I am one of the younger ones – a youngest child – which was my main qualification for becoming a shepherd. I don’t know how much you know about shepherds in my time – the time of Jesus – but shepherding is not a preferred occupation. It’s the older children, sons mostly, who are the focus of attention, education, training, and land. Those of us at the bottom of the heap – we become shepherds. We stay out all night, we get dirty and smelly and tired and hungry, and we take care of animals who – well, I’ll get to them in a minute.There are some famous younger sons in the Bible, some famous shepherds. Jacob, for instance – remember Jacob? He stole his older brother Esau’s birthright and then ran away, and ended up caring for the flocks of his kinsman Laban. Then he married Laban's oldest daughter, Leah -- the oldest are always first! before – after a long and convoluted series of eventshe also married Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel, the love of his life. Rachel also “kept her father’s sheep.” Now that’s an intriguing story – two younger children, two shepherds, marrying one another, and Jacob becoming the father of the twelve sons who would become the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel.
There’s another youngest shepherd son who became even more famous than Jacob: David. David, the great king of Israel, was the youngest of seven or eight brothers and became – surprise! – a shepherd by trade. But God had other plans for him, plans that no one in his family could have imagined: that he would become a great warrior, a great statesman, and the King of all Israel.Well, those are good stories, but they don’t apply to most of us. Most of us are out there in the fields with our sheep, and we always will be. And the sheep themselves? I was going to tell you about them. Troublesome animals. They wander off. They get tangled up in brambles and stuck on cliffs – sometimes they even fall off. They don’t think for themselves; they follow anything that moves. They won’t drink from rivers or streams – we have to use rocks to create pools of still water for them. They are not intelligent or graceful or skilled animals. That’s who we take care off. Troublesome animals.
Not that we don’t develop deep affection for them – we do. We get to know our sheep, and we love them, and we watch over them carefully and treat them kindly. But they are difficult creatures.Now that I’ve described something of my life and work, you might wonder how my friends and I got tangled up in the events of Christmas. Good question!
There we were, minding our own business. It was a usual night. Kind of chilly, since the sky was so clear. Thousands of stars up there. But we had warm blankets, and the sheep were settling down, occasionally baa-ing and bleating as they bumped up close to one another for warmth. Nothing very exciting.And then, out of that cold, clear, dark sky, out of the darkness in which we walked every night, out of the darkness in which stars and moon were our only companions: an angel appeared. An angel! We were so astonished, so taken aback – I’m not even sure that I could tell you what it looked like. Light, surely – there was a glimmering, shimmering, radiant light, yes. Wings? – there may have been wings. I’m not sure. A voice? – yes, we heard a voice.
And we were terrified. Absolutely, unwaveringly, without a doubt: Terrified. TERRIFIED.And the voice said, “Do NOT be afraid. I am bringing to YOU great news for ALL.” And then the voice – the angel – told us that our Savior, the Messiah, has been born, and that we would find him a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
And then, suddenly, as suddenly as the first had appeared, the sky was filled with a multitude of angels. LOTS of angels. They FILLED the sky. And they were all crying out, “Glory to God! Glory to God in the highest! “And then they were gone.
Well, what would you do? What would you do if an angel appeared and said something completely unexpected? Not, “I am bringing everyone else some good news from which you yourselves might snatch a crumb”? No - I am bringing to YOU great news for EVERYONE!
I’ll tell you what we did. We took off. We decided that a journey was in order, and we wrapped ourselves in our blankets and we woke up the sheep and we headed for the place which had been described to us. And when we got there, we saw exactly what we’d been told we’d see: a mother and a father, and a newborn baby, lying in a manger, warmed by the hay and by the animals huddled together inside.That little family, those parents – they looked as unsettled and surprised as we were. We learned later that they had come to town for the tax census; I’m sure that they’d been hoping to make it home again before the baby arrived. And we learned that they were ordinary people, as we are -- a carpenter and a young mother far from home, as we are, with a newborn for whom they could barely provide.
A newborn who was the Savior of the world. The king of all creation.It was a most unlikely occasion.
We ourselves, we shepherds, were all the youngest, the people with the least in the way of prospects. No one listened to us, admired us, even wanted us around. And as the least of people, our job was to keep the least of animals.And yet we were called, by heavenly beings, to journey, to gather, to celebrate, and to proclaim.
Think about it: We are the least, and we care for the least. And we’re the ones who were called to see, and we’re the ones to whom the good news was first entrustedWhen you are among the least, when you walk in a land of deep darkness, light shines.
When you care for the least – for those who stumble and wander away and get lost and fall down – you proclaim God with us – God healing all – God embarking upon the labor of restoring all creation.Someday, the baby we saw will be known as the good shepherd.
He will walk among the least, and light will shine.He will care for the least, and God’s compassion will be revealed.
He will die as one of the least, and his alignment with us will be complete.He will rise, and there will be rejoicing in the midst of sorrow.
And tonight it begins:When we are among the least – when we live in the darkness of grief, of anger, of loneliness, of poverty, of frustration, of conflict -- when we like sheep have gone astray – the light shines.
And when we care for the least, when we feed and house and sit with and hope with and pray with the least – we proclaim God with us.We may be the youngest, the roughest, the most excluded, the most unlikely of visionaries and messengers – but the baby Jesus brings good news to us for all.
For unto us a child is born.Merry Christmas.
(With thanks to theologian James Alison, who raised the Scriptural theme of youngest sons for me in Broken Hearts and New Creations.)