Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Cast of Christmas: Shepherds

An old man, wrapped tightly in his shúkà and carrying a long, gnarled staff, trod deliberately and lightly across the sparsely tufted savannah. He spied a herd of zebra in the distance, and, even closer, a smaller herd of white folks. I was in that second herd. I know I've made mention several times this Advent of people I met during my time in Kenya a few years ago, but indulge me briefly this once more. He was a Maasai tribesman and a shepherd, dressed in red, following and directing his flock of sheep. It's men like him whom I picture – young and old, clad in vivid colors or drab variations of brown and gray – when I think back to a scene over two thousand years ago. A dark night, cool and windy. A small band of Middle Eastern shepherds pulling their cloaks tightly around them. Hundreds of sheep all around them, grazing or dozing. The only noises – the muted bleating of sheep to sheep; the muted mutter of man to man; the not so muted chirping of insect life. All going about their nightly routine. What was it like for them?

We read that “there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). These shepherds were, for lack of a better term, 'ordinary people,' if there is such a thing. They didn't have much in the way of prestige. Children didn't ooh and aah if these shepherds came to school for career day. Women and men didn't marvel at them on the street. Shepherding was considered a lowly and dirty profession – the sort where you might question if you really wanted to shake hands with one (especially if you didn't have a bottle of Purell on hand!). It wasn't a good way to get rich, out there tending the sheep. The shepherds had no 401(k), no stock options, no bloated bank account to speak of; they didn't have fabulous McMansions awaiting them back in Bethlehem, only puny shacks in the part of town where tourists put away their cameras. They weren't especially qualified for upper-crust ways of life: not prone to much reading, not prone to penning lengthy treatises, not equipped with degrees to wave around or connections to boast. Their lives had more excrement than excitement. They seldom came home with big stories.

They were ordinary people, and they were doing an ordinary thing: staying awake, all bleary-eyed and chilly and maybe nursing a headache, while the sheep clomped and chomped and dozed beneath the stars. They were just doing their job: another day, another dollar. They weren't keeping a late-night prayer vigil in a monastery. They weren't out climbing mountains to track down an elusive guru. They weren't meditating to track down the elusive truth within. They weren't backpacking through the Alps, weren't swimming with the sharks, weren't engaged in great exploits. They weren't composing symphonies or deriving Schrödinger's equation. They weren't sailing a yacht or lounging by the pool or sunning themselves on a tropical beach. They weren't attending a business seminar or absorbed in the latest self-help book. They weren't saving lives in the operating room or perfecting their rhetoric before the court. They were just going about their daily routine – a mundane, often boring job, without much excitement or thrill, no fame and acclaim. It was life as usual, trapped in the cold, dark night with their preoccupations – what to eat, what to wear, how to earn, how to tend to their wives and kids, how to resolve the latest family drama or neighborhood dispute. Life as usual. Until it wasn't.

That's when “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Luke 2:9). The only other time we read that verb in the New Testament, 'shone-around,' it's when Saul of Tarsus gets knocked on his keister on the Damascus Road. A sudden brightness splits the night on every side; it's like every blade of grass is the burning bush at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Every molecule of oxygen in the air suddenly glistens and sparkles. The very fabric of reality is transfigured before their eyes. And their whole world lurches in a direction they scarcely have the language to describe. In the Bible, we know, the word for 'glory' means for something to be heavy – to have significance and weight to it. The sun is glorious – not only does it glow with light and beauty, but it exerts a gravitational pull, causing the earth and other planets to orbit it. And we were meant to orbit God in an orderly fashion; to have God at the heart of our lives, with everything in the world, our worlds, arranged harmoniously around him. But long ago, we broke free; we float freely in the void of space, or find degenerate dwarf stars to orbit, petty idols. And none can bring the light and warmth we crave, nor can they keep us from colliding together or careening apart – so we have no lasting peace, and we need a Savior to ensnare us again with God's gravity for good.

That night, this lowly band of shepherds found themselves suddenly captured, not by the gravity of earth, but by the gravity of heaven – like being suddenly teleported spitting distance from a solar flare. No wonder they “feared a great fear” (Luke 2:9)! They were disoriented, disconcerted, discombobulated, as the whole world became alien to them, and they to it. And the invasion of a heavenly military regiment, “rank on rank the host of heaven,” certainly added to the reason for fear! But this invading army came, not to let loose a war cry, but to chant the terms of a peace treaty – offering “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10), that the Savior had finally arrived, the long-awaited Lord Messiah, freshly born that very day (Luke 2:11). The age-old puzzle of prophets had cracked open at last. And a strange mystery flew out.

