Monday, December 16, 2013

Shepherds - A Christmas Joy

Preached on the Third Sunday in Advent, December 15
Scriptures: 2 Samuel 6:1-16; Luke 2:8-20
The story we read about King David, and the story we read about the birth of Jesus go together. They both tell us about joyful shepherds. King David had been a shepherd boy. The shepherds were the only people of Bethlehem to be called by the angels to visit the baby shepherd king.
Advent 2013:
Palouse Falls & Canyon, Washtucna Community Church
Shepherds became a picture for how the people of Israel came to think about their kings and leaders. Shepherds became their picture of the Messiah, and their picture of God himself. Psalm 23 says it: “The Lord is my Shepherd.” It sounded great.
But, by the time of Jesus, real shepherds had come down a lot in the world. All of the Pharisees’ rules about washing and being clean left them with a religiously unclean reputation.
They lived in a land where water was scarce. They worked with livestock who commonly presented them so many of the things that their religion of cleanliness said not to touch: blood, and goo, and pooh.
Uncleanness was considered contagious. People avoided them, and never touched them.
Plus, they were poor and they lived out of sight in the hills. Who knew what they were up to out there? When they passed through town things seemed to go missing. Their testimony was not allowed in a court of law. Shepherds were no-goods who lived down to other people’s low expectations.
But the shepherds, in Luke’s gospel, are joyful, because they have good news. They have found the Messiah, the Christ: a Messiah who seemed exactly for people like them. Here was a Messiah, not for kings and governments, but for shepherds; a Messiah for peasants and the poor: not in a palace but a stable, not in a bed but a manger (a feed trough for livestock). The Messiah had come to run-down, tiny Bethlehem. That was the good news.
David was a shepherd in Bethlehem when it was only hard work, and not bad work. David became a king, but he stayed a shepherd, in his heart, for the real King. He was the one who first wrote those words: “The Lord is my shepherd.”  David was joyful because he believed he could bring his king home to be his new neighbor.
There was that little boy who ran into the house, after a good spring rain, yelling, “Mommy, mommy the toads are moving into our yard. There stools are here already!”
God’s furniture was arriving in Jerusalem. The best part of it was a golden box called the Ark of the Covenant (the box of the promise). It was shaped like a boxy chair, or throne, with angels for armrests.
Inside the seat of the box were the stone tablets on which Moses wrote the Ten Commandments. There was also a jar of manna, the strange, grainy stuff that the people of Israel ate in the wilderness, which appeared on the ground every morning, except on the day of rest. And there was the staff of Aaron that had come to life as an almond tree.
The amazing thing about the Ark, this chair, was that no one was allowed to sit on it, or even to touch it. It was too holy to handle and so it was carried around on poles. It was the throne of God. As holy and as scary as this chair could be, it meant that God was moving into the neighborhood.
He was never seen sitting there, with the naked eye, but it was the moveable place where God chose to come and be present, when the time was right. The Ark, the box of the promise, stood for the presence of the awesome and living God.
So when David brought the ark to Jerusalem, he brought the real King to their town. This was great news. The Shepherd David was full of joy.
David was so happy that he danced for joy. He did a crazy dance in a revealing costume. As a symbol of his desire to serve the Lord, he wore a type of clothing worn by the priests who served in the holy place where the Ark was kept. It was a short work robe, called an ephod. It is just a Hebrew word for a plain white wool tunic that barely reached down to the knee. Now the high priest wore a long ephod, down to his feet with a little fringe of bells and beads.
David didn’t dress like a high priest. He was just a shepherd, even though he was a King. So he wore a common ephod, the priestly work robe. It was short so it wouldn’t trip them up, or drag on the bloody ground when they sacrificed cattle, and sheep, and goats. And they wore a loincloth (a kind of underwear) underneath, just like everyone wore.
David’s wife, Queen Michal, was the daughter of King Saul. Saul wasn’t born a king, but he acted and thought like a king. He worried about his honor and his power, as a king, and he taught his daughter to think like royalty.
Now a kingly man (like Michal’s father) had far too much dignity to be seen working, or dressed down for work. For a king to wear a robe that barely reached his knees (like common work clothes) was as shameful as being naked. For a real king to move fast, like David was in his dance (unless you were in battle) was undignified and shameful. A king could watch dancing, but not do it. A king was too important to dance for joy. A kingly king (like Michal thought her husband David ought to be) was too big, too important, a man to act out his joy.
The lowly shepherds of the gospels weren’t big enough to share the joy of the good news. The kingly shepherd, David, was supposed to be too big to share the joy of the good news. But, too bad for that! They all forgot about themselves and their size in life, and they enjoyed it anyway.
Sometimes there is bad news: grim, and hard, and tough, and scary. God himself doesn’t like bad news, even when he has to give it. God has designed the whole direction of his work to bring good news. And God’s good news usually has something to do with God choosing to come to us in a new way.
This was true in David’s Jerusalem. God would be with his people in a new way. This was also true in the shepherds’ Bethlehem. This is true here and now. God wants to come to us. God is coming. God wants to do something new with us. God wants to be with us in a new way.
God is doing something. God wants to be found by you. God will lead you to himself, to be “God with you”. That’s the news we have read about, today. It is the source of God’s joy that is given to small, self-forgetting people like the shepherds
The good news is worth rejoicing about. I think Advent and Christmas challenge us to see how ready we are to truly enjoy truly good news, and not leave it out of Christmas.
There are so many things that get in the way of this. There was the lowly shepherds’ raw deal in life, and the way they had built their lives by living down to the low expectations of others.
There was Michal’s dignity and coolness. She was cool in the worst sense of the word. She was too cool for joy.
We have a raw deal. Or we are too dignified or cool to change. We have got to be rational. We have got to be serious. We have got to be realistic. We have got to get so many things done. We are in over our heads. There are dangers and risks ahead. There are burdens to bear. There are people who rely on us. All these things make us too big, too much the center, to enjoy the news of God with us. It all comes down to, “Yes, but….”
Michal needed, more than anything, to tuck up her royal robes and dance. She needed to stop being so darn big. The shepherds left their flocks to God and forgot about them. They ran to see the king in the manger. They were not too small for the best news in the world to be their good news. Running was their dance.
God’s good news gives you better things to think about than about what you have or don’t have; what you might lose, or what you have lost; how you look to others, and to yourself; what your possibilities may be, compared with others. God’s good news gives you better things to think about.
You are loved by God. You can still receive that love, and enjoy it, and share it. Like David, you are not too big for this, like the shepherds you are not too small.
The proof of God’s good news is that baby in the manger. That is where God comes to you. We want a nice palace for God to come to us. God comes to whatever place in our life serves as, and smells like, a manger in a stable.
Jesus lying in a manger was a sign that things were not going well for Mary and Joseph. No one would take them in, but God was with them anyway.
It was the same kind of sign to the shepherds. No one wanted to touch them, but God let them come and perhaps touch him. Mary and Joseph were outcasts too and they wouldn’t have said “no”.
The shepherds were too small in life to be believed, but they told everyone anyway? They were happy; what did they care? They made an impression on the whole town, but we don’t see the town going to meet their Messiah. The others must have felt too big and important to bother and find this joy.
Jesus was the living presence of God with the shepherds. Jesus, in the manger, was a sign just for them, or for anyone else who could see himself or herself typecast in the shepherds’ part. We can know the joy of Christmas if we are like Linus with his embarrassing, dirty blanket in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”.
The manger is just as important as the cross, because it is just as humble as the cross. They are both desperate in their own ways. They are both a sacrifice for the sins of the world. The manger (like the cross) says that God is for you, no matter what. His birth is for you, to bring you to him; just as you are, without any games, or pretending, or posing.

God will not leave you just as you are, but God wants start something new with you. He wants you to know him and enjoy him. You can never be “not quite good enough” for him. The manger says he came for you, unless you are too big for him.


  1. "You can never be “not quite good enough” for him."

    Sometimes difficult to simply accept.

    Good message Dennis.

    Have a blessed Christmas.

  2. Thanks for the message, Dennis. Jesus came to set our world right, and using US in the process as His workers! What joy! Our Savior calls us "friends"! It reminds me again of the title of the book, the Upside-down Kingdom. Link: