Series: The First Carols: Week 3
Listen to it HERE.
About fifteen years ago Diane accompanied me to a National Youth Workers Convention. I had attended the previous two years with my friend Scott – the first time in Philadelphia and the next time in Cincinnati. Scott had moved to Texas earlier that year and was not going. So Diane graciously agreed to come with me possibly because it was being held in Nashville. I would like to tell you I learned a lot about youth ministry at that conference, but that would not be true.
As he had done the previous two years, Mike Yaconelli, the president of the company that put on the convention, gave the welcoming address. Yaconelli’s speech was the about the same every year which included an invitation to miss session of the conference. He told us that some of us in the audience might need a break, and that taking that break would be the best thing we could do that week for ourselves, our churches, and our families. He reinforced by saying that we should not feel obligated to attend all the sessions of the conference.
Somehow in Philadelphia, a city I had grown up around, and the following year in Cincinnati that invitation did not have the same appeal that it did in Nashville. I quickly grabbed the agenda for the conference and noticed that I had heard most of the speakers before. Challenge accepted! Diane and I took Yaconelli up on his invitation to miss portions of the conference.
Nashville was fantastic. There seemed to be music everywhere. Many genres were represented, but most of it was country which I didn’t mind because I grew up around country music (my Dad, who grew up in the Bronx is a big fan of George Jones, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Roy Clark, and the like). We went to the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Grand Ole Opry, and the Ryman Auditorium.
One afternoon was particularly fun when we decided to walk the strip to find a place to have lunch. We were surprised to find almost every venue hosting live music. After having lunch at one place and hearing some live music, we then spent several hours moving from venue to venue to hear more live music.
I remember one guy in particular, although I don’t remember his name. He was very good, but everyone in Nashville was good. What made memorable was his accent. We didn’t notice it when he was singing, but when he told stories between songs, it was pretty thick. Now a country singer with a southern accent would not have been remarkable, but this country crooner had an Australian accent. I heard him sing country, then speak with an unmistakable Australian accent, and I was confused. As they say on Sesame Street: “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn’t belong.” Country singers should sound like Sam Elliot not Crocodile Dundee.
You may have noticed over the past several weeks that the Christmas story has a similar quality to it. Things don’t exactly seem to fit. Two weeks ago, Bob talked about Mary – an ordinary young woman of little note, whom God selects her to be the mother of Jesus. Last week we met a priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth from a long religious tradition. They certainly seem like the kind of couple God would use to be the parents of the Messiah, but they are not. They are the parents of John, the one who will be the “voice of one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord: (Luke 3:4).
Like an Australian accent on a country singer, the Son of God is born surrounded by those who do not seem to fit the scene. These are not extraordinary folks of great merit. There are instead very much like you and me. Today’s passage, which includes another angel visitation and another song, reinforces this thought.
The angel’s announcement
When we read this passage, we tend to focus on the angels – the heavenly beings in the sky. But we miss a great deal of what the passage has to say for us if we do not consider the audience to whom the angels appear. It is true that this is a song FOR the whole world, but it is not a song sung TO the whole world. Rather, this announcement and song are addressed to a specific audience – a handful of shepherds and probably a bunch of sheep.
Luke sets the scene when he writes, “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them” (Luke 2:8-9).
I don’t know any shepherds, and I don’t even have a point of reference to understand what a shepherd is. So when I hear shepherds, I often think cowboy. But having grown up in New Jersey, I have never met any real cowboys, So I dont really think cowboy, I think movie cowboy – someone like Jack Palance in the movie City Slickers.
Palance plays a seasoned, rugged old cowboy with a wealth of wisdom because he has spent his days out on the prairie – unencumbered by the distractions of modern life. He knows the meaning of life, not because he read it in a book or learned it in a classroom, but because he has long pondered it out on the range overseeing the cattle. Ah, the homespun wisdom, philosophy, and theology of the cowboy.
While that is where my 21st century mind goes, that probably would NOT have been the predominant view of a cowboy in the nineteenth century. What I have is a sanitized, Zane Grey, John Wayne, movie version of a cowboy that probably never existed.