If this were all the heavenly spokesangel said, it would be fantastic news. A new king had been born – the king to end all kings. There was dawn on the horizon. A new day was coming. Salvation, rescue, was on the way. That's good news. That's great joy. But it would affect the shepherds from afar. A king is concerned with war and diplomacy, with the intricacies of geopolitics, with grand strategy and domestic policy, with the honeyed syllables of Armani-clad lobbyists and the tightly guarded security of a gilded palace. What have shepherds to do with a king? When could a shepherd even see a king, save from a distance from the back of a crowd? When would a king take an interest in the troubles and travails of a ragtag crew of shepherds, who scarcely constitute a voting bloc or a force slated to sway public opinion? The birth of a new king, even a messiah, is a good thing – but a distant good thing. Nice to know about, but a newborn king is probably cordoned off by bars and bouncers in a stately manor, dressed already in purple silk and gold adornments. That's no place for shepherds.

Except... except the angel says more. He specifies that this is “good news of great joy that will be for all the people(Luke 2:10). He clarifies that this royal Messiah is born “unto you (Luke 2:11). And the angel tells them that “this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). That might be the most stunning thing the shepherds hear. A newborn king, the King of Kings – but he's not in a palace, a castle, an estate? He's got no security detail? No Secret Service ready to gun down intruders? There's no dress code and no waiting list? Because that's exactly what this means. If the baby is napping in a manger, it means he's in a peasant house – a house that looks exactly like the one each shepherd calls home. And if the baby is wrapped in swaddling cloths, it means he's dressed the exact same way each shepherd was dressed at that age, and dressed his kids when they were born.

It means that this Messiah isn't walled off. The shepherds, for all their humble station, wouldn't be cast aside as impure, too dirty and diseased to be close to the baby. The shepherds wouldn't be thrust out as unimportant, undeserving of the Messiah's time. The shepherds wouldn't be rejected as unworthy, unqualified, denied access to his presence. Because not only is the newborn King of Kings on the scene, but he's wrapped like a peasant tyke in a peasant house, and there might as well be a sign by the door saying “Shepherds Welcome.”

The shepherds may be ordinary. They may be poor. They may be weak and weary. They may be old and tired. They may carry a heart full of regret or the scars and wounds of a rough life. They may have a grating laugh or a drippy nose or their share of bad habits. But none of that is a barrier to this mystery, the face of God on an infant skull, the Word of God made flesh and blood with a full diaper. A Presence deeper than physics, an Energy older than time and space, a Mind wise enough to see body and soul in full detail, the world in all its dimensions laid bare. The Unbounded and Incomprehensible, expressed fully as a few pounds of muscle and bone and fat. Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal – snoozing tenderly and vulnerably in a feed trough, his heartbeat audible, his pulse palpable. Mystery of Mysteries – with shepherds welcome, along with all and sundry.

The angels sing their song, and then they about-face and march back to the stars and beyond (Luke 2:13-14). The brightness fades. The air returns to its customary crispness, the grass resumes its dull green, the heightened tension of earth confronted with heaven dissipates. The shepherds are, once again, standing in an ordinary field, wearing their ordinary clothes, surrounded by their ordinary sheep. But now they know something they can't unknow. And that knowledge confronts them with a choice. They have a decision to make. They can stay put. They can keep watching the sheep. They can persist in life as usual, now that the brightness has faded and all things look the way they always did. They can convince themselves it was all a dream, or be content with the theoretical awareness that somewhere out there is a Savior. They can write that down in their diaries and then go home, curl up in bed, and forget. They can take it for granted. They can hope it comes in as handy trivia on a game show someday. They can play catch with their kids, eat their wives' home cooking, and otherwise do the very same thing they would have done if that night had just stayed silent.

Or they can do something about it. They can take action. They can break character. They can take a leave of absence from the field, from their customary and familiar turf, and go on a quest in pursuit of a mystery. They can accept the invitation implicit in the angel's words. They can go encounter the Incomprehensible. They can go see “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15), “the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God” (1 Timothy 1:17). They can go to meet the Mystery of Mysteries themselves – and let their aching fingers be grasped in a Savior's gentle grip.

These shepherds chose that option, to “go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened” (Luke 2:15). What's more, “they went in haste” to answer the invitation (Luke 2:16). They made no excuses to delay their quest. They didn't complain of their frailty; they didn't cling to their sheep, their livelihood; they didn't turn up their noses or scrape the dirt; they didn't reason that surely the baby would still be there in the morning. Even in the coldest, darkest hours of night, they set worldly concerns aside and went in haste. They went right then. No excuses. They refused to procrastinate any longer. If only we'd do the same!

So they went to Bethlehem. They followed the trail of the village midwife, and the gossip of sleepy villagers who'd heard a woman grunt and groan in labor during the night, disrupting their sleep. And they found the place – they “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 2:16-18). No doubt, when the shepherds spilled the beans, Mary explained to them her visit from Gabriel nine months earlier. No doubt, after that, Joseph made mention of his angelic dream, and the word he'd heard. Others were there, too. Maybe a couple nosy neighbors. Maybe a few of Joseph's nieces, cousins.

The point is, after the shepherds went off on their pursuit of a mystery, and after they encountered the Mystery, they shared fellowship with other Mystery-Meeters as well – with Mary, with Joseph, with neighbors and family and all sorts of admirers of this Holy Child. They testified, and were built up by the testimony of others, as they gathered around this central point: the feed trough acting as a makeshift bed for the King of the Ages. And all who were there were listening, gazing, admiring, celebrating their encounter with the Heart of Mystery.

