The Hebrew scripture today was originally a liturgy used at the coronation of a king. It was a reminder that the king could trace his lineage to David and that the king acted as a representative of God to the people. In Titus, Paul spoke of two comings of the Christ. Luke’s nativity story is simple and rustic. He was concerned to establish that Jesus was born in the City of David because he was descended from David like the expected Messiah. In this context, the Isaiah passage can be viewed as a liturgy for the coming Christ.
One of Luke’s other themes is the inclusion of the outcast. So, other than Mary and Joseph, the first people to be told of the birth of the Savior are shepherds. Under Jewish law, shepherds were considered unclean because they were unable to follow the rules of cleanliness. They kept the sheep in the hills outside the cities and villages. They slept with the sheep and I don’t imagine they smelled very good.
This treatment of the shepherds by the Israelites is a reflection of the practice of ancient Egyptians who considered shepherds too dirty to associate with them. This was the reason the children of Jacob were given the land of Goshen to occupy when they migrated to Egypt during the famine in Palestine. Shepherds were looked upon with suspicion by several cultures because they lived an antisocial lifestyle and were often thought to be thieves. They were no better than tax collectors or sex workers or, in our society, street people.
In Luke’s nativity story, the shepherds are bedded down for the night with their flocks safely tucked away in a corral, and the shepherds have set up their bedrolls across the one opening to the corral to get a night’s sleep while protecting the sheep from wandering off or from anything or anyone dangerous wandering in. It was darkest night and suddenly there is the brightest sort of light and an angel of the Lord appeared to them. Of course, they were afraid.
First the angel said, “Don’t be afraid.” And the next part was a message of inclusion. “I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Then there were instructions--this is how you find Him. “And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” Now, after having an angel appear to you with a blinding light in the middle of the dark night followed by a heavenly chorus sung by the full host of angels of heaven, a baby in a feed trough is an unremarkable thing. Because, what use is an infant?
A newborn is helpless, uses up resources including time, and contributes nothing but fatigue to a family if you consider it in an economic sense. But God had waited a few millennia to send a savior, so why not an infant? It’s that rabbinical juxtaposition of the weak and the strong--the imperfect and the perfect, the approachable and the unapproachable. With the first coming, a babe in a manger wrapped in what my ancestors would call a strappenhosen. So helpless and unformed he must be swaddled so his limbs will grow properly. With the Second Coming, the Savior will come in glory and we will see him as he truly is--powerful and fully perfect. With the first coming he was attended by outcasts who broke with tradition and came right into town to see this unremarkable thing-another baby born into what appeared to be poverty. At the Second Coming the whole world will see His face and bow with reverence.
We learn something else about these shepherds. They told others about their experience. Now the outcasts set an example of evangelism for us. I see this on the streets all the time--stories of faith that are beyond comprehension. People who have had just about everything bad happen to them who still carry themselves with faith and devotion to and for the Divine. It could not have been easy for these shepherds to approach others to tell them the story. People wouldn’t want to talk to them--yet they not only told their story, the listeners marveled at their experience.
We, too, can find the Savior and we can tell others what it is like to meet Him and to know him. We, too, can look for him in odd places and in odd faces. We can even find him at Christmastime when we are busy and rushed and feeling under pressure to do too much with too little.
And Phillip Gulley has a story about the nativity, which I will paraphrase in part. This one is from his book, Home Town Tales.
Phillip’s mother-in-law lives in Southern Indiana in a town called Paoli and there was a variety store there for over 40 years run by a man named Wilson Roberts. The motto of the store was, “We have it if we can find it.” Instead of rotating stock out of the store, Mr. Roberts kept it and just stacked it higher. In some places, the merchandise was stacked to the ceiling. The place was in dire need of a liquidation sale. There were odd things stored together like Michael Jackson posters next to a 1959 The Old Farmer’s Almanac.
One year Phillip went down to the variety store the day after Thanksgiving to buy a nativity set. His wife said they needed one and everyone else was lying around his mother-in-law’s home in a turkey-filled stupor.
Phillip arrived at the store and sought out Mr. Roberts to ask for a nativity set. The proprietor said, “Well, I know we have one, if I can just find it.” Mr. Roberts started looking. First by the hairnets and bobby pins. Not there. Next to the garden hoses? No. Then over by the yard goods and notions. Not there, either. He looked near the lawn chairs, then underneath the candy display, which is where he found it.
He dusted off the box, opened it and took a roll call. One manger, one kneeling mother, one proud father, some shepherds, three wise men, one sheep, one cow, one donkey and one baby Jesus. All present and accounted for. He asked twelve dollars. Phillip offered ten. The box was torn and the cow was missing one ear. Mr. Roberts said, “You got a deal.” So now we have a nativity set. French-made. Genuine plaster from Paris, the box says.
The next year Mr. Roberts died. The variety store closed. Now Paoli, Indiana has a Walmart and people talk as if it is a blessing. You can be sure they don’t have a 1959 edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac--don’t even bother to ask.
Phillip writes, “I think back on Wilson Roberts searching amid bobby pins and yard goods for the baby Jesus. Sometimes our search for the Divine has us poking around in all kinds of corners.
Every year at Christmas, I haul our nativity set out of storage and place it on the piano next to our front door. That way, when we’re scurrying about in a frenzy, honoring the birth of the One who told us not to be anxious about anything, we can pause and remember what Christmas is all about. How that quiet baby came into this tumultuous world greeted by wide-eyed shepherds and one-eared cows. I swing open my heart and welcome him home.”