This Sunday is the Fourth Sunday in Advent, and the focus will be on the shepherds who heard the Good News from the angels and then hurried to Bethlehem to see the Christ child. The title of my sermon is “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Shepherds” (with apologies to Willie Nelson). R. Alan Culpepper writes in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: Luke,
“Shepherding was a despised occupation at the time [of Jesus’ birth]. Although the reference to shepherds evokes a positive, pastoral image for the modern reader and underscores Jesus’ association with the line of David, in the first century, shepherds were scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on others’ land.” The Rev. Brian Stoffregen writes on his biblical commentary blog, Crossmarks, “In a Christmas Day sermon I described the shepherds”:
They are people whom we wouldn’t expect to be worshiping Jesus. Because of their jobs, shepherds normally didn’t make it to the Temple worship services. They didn’t practice sabbath day observances. They were seen as ignorant, irreligious, immoral, crude and vulgar Jews – and they smelled bad, too. I would guess that we wouldn’t like anyone to describe our church members using those kinds of words: ignorant, irreligious, immoral, crude and vulgar. Those aren’t words you use to describe good, Christian people.
Stoffregen continues “A member reminded me every Christmas afterwards that I had ruined Christmas for her with the comment about smelly shepherds. What would we expect from men who slept in the fields with sheep and without showers?”
I’m hoping I won’t ruin your Fourth Sunday in Advent with visions of smelly shepherds, but we will take a look at the shepherds who were, scripture tell us, the first people other than Mary and Joseph to see the Christ child. I think God is sending a fairly powerful message right there. For many people, the shepherds were not just physically unclean, they were religiously unclean as well, as they were unlikely to observe the various “purity laws” in effect at the time. Seen as unclean by many, God gives them the gift of being the first to see—and proclaim!—the wonderful birth.
We’ll be singing some good Christmas carols on Sunday as we journey that much closer to the joy of Christ’s birth.