On Shepherds and Amazement

Something a little different for this blog entry: shepherds. Our associate rector invited me to write third-week devotions for our church’s advent booklet. I used my imagination a bit, and I got so much joy out of writing these devotions that I wanted to share them more broadly.

These seven devotions loosely form a single story. You can read them day by day or all at once. I hope they add some small blessing to your Advent season.

Day One

“Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth.” (1 Samuel 17: 34-35)

Before Mary and Joseph, before the prophets, even before the great temple that housed the Ark of the Covenant, there was a shepherd.

David was the youngest of eight sons, and so his father gave him the humblest job: guarding the family’s flock of sheep. Imagine this teenage boy, described in the Bible as ruddy and handsome with beautiful eyes. He has an overabundance of energy and daydreams of doing great things.

The sheep are his only companions. He can tell one from another by a nicked ear or a lame leg, or by wool that is fuller or curlier or grayer or whiter or more yellow than the others. He’s named them. He talks to them. He loves to sing, so he sings to them, made-up songs of overlooked boys who win both epic battles and the hearts of beautiful girls. He runs randomly through the thin grass and the poppies under the baking sun, exciting the sheep to chase. He practices with his slingshot, aiming at a jasmine bush or an olive tree. He gets really good with that slingshot, good enough to fend off the kinds of ravenous creatures that prey on sheep.

Good enough to slay a giant.

David will become a king, father to an even greater king, and ancestor to the King of Kings. He will write songs that we still sing three thousand years later. He will embarrass his wife by dancing before God. He will send one of his best and most loyal officers to certain death in battle, out of lust for that man’s wife. His favorite son will break his heart and die in battle against him. His life will be epic.

But, first, he was a shepherd boy, caring for his sheep and practicing with his slingshot, waiting for his real life to begin.

Day Two

“In that region, there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2:8)

Have you ever had the experience of thinking it was an ordinary day, not knowing that something huge was about to break on you?

Everyone remembers that September 11, 2001, was such a lovely, ordinary September morning. But as we woke and got ready to go to work or school, the planes were already taking off, heading toward their cataclysmic moment.

On the day my mother died, I woke early and started making coffee and thinking about the day ahead. At 6:30, just as I was taking my first sip of coffee, I got the call that mom had died in her sleep.

But surprising news that turns your day upside down isn’t always bad. Luke 2:8 is the shepherds’ Advent moment. Although they don’t know it, they are awaiting astoundingly good news.

Shepherds works hard. They have to make sure that their sheep find enough water and good grass. Sheep are notoriously stupid, and have to be convinced not to wander off, step in a hole, or trip over a large rock. If a sheep does get hurt, the shepherd has to be enough of a veterinarian to doctor it: set the broken leg, pull the thorn out of the hoof, clean the infected ear.

The shepherds in Luke were probably the best of the best. Some of their lambs were most likely destined to be sacrificed at the temple in Jerusalem. The law required that animals for temple sacrifice be born within five miles of Jerusalem. Bethlehem is about five miles from Jerusalem.

So, these sheep required special devotion. The temple lambs had to be less than a year old, male, and flawless. Imagine the pride these men must have taken in their sheep, and the care that they provided.

See them, living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock, just like any night. The stars are bright in a cold sapphire sky. The sheep sleep, occasionally grunting or chuffing, or crying a grumbly, muted bleat. Some shepherds walk their rounds of the perimeter, alert for thieves or predators. Others sit close to their little fires, warming their hands, fending off sleepiness, telling each other stories or keeping counsel with their own thoughts. Maybe some of the older men good-naturedly tease the younger ones about pretty girls or about dumb things they’ve done. There is soft laughter. Their ears are vigilant for the howl of a wolf or the low growl of a stalking lion.

Something amazing is about to happen.

Day Three

“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:9)

Before the angel appeared, the shepherds may not have known that they were living in the first Advent. But they had been waiting for the Messiah all their lives. In a way, everything since King David had been Advent. 

But they surely wouldn’t have expected to be the first to hear of the Messiah’s coming.

Although shepherding was important work, it was low-status labor, relegated most often to youngest sons (like David) or to young girls. It was dirty, exhausting, dangerous work, done outdoors in all weather. And there was that night shift that probably nobody wanted.

In our modern world, many people still do hard, low-status work. Workers in factory farms, slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants come to mind as the most direct descendants of our shepherds. I think also of the people who pick up our garbage or clean our offices. But I think especially of the aides in nursing homes. Often, they are not native-born and speak heavily-accented English. They work long hours, on all different shifts, for low pay. While my mother was slowly dying of dementia in a nursing home, I learned to be both deeply grateful and deeply awed by their patient, respectful treatment of the helpless elders in their care. Many of them were as tender and vigilant as the shepherds with their sheep.

It is to humble, little-recognized workers like these that the angel appears. Something amazing truly has happened. The Messiah has come, heralded by an angel. Even more amazing: these humble shepherds are the first to know. They are given an importance and dignity that they would never have expected.

