December 24th, 2018, Pastor Galen, Christmas Eve Service
For those of us who didn’t grow up around sheep, we might tend to think of sheep as these warm, cuddly, soft animals that are always clean and smell great. If we could, we’d just to just hold a nice cuddly little lamb in our arms. We imagine sheep grazing in picturesque landscapes, lush green fields, where the weather is always beautiful, the sun is always shining, and the nights, and clear and crisp, but not too cold.
At the same time, we romanticize what it must have been like to be a shepherd in Bible times. We imagine the shepherds with their white clean robes, lying there in the lush green grass, holding adorable little lambs, their hair always immaculately in place. Just a wonderful, peaceful existence, enjoying nature, rescuing little lost lambs, and living a life of solitude and rest.
And so we might wonder, why did the angels disturb these shepherd’s peaceful sleep to tell them that the Christ Child was born? And why did the angels specifically choose shepherds, of all people, to announce the glad tidings of Jesus’ birth?
The reality is, however, that sheep are not necessarily always perfectly clean. And the weather conditions around 1st Century Palestine were not always perfect. And shepherds were not able to always keep their robes clean and pristine, and their hair was not always immaculately in place.
Sheep herding was actually a rather dirty and smelly occupation. Not only were shepherds around smelly animals all day, but they probably weren’t able to take showers or wash their clothes very often. And shepherding was not for the faint of heart.
Living out in the fields meant that sheep herders had to endure harsh weather conditions. Shepherds did indeed often have to rescue little lost lambs — lambs who had fallen down jagged cliffs, or who been attacked by wolves or bears. In some ways we might think of 1st Century Palestinian shepherds kind of like the cowboys and cowgirls of the Old West, or like modern day farmers, without all of our modern technology and access to good sanitation and medical care.
The reality of shepherding in the time when Jesus was born was such that it really wasn’t possible for shepherds to live up to the religious ritual obligations of the day. Shepherds probably couldn’t take time away from their fields to go to the temple to offer sacrifices very often, even though, ironically, the shepherds near Bethlehem may have been raising the sheep that others would offer as sacrifices at the temple. Even if they were to go to the temple, they might have been turned away since they were considered unclean by society — not just physically unclean, but religiously unclean according to the very strict religious and cultural expectations of the day.
And so it was very significant and important that the angels specifically appeared to the shepherds that night. Because if they had appeared to the religious elite, or the politically powerful, or the inordinately wealthy, then shepherds back then, and perhaps we ourselves today, might have always wondered if Jesus had really come for us. But the angels said that Jesus’s birth was cause for great joy for all the people. And if that includes shepherds, then that includes anyone.
Still, the shepherds might have been concerned that if they went to visit the baby who had been born, that they might not be able to see him — that they might get turned away at the door. And so the angel offered them a sign, so that they could know that they would be welcome to see the baby Jesus. The sign was that they would find the baby Jesus lying in a manger.
Now, mangers were feeding troughs, typically filled with food for animals to eat, not really where we would imagine placing a newborn baby.
But many people of the day, and particularly shepherds, were quite poor. And thus they couldn’t afford a lot of furniture, and for shepherds it would have been incredibly impractical to haul a crib or bed out into the fields. So it wasn’t uncommon for shepherds to use one of the most readily available resources when putting their babies down to sleep — a feeding trough, or manger, filled with fresh clean hay.
And so the angel offered a sign to the shepherds to let them know that Jesus had truly come for everyone, including them. They would find Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger — just like how they cared for their own children. Jesus wasn’t born in a royal palace, or placed in some sort of golden cradle far removed from the realities of their own lives. Jesus, the Messiah, the Promised One, had truly come for them.
And friends, Jesus came for us as well! No matter what you’ve done, no matter why you think you might be unworthy, I’m here to tell us today, that “Unto Us A Child is Born!” The Savior has indeed been born for us all!