Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Truth About Shepherds

"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night" Luke 2:8

What do you picture when you read this familiar verse? The squeaky-clean children of a hundred Sunday school Christmas pageants, self-conscious in bath-robes with towels draped around their heads. Cute, perhaps, but not accurate. Let's try another version.

"And there were in the same country street people, huddled over a heating grate by night, passing around cheap wine in a paper sack"...

Closer to it! The shepherds belonged to one of the "despised trades" of Jesus' day - folks that proper people scorned and avoided. Why? Well, dirt, for one thing. I remember the time I helped sheep-ranching friends pack fleeces after shearing. A fleece is the sheep's wooly coat freshly clipped off his body - sticky with lanolin, smelly, loaded with dirt. To pack it for shipping, you gather it in your arms and throw it into a tall burlap wool bag supported on a stanchion.

Because of their size, my youngest son and our friend's daughter had the dubious honor of standing in the bottom of the bags and stomping the fleeces down tight, one by one - the dirtiest job of all.

By the end of that hot afternoon, we all wanted nothing so much as a bath. Packing fleeces is such a messy job that most ranchers have machines do it.

The shepherds outside Bethlehem worked with sheep up close and personal, all day, everyday. In dusty desert country, water was scarce and precious. They had little opportunity to bathe. Moreover, as they followed the animals from place to place, I'd guess they rarely even changed clothes. Keeping the Kosher laws - much less the elaborate cleanliness rituals of the faithful Jew - was out of the question. Add to that the shepherd's less than kosher scruples.

Because they moved their flocks from place to place, they often used other people's land without permission. And most certainly they were not above appropriating sheep from other flocks if they thought they could get away with it.

Yet God passed by all the upright, faithful Temple-goers who had arrived in Bethlehem to announce his Good News first to these smelly, scruffy outcasts. God surprises us with His grace. He delights in showing us He is bound by no human expectation or convention. He will always do things His way. Beyond that, however, His action shows us very clearly that we don't earn the Good News. The shepherds were not "good people." If we had been charge, there is no way we would have rewarded those shepherds with the honor of being the first to hear about the Messiah's birth... which is precisely why God did so. His love is a free, glorious gift, not a prize to be won.

By choosing the outcasts of society, God declared there is no one beyond the bounds of His love. No one is too dirty, too sinful, too despised. There is no place too ugly for His presence, whether a sheep pasture or a cross.