So Why Shepherds?

A Sermon for Christmas: Isaiah 62:6-12, Psalm 97, Titus 3:4-7, Luke 2:(1-7)8-20

 

For a year we had been working with this customer. It was an important project, the first of this a major national franchise. The project involved our well-established product-line of jobber outlet and retails systems, and our new product of warehouse systems. The owners’ primary store and all their branches were up and running, and had been for a while. All was going well. I went there on my regular weekly visit. When I walked in the door I knew something was not right. It didn’t feel right.

As I walked in the countermen scurried into the inventory stacks. All the secretaries answered phones that had not rung. The store manager’s head dropped. And there were two or three teams of workers, on ladders pulling communications cables through the ceiling on a path to reach all the offices and workspaces. When the company owner saw me, he paused; his face dropped; he took a subtle but deep breath and waved me into his office. The short version is he told me they were exercising their contract option to return our equipment at the end of the month because they had decided to use their franchise’s computer system, not ours. There are times when you instinctually know things are not right.

Reading Luke’s story of Jesus birth is such a time. Well, it should be. Only we, and our parents, and our grandparents, and all our ancestors for generation after generation, and all our religious institutions, for century upon century, have taken the story for how it is written. Everyone has forgotten the state of the times.

The story begins with a census. Only there are no historical records that confirm that an empire-wide census (Gaventa and Petersen; Harrelson). Even if there was a census the Romans did not care about your family of origin, their concern was that property was registered at its proper location. Whatever might have happened its primary purpose was a symbol of Augustus’s sovereignty, and to ensure the collection of taxes (Culpepper).

And for a story that is about Jesus’ birth, Luke dedicates 2 whole verses (6 and 7) to this blessed event. So much for the focus of the story.

The majority of the story (10 verses, 8 through 18) are about shepherds. Shepherds, who are leftovers from Israel’s nomadic culture, were the lowest rung on the social ladder. Shepherding was a despised occupation. Nobody liked shepherds. They were a necessary evil. They were smelly and suspect in character. They were sometimes rough, unclean and maybe dangerous. They were scorned as shiftless, and could not to be trusted, and yet, it is to them that the Good News has been entrusted (Pankey, Merry Christmas; Culpepper; Keener and Walton)

In this morning’s gospel story Jesus is said to be the Son of the Most High, heir to the throne of his ancestor David, who will reign over the house of Jacob forever, (Luke 1:32-33). In this evening’s gospel story Jesus is given the additional titles Savior, the Messiah, and Lord. All of them are claimed by the emperor. Luke’s narrative sets up a sharp contrast between Jesus and Augustus. (Harrelson).

Christmas is our celebration of the expectation that Jesus will be King, on the restored throne of David. So why all the mess about census? Why is the birth announcement distinctly not regal? Why does the news of Jesus’ birth go to shepherds, the lowly and not to the elite and the powerful (Harrelson)? Why does Luke subtly place Jesus over against Augustus? It appears that King Jesus, pretender to the throne of David, is not who we should be looking for.

Last week we explored John the Evangelist’s vision of Jesus as the Lamb of God being the perfection of humanity as image of God (Genesis 1:26). This week Luke, in all this disruption, also seems to point to Jesus as the perfection of humanity as the image of God. Only this evening, there is a different take.

In his December 14th column David Brooks writes:

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Communism fell with it. Liberal democracy seemed triumphant. Democracies sprouted in Central Europe. Apartheid fell in South Africa. The Oslo process seemed to herald peace in the Middle East.

28 years later is has all gone bad

Tribalism and authoritarianism are now on the march while the number of democracies declines. Far worse has been the degradation of democracies.

Brooks then introduces Thomas Mann’s The Coming Victory of Democracy. Mann argues

Man is made in God’s image. Unlike other animals, humans are morally responsible. Yes, humans do beastly things — … but humans are the only creatures who can understand and seek justice, freedom and truth.

Brooks continues noting Mann that

Democracy… is the only system built on respect for the infinite dignity of each individual man and woman, on each person’s moral striving for freedom, justice and truth.

 

It is not just a procedural or a political system for the principle of majority rule, it is a way of life. It encourages everybody to make the best of their capacities — [it] holds that we have a moral responsibility to do so. It encourages the artist to seek beauty, the neighbor to seek community, the psychologist to seek perception, the scientist to seek truth (Brooks).

What Mann says is what defines any righteous and just governance.

Though Caesars are credited with bringing peace to the world, Luke proclaims that the true bringer of peace is Jesus the Savior (Culpepper). Jesus replacing the Caesars as the true source of peace points to the restoration of the moral base of society, which bearing the fruit of radical equality of all God’s people is the purpose of the Kingdom on earth. This morning, in her song of praise to God, Mary’s intent is that her ministry as the God bearer is to reveal the greatness of God for all the world to see. By proclaiming that God has looked with favor on an unwed mother Mary reveals that God is already in the process of turning the world upside down (Pankey, Proclamation). By re-entering human history, born to an unmarried mother, whose birth is revealed to the least in society, with titles claimed by the reigning emperor, God identifies with

  • the powerless,
  • the oppressed,
  • the poor, and
  • the homeless

which reveals the moral corruption of the status quo Jesus’ birth is turning upside down (Culpepper).

The kingdom Jesus is bringing is not the restoration of a regal earthly kingdom. Jesus is bringing the kingdom of moral authority of righteousness and justice. The birth of Jesus is a sign of God’s abundant grace (Culpepper).

  • For a child has been born for us, and authority rests upon his shoulders
  • The people who walked in darkness see a great light
  • The joy of the nations has been multiplied
  • The yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, has been broken
  • The boots of the tramping warriors are burning fuel for the fire
  • He will establish the throne of justice and with righteousness and uphold it from this time onward and forevermore
  • His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace
  • The love of the Lord of hosts will do this (Isaiah 9:2-7).

These are treasured words They are ours to mull over, to quietly consider the meaning they bring. (Gaventa and Petersen) (Culpepper). They are ours to use as inspiration that our lives may reveal the love of God. They are ours to use as strength for restoration of our moral base, and perhaps quietly being a model for others witness and ponder.

Amen and a blessed Christmas.


References

Almquist, Br. Curtis. “Meet Jesus Again.” Brother, Give Us A Word. Cambridge, 23 12 2017. <ssje.org/word/>.

Black, C. Clifton. Commentary on Luke 2:[1-7] 8-20. 24 12 2017.

Brooks, David. “The Glory of Democracy.” 14 12 2017. newyorktimes.com. <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/14/opinion/democracy-thomas-mann.html&gt;.

Culpepper, R. Alan. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Luke. Vol. 8. Abbington, 2015. 12 vols. Olive Tree App.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 6 9 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Pankey, Steve. Merry Christmas. 21 12 2017. <https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/333491&gt;.

—. The importance of proclamation. 20 12 2017. <https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/333491&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.