The Gift of Shepherding (Christmas Eve Meditation)

“The Gift of Shepherding”

Luke 2:1-20

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Christmas Eve – 2022

         If you haven’t guessed, shepherds figure significantly into the theme this Christmas Eve. And it’s not so much shepherds as shepherding—the act of watching and tending. On a concrete level, shepherding is an essential business practice. Without a shepherding presence, a flock of sheep is nothing but a moveable feast for predators.

When the work of shepherding becomes a metaphor for human relationships and for our relationship with God, plots thicken. Bonds deepen. Stakes rise. When we elevate shepherding to a metaphor for human and divine interactions, then mutual love, trust, and that deeply sacramental act of forgiveness are added to the basic shepherding tasks of watching and tending.

The first chapter of Luke and the first seven verses of Luke 2 are all about setting the stage for Jesus’ birth and his ministry of radical justice in a culture of violence where women, children, the poor, the stranger, and the sick are exploited for the benefit of those who hold wealth and power. That’s the point of Mary’s Magnificatin Luke 1: “[God] has pulled the powerful down from their thrones…lifted up the lowly…filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.” (Luke 1:52-53 CEB)

Following all that remarkable prophecy, Luke presents the birth of Jesus as a rather unremarkable event. Jesus, the Christ, is born in a barn in the afterthought town of Bethlehem. He’s born there because Caesar has ordered a census, and because of that census, people are traveling to their hometowns. And maybe it’s more like they’re being scattered to their hometowns, like their ancestors were scattered by Babylonian conquerors. Joseph, Mary, and everyone else are like sheep being herded from place to place for the benefit of the person who, effectively, owns them. And Caesar’s shepherds are heavily armed soldiers who brandish their swords and spears not to protect the sheep, but to coerce them to comply with the emperor’s demands.

The context of Jesus’ birth creates a stark contrast between the shepherds of imperial domination and the ordinary shepherds who tend flocks of sheep. These shepherds are not warriors. They’re not men of wealth and influence. As ones who live close to the earth, they know how to read the skies—the clouds and colors of the day and the stars of night. They know how to read the behavior of flocks who often sense a predator before the shepherds can see it.

As shepherds, they’re probably a grimy and bawdy lot, but as people who pay close attention to the Creation, they have a capacity to recognize and to embrace signs and wonders—gifts to which Caesar’s soldiers and political puppets are blind or indifferent; or else they’re threatened by them, so they kill them.

The birth of Jesus illustrates God’s grassroots tactics in the world. God’s most table-turning signs and wonders happen through the most unlikely people. And through them—the lowly and vulnerable—true blessedness enters the world. As Jesus himself says, It is through the poor, the hungry, the humble, the merciful, the peacemakers, even the persecuted that God most often reveals God’s transforming love, justice, and peace.

It is to the shepherds among us and the shepherds within us that we turn to experience God’s announcement of the ongoing birth of the Christ, the one through whom God makes all things, and in whom all things are united and made whole.

What about you watches most carefully the Creation around you?

What loving energy within you tends to the neighbors, the children, the homeless, the sick, the forests, the rivers and oceans, the skies?

It is through the simplest and most organic things of this world that God embeds the humble wonders that reveal the nativity of the Christ. And it’s with gracious purpose that God shepherds humankind toward the realm of peace.

I close with a song that I wrote four years ago. It celebrates the shepherds as ones who, through their willing connection with the earth are the first to encounter the good news of Jesus’ arrival.

Go Now to Bethlehem

Allen Huff

©2018

Six of us got hired that night and sent into the field

To guard the rich man’s sheep from predators and thieves.

Our lives belonged to other men, just like the sheep we kept.

Day to day and hand to mouth, we grazed from debt to debt.

So we took turns standing watch, then warmed up by the fire.

And grumbling through those heavy hours, we made a bitter choir.

Chorus:

But that would be the night when everything did change.

The darkness opened up and sang a bright refrain.

Glory in the highest.

Glory in the highest.

Go now to Bethlehem, and behold.

Go to Bethlehem, and be made whole.

We pondered for a long, long while, deciding, “Do we go,

And leave the rich man’s sheep right here, or take them all in tow?”

At last we rounded up the flock, and led them through the night,

They needed still a shepherd to keep them in his sight.

Looking for a manger meant looking for a barn.

Behind an inn we found him, warm and safe – for now – from harm.

Repeat Chorus:

Bridge:

We were men who knew the land, who knew how deep the frost.

We read the skies, the wind, the flocks. We knew how to find the lost.

And in that child we recognized the holiness at hand.

We saw, we heard, we felt, we knew God’s heart beating in a man.

Final Chorus:

Yes, that would be the night when everything did change.

The darkness opened up and sang a bright refrain.

Glory in the highest.

Glory in the highest.

Glory in the highest.

Go now to Bethlehem, and behold.

Go to Bethlehem, and be made whole.

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