I wish everyone who reads my blog a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Most of the time this blog is dedicated to advancing an understanding of the wisdom and love of God for ordinary life. First John tells us both that “God is Light” and “God is Love”. In Centered Leading/Centered Living, I call these twin qualities, “Deep Light” and “Deep Love”. God’s wisdom is beyond our created wisdom, and God’s love is beyond any human love. Instead, God’s Divine Love is the deep ground of all truth and truly unselfish, self-giving love. Next year, for at least part of the year, I will be centering attention on this wisdom and love as it might impact our citizenship, at least that is the plan. With that, here is the next installment of the “A Disciple Like….” series. For now, let us listen again to a familiar story of how the Wisdom and Love of God came to dwell with us full of Grace and Truth…..
Good evening. My name is Jacob Ben Jesse. I don’t appear in your Bible, at least by name. However, I was one of the shepherds present on the night the Lord Jesus was born. My story begins in around the year 4 to 6 BC. Way off in Rome, the greatest of the Roman emperors, Caesar Augustus, was the ruler of a vast empire. The village of Bethlehem was a small and insignificant part of that empire, just as my nation, which was known as “Israel,” was also a small part of Augustus’s empire.
Some things never change. You have a saying that, “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” We’re all going to die someday, and governments never seem to have enough money. As the Roman Empire grew, its need for taxes grew and grew and grew. In my day, just as in your day, many people tried to avoid taxes. I think you have a saying called, “Flying Under the Radar,” and another phrase called, “The Underground Economy.” In my time, a lot of people try to avoid paying taxes.
Eventually, Caesar Augustus declared that the entire Roman Empire would be taxed. In order to be certain that Rome collected all of the money it was entitled to collect, Augustus had a census taken. The idea was that if the tax collectors knew the name of each and every individual and where they lived, they would be able to collect all of the taxes due. Therefore, Caesar decreed that everyone should go to his or her own hometown and register to be taxed (Luke 2:1). [i]
I don’t know whether or not Caesar’s plan was successful, but I can tell you was one of the best things that ever happened in our little city of Bethlehem! Hundreds of people had to come to our town! The inns were filled to the brim. People had to be turned away. Every restaurant was filled. People like my landlord, whose sheep I tended, were able to sell all of the mutton and milk they could produce for weeks and weeks and weeks. I don’t know whether Caesar had all the money he needed, but in our little town of Bethlehem times were really good.
You’ve already heard that on the first Christmas, a man named Joseph and his betrothed wife, Mary, came to our little town so that Joseph, who was of the house and lineage of King David, might be registered in David’s hometown. When they arrived, there was no place for them to stay. One innkeeper, who could see that Mary was about to have a baby, took pity on them and allowed them to stay in a little cave in the side of the hill that he had turned into a kind of barn. It was there in his barn, on a cold winter night, that Jesus was born. [ii]
Here is how Dr. Luke records my story in his gospel:
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told (Luke 2:8-20).
Prayer: God of Wonders: Take us now to the greatest wonder of all, to the night you came to be one of us. Allow us to sense the majesty of your decision to come and take on human flesh, that we might see and know how to live a divine life. Amen.
The Story of a Shepherd.
Well as I said, my name is Jacob, and I was a shepherd boy in Bethlehem the night Jesus was born. As a boy, I was proud of being shepherd in Bethlehem. Actually, as a little boy I didn’t just dream of being a shepherd; I dreamt of being a shepherd who became a king! Every little boy in my village knew the story of King David. Just like your little boys play cowboys and Indians or soldiers, we played being King David! Our favorite story was about the time he took his slingshot and defeated the giant Goliath (I Sam. 17:1-58). We practiced for hours and hours slinging rocks at trees and boulders and wild animals, hoping we would grow up to be just like David.
Like my friends, however, I did not grow up to be a king. I grew up to be a shepherd. You would think that in my day being a shepherd would be an honored profession. After all, our great ancestor, Abraham, was a shepherd. His sons and their children: Isaac, Jacob, Jacob’s twelve sons, and all those who went into captivity in Egypt, were shepherds. However, in my time people looked down on shepherds as common working people. That is too bad.
Perhaps it was in Egypt when being a shepherd fell into disrepute. You see, the Egyptians did not like the smell of sheep. (Many people in your society today have the same experience.) Therefore, no Egyptian wanted to be a shepherd. One reason the Egyptians allowed my family to settle there during a great famine was that we were shepherds and could meet their need for mutton, goat’s milk, and wool. I think perhaps that old Egyptian prejudice wore off on my people over the 400 years they were in captivity.
When we returned to the Promised Land, and after we captured it, the great warriors and lords of my people divided the land of Israel among themselves and became farmers, what you could call “Landed Gentry.” Over the years, they too began looking down upon shepherds. By the time Jesus was born, mostly, we shepherds didn’t own the land nor did we own the sheep. We tended sheep for a landlord.
Nevertheless, my job was not unimportant. Today, there are not many wild animals in the land of Israel. In my day there were lions, bears, wolves, and wild dogs. All of them preyed upon sheep. Our job was to watch over the sheep and to be sure that they were safe. In addition, because sheep are not very bright, we were responsible to move the sheep safely from place to place so they could eat fresh grass. Finally, sheep are domesticated animals, and they sensed that we cared about them. [iii]
Your pastor once worked for a farmer way down in Texas on the weekends. The man who owned the property, and the hired men, actually named the cows and sheep and could tell them by sight! We shepherds could do the same thing in my day. Like any good shepherd, we knew our sheep. The Lord Jesus was not a shepherd, at least not a professional shepherd. He was the Good Shepherd who takes care of his flock (John 10:1-16). Perhaps he learned what it meant to be a Good Shepherd by watching shepherds just like me.
