“From Humbug to Hallelujah”
Series: The Spirit of Christmas
Luke 2:1-20 and John 10:10b (RSV)
“And there were in the same country, shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night…”
On this night of nights, we hear again the wonderful story of shepherds and angels and a new-born baby laid in a manger. We imagine ourselves as the shepherds, huddled together in the cold night air, being surprised by the blazing light of an angelic choir announcing the birth of Jesus. Our hearts pound within our chests as we run with the shepherds into the village of Bethlehem to find the Christ-child. Along with them we marvel at the sight of the Baby King, and kneel beside them as we pay homage. And finally, we dance with them, praising God for allowing us to witness the birth of our long-awaited Savior.
Yes, for us, there may be no more charming and delightful scene in all the scriptures than this quaint pastoral tableau of the shepherds of Bethlehem. We feature them on our Christmas cards. We give them prominent roles in our Christmas pageants. We sing about them in our Christmas carols. We have come to put them on a pedestal, because of the central part they play in the Christmas drama. And because we think so highly of these shepherds, we may unintentionally attribute to them qualities that they may not have possessed.
When you and I think of shepherds, we tend to see them as noble, honorable, simple, hardworking folk – people we should emulate. Our idealized view of shepherds is reflected in the nursery rhymes we all grew up with:
Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep
And can’t tell where to find them.
Leave them alone, and they’ll come home,
Wagging their tails behind them
Mary had a little lamb its fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.
And of course, the Old Testament also glorifies shepherds as our role models: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were shepherds; Moses spent much of his life as a shepherd; and David was a shepherd boy, who later wrote, in the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Even Jesus compared himself with a Good Shepherd who searches for a lost sheep, and who is willing to lay down his life for his flock. It’s no wonder we have such a positive view of shepherds.
But I think we miss the power of the Christmas story if we think of shepherds that way. By the time Jesus comes on the scene, the role of shepherds in society had drastically changed. Far from being the paragons of virtue we think them to be, shepherds in Jesus’ day were the dregs of society. Because of their filthy working conditions and the demands of the job, shepherds were unable to observe all the Jewish purity laws or go to worship in the Temple, so they were perpetually considered “ritually unclean.” And because they were thought to be shiftless and unreliable, they were not even allowed to give testimony in court. They were looked down on as low-lifes and drifters, people who were to be shunned and ostracized by decent respectable folks.
You see, unlike the shepherds in the Old Testament, most often shepherds in the New Testament didn’t own the sheep they were watching. They were hired hands, paid to tend someone else’s flock. In fact, we have good reason to believe that these particular sheep actually belonged to the Temple in Jerusalem, just five miles away – The lambs these shepherds were being paid to watch were destined to be offered in sacrifice to God on the altar – their blood would be shed to take away the sins of the people. That could explain why the angels might come to these particular shepherds – the baby in the manger would be a sacrificial Lamb far more precious!
In any case, the shepherds in our story were just one step above day laborers, people who couldn’t get work doing a trade or didn’t have the where-with-all to start their own business. They worked hard for very little pay, with no hope of advancement. Being a shepherd was a dead-end job. They were the “working poor” of the first century, and like the working poor today, they had very little hope of ever improving their lot. They were desperate and hopeless. If anyone in Israel needed to hear some “Glad tidings of great joy,” it was these shepherds.
And God didn’t disappoint them! He sent an angel to announce Good News that would change their lives forever – Good News that still has the power to change lives and give us joy and new hope.
In the classic Christmas story by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is also desperate for Good News, even though he failed to see just how hopeless his life had become. And as the story is told, God didn’t disappoint Ebenezer, either.
Instead of sending a choir of angels, you’ll recall that Scrooge received the visits of three Spirits of Christmas: Past, Present, and Future. The first two Spirits were pleasant enough, but that final “Spirit of Christmases Yet to Come” was more akin to the Angel of Death than the angels who appear to the lowly shepherds announcing a birth. But, while this Spirit may have used a very different approach to get Scrooges attention, the result was very much the same: Scrooge’s life was changed forever as he finally embraced the Christ of Christmas:
VIDEO CLIP (graveyard scene, George C. Scott version)
In the 10th chapter of John, Jesus summarized the reason he came into the world. He said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
The reason the shepherds have become so beloved to us is not who they were – it is who they became after their encounter with Jesus. They followed the leading of the angels, knelt before the Christ-child, and left the manger rejoicing and praising God for his goodness and grace. Our last view of them is as they go, dancing and singing into the night, witnessing to others of what God had done in their hearts. We know they can never be the same again.
The same happened to Ebenezer Scrooge. The character of Scrooge would not have become so identified with the Christmas Spirit, based on who he was early in the story – he is beloved because of who he became after his encounter with Jesus. He followed the leading of the Spirits, encountered the Christ of Christmas, and woke up Christmas morning a completely changed man, rejoicing and praising God for God’s goodness and grace. One of our last views of him is dancing and singing, and witnessing to others of what God had done in his heart. And people were amazed to see the change that had come over him. We know that Ebenezer can never be the same again.
My friends, that is what Christmas is all about – having our lives transformed by an encounter with Jesus – receiving the abundant life Jesus came to offer us.
And that is why we celebrate Christmas every year – not to observe an ancient custom, not to spend time with family, or get a paid holiday, or go to parties, or give and receive gifts.
We come to the manger year-after-year so we can have an encounter with Jesus that can bring transformation to our lives – that the hope, and peace, and joy, and love of Christ might finally be born in each of our hearts.
Just as Christ was born in the hearts of the shepherds and of Scrooge, so may he be born in your heart and mine, this night. And may it be said of us what was written of the transformed Ebenezer Scrooge:
“It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that truly be said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, every one!”
May you encounter the Christ this Christmas in such a profound way that he might change all your “humbugs” into “hallelujahs!”