viewed them largely as second-class citizens. This combination of legalistic adherence to Torah and the distrust of the testimony of women did not bode well for Mary and her child.  The men and religious leaders in Mary’s community, who would have had the power to execute judgment on her, would have viewed her pregnancy through the lens of Deuteronomy 22:20-21, which says:

If, however, this charge is true, that evidence of the young woman’s virginity was not found, 21 then they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house and the men of her town shall stone her to death…So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (NRSV)

Mary could have interpreted this proclamation from the angel Gabriel as a humiliating death sentence, and rightfully so.  But she doesn’t.  Despite being painfully aware of her situation, a situation that could very well lead her down a shameful path toward death by stoning, Mary responds with a faith not yet seen in the entire history of her people (Gen 18:13-15).  Mary does not hesitate, she does not pity herself, she does not laugh at God in disbelief, she does not question God’s plan; Mary simply presents herself as a living sacrifice in order to follow the will of God.  This does not mean that she was without paralyzing fear, overwhelming anxiety or a deep lack of clarity on how all of what was told would be accomplished; however, it does mean that despite these things she clung to her belief that God is good and His promises are true.

Mary’s faithfulness to the call of God on her life foreshadows the One who is eternally faithful, Jesus Christ.

Like Jesus, Mary is willing to take on the identity of a sinner despite her innocence in order to accomplish the will of the Father.  Like Jesus, Mary submits to God’s will with the beautiful words “let it be with me according to your word,” preparing the way for the later words of Christ on the eve of his death “yet not as I will, but as You will” (Mt 26:38 NRSV). Like Jesus, Mary exhibits “faithfulness unto death” in taking up this call that very well could have led to her death (Rev 2:10).

Mary’s radical humility and faith in the face of what seems to be a death sentence given by God provides us a glimpse of the kind of veil-tearing, cosmos-flipping, paradigm-shifting faithfulness Jesus will usher in when he takes on the actual death sentence of the cross on our behalf.

This advent season, let us at New City reflect on Mary’s faith and how it ultimately points to the perfect faithfulness of our savior, Jesus Christ.  Let us reflect on how God accomplished His good and redeeming purposes through the radical, humble faith of a teenage girl living in obscurity and what this teaches us about how God desires to use each of us to bring redemption and reconciliation in the world. Let us follow Mary’s, and ultimately Jesus’, example and respond to God by saying “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Here are some practical questions to think about this first week of Advent:

  • Are you listening for God’s invitation so that you can play a role in His great story of redemption?
  • Is there anything in your life keeping you from responding to God’s invitation like Mary did, with radical humility and obedience?
  • How is your life, your response to God’s invitation and call, pointing towards Jesus Christ?
  • There may be what feels like a “Death Sentence” in your life. Whether it is medical issues, financial burdens, marital problems, or family dysfunction, do you believe, like Mary, in God’s faithfulness and His good promises in this difficult season?

 

[1] https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/archives/guzik_david/studyguide_luk/luk_1.cfm

[2] Keener, Craig S., et al. The IVP Bible Background Commentary. IVP, 2010.

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor