The Big Sandy Mountaineer -

Patching Cracks


December 22, 2021

This year I was challenged by a friend to go through an entire Christmas season preaching series without talking about shepherds. To clarify: the challenge wasn’t to not mention them at all, but rather to avoid expounding on how lowly, dirty, and socially rejected these guys were. While researching the topic a few years ago, I discovered a treasure trove of material about the profession in Jewish law and writings. Every time the topic comes up at Christmas, I find myself digging up this material and presenting it. Apparently, it has become excessive. The same can be said of tanners, which I researched while preaching through Acts and the start of the primarily Jewish Christian community accepting Gentiles into their ranks. Sadly, I learned far more than I could ever unpack in a sermon… but that hasn’t stopped me from trying. Again, tanners have become a point of teasing for those who have noticed my returning to the topic often. (This is all good natured stuff, mind you. Apparently my love language is good-natured picking on…)

So far, I have stuck to the challenge, but I wanted to detour near the topic for at least once this year. In an effort to not hyper-focus on the shepherds (or tanners) themselves, I want to instead touch on why it matters. The image we get in nativity scenes is rarely one that reflects the cultural attitude of the ancient Jewish world. In fact, it’s easy to lose the stark contrast, humor, and profound message of the story of the birth of Jesus in the way we have polished it all up for our decorations and stories. In truth, the story is scandalous.

The birth of a royal son would be a time of celebration with all sorts of meaningful customs. These customs emphasize the honor bestowed upon the newborn and his parents. Prominent people of the community would come and see the newborn to pay homage. Foreign dignitaries would bring gifts of tribute and to show fealty. There is an ancient belief that signs in the stars would herald such events. In the nativity story, we see social rejects (shepherds) receiving the announcement and going to witness the birth. This is a long way from prominent Jewish citizens. Then, pagan astrologers arrive following the signs in the heavens to offer tribute. This is a far cry from kings or honored guests. The gifts they brought were probably sold to finance the newborn’s flight into Egypt to avoid being murdered by Herod. Again, hardly the honorable reverence of a king’s birth. The story would’ve been almost satirical to an ancient reader.

We lose a great truth by polishing the story up to make the astrologers into kings and the shepherds into precious moments figurines. That truth is that God sent his Son to be the King and Savior of losers and rejects. Many folks come under the illusion that they can be good enough to earn their way into heaven. In truth, we can’t ever climb that mountain to reach Him. God knew this, which is why He came down to us. The shepherds and wise men (and the tanners!) are a message of hope to those of us who know we don’t deserve it. We are the smelly, filthy, sinful night shift showing up to the birth of the one whose glory has been celebrated by angels since before the world began. Shepherds are an almost obsessive topic for me at Christmas because I’m standing in that crowd every year when we sing our Christmas songs and light candles. It’s the celebration of God coming for me (and all of you who are in the same boat!) So, please forgive my indulgence. Shepherds and tanners are my people, and I am so grateful for our redemption.


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