If any of the Bethlehem townspeople had noticed shepherds crowding into the stable, which was probably a cave at the rear of the inn, the reaction might well have been, “Who let those guys in?” Contrary to our romantic picture of shepherds, in first century Israel, sheep herding was not a respected occupation. Some of them let their sheep graze on other people’s land. Some of them let the sheep pilfer crops. A shepherd was deprived of his civil rights. He could not fulfill a judicial office or be a witness in court. One ancient writing reports, “No position in the world is so despised as that of the shepherd.”
How astounding that shepherds were invited to the manger! Shepherds were singled out by angels to receive the announcement of the Messiah’s birth! The idea of shepherds at the manger was startling, shocking, revolutionary! Can you hear the gossip lines sizzling, “Can you believe it? Someone said that the Messiah has been born, and that shepherds were told by angels. Can you believe such nonsense!”
Not only did despicable shepherds attend the birth, but Jesus saw himself as a shepherd. Jesus said,” I am the good shepherd.” I imagine Jesus’ followers did not appreciate being called sheep, but also to hear Jesus call himself a good shepherd must have raised many eyebrows. How can any shepherd be good?
By deliberately highlighting a despised trade like that of the shepherd, Jesus was standing with the outcasts of his day. Jesus deliberately identified the gospel with the despised. What outraged the religious people of Jesus’ day was not so much his message of God’s love, but his insistence that everyone is loved equally by God. No one is so low; no one is so despicable that he/she is not loved by God. No one is outside the community of the church. Shepherds, of all people, were visited by angels, and went to the stable to see the baby!
What the Christmas story says is, not only are shepherds invited to the birth, but all people: people of all colors, people of all nationalities, people of all classes, people of all occupations, people of all sexual orientations and lifestyles; all people, even shepherds, even you. May you take comfort, may you take courage tonight because shepherds were welcome at the manger, and Jesus himself identified with shepherds. This means:
Regardless of who you are,
Regardless of what you have done,
Regardless of whatever mess you have made of your life,
Regardless of how guilty you feel,
Regardless of how little you think of yourself,
Regardless of what other people think of you and say about you,
Even if you are a shepherd,
You are invited to the party,
You are invited to the manger,
You are welcome in the church,
You are welcome in God’s family.
There at the manger, may the touch of the baby, the smile of the baby, the love of God fill you with love and affirmation, cleanse you of whatever is inhibiting you, so that you leave the manger a new person, rejoicing in the Lord, praising God as did the shepherds when they returned to the hills, praising God for all that they had seen.
Tonight, let’s visit the manger. Listen again to the story from the beginning.
A young couple set out on a long journey (MARY AND JOSEPH ENTER) from their home in Nazareth to go to Bethlehem where they had to register for the Roman census, so they could be taxed. Their trip was filled with mystery and expectation for they had been visited by angels telling them that Mary was pregnant. It was not a pleasant, comfortable journey for her. Joseph lovingly helped her. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the motels were full. The only room they could find was in a stable behind an inn. There they settled in to wait for the baby’s birth.
When it was time for the baby to be born, (GABRIEL AND BABY ENTER) the baby was delivered by the angel, Gabriel, who tenderly placed the new born baby on his mother’s lap. She named the baby “Jesus”, which in Hebrew is “Joshua.” His name means Savior. Mary’s baby came to save the world.
Out on the hillside, shepherds were watching their sheep, when suddenly the sky brightened. An angel appeared and said, “I have good news for you! News of great joy for everyone. The Messiah, the Savior, is born.” And suddenly there was a multitude of angels singing,” Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
The shepherds decided they didn’t want to miss out, (SHEPHERDS ENTER AND KNEEL) so they left their sheep and went to Bethlehem to see the baby. The angels went with them, (ANGELS ENTER) and they worshiped, adored the baby, and praised God.
Let us also express adoration and praise as we sing “Silent Night.” Remain seated. Light your candle from your neighbor’s candle. Do not tilt your lighted candle.
After the Benediction, please extinguish your candle. You are invited to come forward to see the holy family and join them in praising God for the coming of our Savior.
© 2007 Douglas I. Norris