I grew up in the Deep South at a time when there were great differences in our society centered on the color of a person's skin. In restaurants, in schools, and at lunchroom counters, there were lines for white people, and there was a line for colored people. At Macon Georgia's Terminal station signs cover today what was once chiseled in stone - a "White" entrance and a "Colored" one. A person coming to Macon now wouldn't see what in my memory remains so clear - we were a divided people. Some of us were the "haves" and some the "have nots", and it had always been that way. We were so blind.
I cannot understand how a nation so dedicated to freedom for all could have been so wrong about this for so long. But finally, we did change. We struggled with the truth. We refused at times even when confronted with it to acknowledge its claims. I can remember protests against Judge Bootle, conflict at Mercer's campus church, and confusion as the times really were a changing.
But they did change. Voices arose from within the nation. A rediscovery of just why we were here took place. We were exhorted to not judge a person by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. And 40 years later for the most part, Americans do.
I had to turn on the "way-back" machine for you today because I am struggling to help you understand just how the people of Israel, who saw themselves as the "light to the nations", who understood themselves to be "God's chosen people", who had law after law to remind them to treat their fellow Jew fairly - how these godly people treated those who were employed as shepherds.
Shepherds were a permanent underclass in the nation of Israel. They were despised and rejected by their own. Even though they had contributed to the making of Israel - remember at one time literally all of the tribes were nomadic shepherds, and David even rose to be the most famous king of Israel ever - by the time Christ was born all that was ancient and forgotten history. Everyone despised shepherds. They were considered second-class and untrustworthy.
To be a shepherd was to be involved in an activity critical to the worship of the people of Israel. The production of lambs for ritual sacrifices was ongoing, and the standards for those lambs were quite high. No defects, illness, or blemishes would be tolerated. So a successful shepherd delivered lambs as close to perfect as possible, and timed the birth of the newborn lambs so that they would be of sufficient age at the Passover feast, when every family in Israel was supposed to come to Jerusalem and offer sacrifice.
It was hard work- even dangerous at times as lions, wolves and thieves could threaten the sheep. To prevent the sheep from straying, a shepherd would hem the sheep into a natural sheepfold and bar the entrance with fallen logs or sometimes with his body, placing himself at the mouth of the corral. Christ Himself referred to His role as the "Good Shepherd, who lays down His life for the sheep." I'm sure Jesus' audience just chalked those references up as foolishness along with His insane penchant for hanging with tax collectors and prostitutes.
Remember, they called Jesus a friend of "sinners." Shepherds were called "sinners" because they were ceremonially unclean. Jews were told not to trade with them directly on the assumption that whatever they purchased would be stolen property. The Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic sayings, refers to them as "incompetent" and in another place intimates that no one should feel obligated to rescue a shepherd who has fallen into a pit.
They were deprived of civil rights, not being allowed to hold judicial offices or serve as witnesses at trial. People would avoid them, spit at them, chase them away.
Again, I can remember when it wasn't so different here.
If you were a gentile, there was a place for you - the Court of the Gentiles. If you were a woman, there was a place for you - the Court of Women. But if you were a shepherd, though you were where David, the shepherd-king of Israel once reigned, you were relegated to the far courts.
The shepherds brought their flocks to the wall of Jerusalem and watched as gentiles collected the lambs. The shepherds never were able to worship as the "good" people did, being made to stay in the same place as the rest of the "sinners", even though their efforts made it possible for the "good" people to worship freely.
And yet God seems to have a special place in His heart for shepherds. The rabbis marveled at how in light of the despicable reputation of shepherds, God Himself was referred to by the Psalmist in 23:1 as 'my shepherd'.
When it came time to announce the birth of the King, the logical thing to do would have been to have the angels descend on the Temple in Jerusalem. They would be immediately in contact with the learned priests, scribes, and rabbis who could respond in worship and spread the news. The worship could then go on for months - even years. The best and brightest of the people of Israel would know what to do.
But instead, God went to the shepherds.
He ignored those who were sure they were first in His eyes and chose to meet instead with those "everyone" had decided He could never love.
He rushed past all the fine furnishings, the impeccable dress, and the well rehearsed priests and musicians when He chose the people to bless with His news. How odd of God.
The shepherds had no temple, no priest, and no choir. They had nothing and no one on their side. The only reputation they had was uniformly bad. No means of worship, no hope of being heard. They had been banished to the desert plains and given only their sheep as companions. So into this context of societal smugness and prejudice, far from the "right" places and the "right" people, God decided that the first people who needed to hear "It's a boy! Oh and He's Messiah!" were the despised and rejected shepherds.
God's light began to shine clearly into their dark place.
And a worship celebration broke through to earth from heaven.
8 There were sheepherders camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over their sheep. 9 Suddenly, God's angel stood among them and God's glory blazed around them. They were terrified. 10 The angel said, "Don't be afraid. I'm here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: 11 A Savior has just been born in David's town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. 12 This is what you're to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger."
13 At once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God's praises:
14 "Glory to God in the heavenly heights,
Peace to all men and women on earth who please him."
Luke 2:8-14 (MSG)
So the nobodies who couldn't worship freely since they weren't good enough got to experience worship like no one has ever seen. Those so despised that they were forced to live on the fringes were placed in the center of God's work. The last had become first. When they were shown the side door and relegated to the outskirts of God's neighborhood, the Lord Almighty simply kicked down the doors and redrew the map to include them.
Yeah, I think that qualifies as "great joy."
The news they received let the shepherds know that even if the world's standards for people stayed the same, God's new plan included them.
This good news was "meant for everybody..." for all people.
It still is.May we walk into the light this Christmas forever remembering just how far we have to go before we see that joy and His peace break out everywhere.