December 24th, 2021 Christmas Eve homily on Luke 2:8-14 by Pastor Galen
Many of us who didn’t grow up around sheep probably 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 are 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 clean white 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’s birth?
The Wild, Wild West (of Judea)
The reality, however, is 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 had 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 — rugged, independent, accustomed to rough working conditions, not afraid to get down and dirty.
The reality of shepherding in the time when Jesus 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 generally considered unclean by society — not just physically unclean, but religiously unclean according to the very strict religious and cultural expectations of the day.
This Shall Be a Sign
And so it was very significant 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 included shepherds, then surely that includes everyone!
Still the shepherds were probably inclined to believe that if they went to visit this amazing baby who had been born, they would get turned away at the door. After all, if they weren’t allowed into the temple, why should they be allowed to visit the Savior of the world? They probably pictured him being born in a palace, lying in a cradle covered in gold. They imagined that he and his family were being guarded by armed guards, and that they would be laughed out of town for trying to come and see the Christ child.
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, a manger sounds kind of fancy to our ears, but it wasn’t. A manger was a feed box – typically filled with food for animals to eat. Not really where we would imagine placing a newborn baby.
But the majority of people in Jesus’s day – including shepherds – were quite poor. They couldn’t afford a lot of different furniture that only served one purpose, and so they usually found multiple for anything they owned.
For shepherds, it would have been quite impractical to haul a crib or bed out into the fields. So shepherds would regularly use one of the most readily available resources when putting their babies down to sleep at night – often using a feeding trough, or manger, filled with fresh clean hay as a crib. Even in small towns among the working class people of Jesus’s day this would not have been uncommon. Only in palaces or the homes of the extremely wealthy would babies have been laid in cribs or cradles.
And so when the angel told the shepherds that they would find the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a feeding trough – what was shocking and surprising was not the uniqueness of Jesus’s living conditions from their perspective – but that the Savior of the world had been born – not in a palace guarded by armed guards and lying in a golden cradle – but in living conditions very similar to their own!
This is perhaps why the angel said that the fact that they would find the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger would be a sign for them. It was a sign for them that Jesus’s birth was indeed good news of great joy for all people
– including shepherds!
Today, this might be sort of like the angel telling us that we might find the baby Jesus lying in a cradle bought at Walmart or Target, and dressed in hand-me-down clothes from a thrift store! It was evidence that Jesus came for each and every one of us, no matter our station in life. The fact that shepherds would find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger reassured them that they would not get turned away at the door, but rather they would be welcomed – and as we’ll see in our next lesson, they even had a special role to fulfill in spreading that good news to others!
Unto Us a Child is Born
And friends, Jesus came for each and every one of us as well! “Unto Us A Child is Born!” Unto us a savior has been given. On our own we were lost and without hope, separated from God because of our sinful fallen nature. But into this world of grief and sorrow, God sent Jesus – the light of the world – to show us the way to live and to love, and ultimately to give his life on the cross for us.
And so this evening, let us continue to journey along with the shepherds as they journey to Bethlehem to see the Christ child, and let us too rejoice in and proclaim the good news to all the world that unto us – each and every one of us – all of us – a child has been born!