Shepherds and the Good Shepherd

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

Luke 2: 8-12

The Advent Project devotional has really been a blessing this Advent season. Today’s is about the Shepherds in Luke 2. Wonderfully written by Hannah Williamson, I thought I’d pass it on to you:

“The shepherds did not expect to encounter the glory of God amid the bleating of lambs and crackling of tired fires. The night began unremarkably. They talked and laughed to ward off sleep, to stay alert for sounds of danger. The cadence and calming tones of their familiar voices soothed their restless flocks. Now and then, their eyes wandered to the east, searching for signs of the dawn that was still far off.

They did not know a greater dawn was so close at hand.

They did not think to look for God, for they were far from the temple. Their duties were mundane. Ceremonious washings and atoning sacrifices were far from their minds. The promised Messiah seemed less tangible than the people, plans, and demands of the coming day. They could not fathom being sought by the uncreated God amid their ordinary lives.

To these unassuming shepherds, the glory of the Lord appeared. Terror followed. Wide-eyed, trembling witnesses beheld nature join the angelic chorus as the night reverberated in triumphal praise. All questions, uncertainties, sufferings, divisions, and insecurities that had clamored for attention, for the moment, faded. Exposed to but a fraction of the Light shining forth from these heavenly heralds, they were conscious only of their smallness and frailty. But great fear transfigured into greater joy.

For the long-awaited One had arrived. Achings and groanings centuries old were answered at last—their consolation a babe who himself sought the consolation of his mother’s touch. The fullness of God embodied in the helpless form of an infant. The worship of the earth and heavens received by the newborn who now whimpered at the foreignness of the world outside the womb, still adjusting to the manger he’d accepted in place of his royal throne. The Mighty One made completely, utterly vulnerable.

When the shepherds met their Good Shepherd, how could they not fall down in worship? When chosen by the King to bear witness to his humble entrance, how could they not spread the joyous news? When dignified by the Creator who reigns on high, how could they not meet with loving, confident gaze the eyes of those whose faces were twisted in sneering rejection, who had not yet borne witness to the inbreaking Kingdom? 

Their good tidings are still for all men. The important and the cast aside. The earnest seekers and the flagrant sinners. The educated and the unlearned. The hopeful and those in despair. And most of all for those outside the city gate—for the oppressed, the poor, the sojourner, the orphaned, and all who are unhindered by their own sense of self-importance. For those in darkness have seen a great light. A Savior has come, who is Christ, the Lord.”

The Benedictus: Zechariah’s Canticle

Below is a portion of Zechariah’s prophecy from Luke’s infancy narrative, which, when used as a canticle in church liturgy, is called The Benedictus. A canticle is non-metrical hymn based on Scripture. Mary’s song or The Magnificat, also found in Luke, is another example. They are all beautiful and theologically rich, and form an important part of the Christmas story in Scripture. Zechariah’s has always been one of my favourites.

Zechariah’s prophecy over his newborn baby boy, John the Baptist:

And you, my child, “Prophet of the Highest,”
will go ahead of the Master to prepare his ways,
Present the offer of salvation to his people,
the forgiveness of their sins.
Through the heartfelt mercies of our God,
God’s Sunrise will break in upon us,
Shining on those in the darkness,
those sitting in the shadow of death,
Then showing us the way, one foot at a time,
down the path of peace.

Luke 1:76-79 (The Message)

“The Lord has done this for me”

When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. ‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said. ‘In these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people.’

Luke 1:23-25

The Lord has done this for me . . . He has shown his favour. Astonishing. We serve, believe in, trust, worship, and love a God who does things for us. A God who shows us his favour. How unbelievable is that? The Lord didn’t have to make it possible for Elizabeth to become pregnant. Yet he chose to work out his purposes in this way. He both put another part of his redemptive plan into motion and gave Zechariah and Elizabeth what they’d always wanted: a child. He kept his salvation promise and took away their shame over childlessness. The Lord’s saving actions are both cosmic—enveloping all of creation—and personal—involving actual people in the actual circumstances of their lives.

Zechariah’s Question

Here’s a portion of this morning’s Lectio365 devotional. I can relate to Zechariah. How about you?

Zechariah asked the angel, ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years.’ The angel said to him, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.’ Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realised he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
Luke 1:18-22 (NIVUK)

“Zechariah still has a question: ‘How can I be sure?’ How much more proof does he need? God has heard him. I wonder, is it more important to pray faithfully even if I don’t always have what feels like faith? Do I pray for things that I don’t really believe will happen? Or do I pray prayers which are so vague that I would never know if they have been answered?”

Lord, help me to be faithful in prayer. Prompt me to keep praying, and may I have courage to pray bold, outrageous prayers, even when the answers seem impossible. Lord, I do believe. Please help my unbelief. Amen.

Neighbours

A few years ago I was with my wife and kids at the emergency room of the hospital and something happened while I was there that has stayed with me ever since. It was a striking reminder of how much has changed in our culture—and how even a small city like ours is also affected by the growing ethnic and religious diversity of our nation.

