Ruining Christmas

CHAPTER 4: SMELLY SHEPHERDS

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. –Luke 2:8-18

 In the last chapter, we saw the significance of the manger: not that the baby Savior was born in a barn, but that he was born in an ordinary way, to an ordinary family of limited means, in a poor home. This was the good news announced to the shepherds: “The Savior is just like you!” To heighten the wonder of that, let’s now turn our attention to the shepherds.

The nativity scenes strewn around our houses at this time of year have sort of desensitized us to shepherds. They bring to mind children dressed up in bathrobes for church pageants, fluffy lambs, and quaint pastoral farm scenes. And so we miss the significance of their appearance here in the story of the first Christmas.

Shepherds were scummy riffraff, disreputable, rough around the edges, and smelly too. Shepherding was one of the lowliest jobs in Bible times, basically the garbage collecting of the first century. It was an important job, but it was a hard, dirty, stinky job. At least as a stereotype, the career of shepherding was sort of like long-haul trucking today; it was thought of as attracting a certain type of “unsavory crowd.” Like modern-day janitors, it was the ultimate blue collar job, complete with all the lowliness and messiness and thanklessness. In fact, shepherds in the first century had such a bad rap that it was widely assumed that they were untrustworthy and probably criminal. Shepherds were not allowed to testify in court because everyone knew they couldn’t be trusted.

And yet it was these shepherds that God invited to his Son’s birthday party. These smelly laborers were the ones that heaven’s choir was sent to serenade. It was these untrustworthy scoundrels who were given the privilege of being the first to spread the word of the Savior’s arrival.

Surprising? Maybe it shouldn’t be. Every other element of the Christmas story—indeed, of the whole gospel—is about God turning all our value systems on their head and celebrating weakness and lowliness. “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1. “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”

That’s the banner that flies over the whole Christmas story. See the shepherds—the ultimate representation of the “foolish, weak, low and despised” that God prizes—bowing at the manger and see the whole message of the gospel: Jesus came to welcome the lost, and only those with nothing to offer get in.

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