Festive lights are shining just about everywhere; and the holiday music swings from slow and nostalgic to boisterous. People are showing more goodwill and expending great effort to be kind and generous to others in this holiday season. But you are dying inside. The reason “why” may have many roots: the divorce that has left life so complicated brings new pain and frustration with each holiday and new year; the Christmas cards, or lack thereof, that speaks to passing time and changing relationships; the loneliness of being uninvited; the recent death of a loved one that was so much a part of your world and holiday traditions; the isolation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Every element of celebrating has a twinge of brokenness as it seems to only mirror past and present pain.
For some people, Christmas and the New Year’s celebrations are downright defiled. What has happened is unspeakable. In my family history there was a distant grandmother who died on Christmas Eve and a traumatic suicide on New Year’s Eve. The family aftermath was expressed in violence and alcoholism. For one of my parents, every Christmas holiday season held sorrowful memories, and while that particular dysfunctional behavior was not continued into the next generation, my parent was always melancholy around Christmas. Maybe your family can’t get together without a brawl, or someone walking out, yelling or crying. Past hurts hardly allow for a civil meal together. Even a seemingly happy family would tell you that the holidays add stress in terms of time, finances and family relations. Everything seems tainted.
The tainting is not imagined however. The Bible tells us that when the first man and woman chose to sin against God, the earth and all the creation came under a curse. This curse included the relationships we have with God, the created order and one another.1 Just as none of us can undo a shameful family history, so we cannot undo what we have done or what our first parents chose to do. And there we stand, hopelessly living in a twisted merry-go-round of sin, pain and death, but for God…
God who created us promised to right the wrong, and to reestablish relationships the way He intended them to be between one another, and most importantly with Him. The fulfillment of God’s promise was through Jesus. On the night that Jesus was born, shepherds, who were the outcasts of society, were the first to get the good news. Why were they outcasts and why did God choose to tell them first?
In that day, shepherding was usually assigned to the youngest male in the family2 because the older males were honored with greater responsibility and importance. Shepherds were considered ceremonially “unclean” by the Jewish culture because they did not wash according to Jewish law3 and because they were made unclean when killing predator animals to protect the flock.4 There were many instances where a person, especially a shepherd, could become unclean under the Jewish law. Being unclean meant that the shepherds could not go into the temple and synagogue to worship. Now that may sound rather benign in today’s American culture where many people do not “do life” in the church. However in Israel, all of societal life centered on the temple as the central place to worship, and likewise, the synagogue was the center of religious community activities with a focus on prayer and religious education.5 In essence, the shepherds were largely banned from doing life with their community. We can begin to understand this concept from the isolation we have been living in during the current world-wide quarantine and lock-downs.
Interestingly, “according to the Mishna6, flocks that were pastured in the [eastern plains of Bethlehem] were destined for the temple sacrifices and the shepherds that tended them were the only [shepherds] not unclean.”7 Now the Bible does not tell us if the shepherds watching their flocks the night that Jesus was born were considered clean or unclean by the Old Testament religious standards of that day. It didn’t matter. God was doing a new thing. In the darkness of night in Bethlehem, an angel appeared to the shepherds and said,
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. ”8
Let’s rephrase what the angel said to the shepherds: Don’t be afraid, I have good news for you that will bring joy for all the people. The shepherds would not have missed the meaning here. This message is not just for the king, rulers, the rich or the religious leaders; it is for all the people.9 The lowly and outcast shepherds were not banned from hearing or experiencing the moment in time that God had fulfilled his promise to send a Savior. The shepherds would also have not missed the reference to David, who centuries before was the shepherd boy from Bethlehem who God chose to become king.10 Not only had the shepherds been the first to hear this angelic message, but they were invited to go and see the baby Messiah. They, the outcasts of society, invited to behold the Savior of the World. I wonder if any of them tearfully whispered, “Finally, you are here…”
Why did God have the angels tell the shepherds first? Why, because that is what the Shepherd of Our Soul does! The little babe lying in an animal’s feeding trough would one day welcome the outcasts and sinners to draw near to hear Him. All the while, the religious leaders and educated scribes would complain:
“This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So [Jesus] told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”11
Are you hurting and outcast? Do you feel the weight of your own sin and “uncleanness”? Like the shepherds, you are invited to come and see the Savior and belong to Him. Do these words speak to you?
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”12
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”13
Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is God the Son, we are invited to a restored relationship with God the Father. When we put our trust in Christ as payment for our sin against God, God sees us with the perfect holiness of Jesus that was bought with His blood.
Hurting people need prayer.
Jesus, I am hurting. I am afraid. I am sad. I am grieving that all I have worked for appears to be gone. I feel humiliated and ashamed. Help me to rest in the fact that my times are in Your hands; these events will work for the best for me as it relates to my purpose in furthering Your kingdom which is eternal. I am thankful for the extra time I have had to be at home with my family and for what you have provided. Please help me to rest in knowing that You give me grace for each day. Lord I ask You to provide what we need. Please help me to be wise with the family, friends, finances and the material possessions you have given me. Please help me to find joy in the day and to redeem the time I have in a way that honors You. Please grant me wisdom and calm my fears as You are Creator God. You made me, know me intimately, and have affection for me and a plan for my life. Please help me to rest in Your love for me. Amen.
If you would like to know more about a relationship with God through Jesus, please reach out to us! You are welcome to join us for Sunday services. Our livestream is also still available as well. If you would like a pastor to call you, please contact us at email@example.com or connect with us through our webpage at cornerstonejoppa.org/contact-us. May God bless you, keep you and give you peace.
1 Genesis 3
2 Wight, F. Shepherd life; the care of sheep and goats. Excerpts from Manners and Customs of Bible Lands. Ancient Hebrew Research Center. Accessed on December 18, 2020 from https://www.ancient-hebrew.org/manners/shepherd-life-the-care-of-sheep-and-goats.htm
3 Bible History. “Shepherds.” Bible History: Maps, Images, Archaeology. Accessed on December 18, 2020 from https://www.bible-history.com/jesus/jesusuntitled00000514.htm
4 1 Samuel 17:34-35; Leviticus 5:1-13; Leviticus 11
5 Muscato, C. “Synagogue vs. Temple: Definitions & Differences.” Study.com. Accessed on December 18, 2020 from https://study.com/academy/lesson/synagogue-vs-temple-definitions-differences.html
6 An authoritative collection of exegetical material embodying the oral tradition of Jewish law and forming the first part of the Talmud. Oxford Languages. “Mishnah”. Oxford University Press. Accessed on December 18, 2020 from https://www.google.com/search?q=mishnah&rlz=1C1ASUT_enUS642US646&oq=mishna&aqs=chrome.0.0i355i433i457j46i433j69i57j0j46j0l3.1297j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8
7 Bible History. “Shepherds.” Bible History: Maps, Images, Archaeology. Accessed on December 18, 2020 from https://www.bible-history.com/jesus/jesusuntitled00000514.htm
8 Luke 2:10-12 (All Bible quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV Text Edition: 2016. Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Accessed on December 15, 2020 from https://www.biblegateway.com/passage)
9 In that time of Roman oppression the Jewish people were hungering for a political savior.
10 1 Samuel 17:12-15
11 Luke 15:1-7
12 John 10:27-30
13 John 3:16-17