We sometimes have this idyllic Christmas card picture of shepherds and sheep – all gathered around a stable with a star shining over it and the shepherds kneeling around a manger.
But let me tell you about shepherds and sheep and goats.
Pretty much every family in Jesus’ day had either a goat or a sheep – no matter how poor they were, and a great many people had whole herds of sheep and goats. It was a matter of survival, for one thing. Sheep and goats provided milk, which was used to drink, but also to make cheese and yogurt. They provided wool for clothing and for blankets and tents and tarps and coverings of all kinds for people who were out in the weather often. The horns of goats were used for musical instruments and as containers for oil. Goat skins were saturated in fat so that they wouldn’t leak and they became water bottles. And of course, they ate the meat - usually at special religious ceremonies like Passover. Sheep were the mainstay of any family in those days, for every family, no matter how poor - and every single one of them was precious for the survival of the family. And they were also the mainstay of the economy and a good source of income for others who were more wealthy.
Now of course those who had large herds of sheep and goats hired their own shepherds to care for the sheep. But those in the villages who had only one or two sheep would band together and hire one shepherd who would be responsible for the sheep of all the people in the village. In the spring, right after the rains there was plenty of grass near the villages and the shepherds could pasture them there. At harvest time if there were shocks of grain left behind by the reapers, the sheep were allowed to feed on those. But aside from that, the shepherds would take them far out into the hills to graze. Later in the year, after the spring rains, finding fresh, still, water for their flocks was a real challenge for the shepherds.
Taking their sheep far out of the village into the hills to graze was another issue. That could be dangerous because the terrain was rocky and hilly and scrubby little buses grew there. There were also wild animals lurking about in the valley – bears and lions who loved to feast on small sheep. And sometimes sheep would wander off and get lost or fall into crevices or become injured in remote areas. So the shepherd was always vigilant and well-armed, as you can see in that picture in the bulletin. He had a staff with a crook at the end of it to help him rescue sheep in trouble, and to help him navigate the rough terrain. And he had a rod – that baseball bat-like weapon - to ward off lions and bears and jackals in the wilderness. Or men who came to steal away the sheep. And he often had to use those weapons to protect his sheep. Even to the point of his own death for the sake of the sheep in his care.
Sometimes the shepherd and his sheep would stay out overnight, in the wilds. In that case the shepherd would find a cave or sheltered area, and the sheep would sleep there for the night. Or sometimes the shepherd would gather up rocks and build a pen where the sheep would sleep. But always, the shepherd himself would lie down at night with his body across the opening, to guard the sheep from dangerous animals and men who came in the night to steal them away, and to make sure none of them escaped. And every night as the sheep came into the pen, the shepherd would carefully count each one to make sure that he hadn’t lost any of the very precious sheep in his care. And if the numbers didn’t add up, he’d go off into the night, into the wilds to find the one that was lost.
So you’re getting the point here. There is nothing elegant about a shepherd. They have rough hands and dirty fingernails and weather beaten skin and their clothes are worn and shabby and they hardly ever shave or take a bath. They are stinky and smelly and we wouldn’t want to meet them in a dark alley at night. Or any other time. They’re out in the wilderness in all kinds of bad weather, and they are often cold and in danger for their lives.
But there’s another layer to all this as well. You remember those laws about clean and unclean in the Old Testament. And about how anybody who touched dead animals was considered unclean. These shepherds messed about with dead animal carcasses all the time. Which meant they were considered “unclean” and the normal population would steer well clear of them. Nobody wanted to touch them or have much contact with them for fear of becoming “unclean” themselves. So they were isolated and separated from the rest of the community.
Not the kind of people whom you would expect to be invited to the birthday of a Savior King. But yet, there they were crowded in that barn, adoring that baby Savior King. Angels sang to them, no less. The glory of the Lord shown on them, no less. They were the first witnesses to the birth of that king. For two thousand years people have been writing songs about them and singing songs about them and telling stories about them.
And I’m looking at all of you this morning, and I don’t suppose that any of you have ever been invited to the birthday of a king or princess or prince, either. I’m looking at people who do their jobs faithfully at work and at home: for the good of the company or the good of the community or the care of children and adults in need. Or you go about in your retirement doing things for the good of your family or the good of your friends or this community.
I’m looking at people whose Bibles are worn from use and fat from all the notes that are stuck into them over the years. I am looking at people in this church who type the minutes of meetings and distribute them. I’m looking at women who have just made a multitude of dozens of cookies and have sold them. I’m looking at people who bring huge bundles of toilet paper and giant boxes of cereal for families in this community. I’m looking at people who will be contributing to our Presbyterian Christmas Joy Offering in a few days and who contribute generously to God through this congregation every month. I’m looking at a group of people who take care of this church building and regulate the heat and see that the snow is shoveled. I’m looking at a man who changes the sign in front of this church every week, and at a woman who types our bulletin. And a whole lot of people who send emails and make phone calls and handle a bunch of details to make sure that the ministries of this church are carried out well.
There is nothing so very glamorous about bringing toilet paper or typing bulletins. Or making cookies or changing church signs or adjusting thermostats. In the course of world affairs and historical events, most of what we do is not the least bit note-worthy. And we would not expect that toilet paper bringers and cookie bakers would be invited to the birthday of a king. But we have been.
Because you see: the money that the cookie bakers make will go to causes that Jesus would be thrilled about. That sign invites people and their children to worship and snow shovelers and the thermostat adjusters make that possible and the Glory of God shines on them.
Luke is setting the stage very early in his Gospel about who the Savior king is and what kind of kingdom he brings with him. That’s the secret of the Upside Down kingdom of God where everything is the opposite of what we would expect. The new Savior King is born in a barn and sleeps in a wooden cow box with rags over him. His mother is a woman with no royal pedigree at all whom nobody has ever heard of. Angels sing to shepherds, of all people. And the Glory of God shines on them. The heroes of the story are the unwashed and smelly and the ones with filthy fingernails and grubby feet. They are the ones who see him and adore him.
That’s the upside down kingdom of God for you. Where everything is the opposite of what you would expect and where the heroes are the least likely people in all the world. Where the heroes are the shepherds and the toilet paper bringers and cookie bakers.
That’s Jesus’ grand and glorious kingdom. That’s what we’re a part of.
That’s where the joy is this Christmas.