Sunday, December 6, 2009

Taking the Shepherds into our Everyday World

Shepherds came in for a lot of stick in all sorts of different ways in the Bethlehem where Jesus was born.

It was a bit ironic really. The whole of Jewish life found its focus through the Temple and its ritual on God. The temple could not exist without the shepherds. The fields around Bethlehem are the fields close to Jerusalem. The sheep the shepherds were looking after were the sheep required for sacrifice in the temple. Sacrificing went on in the temple all the year round. The greatest week of sacrifices came in Passover when the Passover lamb was sacrificed. – the stench of blood and carcasses must have been unbearable at times. The temple was not the place for the squeamish. Not that the meat went to waste of course – it was put to good use and eaten.

So on the one hand, the shepherds played a key part in the whole edifice of Jewish life and worship. Without the shepherds, no sheep. No sheep, no sacrifices, no Passover.

They were, if you like, the bottom tier of a big structure. And as so often happens they were also the ones people had least time for. AT the other end of the process the High Priest was looked up to, the Priests were looked up to … but the lowly shepherd. He just had a job to do.

It was actually worse than that. This is where the irony sets in.

Because of the very nature of the job the Shepherds were not able to avail themselves of the ritual cleanliness demanded by a worship focused on the Temple. They had to work all hours. They could not leave their sheep.

So it was they were treated as the lowest of the low. At best, the forgotten ones. At worst the despised ones.

It was shepherds who heard the message of the angels. It was shepherds who heard the song the angels sang. It was shepherds who went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

It was the shepherds who made known what had been told them about this child.

No wonder all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds of all people told them.

How taken aback people must have been when it was the shepherds who returned glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told to them of all people!

If the challenge of Christmas this year is to take the Christmas story into our world, into our everyday lives, the question we need to ask is … who are the shepherds?

Who are the people who at best are forgotten, at worst despised, because it is the nature of what they do that they are forgotten. They are the ones to remember not just at Christmas but the year round as well.

Think of any institution, anything around us – a work place, a piece of incredible engineering, a hospital, a school, a nation … think who is least noticed in that organisation, in the creation of that piece of work, think of the one whose task is most basic.

Our society reflects the difference – the most basic of tasks will usually be the lowest paid, and then that will rise to the most important and significant of tasks being the highest paid.

How does the Christmas story of the shepherds impact on that. One way it might is to challenge the highly paid to remember they couldn’t be where they are without the low paid and so to give freely, with a generous heart. Where as Christian people we have an opportunity to shape things in our society should we not call in question excessive pay at one end of the scale and the need to re-dress the balance at the other? Should there be a taxation system that re-distributes wealth and reflects the value of the lowest as well as the value of the highest in society? These are questions the Christmas story of the shepherds prompts us to ask.

Today’s the day to pose the most challenging of questions people have put into the box.

How is it OK for me or anyone else in our church to have more money and possessions than enough when others are in poverty?

A year ago we were supporting the Shepherd Society – that arm of the Bethlehem Bible College that seeks to bring relief to people in and around Bethlehem who have no social security system to fall back on and very little employment to survive on. It is telling that the Bethelehm Bible College chose to name its relief work after the Shepherds of Bethlehem.

The story of the Bethlehem shepherds works at another level too.

And one we don’t tend to notice. Bethelehem was as the carol suggests Royal David’s City. It was in those same fields around Bethlehem that the smallest, youngest son of Jesse was found watching over the sheep when he was found by Samuel and anointed king.

400 years later when the kingdom had fallen to the Babylonians and the people were in exile the prophet Ezekiel looked back on the record of those who had ruled in Israel and Judah … and he found those rulers wanting. He speaks of the rulers as shepherds and his words are an indictment against their neglect

You are doomed, you shepherds of Israel! You take care of yourselves but never tend the sheep. You dink the milk, wear clothes made from the wool and kill and eat the finest sheep. But you never tend the sheep. You have not taken care of the weak ones, healed those that are sick, bandaged those that are hurt, brought back those that wandered off, or looked for those that were lost. Instead you treated them cruelly.

Ezekiel sees the rule of God quite differently. He looks to the time when the rule of God with its concern for the weak, the sick, the hurting and the lost will be made real by one who truly will be The Good Shepherd.

Ezekiel 34:11-24 - The Good Shepherd

As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?

Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

And Jesus said, I am the Good Shepherd …

Accept the rule of God in Christ Jesus in our hearts and our homes and that will give us a set of priorities that is quite clear:

Our call is to look for those that are lost

To bandage those that are hurt

And heal those that are sick

To do what is right.

The Christmas story as it focuses on shepherds invites us to consider again the priorities in our own lives, the commitment we have to those in need, and are concern for those who are hurting in a damaged world.

We are prompted to think about our giving at Christmas – this year’s Christmas collection, Steps for Stephanie, to enable Rose’s grand daughter Steph to have the kind of aids and helps that will enable her when she is able to spend time with her mother at home.

We each will think of other charities we support.

Is this something that should not just be done in a happenstance way. Should there be a kind of planning in the giving that we make.

We encourage within the church family Planned Giving through our TRIO scheme: the responsibility is ours. That invites us to commit to giving 5% of our available income to the church. Why 5% - that is actually based on the biblical principle of a tithe. One tenth. But that’s 10%. The idea behind the TRIO scheme is that because it invites people to plan their giving in – when times are difficult then giving is as we are able. But it is good to plan. The other 5% is on the basis that we will give to other charities. The possibility of planning.

One interesting way is through the Charities Aid Foundation – whereby you can gift aid a regular sum into an account. You then have a cheque book to draw on that account and contribute to the charities you wish to support.

Planned giving to the wider good.

I fear the question remains …

How is it OK for me or anyone else in our church to have more money and possessions than enough when others are in poverty?

Maybe the final thought to share in response to this challenging question is that it prompts us to consider again our life-style. As the world’s leaders gather in Copenhagen to consider responses to climate change the reality is that whatever is decided impacts on each one of us and the way we lead our lives. The proper response is for each of us to consider the life-style we follow. The challenge is that we seek enough and not excess – what a difference it would make if we started to consider that!

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