From there, the shepherds went back out into the fields. But not to life as usual. “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20). They went forth and resumed their work, took up the basic elements of their daily routine – but it was not like before. This time, they went forth with a new life, defined not by poverty but by mystery, glory, and praise. As they tended their flock through the dawn hours, their work was infused with a new song to sing. As they returned to their families, they cherished a light that no night could ever fully overshadow, nor any gloom wholly dampen. As they mingled with their neighbors, they had a story to tell. And through all the days of their lives, wherever they went, they knew they had peered behind the curtain, seen under the surface of the universe, gazed into the infinity of God, and were welcome guests of a Savior. They had encountered the Heart of Mystery and found a Hope that does not, will not, cannot disappoint (Romans 5:5). Their lives could never be what they were, could never be defined by all the trappings and tinsel, but by the mystery, glory, and praise that redirected their lives.

All well and good for the shepherds. “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). Who among us can't identify with the shepherds out in those fields? We have plenty fields of our own – our territory, where we work or live or dwell, wherever we sit beneath the stars and toil. We've had cares aplenty – flocks to tend, families to feed. We've had seasons of languishing in the blackness of night, comforts torn away and exposed to the cold and cruel realities of existence in a fallen world. We have “dwelt in a land of deep darkness” (Isaiah 9:2). And we look at ourselves, and we seem so ordinary, so poor, so defective, so unqualified and unworthy.

But then there came a day when everything lurched. It was unsettling. It was uncomfortable. It was surprising. But we “who walked in darkness” then glimpsed “a great light” (Isaiah 9:2). God “shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Grace appeared. Maybe you couldn't identify it, couldn't see it for what it was. But then someone explained that it was good news – that even in the darkest night, there could be a great joy beyond yourself, because a Rescuer had come to earth to pull you back where you belong and put your fractured pieces back together.

And best of all, you heard, this same joy was every bit as accessible to you as to anybody else. You don't have to be the optimistic sort; you don't need to be an extrovert; it doesn't require a naturally religious temperament, if there even is such a thing. You don't have to be already clean, already pure, already straight and sober and sorted out and set. You don't have to get your act together first. You don't need to qualify yourself, to pass some test. You don't need to ace a quiz. You don't have to first establish your credentials as a good person. You don't have to be replete with resources. You don't have to be young, and you don't have to be old. You don't have to be rich, and you don't have to be poor. It doesn't matter if you're an adult or a child, a man or a woman, if you're black or white or any other hue of the human tapestry. How you vote, where you work, what you think and feel – none are prerequisites to go “see this thing that has happened” (Luke 2:15).

And each one of us had – each one of us still this very moment has – a choice to make, as the shepherds did. It isn't a foregone conclusion, to be taken for granted. We're free to hear the good news and go about life as usual. We're free to make excuses why we can't take part, why we can't show up, why it's all a great big humbug, why there'll always be another chance, why it's too unimportant to change our lives or too big for us to handle. You can do that. You can go home today and forget all about it. You can celebrate for a day or two and then let the swamp of routine suck you in, and the burdens of life weigh you down, and the dark of night close in. Your eyes will adjust to the gloom; your cloaks might shield you some from the wind. You can stay put in that field, if you prefer.

Or you can pursue a mystery. You can refuse to relent until you've met him yourself, this King of Kings. You can leave your excuses in the dirt and go place your hand in the Savior's grip. You can trust yourself to the Mind wiser than creation, and rest yourself in the Presence deeper than physics. You can gaze in admiration at the sight of the Unbounded God wrapped in our humble rags, breathing our air and breathing Heaven's Wind back into this earth. You, too, can encounter the Mystery of Mysteries, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. You can fellowship with others caught in God's gravity, testifying to what you've seen and heard – we're here to do just that every Sunday. And as you go back to the field, to your family, to the town, you can take a new life of mystery, glory, and praise with you, like the shepherds did.

Confess with your mouth” that this baby wrapped in peasant rags and resting in a Bethlehem manger is Christ the Lord, and “believe in your heart,” with all your heart, that not only was he born to the Blessed Virgin Mary in Bethlehem, but he grew up, taught wisdom, healed the broken, entered death for you and blew a God-shaped hole in the other side – just confess that, trust that, rely on that, gather around that, follow that, and “you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). You'll be gripped by a Savior, caught with God's gravity, joined to reality's royal family, you'll mingle with saints – and you'll touch a Mystery of Mercy who will save you and change you in ways you never dreamed possible. Only in the Mystery's Mercy can there ever be peace on earth. I hope with all my heart that, like the shepherds, that choice is the one you make today and every day. Don't let this day, this night, pass you by without a new life. Go therefore in peace and awe-struck wonder, “glorifying and praising God” for all you've seen and heard (Luke 2:20). Go to spread a merry Christmas. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment