Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Why Shepherds? - Eleanor Shepherd

Why did God choose to announce the arrival of Christ to shepherds? Was there something significant or appropriate about this choice? 

The metaphor of shepherds occurs frequently in the Scriptures. I have often been told it is an appropriate name, for me as a pastor. 

Through the Old Testament prophets, God speaks out against religious leaders who are supposed to be shepherding the people of God and caring for them in a way that a shepherd cares for his sheep.  Jeremiah says, "Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture! declares The Lord." (Jeremiah 23:1-3).  The religious leaders were guilty of oppression, violence and personal aggrandizement.  They failed to follow God's ways themselves so they did not encourage the development of faith and justice in the people they served. 

            God does not allow their failure to deter Him from accomplishing His purposes or showing love for His people.  The prophet goes on to promise, "I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing," declares the Lord.  This was fulfilled partially following the Exile, with good leaders like Zerrubabbel, Ezra and Nehemiah.  The prophecy continues to tell how The Lord, ... will raise up for David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land."         

            This righteous Branch promised by Jeremiah is Jesus.  He told His followers in John 10:11, "I am the good shepherd."  He best demonstrates for us what a true shepherd looks like.   

            A strange and appropriate irony of the Christmas story is that Jesus, the good shepherd who cares so deeply for God's people, was welcomed to this earth by shepherds.  
The contrast becomes more remarkable when we realize that at the time of Jesus, shepherds were in some ways the rejects of society with their lack of sophistication.  They were the lowest and most despised of the social groups in the city.  Nevertheless, instead of sending angels to the religious or political leaders, God sent the Message of "good news to all people" of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. 

            Jesus is the Good Shepherd and it seems appropriate for Him to be welcomed to earth by those who understand what that means. Yet, there is more to the choice of shepherds.

The beloved Psalm 23 describes the good shepherd.  It affirms that The Lord provides for us, never abandons us and gives us the best life possible.  That is what it means to have Him as our shepherd.  I wonder if in choosing to share the glorious news with the shepherds, God's desire was that on earth, He might find those who will show such care and concern for His Son, even though He knew what lay ahead.  Is that why He gave the shepherds their role in the story of Christmas? 

 Another characteristic of shepherds helps us understand what was going on. 

            The Bible not only speaks of the shepherds, it also has something to say about sheep.  One of the titles given to Jesus by John the Baptist was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. 

The book of Revelation presents Jesus as the Lamb.  Revelation 5:6 quotes John, "Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the centre of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders." 
            The song sung by those encircling the throne is: "Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise."
Another irony of the Christmas story is that the shepherds to whom the news came were likely those who cared for the sheep chosen to be used in the Temple sacrifices.  These sheep were to be as perfect as possible and it was necessary for the shepherds to see that they were well cared for.  After the death and resurrection of Jesus the custom of offering sheep as a sacrifice for sin was no longer required.  Jesus, the perfect Lamb of God sacrificed His life for the sins of all mankind for all time on the Cross of Calvary.    

Why were the shepherds given such a significant role in the Christmas story?  Perhaps it was because if they were faithful to their calling they most closely resembled the way that God cares for people, and Christ the good shepherd was one of their own.  They too, more than anyone else understood the significance of His sacrifice, as the Lamb of God who came to take away the sin of the world. 
Word Guild Award

Word Guild Award


Peter Black said...

Loved it, Eleanor. Thank you for sharing your insights into "Why Shepherds?"
I presented a sermon under the same title a number of years ago. And yet, no matter how often we return to the Incarnation narratives, there's always more to be mined from them isn't there?

Eleanor Shepherd said...

It is amazing, isn't it, Peter? Thanks for your comments

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