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Who Invited Shepherds?
December 24, 1995, 10:00 p.m.

LUKE 2:1-20

Who invited shepherds? 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?"

Modern research is revealing that our romantic image of simple shepherds visiting the newborn baby is not quite correct. The fact that shepherds attended the celebration of the babyís arrival was a startling, shocking, revolutionary visit. The fact that shepherds were honored guests at the babyís birth would have made the assertion that this baby was the long-awaited Messiah a laughing matter. The Messiah came to shepherds? The gossip lines must have sizzled! "Can you believe it? Someone said that the Messiah has been born, and that shepherds were told by angels. Can you believe such nonsense!"

In first-century Israel, sheep herding was considered not only a humble occupation, but also was not respected. Shepherds were generally considered to be thieves. Donald Messer wrote in Circuit Rider magazine:

Far from being viewed as reliable and responsible, they were habitually known to graze on other peoplesí lands and to pilfer the produce of the herd. Their societal and religious status would not be much higher than pimps and drug pushers in our day. They were deprived of their civil rights. They could not fulfil a judicial office or be a witness in court. It was forbidden to buy wool, milk, or a kid from shepherds, because it was widely assumed that what they sold would be stolen property. One ancient writing reports, "No position in the world is so despised as that of the shepherd."

Isnít it astounding that shepherds were invited to the manger! Shepherds were singled out by the angels to receive the announcement of the Messiahís birth! Shepherds attended the event, and the visit was recorded in Luke, giving them status. Astounding! Revolutionary!

Not only did despicable shepherds attend the birth, but Jesus saw himself as a shepherd. According to John, chapter 10, Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd." I imagine the 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? It would been an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, like cruel kindness, authentic reproduction, jumbo shrimp, pretty ugly, postal service. How about United Methodist? How could a thieving shepherd be called good?

Jesus probably intended to shock his listeners. He contrasted the good shepherd with typical hired shepherd. The good shepherd is willing to lay down his life to protect the sheep, while the hired shepherd runs when the wolves come because he is more concerned with his own safety than with the safety of the sheep. "He cares nothing about the sheep," said Jesus. The good shepherd is willing to sacrifice his life or status or reputation for the sake of the sheep, for the sake of people and for the right cause.

By deliberately highlighting a despised trade like that of the shepherd, Jesus was standing with the outcasts of his culture. Jesus deliberately identified the gospel with the despised of his society. What outraged the religious people of Jesusí day was not so much his message of Godís 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 concern or the community of the church. Shepherds, of all people, were visited by angels! Shepherds, of all people, went to the stable. Shepherds, of all people, are immortalized in the Bible itself as being privileged, chosen, selected, to help celebrate the Messiahís birth.

What the Christmas story is saying 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 from the fact that shepherds went to the manger, and Jesus himself identified with shepherds. For this means that:

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 how disgusted you may be with 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 at the celebration,

you are welcome in the church,

you are welcome in Godís kingdom,

you are welcome in Godís family.

There at the manger, may the touch of the baby, the smile of the baby, the love of God fill you with hope, fill you with love and affirmation, cleanse you of whatever is inhibiting you, 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.

Who invited shepherds? God did. Shepherds were most welcome at the manger. So are you.

ã 1995 Douglas I. Norris