The Shepherd’s Gift of Faith

given on Sunday, December 18, 2011:  the Fourth Sunday of Advent

“I wonder as I wander . . . “

            “I wonder as I wander. . .” probably is one of the most appropriate phrases for me, personally, as any other I might try to apply to myself.  Those five lead words are from one of my favorite Christmas carols–one that my mom would play and sing at our own upright piano in the front room.

I also feel that the premise of this carol must be based on the shepherds’ point of view.  Where else in the Christmas story do we have a group of people sitting outside in the middle of the night simply thinking about all there is in this universe?

The life of the shepherd is so closely connected to the natural world, I find myself more connected to them than any of the others in the story.  Shepherds were so in tune with the sheep, that when one began to wander off the shepherds’ instincts could stop them before they were lost.  The good shepherds never left the sheep, they protected the sheep, they gave them the best pastures they could, and in some cases, they would corral them into caves for protection from the storms.  The sheep were more important than their own selves.

“I wonder as I wander. . . “ lead me to think about just who the shepherds were.  I was surprised to learn that it was not just a male-specific vocation.  A shepherd could be a female as well as a male.  The shepherds were not the great leaders of the community; they were not necessarily of the lineage that placed one in the role of a priest.  The shepherds were the everyday laborer whose responsibility for the sheep was essential to the well being of the entire community.

Sheep provided many staples for the people.  They supplied meat, wool, milk and cheese.  When one sheep wandered off or was lost for any reason, the loss was costly.  The shepherds were likely the most essential worker for the community, but also possibly the most under-appreciated ones, too.

Unfortunately that probably lead to a stereotyping of the average shepherd.  The prophets kept telling the faithful Jewish people that a savior was coming, a new king, or a messiah.  All of these titles indicate someone who was presumably from a family of prominent leaders or priests.  The cultural standards at that time kept the shepherds in a much lower social stratum.

Yet, “I wonder as I wander. . . “ why in the world did the angels decide to reach out to the shepherds and announce to them that the Messiah was born?  Why the shepherds?  Why not the civil leaders of the community?  Why not the priests in the temple?  Why just the shepherds?

Maybe the answer is as simple as understanding the value of these people from the point of view of today’s farmer.  When farmers, and shepherds, are the people responsible for one of the basic human needs—food and clothing—then it makes sense that if anyone needed to know.  The news of the promised savior was for everybody, not just the selected few.

The shepherds’ faith is based on the solid truths of their natural intelligence.  Faith of our farmers, today’s shepherds, incorporates an understanding of this phenomenal universe along with all the scientific knowledge to meet the needs of an entire globe the best that it can.  The natural ebb and flow of God’s world is as solid knowledge for the farmers and the shepherds as the rock foundation referred to in our hymn.  This is the very people that need to believe beyond any doubt that the savior is indeed who he is.

Now, consider the setting.  The shepherds are on a hillside near Bethlehem.  They are accustomed to the view before them, the skies above them, and the ground under them.  They have been here day after day watching, listening, smelling, and feeling all that is going on around them.  No disturbances in the quiet of the day or evening are a good thing.

As long as everything is peaceful, the shepherd is contentedly tending the sheep.  This leads us to another stereotypical image:  the idle shepherd.  This image, as so many stereotypical images, leads one to see the shepherd as somewhat lazy, non-thinking, or playful.  Many poems have created this image by referring to the shepherds who play on a flute, dance in the fields, lie in the pastures and stare idly into the sky.

But, “I wonder as I wander . . . “ if that is a fair image to portray.  The necessity of the shepherds indicates a much different image.  As I stop and think about the shepherd’s character, I realize that possibly the image that should be in our mind is that of Rodin’s statue—The Thinker.

Maybe the shepherds did have more quiet time available to them than many workers.  Maybe in that idle time, their brains were thinking., analyzing, and hypothesizing.  While sitting on the hillside, staring off into the horizon, I am sure that the minds were not lazy, not idle.  Instead I suspect that some of the greatest thoughts were generated right out there on that hillside overlooking Bethlehem.  I am convinced that if I were a shepherd, I would “wonder as I wander out under the sky.”

Look back at the scripture from Luke:

8-12There were sheepherders camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over their sheep. Suddenly, God’s angel stood among them and God’s glory blazed around them. They were terrified.

They were terrified!  I would have been, too.  The sheep were quiet, the night sky was clear, and I would have been lost in thought.  The sudden appearance of an angel, much less a host of angels, would have knocked me off my feet.

Again, though, we are sitting here in the 21st century since that eventful night, and we have lost touch with that unique night.  In our busy lives, we race from one chore to the next, from one field to the next, from one business to the next, even from one room to the next.  How can we hear the shepherds’ story without being skeptical?

Maybe we should model their behavior a bit more.  The most wonderful time of the day for me is that hour or two before the sun rises.  I can step outside on the deck, look up at the stars, feel the cool breeze on my face, smell the freshness of the earth, and hear the quiet of nature.  I find it to be utterly awesome.  I find the few moments in that setting as refreshing as a week off work—or maybe even more.  At that moment, my thoughts begin to wander as I wonder at all that God has given me.

If at that moment, the peace and quiet and beauty was suddenly interrupted by an image and lots of bright light, I expect I would have been frightened and need some assurance, too:

The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.”

Being raised in a strong, faith-based community, the news for the shepherds had to be comforting.  This was the news everybody had been anticipating for hundreds, even thousands of years.  This was an event so huge that it had to be checked out.

How could these great thinkers, these vigilant men and women, these quiet, reliable people of faith ignore the angel’s announcement!  How could they explain to the rest of their family and friends what they experienced during the night?  How could they even trust their own eyes and ears?  They were simple shepherds.

As the angel and the host who appeared withdrew from the hillside’s sky, the shepherds started talking.  There was only one thing to do:

“Let’s get over to Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us.” They left, running, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. Seeing was believing. They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. All who heard the sheepherders were impressed.

Granted, the shepherds had to have been awe-struck, but I would have been, too.  My faith may appear solid, but if I had witnessed something like this in my quiet morning moment, I would be running all over the place.  I would certainly forget all my responsibilities; and as much as I believe, I would want to see.

In fact, I want to see yet today.  “I wonder as I wander out under the sky, how Jesus the savior was come for to die.”  I must believe because the shepherds’ faith is a gift to me.  Their faith has recorded what the angels told them, they saw the baby Jesus with their own eyes, and they spread the word.  I may have thoughts wandering around in my head, but as I wander around my community, I hope I demonstrate a faith as strong as that of the shepherds.  I pray that my faith is a gift for others; just as the gifts of faith are that we received from the prophets, from Mary, from Joseph, and from the shepherds.

Dear God, our Heavenly Shepherd,

As we relive the story of Jesus’ birth,

Thank you for preserving the news for us.

As we race along the days of preparation,

Let us not forget the quiet night on the hillside

When angels shared the news with the shepherds.

As we gather to celebrate with family and friends,

Let us share our own faith so others may know

The gift of faith God, his son and the Holy Spirit

Provides for us each and every day of our lives.

Graciously, amen.

 

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