Uniform 12.21.2014: A Shepherd’s Memory

Luke 2:8-20

He looks at me with those wide eyes and says, “Grandpa, tell me again!” I sigh and smile and hold him close, and once more I remember…

We sat in the grass watching the sky, tired and dirty from a long day. My friend and I propped our staffs on a leaning tree and breathed the cold. The sheep, like white patches of fog, slept around us, quiet. We did not sleep, or took turns if we did because we were keeping watch.

I eventually drifted off, and he stayed awake and watched the black night sky. Then we heard a sound, and it was too bright to sleep! My friend’s hand touched my shoulder. It was bright as day in the middle of the night, and we shook with fear. “Do not be afraid,” an angel said. “I bring good news for all of you—a king.” What king? We could not understand. “A little baby in David’s town, and he is Christ the Lord.” And then the angel gave us a sign: “He lies in a manger.”

My friend and I knelt on the ground, afraid, but light was all around. Soon more angels sang just for us: “Glory to God! Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to all the people! Alleluia!” Darkness returned, but the Light remained. The angels went back to heaven, to God.

My friend’s hand rested again on my shoulder, and he thought we should go there, to David’s town. But he wondered about the sheep. “Don’t worry,” I said, “for God will care for them.” We left our staffs propped against the tree—a sign that we’d return—and went away. As we drew near Bethlehem, excitement filled our hearts and reddened our cheeks.

Uniform_SD14_smA manger, they said. I looked and pointed to an inn, but my friend shook his head. “A king, they said. Not a poor country babe, not weak.” But I knew: “They said a manger.” He followed me behind the inn, where a stable stood and we smelled the animals. An infant’s cry, a mother’s sweet song, a father’s soothing words—a family. We crept closer, quietly, awed by the sight of this child in a manger. A king, the angels said. So small, so soft. Could he be the one? The Son of God? He was, we knew.

The mother smiled, and the father’s eyes were humble. We bowed and cried and thanked our God for this precious gift—God’s only Son. I touched the baby’s cheek, and he laughed at me. Me, a poor, dirty shepherd. Each day after, my friend and I shared the love we felt with everyone we met. I will never forget it.

My story finished, I look down at my grandson, and he sits very still on my lap. His wide eyes look up at me, full of delight with a tale he’s heard before. “Grandpa,” he says, “will you tell me again tomorrow?” “We’ll see,” I say. But I smile inside, knowing that I could never tire of holding him tight as he listens to a story he could tell himself. And knowing that I could never tire of remembering a night when God chose to tell such good news to me, a poor shepherd.

Discussion

1. How many times have you heard the Christmas story from Luke? Could you retell it to someone else?
2. What details would you include if you were telling the story of Jesus’ birth to someone who had never heard it? What would you include if the person were familiar with the story?
3. For this week’s entry, the writer tried to imagine what it was like to be a shepherd on the hillside the night of Jesus’ birth. Have you ever tried to put yourself in the place of a character in the Christmas story? If so, which one? Were you able to identify with that person?
4. Consider imaging yourself as a person in the Christmas story (or as a different person if you’ve done this before). Write about your experience. What details would stand out to you? How do you think you would feel? What would you share about your experience?
5. How can we keep the Christmas story fresh year after year?

Reference Shelf

Birth stories of famous people are supposed to be predictive. The infant Heracles strangled a python with his bare baby hands when it appeared in his crib. When Alexander the Great was born, according to Plutarch, a new star appeared in the heavens. “When John Henry was a little baby, sitting on his daddy’s knee/ he picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel/ said This hammer’s going to be the death of me, Lord, Lord.” You get the picture—what does Jesus’ birth tell us about who he would be?

Part of the answer may come when the scene shifts to shepherds on nightly guard duty. “Shepherd” is rich with nuances: David was a shepherd who became a king, so the new baby born in David’s city should rightly be acclaimed first to and then by shepherds. Ezekiel prophesied against the false shepherds of the flock of Israel, warning that when the true shepherd came, he would protect the flock and punish the false shepherds who harmed it. Shepherds were peasants, performing unskilled labor, and were on the other end of the power scale from Emperor Godly. The message comes to the shepherds, rather than to Augustus or to any other person of power, because Jesus’ destiny is to unseat the powerful. The baby born in unsettled circumstances is the real Savior, the bringer of peace, rather than Augustus or any subsequent emperor.

The angel calls the baby’s birth “a great joy to all the people” and calls the child “a Savior, who is the Lord Christ.” Gabriel predicted great joy at John’s birth, so this announcement brings the two in line. “Savior,” as noted above, was used for Augustus and for other emperors. It was applied to gods such as Asclepius, god of healing, and to “personalities who are active in the world’s affairs,” such as philosophers and generals. “Savior,” in other words, marks Jesus as a doer of good, but does not specify what form that good will take. “Lord Christ” or “Christ the Lord” is an unusual form. Christ, or Messiah, refers to the person from David’s line who would restore the fortunes of Israel. “Lord” denotes superior rank, and was used by slaves for masters, wives and children for husbands and fathers, lower-born for nobility, and everyone for God. Since this is the only place in the New Testament where the two nouns are stuck together like this, it would appear that Luke is contrasting this baby with the divine Augustus; whereas Octavian got his title of “revered Emperor” by Senate decree, Jesus was acclaimed “Lord Christ” by God’s angels at his birth and by God’s act of resurrection after his death (Acts 2:36).

The angel tells the shepherds how they will pick Jesus out from any other infant in Bethlehem: he will be the one in the feed trough. When they arrive, they find it just as the angel has predicted. This seems to have been enough to convince them that the baby was worth talking about, so like Elizabeth’s relatives, they spread the word around. But unlike the relatives, who speak about what they do not know, the shepherds praise God for what they have seen and heard. The narrator describes them imitating the angels, who likewise give glory and praise to God. Contrary to our usual tableaux, the shepherds do not linger over the manger; they come in haste, and then leave to go spread the news. Like Mary, they seem more than a little unlikely to have been chosen to be first recipients and then bearers of God’s good news, but they take to their job with enthusiasm.

Reference

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 61-62.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum since 2001. She is a member of West Highland Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading and writing fiction, spending time with her husband and two daughters, and watching British television shows. Her goal for 2014 is to learn to play the piano.

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