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18th December 2022

Singing in the Rain

Passage: Luke 2;8-20


OK- why shepherds? Why did shepherds hear the angels and not weavers or ploughmen or shopkeepers or priests? What was so special about shepherds?
You could of course argue that there is no historical evidence for this story; no-one can prove that there were ever any shepherds or any angels out on the hills when Jesus was born, but you would be missing the point. As I have said before, Luke is writing a Gospel, not a history book. He is proclaiming a message of good news. We are not asking about the truth OF the story but about the truth IN the story. George Caird wrote that in the nativity stories, you have prophecy, history and symbolism intermingled and you cannot separate them. Luke really wanted us to know about shepherds seeing the angels; hearing the message and passing it on.
So, I ask again, why shepherds? I thought of three reasons. &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

First, shepherds were among the lowest of the low in their society. They were looked down on because they were poor; being out in all weathers, they would have looked and smelled dirty; they had to work 24/7, so were unable to go to the temple, as all respectable citizens did; do you know, they were so despised that they were not allowed to bear witness in a court of law, even if they had seen the crime being committed. How low is that?
And Luke, of all the Gospel writers, highlights the love of Jesus for the underdog. Luke stresses the interest Jesus took in foreigners, lepers, women, beggars, “sinners.” It is Luke who tells the story of the shepherd leaving his 99 good sheep to go and search for the lost one. And the story of the father who watched and waited for the wayward son to return home. Shepherds were an obvious social group for his nativity story.

But Jesus’ interest in the lowly was not purely about charity- you must be kind to social outcasts. Yes, there is a place for charity. We are collecting money for Christian Aid through our church Christmas card. Last week we brought along heaps of toys for children who might have no presents this year. It is all good stuff but Jesus went further than this. As the Son of God, he could not intend social outcasts to remain victims for ever, nor the poor to remain objects of charity for the rest of their lives. His mission- in the words of Mary his mother- was to lift up the humble; give them a place in society; allow them a voice; acknowledge their intrinsic value as children of God. And that is a much higher challenge.
It is comparatively easy to give charity to the needy. Far more time- and- patience- consuming to allow them to contribute to something you are doing. If you remember, Jesus called a tax collector- a cheat working for the occupying army- to be one of his twelve disciples. How long do you think it took the other eleven even to speak to him?

Yet these shepherds: poor, rough, irreligious social outcasts- according to their story- were actually the first Christian evangelists. They went out and told everyone what they had seen and heard. I guess that, when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. You are not bothered about your credibility status or your personal pride or whether you can give all the right answers. You just tell your own story about God-with-you. And that is something which most of us, for all our other advantages, seriously struggle with. So shepherds, for Luke, represented the lowest of the low in the eyes of society but with a crucial role of their own in the eyes of God.

Second- I chose the title “Singing in the Rain” because it vividly describes the shepherds of the nativity story. They were out on the hills at night so, even if it was not raining it would have been cold and uncomfortable, yet they ended up singing for joy just the same. We all admire people who manage to smile and talk positively even under the worst of circumstances. They are wonderful to be so brave through sickness, poverty, injustice and it is all very much to their credit, but it is not enough, is it? We still a feel deep anger that there is so much sickness, poverty and injustice in the world and ask who is going to sort that out?

No, it is not enough simply to be brave and “sing in the rain” but it is a start. Because people with courage and with joy succeed in creating hope rather than despair. And hope is the starting point for all great change.
Betsie and Corrie ten Boom were imprisoned in a Nazi Concentration Camp because they had given shelter to Jewish people on the run. Betsie, according to her sister Corrie’s account, held her Christian faith throughout, was bold and gentle in sharing it with the other prisoners, no matter how ungracious they were; she maintained her dignity no matter what was done to her; she spoke kindly and compassionately even to the most brutal of prison guards and, when she lay dying she spoke urgently to Corrie- go back and tell everyone of God’s love and forgiveness. They will believe you because of this place where you and I have been. And, when the war was over, Corrie was indeed able to engage in large scale, worldwide Christian works of healing, peace and reconciliation.

Singing in the Rain is not just about bearing your own difficulties bravely but about offering hope and inspiration through your example. The shepherds, despite their poverty and degradation, went out and told everyone they met about the angels’ message. Who knows how that might have affected others who were poor or scared or lost interest in God? We think of the best evangelism as producing instant results; hundreds of people coming to faith; but it does not always happen like that. Sometimes it takes years for a seed of faith which is planted to come to fruition. Maybe some of the people just waiting to follow Jesus thirty years later had heard or remembered what the shepherds had said. So, for Luke, the shepherds created hope in an environment of despair.

Third and finally: somewhere along the line of history, shepherds had become, socially, the lowest of the low. But they had not always been. The great King David had started out as a shepherd and his courage in protecting his sheep from dangerous predators came in useful when he stood up to the giant Goliath, who was terrorising his people.
God himself is described many times as a shepherd: one who will lead his sheep to good places; protect them from danger and destruction. And Jesus called himself the good shepherd, who cared for his sheep.

The call to be good shepherds is the call of Jesus Christ to his church. “Look after my sheep” he says to Peter. “Take care of my lambs.” And he is not just talking about the sheep who are safely gathered in worship, prayer and fellowship within the church community. He is also talking about those who are wandering in dark, dangerous places, at the mercy of the predators who will destroy them with false ideals and the means of self-destruction.

It was depressing to hear in the results of the latest census that less than half of the people in this country now call themselves Christians. But bear in mind that it takes far more faith, courage and conviction to declare yourself “Christian” now than it did fifty years ago. And if even half of those half have faith, courage and conviction enough to take up the call to be shepherds of our nation, proclaiming a Gospel of real peace, of justice, of compassion, of God-with-us then, by the power of God and his holy angels, we might yet drive back the predatory powers which threaten to destroy so many innocent lives.
Let good shepherds be our role models as we follow Christ Jesus through the places in our lives.

So-why shepherds? I have shared my three reasons. You may think of more and I would love to hear them. But for now, I would like to finish with a short prayer from the Church of South India, used on Christmas Eve there: O God, who before all other didst call shepherds to the cradle of thy Son: grant that by the preaching of the gospel, the poor, the humble and the forgotten may know that they are at home with thee. Through Jesus X our Lord, Amen.