Friday, December 14, 2007

Shepherds -- of Sheep and the Lamb: An Advent Meditation

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” That’s a passage we know so well that we can almost see these shepherds, huddled against the night’s cold, casting watchful eyes over their sheep. We have imbued them, these shepherds, with a sort of nobility that we don’t accord those considered the true royalty of that time, save the 3 kings from the Orient. Perhaps that is because they were the first to hear the news of the baby’s birth. And not by any ordinary means – no, by a host of angels.

Poet Beth Merizon also gives us some insight into why we honor these simple shepherds. I think it has to do with what is revealed in that last section of scripture: “And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child…. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.” They are the first, not just witnesses, but believers.

"Star Witness”

How could we be anything but true
believers –
We shepherds who heard the news
first-hand from heaven.

There stood that angel on the
grazing ground
Like a white fan,
Like a white blaze,
lighting the air all around;
Telling us the Promised One had come,
And where He was,
And what His destiny.

And then that great arc of angels
Singing a gloria.

We left our sheep that night
And found the Lamb.

The shepherds, by their readiness to seek out the babe in the manger and by their joy at seeing him and their faith and belief, are prototypes of all humble souls who seek the Savior.

They were unlikely heroes of faith, these shepherds. They weren’t the sort of men whom the general populace expected would receive angelic announcements. Those sorts of messages should have, by all human reckoning, gone to men like the three wise kings of the east. But no angels come to them. Instead they receive a star to guide them. God, perhaps as a way of showing that faith is best grounded in real life rather than much formal learning, sends the heavenly singers to the shepherds – men who consult no books, study the skies for nothing except clues for the weather, and have no social standing.

These men, huddled on the foresty hillsides of Palestine, warm beneath their ram skins, eyes vigilant, on guard against roaming wolves, were of low station. Shepherds of Jesus time were considered, by the general populace, generally untrustworthy (which makes Jesus’ later stories centering around the shepherd’s role in the life of faith all the more remarkable). Even worse, their work made them ceremonially unclean.

The idea of uncleanness is something we don’t know much about, but was an important part of Jewish life. The division between clean and unclean was fundamental for Israelites. They were commanded by the Law to be physically clean, ritually and ceremonially clean (having offered the right sacrifices and been through the correct ceremonies), and morally clean. When people or things became unclean, they had to be washed to be considered clean again.

The shepherds were considered unclean because they had daily contact with carcasses of animals and came into contact, however incidental, with all sorts of unclean animals. Common unclean animals included spiders, flies, bugs, rats, and mice. A dead rat was not something to be overlooked. It was carefully taken out and buried. It’s a distinction we don’t think about today, but was strongly enforced in those days and had solid medical reasoning behind it, in the days before refrigeration and Orkin pest control.

So, surprisingly, when the angelic announcement arrives, it comes first to the social outcasts of Jesus’ day. These men are unclean and there is no mention of them stopping off to become clean before they make their trek to Jerusalem to see the new born babe. Which has further significance for us today. It tells us that we are called to God, in a paraphrase of the old gospel song, just as we are. The invitation to return to God’s good graces is the invitation to a “come as you are” party.

The shepherd’s coming, in their unclean state, is also a way of showing us that the faith he calls us to is not a list of purity rules and regulations. The old passed away, a new covenant was being given. We know that in Jesus’ time, sacrifice was required for the forgiveness of sin. Clean animals were sacrificed in a proscribed manner by priests made ritually clean. Only then were a person’s sins forgiven.

Now this idea of sacrifice is something that our modern nature rebels against – the idea that animals could be an atonement for human sins. And I don’t propose to understand or explain it. I am just reporting it. Regardless of our sensibilities, this is how it was done.

Until, that is, Jesus comes to give us a new way. That’s because Jesus comes as the new sacrifice. That’s what the gospels tell us. Jesus is called the Lamb of God over and over, beginning when John the Baptist (“John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’”). This title emphasizes the redemptive character of the work of Christ. The Passover lamb represented redemption from sin. The substitutionary use of the unblemished lamb in this sacrifice foreshadows the idea of the Suffering Servant, who as a lamb dies in the place of sinners.

