What God was doing transformed them from appropriately cautious to daringly bold! I think Luke is asking his audience, “Could you be bold?” Or maybe he is asking them, “Have you noticed what I am doing with the invisible?”
July 23, 2023
Dr. Todd R. Wright Do you remember the early days of COVID, when supply chains broke down and we had a hard time getting everything from toilet paper to chicken? Do you remember when schools and restaurants and stores closed and we started using the terms “essential workers” or “frontline workers” for those who worked in hospitals and stocked the shelves at the grocery store, those who drove the trucks or worked the production line? We had never given a second thought to these people before. They were invisible cogs in the machine. And then, suddenly, our lives depended on them!
During the first Advent in Palestine, shepherds were both invisible and essential workers! You’ve heard Bethlehem translated as “the house of bread”, but in reality, it was a meat market like the Chicago stockyards of yore, “a market town where animals from the surrounding desert region were traded, slaughtered, and sold. Sheep also yielded wool that was spun into yarn and sold for textiles. The markets were full of animal products of all sorts, including meat, milk, wool, and sheepskin.” And supplying all of that were the shepherds! Without them, people would have gone hungry or cold, and the whole sacrificial system at the Temple would have fallen apart. But that did not mean shepherds were celebrated. In The First Advent in Palestine, Kelley Nikondeha reminds us that they smelled of sheep or goats, manure, and sweat. They were low-wage earners, hired to watch over another man’s livestock. Grown men doing a child’s chore. Stuck out in the fields in every kind of weather. Not at home to protect their families. Guiding their flocks to pasture and water wherever they could find it – even if that meant trespassing. She writes, “The shepherds of the first advent were akin to migrant farm workers of today, those laboring in fields all around us – nearly unseen and certainly under-appreciated, yet absolutely essential to the economy. [Both are] susceptible to deep exploitation by the systems they serve, which don’t protect them in turn. But [the shepherds] make an appearance in the first advent – and in every manger scene since – visible and central in God’s vision of peace.”
Think about that for a minute! You cannot tell the story of Advent without them – because God has chosen to include them! God could have stepped into history in any manner, but Luke tells us that God sidesteps the centers of power for unremarkable places; and the people of importance for those on the margins – a village priest, a young girl, and now, shepherds! What does that say about what God values … who God values? What does that say about what and who we should value? I think Luke is making a point here.
Now, you might wonder why God included shepherds in the first Advent. The fact is, I didn’t tell the whole story about them. Yes, they lived on the margins of society, but a good shepherd knew their sheep and could tell when they were hungry or tired, agitated or sick. They could read the skies for signs of impending weather; they could read the land for signs of danger. That perceptiveness was both a gift and a skill. It meant they noticed things. They cared for their sheep and protected them in an inhospitable environment. There was never enough food or water. Wild animals could threaten their flocks. Bandits too! Good shepherds were brave, steady, and imaginative – like their hero, David, who went on to be king! In fact, David’s rags to riches story, gave shepherds not just pride, but hope! If God had chosen to elevate him, maybe the great God of the universe had not forgotten them! Maybe this world was not only about power and connections, about wealth and might. Maybe God would bring deliverance for people like them!
Nikondeha cautions us against turning this into a Hallmark movie too quickly. She observes: “Songs of a silent and holy night misunderstand the quiet as calm. It is a signature of privilege to associate peace with a quiet night. For those who live on the edges of the empire, nightfall increases the possibility of danger. Snapping branches, unexpected pops, unidentified rumblings of poachers and natural predators you cannot see through the darkness make for uneasy nights. Trouble can come from any direction. Silence for shepherds is always thick with jeopardy. They know what can be lost before the dawn.” She imagines them gathered around a campfire talking about how to avoid soldiers or stay clear of the local tax collector while their pockets remained empty. And whispering about the abuse visited on a sister or cousin. Or harsh words about how Caesar’s empire was grinding them down. But these are quiet conversations, because while you never know who is listening in the dark, you are dead certain that if you are heard, the result will be swift and brutal. Soldiers can come upon you in the darkness and haul you away. They can take, destroy, or scatter your flocks. They can find your home, your family, and do much the same. And with the economy the way it is, there is always an informant ready to pass on your words to save their own skin. Can you imagine the fear they had to wrestle with, especially at nightfall?
So, it was into the dead of night that the angels came. No wonder they had to say, “Fear not!” Luke says the shepherds were terrified! Imagine the utter dark illuminated brighter than noonday by the glory of God! Imagine an army of angelic beings. (Regular soldiers frighten them enough!) Imagine a birth announcement that proclaimed a rival to Caesar – a bit of information that could have all of them rounded up for treason! Of course they were terrified! Anyone with any sense would have been scared stiff! And yet, the shepherds do not stay terrified. They do not stay silent. They cannot. Luke tells us that they left their flocks and rushed to see the baby! The shepherds who had been careful to speak in whispers, if at all, find their voices! They tell Mary and Joseph what they witnessed. They give an account that is detailed, compassionate, hopeful! Luke says, “All who heard it were amazed!” Did you notice that? Nikondeha writes, the shepherds were “early prototypes of the disciples and evangelists to come, they were emboldened by being included in God’s peace plan. Once invisible, they were chosen to be among the first to witness God’s work. No longer do they speak in hushed tones, keep[ing] quiet, or stay[ing] out of sight … They shared with the townspeople what they had heard and seen, praising God for the new peace underway!”
Can you imagine? What God was doing transformed them from appropriately cautious to daringly bold! I think Luke is asking his audience, “Could you be bold?” Or maybe he is asking them, “Have you noticed what I am doing with the invisible?” Or maybe he is reminding them that God’s Advent among us may capture our attention like angels taking over the night sky; like the silent finally finding their voice, but then it is frustratingly slow. It operates like yeast. “It develops without hurry, interacting with its environment as it gradually [spreads].” Nikondeha puts it this way: “It is far from a quick fix. For millennia, across lands and peoples, we continue to be part of that slow, steady salvation inaugurated during that first advent; part of the unfolding hope the angels sang of. Their song has given us hope for all the perilous nights since.” May we boldly play our role! Amen
 “The Flight to Egypt” by Sliman Mansour  See Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago” at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/12840/chicago and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_Stock_Yards  From The First Advent in Palestine, page 96  Ibid, page 96  Ibid, page 98  Ibid, page 102  Ibid, page 106  Ibid, page 107