The same is true of our common understanding of the shepherd. The shepherds contemporaries would not have seen him like a movie cowboy. First century documents paint a different, far less glamorous, picture of the shepherd. They were not respected theologians on the plain with a wealth of untapped wisdom gleaned from the time they had to be in deep thought. Rather they were viewed, if seen at all, as those whom the rest of proper society was more than happy to have living on the hillsides outside of town. One commentator, quoting several ancient sources, puts it this way:
in the First Century … shepherds…had a rather unsavory reputation. … “most of the time they were dishonest and thieving; they led their herds onto other people’s land and pilfered the produce of the land.” … Consequently, the pious were warned not to buy wool, milk, or kids from shepherds on the assumption that it was stolen property. Shepherds were not allowed to fulfill a judicial office or be admitted in court as witnesses. A midrash [a sort of ancient, Hebrew Bible commentary] on Psalm 23:2 reads, “There is no more disreputable occupation than that of a shepherd.” Philo, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher [at the time of Jesus], wrote about looking after sheep and goats, “Such pursuits are held mean and inglorious” (Wilson).
The picture we get from these sources is quite different from the clean-cut boy with the lamb on his shoulders that are included in many of our nativity sets. Rather they are assumed to be dishonest, petty thieves whom people were encouraged not to even do business with. They were considered so unreliable that they were not allowed to testify in court. They are called disreputable and inglorious. They are not exactly the kind of people one who select to make the birth announcement to.
Bethlehem was filled that night with the right kind of people, descendants of David, the great king from whom the messiah was prophesied to be born. This announcement would appear to pertain more to them. In Bethlehem were the good, upstanding, law-abiding, ritually clean, Temple observant Jews. Yet the angel goes out to the fields, to a group of people living out on the hills, outside of respectable society, and considered ritually unclean, to announce this:
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. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:10b-12, emphasis added)
Four times the angel directly addresses the shepherds. The angel says this message, this child, this sign are for you. Then the angel invites them to go and see when he says “you will find.” Often we hear this addressed to us, the church-going, believing Christians. It wasn’t originally. Our first century counterparts were in Bethlehem, the City of David, getting counted for a census and paying their taxes. The angel was instead sent to announce the birth of the Messiah to those discounted by society, the irreligious, the untrustworthy, the rough around the edges.
Then, as the announcement draws to a close, the angel is joined by a whole host (or army) of angels who sing:
Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors! (Luke 2:14)
Which, by the way, is the entire song of the angels that we celebrate so much at Christmas. We know that song so much better than Mary’s which is quite a bit longer, and certainly better than Zechariah’s, which is even longer still. I’m sure we know it better than Simeon’s song which Bob will preach on next week, which though shorter than Mary’s and Zechariah’s, is still about twice as long as the angels.
We know the song well because we sing about it constantly throughout the Christmas season. When I was looking for hymns to sing today, I joked with Pastor Bob about how easy it was – unlike just about every other Sunday in the year. I could have picked just about any Christmas carol in the hymnal and we would sing about the angels. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” “Angels We Have Heard on High” (where we get to sing part of the song in Latin), “The First Noel,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” even “Away in a Manger” has the angels in it.
Each of them is longer than the song of the angels that barely takes up one verse. We like this song and know it well, but we may be missing something when we remove it from its original context. We cannot forget to whom this beautiful song of worship is sung.
The angels sing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” At least that is how the NRSV translates it. If you are my age though, you may remember it differently. When Charlie Brown asks “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Linus recites these same verses from the King James Version. The passage ends with a slightly different translation of the angels’ song, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”
The difference “peace, goodwill toward men” and “peace among those who he favors” is due to a difference in the last word of the song in the Greek texts. In some texts there is an s, a sigma, at the end of the word, and in other texts the s is not there. Is it eudokia or eudokias?
The word eudokia/s has at its root a sense of delight, pleasure, satisfaction. The question about the sigma at the end simply changes its part of speech. With the s, as the NRSV uses, it is about God taking delight in people. Without the s, as the KJV uses, it is about God giving delight to the people.
