window.dataLayer = window.dataLayer || []; function gtag(){dataLayer.push(arguments);} gtag('js', new Date()); gtag('config', 'G-JP8PD7NQMN'); Vicar’s sermon: Christmas morning 2023 | St Mary's Barnard Castle

Vicar’s sermon: Christmas morning 2023

As cowboys are to the Wild West so shepherds are to the bible story. They are part of the backdrop of the whole society…and yet out on the fringes of those more settled folk living in the towns and communities of first century Israel. This shouldn’t surprise us: but we have long delegated food production to our farmers and most of us have very little contact with the farm animals that eventually appear wrapped and packaged on our supermarket shelves. It has not always been like this. My Dad used to tell stories of the pig his parents kept to the rear of their terraced house on Commercial Street in Hereford back in the 1940s. Go back further in time and many, many more people worked the land, spent time out in the fields and had no qualms about working with stock.
The books tell us that the shepherds were somewhat rough and ready. How could that not be the case? -their work outside, come rain come shine? In the summertime they might be days away from the village, seeking out the still waters and green pastures for their flock – or, to be more precise the flocks of those who had hired them, for the shepherds were labourers, not owners. In the winter they would (perhaps) not travel so far from home for who wants to be in the fields at night when snow is falling? (The traditional practice in winter is to bring the flocks back to a communal fold in the village overnight – which plays havoc with our dating Christmas in midwinter).
Work meant that shepherds rarely kept the Sabbath. This was a problem. Alongside circumcision and the ancient dietary laws, Sabbath observance was a key marker of the Jewish people. So shepherds, for all that they were essential to the running of a rural economy, were culturally and religiously on the fringe. By birth Jewish…and yet somehow ‘not kosher’, not acceptable….one up from foreigners who truly were outside God’s covenant people, but only just..
Being a shepherd had always carried lowly connotations and yet some of Israel’s greatest heroes had been shepherds. Abraham (of course) had many flocks. His son Jacob had bult up a huge herd whilst working for his father-in-law Laban. Moses had been tending his father in law’s flock when he caught a glimpse of a ‘burning bush’ and famously met with God.
Most especially though, King David had been a shepherd. Jesse’s 8th son who had almost been overlooked when Samuel came in search of God’s chosen King. I suppose it’s true to say that Samuel’s choice of David continues the trend of God favouring those who others overlook for His purposes. Ever since David had made such a success of the monarchy, Israel’s association with shepherds had become somewhat complicated. On the one hand they continued to be essential but pretty lowly folk who kept themselves to themselves and thankfully avoided polite company. On the other hand, David had polished their reputation so much that Israel’s leaders took the shepherding imagery to themselves: no ‘real’ sheep or goats involved for them of course, but the high- fliers, rulers, priests and temple officials gave themselves the title of being ‘the shepherds of Israel’. Theirs was the task of guarding and guiding the nation….indeed the shepherding image could even be applied to the Almighty Himself. ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ says Psalm 23. And Psalm 100 describes us as the Lord’s people, ‘the sheep of his pasture’: to be a shepherd in this sense was to share in God’s work
So it makes sense for there to be shepherds around on the day of Jesus’ birth: they must be there and the angels make sure that they are. But the gospel pointedly favours one set of shepherds over another, and that bears some reflection. For the shepherds who are summoned to the manger are not those who carry the title up in Jerusalem but the rag tag band out in the fields outside Bethlehem. The whole gospel story that follows will show us how those who should have known better could not make room for God’s Messiah, whereas the unexpected – women, children, poor, leprous and sick, despised, sinful and broken, the bereaved, mentally ill, foreign and religiously unclean – well they welcome Jesus and are alongside him as the Kingdom of God comes close. These are the people who lead the way and bear witness to Jesus, just as the shepherds did on that first Christmas night.
How we hear this news rather depends on how we see ourselves, who we think we are in the gospel story. It is certainly true that those of us gathered here this morning come with immense privilege – if we were being particularly hard on ourselves we might feel we have more in common with the ancient rulers of Israel: the shepherds God avoids in our story. But the gospel is meant to be Good News so take heart because the message of Christmas has been given to you just as it was given to the shepherds in the fields that first Christmas night. ‘A child has been born who is the Saviour, the anointed One (Christ) the Lord.’ God has not left His world to go to wrack and ruin and He has not forgotten you: he has come to us to offer the hope of things being put to rights, (‘saved’ from the mess we make) and the Christ offers His people the presence of his anointing spirit to be the change the world needs as we are obedient to Him, to Jesus, the Lord.
The shepherds receive this message and noisily pass it on. Their enthusiasm might be somewhat ungainly but it comes from hearts and minds transformed through ‘heaven touching earth’ and embracing them in the meeting. So, however you came to faith, whatever reason you might give for being here in church this Christmas morning, give thanks that this gracious embrace has come near to you. You haven’t earned it. You weren’t expecting it but God’s modern angels (the carols, the readings, the bells ringing, the church and the tree beautifully decorated) all say ‘look in the manger’. All that you hope for and all that you need is there in this child, born for you and the whole world. He is the One who shows us what the invisible God is like. He reflects the glory of His Father: Power revealed through choosing vulnerability and weakness; Glory seen through humility – not demanding obedience but inviting it, not forcing us to worship but helping us to respond freely to His grace, His welcome, His embrace. The apostle Paul described this in his letter to the Corinthians
26Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
The shepherds become part of a great cloud of witnesses who know that they have not earned God’s favour, just been granted it and now we join with them, for ‘to us is born this day a Saviour who is Christ, the Lord’. So let us glorify and praise God for ever and ever. Amen.

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