As they used to say on late-night TV: But wait! There’s more!

Day Four

“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

It is incredible enough that lowly shepherds are the first to hear the news that the Messiah has come. In four short words, the angel announces an even greater revolution: this news is for all the people. It’s not just for high priests, not just for kings and princes. It’s not just for devout Jews. It’s not just for the rich. And it’s not just for the poor. It’s not some bottom-rail-on-top revolution, where the mighty are brought down and the humble are raised up. It’s for all the people.

We know the next chapters of the story. Jesus will grow to manhood, teach and preach and heal. He will suffer and die. But this is still “good news of great joy.” Because we believe the part of the story where he then rises. The angels don’t say that he does that for a few elect, for people who follow the right rules, or perform the right rituals in the exact right way, or adhere to the right theology. That would be a very small god indeed. Our God is not small. He is not exclusive. This Messiah is big and inclusive. He is for all the people.

Day Five

“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place and that the Lord has made known to us.’” (Luke 2:15)

Last year, I joined in an Ignatian Way study group with Jill Gordon, Ann Caffaro, Jan Littrell and Eileen Sharbaugh. I learned the technique of imaginative prayer: putting yourself in the place of a character in the Bible verse that you’re studying. In Week 9, we reached the verses in Luke about the shepherds. I tried to put myself in their place when they made their decision to go to Bethlehem. They couldn’t all have gone. Wouldn’t some of them have had to stay back with the sheep? How did they decide who should go and who should stay? Even after the angel show, some of them might have felt safer on their familiar grassy hill than wandering around town looking for a baby, asking for directions from strangers. I ended up writing from the perspective of a young shepherd who decided to stay back with the sheep.

I pictured him looking a lot like my teenage grandson: tall, skinny and long-haired, all uncertainty and awkward, coltish limbs. I imagined him thinking, “I wish I’d gone. I wish I could see for myself. But I was afraid. I don’t like the big city. And what if it was some kind of trick? What if we got in trouble? It felt safer to stay here with the sheep. But now I feel lonely and disappointed in myself.”

We all disappoint ourselves sometimes. We all feel afraid sometimes. Most of us are backstage when the world’s big events occur. But the angels remind us, again, that our doubts and fears and regrets do not exclude us, that Jesus is for all the people.

Day Six

“So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 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 2:16-18)

The braver, more curious shepherds went to Bethlehem. There, they somehow found the right place and saw an exhausted mother, a relieved father, and a baby.

Did the baby radiate light or wear a halo, as often depicted? Was he fair-skinned and rosy-cheeked, already plump and cooing? When the shepherds saw the newborn child, what were they seeing?

They were seeing a newborn human child, almost certainly not fair-skinned, and more likely to be howling than cooing. A helpless, hungry little being, with unfocused eyes and flailing limbs. Our God entered our world not fully formed and powerful, but as a needy, vulnerable child.

They were seeing a shepherd, a loving, patient teacher, a friend and guide.

They were seeing a lamb, a sacrifice for all the people.

They were seeing a Messiah completely unlike the one they thought they were waiting for.

They were seeing a miracle, a finite human creature and yet a limitless God.

They were seeing a mystery to be explored in prayer and contemplation over many centuries.

They were seeing love personified.

Day Seven

“There was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’” (Luke 2:13-14)

For Christmas of 1995, Al made a stable for the Holy Family figures that my mother had passed on to me. He built a frame, and crafted individual bricks by hand. Over the following years, each Christmas he bought a new figure to add to the manger scene.

The shepherds are there, of course, along with the Wise Men, a little drummer boy, and several fictional characters invented for the purpose of selling expensive figures. We’ve also added quirky things here and there, like a fish our daughter made out of clay one year, and a Lego Christmas tree contributed by our son. It is my absolute favorite Christmas gift that Al ever gave me. Each year, we set it up on the day after Thanksgiving, and leave it out until at least Epiphany.

On at least one quiet evening during Advent, I like to turn off all the lights in the house except the little bulb inside the stable, and sit and just contemplate the scene. Last year, as I sat in contemplation, I noticed the arm position of almost every figure. Their arms are flung open in positions of awe and/or welcome. Even the angel stands with her arms her arms open sedately, as she calmly heralds the presence of a history’s greatest miracle.

Awe is a given in the presence of such a miracle. Welcome is a given. What really struck me was the openness.

I think openness is as much a feature of Advent as waiting. When we are waiting, we might think we know exactly what we’re waiting for. Often, what arrives is not what we expected. The Israelites were waiting for a warrior king, who would lead them back to the glory days of King David. Instead, they got both a shepherd and a lamb. They got both a miracle and a fathomless mystery.

We can be astonished at what a seemingly-typical day brings. A shepherd boy can become a king, or be amazed to receive great news from angels. Stay awake. Stay open. We never really know what we’re waiting for, because our God is epic, endless, astounding, and for all the people.

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