Scholars write lengthy linguistic and historical debates about the sigma, but I wonder how much it really matters. What seems more important is that we are talking about God taking delight in, or giving delight to, the shepherds.
Before we look at that though, let’s eliminate a possible misreading of this text. When the angels sing, “peace among those whom he favors” it may sound as though the angels are dividing the world into two categories: those whom God favors, and those whom he doesn’t. There are several pieces of evidence that won’t allow us to accept that reading.
First, if that is the case we would have to believe that the angels have the wrong address. Certainly lowly shepherds would not be considered “favored ones.” If we read it that way, we would have to believe that God is making an announcement to those for whom it does not apply.
Some might suggest that God is holding out a carrot in front of the shepherds trying to get them to “straighten up and fly right.” In other words (in my best Price is Right voice), “This peace can be yours, if only you will do what it takes to become the favored ones of God.”
I don’t like either of those explanations. Neither sounds like God to me.
Further, we need to remember that the song follows the announcement which, we have already noted, is specifically addressed TO the shepherds – “I am bringing you good news of great joy… to you is born this day… This will be a sign for you: you will find a child…” The announcement is clearly addressed to the shepherds and there is no reason to suspect that the song is any different. Further the angel says that this news is “for ALL the people” – no qualifier there. For these reasons I do not believe that we can read “among those who he favors” as a qualifier.
I believe it is intended as a modifier. Rather than dividing humanity, I believe this statement about God’s delight (eudokia/s) is intentionally directed toward a group of people who have been told all of their life that they don’t matter. The shepherds have lived hearing that they are poor and outcast because God doesn’t like them; that they are somehow unworthy of the love of God; and not welcome in the Temple until they get their act together. The message to the shepherds that night is that God takes great delight in, or gives that delight to, them. Those living outside of town, outside of proper society, outside of the religious elite, are loved. Jesus, the Messiah has been born for them. Yes, even the shepherds. It seems odd that God would choose to send the angels to them, but then again, God has always seemed to have a soft spot in his heart for shepherds.
Shepherds in the Old Testament
Abraham was a herdsman when God appeared to and called him. When Moses noticed the bush that was burning but not consumed, through which God called to him, he was on Mount Horeb tending his father-in-law’s flocks. When Samuel came to the house of Jesse with word that one of his sons was to be anointed to be the next king of Israel, David was presented after all of his older brothers had been rejected because Davie was out in the fields tending sheep at the time. Abraham, Moses, and David were all shepherds.
Additionally, there are several passages in the prophetic books of the Old Testament that talk about a day when God will return to rule his people, and the image used is that of a shepherd. In Psalm 23 “The Lord [YHWH] is my shepherd.” In Jeremiah 31 God says to his people that he will return to them and care for them “as a shepherd a flock.” In Ezekiel 34, God is described as the Great Shepherd coming to guide his sheep, the people of Israel. In his own ministry, Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
There is a theme throughout the Old Testament and that is picked up right from the start of the story of Jesus – that those often considered the “wrong people” are actually the “right people.”
Shepherds to the manger
Unlike Zechariah who responded to his angel appearance with skepticism – “How will I know that this is so?” unlike Mary who responded to her angel-visit with a resounding “yes” but then was called to wait nine months; the shepherds are people of action. When the angel chorus finishes, they go. And they go with haste. The text reads,
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, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste. (Luke 2:15-16a)
There in Bethlehem the shepherds find the scene as the angel described it – Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus lying in a manger. Luke continues,
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 2:17-18)
Those thought to be too unreliable to be witnesses in a court of law are the reliable witnesses of birth of the Messiah.
Luke then concludes the story of the shepherds,
The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:20)
Those who have been sung too, now have a song to sing. Those who had been welcomed, go to invite others. They have heard the good news, experienced it for themselves, and become the first evangelists, sharing the news at the birth of the messiah. Remarkable!
