Shepherds and Great Joy

I’ve always liked the book of Luke most of all the Gospels. Somehow Jesus seems more relatable to me in Luke and not as distant as he can in some of the accounts. In particular, Luke tells the story of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth in a poignant way. As a Gentile and a physician, he saw the world through a different lens from that of the Jewish Gospel writers. He described Jesus’ birth plainly, with details noticed and collected by a scientific mind, apparently appealing to other non-Jewish people like me. He starts by telling about John the Baptist’s unusual conception and birth, the angel’s visit to Mary and her reaction, and Joseph and Mary’s trip to Bethlehem for the census. 

A Flair for the Dramatic

Among all of those details, we find a particularly dramatic scene: a group of shepherds sleeping  and watching their sheep on a hill outside town wake to a terrifying sight. A sky full of angels make an announcement. Of course, the angels’ first words are, “Don’t be afraid.” A blinding light on a dark night would frighten anyone, especially if it were accompanied by supernatural beings. The angels continue by telling the men that they bring good news. Specifically, they describe this good news as bringing “great joy for all the people.” The shepherds hurry into town to see this baby born to bring them great joy.

Old News but Good News

A lot has been written and sung and painted about these shepherds. None of the details from the paragraphs above are new to us. The story has been told for two thousand years, and shepherds are included in the telling nearly every time. We’ve probably all heard that the shepherds were smelly people, some of the lowest of society. They weren’t welcome in town, and they weren’t wealthy by any means. Shepherds were known as troublemakers, rough transients, undesirables. Think gang members, teenage guys hanging out in the park after dark laughing and playing loud music, homeless people on the street corner asking for donations to their food fund. 

Or maybe they were like today’s former third world slaves who escape from bondage to try and make their way in the world. Maybe today’s “shepherds” owe more money they can ever pay back and wonder where their next meal will come from. Maybe they’re single moms with too many mouths to feed or a small family trying to put two kids through school. Maybe they’re refugees at a border or immigrants sharing a cramped apartment with two other families. Maybe they’re exhausted suburbanites working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Who would God would choose to announce his good news to first now?

Everyone is Included

One of my favorite parts of the Christmas story in Luke is how it seems tailored to highlight the inclusion of the less-than-remarkable person. The shepherds are the lowest in society. Mary and Joseph are regular people. There’s no real evidence that they were more special than any other Jewish couple of their time before their designation as the parents of Jesus. Later, at the presentation of the new baby Jesus at the temple, Anna and Simeon, two elderly people who apparently spent most of their time just hanging out there, affirm the identity of Jesus as the Messiah. All of these were unlikely characters included in the greatest story of all time.

If we’re not careful, we see the Christmas story bathed in holy light, but when we read carefully, we see that the participants, including the shepherds, were ordinary people chosen to be part of an extraordinary story. Not only that, but the very one they went to worship later identified himself as one of them. He didn’t call himself a king, although he could have legitimately claimed that title. Instead, he called himself the “Good Shepherd,” associating himself with the low levels of the social structure. That inclusion of all is something I want to be part of this Christmas and throughout the year.

That Christmas Feeling

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I always tell my kids, who sometimes worry there will be a gunman in their school massacring everyone, that this isn’t something to worry about. I tell them it’s rare that something like that happens, despite the fact we see stories about that very thing in the news just about every day now. I tell them they’ve got nothing to worry about, and I have to add even if the unthinkable did happen, God would take care of them and they’d be fine.

Secretly, though, these days I don’t know if I believe myself. We hear statistics about 355 mass shootings in the last year. We hear others saying that statistic is too high, based on loose standards, and if we go by stricter definitions of “mass shootings” the number is lower (see article here). But isn’t even one mass shooting too many?

We hear people say things like, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people,” and declare that if everyone carried a gun, we would most certainly all be safer. Yesterday Jerry Fallwell Jr. even encouraged all of the students on the campus of Liberty University to carry a concealed weapon (see article here). Now, I’m not trying to say anything bad about college students; I work with a whole campus of them. Most of them are great and would be fine around firearms, but they’re young and impulsive and heaven forbid they get depressed and angry about a grade they got and have a gun in their back pocket! What about the many suicidal college students that struggle every winter? Do we care about them?

We’ve Lost It

But you know what? I didn’t start writing this to talk about gun control. I’m not even really sure where I fall in the opinions about who should have guns. I started writing because sometimes I feel like the whole world has lost its mind. We argue about everything. We’re so sensitive. We get our feelings hurt, we hold grudges. People work to provide an environment where everyone feels included and cared about, and then other people stand up and declare that being polite and kind with our words is politically correct and, dang it, they are tired of political correctness and would prefer just to blast everyone with their hurtful words.

What in the world?!

I hear people every Christmas say that they wish they could have the Christmas feeling all year. I want to say I’m not sure we’re ready to have that Christmas feeling all year. If we want to bring the Christmas feeling into January and February and beyond, we need to be ready to live with the peace and love that Jesus came here for. We need to work.

Falling in Love

love-05We’d love to just have this special feeling all the time, to feel this love and connectedness with others without putting forth any effort. We all know that’s not really possible. The feelings we have at Christmas are like the feelings we have when we fall in love. We see that special person and the whole world lights up. We feel so happy. We can’t believe there’s someone so very wonderful in the world. We feel like suddenly everything that was wrong about us is now right because that person somehow completes us. That’s the Christmas feeling. Somehow for just a few days, without any work at all, the world seems like a happier, more loving, more peaceful place where everyone feels good and makes us all feel good too.

But staying in love? That takes work. We begin to see the cracks, the flaws, the things we don’t always like about the other person. The things we’ve tried so hard to hide in ourselves start to show, and our insecurities come out. That’s when the real love begins, when we have to start working. That’s what I think happens in January. The shiny veneer the world had at Christmas wears off, and we see the cold, the snow, the harsh winds. We start thinking about ourselves again and how we don’t have enough money or we gained weight over the holidays. We start being irritable with the world and stop wanting that peace and love because it just costs too much. It takes too much work.

This Christmas, let’s go out of our way to give to others. Let’s do the Christmas stuff we like to do: bake the cookies, go caroling, decorate, donate and buy gifts. Let’s say we want the Christmas feeling to last all year. And then after Christmas, let’s put the work into loving other people, accepting our differences and caring about those who need care. Let’s put our words to work all year!