Part of any visitor’s experience of visiting Bethlehem is to go from the touristic chaos of the Church of the Nativity to the Shepherds’ Fields.
Shepherds, in Biblical times, have had very bad press over the years. They have been viewed as outcasts, because of their need to work seven days a week (even on the Sabbath), and because of their unavailability to attend synagogue.
But, is that fair, I have often wondered?
Shepherds in Jesus’ time were employed at shoestring wages by a landowning farmer – they owned no land and spent much of their time in the open air, defending their flocks against wild animals and rustlers.
It was for this reason that shepherds were often regarded as being the lowest of the low. So – why do these social misfits and outcasts feature so highly in the Nativity story?
Let us imagine the scene for a moment …
Suppose you are one of those shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem. It is a cold winter’s night, but you have to be there with your flock.
You can’t go to sleep – just in case! Should anything happen to one of those precious sheep, the value would be deducted from your wages!!
Can you imagine the boredom of just being there in the cold field, watching those flocks by night? What would a group of shepherds be doing to pass the time, I wonder?
Well, I am certain that at some point they would have been grumbling about how unfair life was for them – stuck in a dead-end job, paid a pittance and trapped!
Because of your job you can’t go to synagogue, so the rabbis show no interest in your spiritual or physical welfare. You know that scripture compares God to a shepherd, but you see no evidence that God has any time for the likes of you.
What is there to do, but stare at the stars?
Then, you see it … one of the stars looks different, and it seems to be moving. Then you realize that it is no longer star-shaped, it looks more like a human being!
The other shepherds are getting excited – more and more of the stars seem to be turning into human beings!
And then, one of them started talking to them – they must have thought they had finally flipped.
As you listen to the star-people talking you realize that you are hearing some very strange, and yet some very familiar words. Synagogue talk! Talk of God! Reassuring talk of God coming to save everyone, even the shepherds, from the hopeless mess the world is in.
You hear talk of a baby born to save the world – just up the road – right there in your world – in Bethlehem!
There is certainly no room for boredom on this remarkable night! It just seems so right, doesn’t it? To drop everything and run to see that special baby.
Then what do you do? You found the baby, just as the star-people said – lying in a feeding trough and wrapped in bands of cloth. You congratulated the happy parents, and then what? Of course, you told everyone about your experience. But who believes you?
Not many believe you – it’s just too incredible! And … you’re only a shepherd – who can believe a shepherd?
But you know! … You know that one day people will realize the truth of your experience. They will come to believe.
It will dawn on them that you shepherds (even though you might be the lowest of the low) did have an important part to play in telling the story of God coming down to earth, to share in our human condition.
So now, let us stop imagining, and let us make a resolution …
Let us resolve not just to visit the stable and say the ‘right’ words …
let us resolve instead to spread the good news through our words and our actions – let us bring the love of God to everyone we meet today, and for the rest of our lives. Amen.