The Sermon I Should Have Preached: About those Pesky Shepherds

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For various reasons I chose to preach through the Psalms for Advent.  This meant not being able to talk about the traditional aspects of the season, namely shepherds, wise men, a star, the virgin Mary and the like.  Yet over the last year I have read a lot about the Jewish heritage of the Christian faith and come to appreciate more fully how Jewish Jesus’ story is from start to finish.  Therefore the following is a short sermon, or even devotional thought, I have put together in my head and wanted to preach this season but did not have time too:

Tell me if you have heard this sermon before around this time of year:  “Jesus was God, in very nature God, completely God and Jesus came to save the world and reassert God’s reign over it.  He was a King!  But Jesus didn’t do it like any other King would do it.  Instead he chose to be born of a lowly virgin Mary who came from the wrong side of the wrong town.  He wasn’t born in a palace but a barn (or a cave) and God announced it not to elites but to lowly shepherds.  After all shepherds were the laughing stock of the 1st century Middle East.  They were lowly nobodies.  They were worthless to society and to make it worse these shepherds seemed to be working the night shift.  Yet God thought them so important that angels sang to them of the newly arrived Baby King.”

I like that sermon.  I have preached it myself a time or two and for the most part it holds up.  But some time in the last year I began actually reading and studying about shepherds and not just the cultural context of shepherding in the 1st century middle east, but about shepherds in the entire Bible.

To be sure, shepherds in the 1st century were not popular or revered.  However, in the Jewish society being a Shepherd was actually a high honor because King David was a shepherd and King David taught us that God is a shepherd (read all the Psalms).  For those of you unfamiliar with David’s biography, David didn’t convert from shepherd to King.  He wasn’t a shepherd who suddenly decided being a shepherd was bad and then chose to be a King.  Instead David took his shepherding role with him to the monarchy.  He was always a shepherd, a shepherd King.  This reality profoundly impacted how Israel viewed God’s kingship over us.  God is our shepherd King.

So during this time of year when we read and sing about angels going to shepherds, the point may not be that God could have sent angels to kings but went to lowly shepherds instead.  To the Jewish ear, trained in the Hebrew scriptures, God did send the angels to kings, the true kings, the shepherds.  The angels and shepherds are not God doing a new thing.  It is God doing that same old thing God did throughout the entire Old Testament, going to the true salt of the earth, the meek who work hard with their own hands and live quiet but profound lives.

One of the most influential essays I have read in the last few years was written by George Orwell about coal miners in the industrial revolution.   Back then, coal mining was a miserable chore.  They worked long hours for very little pay and mining was hazardous in the extreme.  This was before labor laws so even children and women were forced to work in the mines.  Most of the miners died prematurely.  In addition coal miners had the same reputation that 1st century shepherds supposedly had.  It was a reputation we might give to warehouse workers today.  They were uncivilized.  They didn’t dress well.  They weren’t educated.  They were immoral.  For that reason, the elite of society propagated a fantastic lie that the coal miners could change their lot by changing their behavior, that if those lousy coal miners would just become moral and civilized they too could matriculate from the mines to a high society position.  George Orwell pointed out that if that did indeed happen, if revival did break out upon the coal miners and they all managed to gain upper class banking jobs, the entire economy would shut down and the homes of the wealthy, moral, civilized bankers, wouldn’t even be able to have heat.

More than that, before writing the essay, Orwell lived among the coal miners for a few years and discovered that they had a deeper morality than any other elite.  Far from being immoral, the coal miners were a courageous bunch, a generous bunch, a loving bunch and they were the most valuable group to England because they braved the conditions and extracted the fuel that kept Industrial Society running. (You can read the full essay here)

As much as I love Orwell’s essay, it was hardly original.  Orwell seems to have plagiarized the entire Bible.  God wrote that essay 2500 years ago when God sent the prophet Samuel to a shepherd and chose David to be King in Israel.  God revised and updated it again when God sent angels to shepherds to proclaim Jesus’ birth.

Here is a God who is not the God who condones the rich and powerful.  Here is a King who values and adores those who work hard with their own hands.  Here is a King who understands that shepherds and coal miners and truck drivers and manual laborers of all stripes are far closer to the character of God than any other group.  And here is a Savior who taught us “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.”  Here is a God who commands us to be meek and lowly like the shepherds because God established what Orwell discovered, that coal miners and shepherds actually run the world.

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