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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.

 

 

God is Good to Everybody

Perhaps one of the most popular cultural and religious ideas is the notion of karma. It’s an Eastern teaching that is everywhere is pop culture: the philosophies of celebrities like the Beatles, the sub-plots of films like It’s a Wonderful Life or Pay it Forward, or, my personal favorite, TV shows like My Name is Earl.

In the show, Jason Lee plays a middle-aged low-life (he’s the one whose name is “Earl”) who has enjoyed an entirely self-centered existence of theft, drunkenness, cheating on his various partners, and general debauchery. One day on a whim he decides to buy a lottery ticket, wins $100,000 and, as he runs outside to celebrate, gets hit by a car. As he recovers in the hospital, he learns about karma, the idea that we are repaid, at some point in the present or future, for our daily actions, good or bad. He decides that day to use the $100,000 to make a list of every bad thing he has ever done in his life and, one-by-one, try to make up for it. The rest of the show documents Earl tackling his list one bad decision at a time, leaving room for a lot of what is honestly pretty hilarious comedy.

Karma appeals to our innate sensibilities for justice. It makes sense for people to be punished for what they do wrong and rewarded for what they do right. Not only that, but we inwardly rage about the unfairness of the world because it so rarely reflects that instinctual reality. Who hasn’t had thoughts about who really deserves those promotions, what that paycheck should look like, or whether that person will get what’s coming to them. It’s a lens many of us look at the world through that always leave us upset when our idea of justice is not played out.

Believe it or not, Jesus spoke on this issue. In Matthew 5, Jesus spends a lot of his time redefining what it means to follow God. He attacks the conceptions of the people at the time in terms of their view on divorce, relationships with their friends, how we view people, and even justice. In the final section of his teaching, right after he calls his followers to love their enemies (ouch), he makes this statement “He (God) causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (5:45b).

Jesus teaching the crowds in his Sermon on the Mount

What is Jesus saying here? That God has no standard of right and wrong? That our actions have no consequences? I don’t think so. What I think Jesus is doing here is drawing a constant comparison between what comes to us instinctively and what God desires for his people. Remember, this is a passage where, at the end, Jesus says to his followers, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).

This is not a literal moral perfection, but instead a call to us to act in the world as our perfect God does. And our God shows love to people (through the sun and the rain) to everybody (evil and good, righteous and unrighteous). Remember, Jesus was talking to a farming people; the sun and the rain were absolutely essential for their livelihood and well-being. It would seem to make sense to us that the God of our instincts, the God of karma, would set up the world so that the rain would only fall and the sun would only shine on those who are good to others and worship God correctly. However, that is obviously not the case; instead, God shows love and goodness to all people, whether they acknowledge him or not.

What are the implications here? It seems like Jesus is calling us to look at the world through a different lens, and that lens is grace. The more we use words like deserve, or should, or payment, the more we are getting away from the good news of the gospel: that Jesus Christ came and died for us, through no power or work of our own, so that we could be forgiven and live in relationship with our Creator and Lord. Grace is the unmerited favor of the Lord, and our response to that should be gratefulness for the love he has shown us, and a desire to share that grace and love with others.

This is our call: to love all people, evil or good, unrighteous or righteous. Remember, God rejects our own instinctual, retributive justice that would call us to be condemned for our sin and instead embraces a justice that brings redemption through the cross. Hallelujah, amen.

 Jordan McCain, New City Stories Contributor