As a boy, my family’s tradition was to put up and decorate our Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. It was a great way to celebrate. On that day of great anticipation, my brother and I had something to do. This also meant that throughout December our primary Christmas decoration was the nativity set.
My parents’ nativity set is very cool, not very historically accurate, but cool. There is a Christmas light hidden under the eave of the wooden stable. The bulb was always orange, to give that warm glow to the scene. There is also a music box in the back that plays “Silent Night” when wound. The figurines are beautiful – not ornate like some, but simple and beautiful. I was always a big fan of the nativity set, but there was something I never noticed as a child. Being the weird kid that I was, there were times when I would turn out all of the lights in the house, plug in the bulb, wind the music box, and just take it in.
What I failed to notice back then is how the figurines in the scene are similar to an Australian accent on country singer. They just don’t seem to belong together. The shepherds had a reputation for living on the edge of society. The Wise Men were from a different country and a different religion. Joseph was of the ancestral house of David, but he was hardly regal as a laborer. Mary was from a historically priestly family, but it is her cousin Elizabeth who married a priest, not Mary.
Jesus is born just outside of an inn that is just outside of Jerusalem, to a woman whose cousin is married to a priest, and a man who is of the house of David but works with his hands. He is visited by spiritual people, but they are from another country and a different religion. There are some Jewish people who visit, but they are ritually unclean shepherds. Everything seems to be just a little outside of the upstanding, religious surrounding one might expect.
Jesus continues this theme throughout his ministry. The people he calls to be his disciples are fishermen, tax collectors, and the like. All those who had some education in the Hebrew scriptures, but obviously were not seen as promising enough to become apprentices of a more traditional rabbi. He touches those who were considered untouchable, loves the unlovable, and welcomes everyone to his table – even those with questionable pasts. Throughout his ministry, starting right here at his birth, and even predating his birth through the likes of Abraham, Moses, and David, we are introduced to a God who is no respecter of status, but loves us all. Yes, even you.
Jesus loves you
One of the primary messages of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that it is for you. Not your potential you if you worked really hard and got your act together – but you. The gift of the messiah, of peace and joy, is not just for the got-it-all-together, calm, responsible people. It is also given to the harried, the over-worked, and the underpaid. It is for the rich, the unemployed, and those with embarrassing debt. It is for the overwhelmed, the short-tempered, and the frazzled. It is extended to the active church member, the Christmas-Eve-only attendee, and those angry at the church. It is for the picketers, the picketed, and those caught in the crossfire. It is for those who have made a big mistake, those who have made a bunch of little mistakes, and those who make habitual mistakes. The love of God is for all – who please him – the priest, the Wise Man, the shepherd. The love of God is for you.
Some of you may think, “Well, that is nice for everyone else, but it doesn’t apply to me. You wouldn’t say that if you knew my secret sin, my addiction, my pain.” No, but God does. And he makes the offer anyway. That barrier is not God’s. It is yours. The angels announced to the shepherds that Jesus was for ALL people. Even them. Even you.
The angel’s announcement to the shepherds reminds us also that Jesus comes to the shepherds among us today. Those who have been pushed to the margins of our society, and outside of the church. They are all around us everyday – angry, frustrated, confused, struggling. They wonder if God, or anyone else could love them. They wonder if they can ever be forgiven for that thing that they have done, and in some cases continue to do. You probably know some. Who are those “shepherds” you come into contact with? The message is for them as well.
The song of the angels is an invitation to those who think they do not belong.
After meeting the baby Jesus, Luke tells us “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” Those who had been sung to are now singing. We need to follow their lead – no longer separating the religious from the irreligious, the insider from the outsider, but instead extending an invitation to those on the outside – where Jesus was born, ministered, and continues to dwell.
May we hear the angels’ song inviting us, the outsiders, to the manger. May we then go as the shepherds did, into our world singing the song we have heard, inviting others into this relationship that changes everything.
Wilson, Ralph F. “Shepherds in Bethlehem” at JesusWalk.com. Accessed at http://www.jesuswalk.com/lessons/2_8-20.htm on 08Dec2011.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org.