One night, as we were watching our sheep, singing songs together, and telling stories, the most amazing thing you can imagine happened (Luke 2:8-20). It was one of those beautiful dark, dark nights in which the sky is perfectly clear. The moon had not risen, but the stars shone in the sky like tinkling white Christmas tree lights in your day. In my day and time we thought of the stars as being alive. (In fact, we thought of them as angels.)
We were sitting looking at the sky when all of a sudden it was as if the sky opened and one of the stars came to us as an angel of the Lord (v. 9). Naturally, just like everyone else who sees an angel, we were afraid. But the angel said to us, “Do not be afraid, for I bring you good news of great joy that will be for the world. Today in the city of David a savior is been born. He is Christ, the LORD” (v. 10-11). [iv] The angel then told us that, if we were to go into the town of Bethlehem, we would find a baby lying in a manger, which would be a sign that the Messiah had come (v. 12).
Suddenly, it was as if the sky was torn apart again, and heaven itself came to earth! A great company of angels suddenly appeared praising God and singing, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those upon whom his favor rests” (v. 13-14).
Just as Mary and Joseph were obedient to the message they received from an angel, so were we shepherds. We decided to go off to Bethlehem and find this manger and see for ourselves whether what the angel had said was true (v. 15). When we arrived at the little cave in Bethlehem where Jesus was born, we saw a child lying in a manger just as we were told (v. 16). Immediately, we began to go throughout the village of Bethlehem and spread the Good News about this child (v. 17). Everyone who heard us was amazed. No one expected such news to be communicated through a bunch of shepherds! I don’t know why, because David was Shepherd, and a Prophet, and a King—just like the man Jesus of Nazareth. Who better to reveal to people the Son of David and Good Shepherd than a group of Shepherds?
Being a Disciple Like the Shepherds Today.
When our night of excitement was over, we returned home giving glory to God for all that we had seen and heard (v. 20). In fact, for the rest of my life I was willing to tell everyone I met about this boy, Jesus of Nazareth, whom an angel proclaim to be God’s Good News to us and to the entire world. I understand that almost no Christians in your society ever share that Good News with their friends. I know that a lot of years have passed, but people in your day, I think, have the same kinds of problems people had in my day. They need to hear the Good News just as much as we did.
There are still uncaring emperors far away in Rome, or whatever you call your capital city. I am sure there are still taxes, and they are still too high. There are certainly still evil people like my nation’s king at the time, Herod the Great, who care about nothing but money and power. There are still people who grow up in dysfunctional families. There are still people who are deeply disturbed and even mad. There are still criminals and highway robbers. There still wars and rumors of wars. I think people in your day need to know about this Son of David, who is a Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Prince of Peace just as much as we did (Isaiah 9:6-70).
That first Christmas, we didn’t go home and pour ourselves a glass of wine, eat too much, and open presents. Instead, we shared the Good News that Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One of God had come! I was young that night, so I lived to see that boy Jesus do miracles, teach with the power of God, cast out demons, be rejected by his own people, die a terrible death, and rise from the dead. All that I’ve seen in all that I know has not changed what I know and believe: One night more than 2000 years ago I went and saw a baby in a manger, and it changed my life forever.
Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved
[i] Critical scholars have sometimes doubted Luke’s account. This is another instance when careful study and giving Luke a bit of grace shows he is accurately recording the facts as he knew them. First of all, while no record exists of this particular census/registration, there are Roman records of censuses taken in the way Luke records. While Quirinius was the legal governor somewhat later than the Luke indicates, he was in the region at a time when a son of Caesar was governor. History indicates that Quirinius, a friend of Augustus, successful soldier, and good administrator, was present and probably “governed,” meaning he did the day-to-day work. Later, he was appointed governor after Herod’s son, Archelaeus, was removed. Likely as not, Caesar appointed Quirinius because he was experienced in the job and understood Jewish politics from his earlier stint in Syria. http://www.biblehistory.net/newsletter/quirinius.htm (downloaded December 21, 2015). See also, William Barclay, “Luke’ in The Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1975), 20-21.
[ii] Once again, there is no historical information to put the time of Jesus’ actual birth in winter, though as I noted in an earlier sermon, taking the stories of Elizabeth and Mary together, a winter birth is not impossible. Christmas was first celebrated on December 25 in 336 A.D., a long time after Jesus was born. Pope Julius I officially set December 25th as the date for Christmas. There was a winter holiday celebrated during this period of time, and many people think that this winter solstice celebration is the cause of the date. The Jewish festival, Hanukkah, also occurs at this time of year. No one can know for sure, and the Bible does not say. It is not important. What is important is who the man Jesus was and what he did and taught.
[iii] See, “Shepherds” in Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary Ronald F. Youngblood, ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1986, 1995), 1164-1165). When I was young, I had a good friend who kept sheep near Cisco, Texas. He was a wonderful person. His hired men often named the animals and recognized them by sight. I could never accomplish this feat.
[iv] This phrase would be “Messiah God” in Hebrew. The term “Christ” is the Greek term for “Messiah,” or “Anointed One,” in Hebrew. The two accounts, Mary’s in Luke and Joseph’s in Matthew are remarkably similar in their common details. Both agree that the boy was to be named “Jesus,” would be a savior, and would be known as the “Son of God.” (For a human being “Son of God” and “God with us” have similar meanings.)