While we were waiting our turn a Middle-Eastern couple came into the ER to do likewise. The woman was dressed in traditional Islamic clothing while the man was not. And at one point the woman unrolled her prayer mat unto the floor of the ER directly in front of the seat where she had been sitting and kneeled down to pray. Muslims are directed to pray five times a day in the direction of the Kabba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. So even though she was not at home or worshipping at her Mosque, she made sure that she fulfilled the requirements of her faith. Once she was done, she discretely rolled up the mat and sat back down.

Looking back I wonder what other people in the ER made of this. On the one hand, it seemed to elicit no obvious reactions—as if she had done no more than walk across the ER to pick up the newspaper from a table. On the other hand, whether people had an obvious reaction has nothing to do with what they were thinking as they also watched. Given that the Islamic faith has a much stronger presence in our culture and in our media than it did before 9/11, we are all becoming more accustomed to the Muslims in our communities. Regardless of how used to them we are, what’s important is our attitude toward our new neighbours.

Where there is difference, there can easily be suspicion and fear. In an increasingly diverse society where the distance between continents and nations is gradually being eroded through immigration, globalization and technology, it is nearly impossible, except perhaps in more rural areas, to isolate ourselves from those whose beliefs, traditions, and basic assumptions about life are sometimes radically distinct from our own. Not always knowing what to make of such differences and not sure of what their implications are for our own lives, we often relate to those who are different with prejudicial attitudes that actually impede rather than further understanding.

Ironically, as those who live in the Western world we still receive our religious inheritance primarily from Christianity, a religious faith that, while still the most common in our culture, is also increasingly misunderstood and maligned (especially in the media). There are complicated reasons for this being the case, but suffice it to say that Canadians who are practicing Christians may find themselves—perhaps not too far into the future—in a similar position as that of Muslims who have become a part of our population: as a minority viewed by many with misgivings.

Assuming this is a fair assumption, we should ask ourselves regularly: how do I relate to those who are different from me? Certainly, I understand that the relationship between the West and Islam is a complicated one: politically, religiously, and socially. But the relationship between myself and my Muslim neighbour needn’t be quite as complicated. In some respects it’s simple: How do I treat those whose religious beliefs, ways of life, and views of the world are so dissimilar to mine? Do I stick with my own group and attempt to shelter myself from encountering those who are unlike me or do I instead find ways of engaging in my larger world? Do I rest easy in my suspicions rather than take the time to encounter others as persons worthy of dignity and respect?

In chapter 10 of the Gospel of Luke Jesus tells a story in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” It’s a familiar story, one most know as the story of the Good Samaritan. In the story a Jewish man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho is ambushed by robbers and left for dead. Mortally wounded, barely clinging to life, this man lies pathetically at the side of the road. Two people pass by, a priest and a Levite, and neither do anything to help. Both cross to the other side, ignoring someone who is in desperate need.

And then the unthinkable in Jewish culture occurs. A Samaritan who happened to be traveling that way sees the man and stops. Even though there was extreme animosity between Jews and Samaritans at the time, this man goes above and beyond, exercising a kindness that would not have been expected from someone of his cultural background. All that mattered was that this man, bleeding and dying in the dirt, needed help and needed it immediately. Almost as a punchline, Jesus asked, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” It’s very nearly a rhetorical question. Of course you help; to have left the man to die would have been unthinkable, even inhuman.

No, we don’t always, or even often, have to relate to our neighbors as people in such dire need. Jesus’ parable provides us with an extreme but telling example. But Jesus’ teaching here doesn’t apply only to extraordinary circumstances. What he was doing was exposing what should and shouldn’t be true of the human heart. What is our attitude concerning those who are different from us? And of course differences abound between us and our neighbors, even if they’re less obvious than ethnic and religious ones.

In the conversation that took place before Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, the expert in the law rightly pointed out that to love one’s neighbor as oneself forms part of the whole picture of one who follows and loves God. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is referred to elsewhere as the second great commandment. “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” Jesus says in Luke 6:31. Treat others in the way you would like to be treated. Our neighbour is anyone in need. And our neighbour is not defined by any natural affinity we may share. Common humanity is the criterion. Even those we might count as enemies are included. Jesus, it appears, doesn’t leave any wiggle room for us. He’s especially adept at doing that—of putting us in the position of having to leave our comfort zones for the sake of love.

There were vast differences between that Muslim woman in the ER and myself: cultural, ethnic, and religious. But how would I have reacted if she had been mistreated in any way as she unrolled her prayer mat that afternoon? Would I have allowed such differences (which are not incidental either but of considerable importance) to prevent me from acting like that Samaritan? Might I have experienced the temptation to respond more like that priest or Levite in the story, and conspicuously and uneasily crossed the road rather than get involved, especially with someone not of my own group?

To answer these questions, I need only imagine a different scenario. It could be me on the side of the road. There may come a time when I’m just as vulnerable to opportunistic thieves and bandits. Life could leave me just as bloodied. In such a moment would I be willing to accept love from, to be helped by, that woman? Or would I rather she respond to my situation like the first two men and hope that at some point someone with whom I have more in common would address my circumstances? If someone asked her, “Who is my neighbor?” would she count me among them? Maybe whether or not she does begins with me.