As Isaiah says,
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter…

In Jesus’ case, his sacrifice was not performed by consecrated priests in the temple, following an ordained ritual, but by Romans – Gentiles, men who were considered, at the time and by Jewish custom, to be unclean. This new sacrifice breaks all the old rules. And in doing so, brings forgiveness of sin to all people for all time.

The shepherds, who knew sheep as few other men did, left their “sheep that night and found the Lamb.” They were men who could recognize the Lamb of God as others could not.

And in their open and honest worship of the newborn king, they restored some of their social standing – earning the nobility we grace them with today. They also recover some of the honor that was King David’s – called as he was from shepherding a flock to shepherding a kingdom. And became the royal ancestor of the Messiah.

They also point the way that those of us who would follow the Lamb of God, must become like shepherds – exercising joyful caring in various ways to others.

They left their “sheep that night and found the Lamb.” May we, at this advent time, also embark on such a journey of spiritual discovery.





Anonymous said...

Thanks for your article.
Just one small thing.
You mentioned the three wiseman coming from the east. But there is no mentioning in the scripture of three wiseman. The number of gift is mentioned, three, but not the number of wiseman.

Have a blessed Christmas and a wonderful 2010.


Mark Knowles said...

Thank you very much, sir. This is beautiful. I am preaching tomorrow on God revealing Himself to lowly hearts at the first Christmas and your commentary on the shepherds has given me much food for thought! (all from a simple Google search) :)
Praise God and thank you again!

Denice Dalrymple said...

I am preparing a lesson for 5th & 6th graders. Each week I take a different part of the Nativity scene and emphasize. This was very helpful for my lesson in giving the kids a perspective of shepherd.

Brent Bill said...

Thanks, Denice!

Paula said...

I wonder whether there is no mention in scripture of the shepherds purifying themselves, because the ancient reader would know this occurred as a matter of rule. What thinkest thee?

Brent Bill said...

I suppose one could take that as a given, but (given the audience) the fact that it's not mentioned makes me think they did not... in their haste and given the hour ... stop for the ritual purification.

Fiona VIdal-White said...

Thank you so much for this information, and for the wonderful poem you shared. I am preaching at the children's service tomorrow, and really wanted to understand the shepherds' role in society. WIth ref to another person's question, I personally doubt that the shepherds performed the ritual cleansing, because of their wandering life. I would think that religion would have seemed rather irrelevant to them. Their call from the angels changed all that.


Brent Bill said...

Thanks for your comments, Fiona. I hope your children's message went well and that they and you enjoy all the blessings of this season.

Lottie Jacks said...

Thanks for this information. I am writing a Biblical fiction book on why Jesus had to be the sacrifice for sin and the shepherds play a major role. I want to know if there was any part of the temple they could go into. Lottie Jacks

Anonymous said...

Wonderful article! Really beautiful. :-)

I am interested in your third to last paragraph. Why highlight the importance of their social standing and King David's honor? The rest of your writing seems to be about it not mattering someones condition, be them "clean" or "unclean" that we all come to God as we are (equality before God?). They (the shepherds) then achieved something that did not matter, or only mattered in a worldly sense, through this honor? Or are you making a distinction between honor and cleanliness -- cleanliness seems to be associated with honor in the old testament?

Brent Bill said...

Yes, I am making a difference between ritual cleanliness and the honor we give the shepherds today. We give them great respect as the first to "be on the scene" and "worship the new-born king." Today we honor them -- even if we don't realize their former status. God's ways turn things upside down!

Lui said...

Hi Brent I came across your blog whilst trying to get an understanding of the status of shepherds OT days.

Your blog provided valuable insight, but it got me this ties in with other references to shepherds in the OT, which seems to esteem the role shepherds. For e.g., The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want (Psalm 23:1). Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! (Psalm 80:1) We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture (Psalm 100:3). The Messiah is also pictured as the shepherd of God's people: He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms (Isaiah 40:11)

Anonymous said...

And nothing is cited. Original sources? Authoritative scholarship? Evidences that confirm these propositions? Speculations?