eNewsletter Feature Story – December 22, 2021
This week’s eNewsletter feature
was written by Jim Teague,
FPCE director of communications.
At a recent staff meeting, somebody asked the question “Who in the Gospels’ telling of the Christmas story is most interesting to you?”
There are some amazing choices, right?
Mary is hard to beat, but you’ve got Joseph, Elizabeth, and Zachariah, the Innkeeper, the wise men, mean ol’ King Herod, his advisors, the Romans, and, of course Jesus, the Christ child.
For me, though, it’s the shepherds who most grab my attention every year. They are, no doubt, a staple of Christmas pageants, cards and television specials. That’s a great deal of attention for characters only mentioned specifically in Luke’s account of Christmas. (Matthew also mentions a shepherd in context of the Nativity, but it’s a completely different character.) I’m fascinated by them, and not just those in the Bible.
There are times (usually when I am in my car driving through farmland or sagebrush) when I imagine what a shepherd’s life must be like. Tasked with protecting and providing for essentially helpless critters, the shepherd must consider everything from weather to terrain to the availability of grazing land. Disease can destroy an entire flock with almost no warning, so keeping a knowledgeable eye out for the early signs of illness is an absolute must.
And the predators! Here in the U.S., sheep face danger from coyotes, foxes, wolves, mountain lions, bears, and domestic dogs (according to the Department of Agriculture). Even eagles have been known to take a small lamb if the opportunity presents itself.
Shepherding, I’ve read, is an occupation of extremely thin margins. The loss of one or two sheep can mean the difference between paying all the bills and racking up more debt. Few get rich breeding and raising sheep. So, protecting the flock is key.
Shepherds are some of the most prominent people of the Bible: Abel, Abraham, Lot, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, all of Jacob’s 12 sons including Joseph before his being sold into slavery, Moses, David, and Amos are said to have watched the flocks. David, who would one day be king of all Israel, received important training in preparation for his role as a warrior through fighting and killing both lions and bears (1 Samuel 17:34-36) in the duty of rescuing lambs from their mighty jaws.
As a young believer, I was taught the shepherds in the time of the Gospels were poor, unclean social outcasts, isolated because of their dirty work and uncultured ways. But a cursory search online raises some doubts about that theory.
According to one site, the shepherds in the fields surrounding Bethlehem were likely responsible for tending sheep which had been set aside for ritual sacrifice. The Mishnah – Jewish regulations of the time – forbade the keeping of flocks throughout Israel except in the wilderness unless they were set aside for Temple services. Their proximity to Bethlehem makes it probable that these were just such sheep. Shepherds tending these special flocks would have had an elevated social status, and might even have been considered part of the priesthood.
So, if they are not in the Gospels mainly as a symbol of God’s love for the poor and outcast (and he does love the poor and the outcast, by the way), then why are they mentioned at all?
The theory which appeals the most to me is their role they played of protecting and maintaining the purity of the temple sacrifice from stain or blemish, as Jewish law requires. By being present at the birth of Jesus, their presence signifies his later standing as the eternal sacrifice for our sins, holy and perfect, without stain.
This past week, we watched with joy and amusement as our children and youth told the story of Christmas through the reading of Scripture, donning costumes, singing familiar songs.
Seeing these sheep (and the occasional cow) herded on and off the chancel made me think of how we all must look to God as he moves us through time and space for his great purposes and for our ultimate redemption. Like the little ones, we “sheep” can go off course and get distracted by shiny things, wayward thoughts, and our own wants and wishes.
But, seeing these little ones among us, we know we must ourselves be shepherds of a special kind as well.
Spiritually, we watch and pray for these lambs, asking God to keep us aware of and alert for the risks. We want to be ready to intervene when needed, but also calm and steady enough to avoid needlessly spooking or scaring those under our care.
Friday at 4 p.m. we host our family-oriented Christmas Eve service ONLINE ONLY. I won’t give away too much, but it leads our “lambs” (young and old) through the story of the birth of Jesus along an easily understandable path while celebrating the wondrous songs of the holiday and, most importantly, giving glory to our great and marvelous God, whose coming to Earth is a miracle worth remembering all year ‘round.
At 11 p.m., Christmas Eve, our awe-inspiring Candlelight Service will be held in person in the Sanctuary and streamed online. It is meant to remind us that the light of Jesus continues to shine in the darkness, a timeless message that seems so especially important to remember in these days.
We hope to see as many of you who can be with us for one or both of these services, but they will also be streamed live for those of you unable to make it in person.
May your Christmas be so full of the presence of the Good Shepherd, Jesus, that you find yourself itching under all that wool!
In Jesus Christ,
FPCE Director of Communications
P.S. – We currently expect to hold our Sunday, December 26, service in person and online at 9:30 a.m. Please keep an eye on your email or the FPCE home page to see if our plans change.