Here’s the Christmas monologue from last year:
The challenge with these stories is always that their familiarity makes it hard to really hear them. We think we know what they are about, but a lot of the time we are remembering a nativity play rather than the story that was written down. One of the clues to this is that all the gospel writers tell a slightly different story, bringing out different characters, fresh perspectives. Our nativity plays and carol services cherry-pick the best bits from all of them, to present a story that the writers never did.
So I thought I’d really look at Luke’s version of the story. When you do this, it becomes obvious that Luke is telling a story about shepherds. Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem and finding a stable where the baby is born is all told fairly briefly. We never hear them speak. But he spends a long time talking about the shepherds and what happens to them, and does a lot of the explaining about what has happened through their eyes. So what might it be like to see the events of Christmas through their eyes?
It wasn’t an easy job, being a shepherd, it meant spending a lot of time out in the fields. Sheep would be out in the fields from November to April. The poor soil that characterised a lot of Palestine meant that flocks had to move around to find pasture. Their shepherds would go ahead of them, seeking out water and grass. It was hard work, and dangerous at times – shepherds watched the sheep because they were at risk, from thieves or wild animals, or from falling into crevices or climbing onto cliff ledges. But not only that, being a shepherd out in the fields meant you couldn’t follow the religious law, you couldn’t attend the religious feasts, couldn’t observe the Sabbath. David had been a shepherd, but most shepherds were seen as fairly irreligious, smelly, rough characters, and often dishonest, roving around the countryside taking what they found. Not the people you’d expect to be the first witnesses to the birth of Christ.
Let’s imagine for a moment one of the shepherds out in the fields that night: Eli. Eli’s been a shepherd all his life, like his father before him, and his father before that. His sons are out in the fields with him. He’s seen pretty much all there is to see out there – seen off robbers and wolves, been out in all weather. It’s been a long cold night. He’s sat by the fire, looking over the sleeping sheep and shepherds.
Suddenly, there’s an angel standing next to him. Whatever you think an angel looks like: halo, robes, wings, harp, slightly ethereal, put that aside. This is a man, physically imposing, and seeming more real and solid than anything around him, but obviously not of this world. Whenever anyone sees an angel they are terrified. He’s a warrior, in armour and carrying a sword, but that’s not the reason for the terror. Glory shines from him like light. Glory is the physical manifestation of God’s presence. Wherever this man is, God is. Think about that for a minute. God stands next to you, utterly and unmistakably there, powerful enough to snuff you like a candle-flame, and utterly and completely alien. This is not a human being. This is an emissary of another world, full of danger and mystery.
So Eli manages nothing more than a startled yelp as he frantically pats the shoulder of the son sleeping next to him, his eyes large, mouth hanging open, heart thudding in his chest. His sons awaken quickly – years as a shepherd teach you that if danger comes you need to be up. They’re all there, huddled together for safety, before the angel’s words really register.
“Don’t be afraid”. I expect he has to say it several times before they can really take it in.
They stop cowering, maybe they move apart a bit, maybe they stand up, but I don’t think you can ever really feel comfortable or relaxed next to an angel.
But the angel hasn’t finished talking.
“I bring you good news of great joy for all people.”
That doesn’t sound so bad. Eli begins to breathe a bit more easily. His first instinct had been to assume they were all going to die. They’re not exactly observant jews. They go to the Temple – when they’re delivering sheep ready for the sacrifices – but the priests won’t have anything to do with them. They sell to the market traders. Everyone assumes they’re sinners, so decent people won’t have anything to do with them. And that sort of prejudice encourages you to make bad choices. He’s seen it in his sons, felt it in himself. They’re a motley bunch. And if he had ever thought God might turn up and say anything to them, Eli would have expected it to be something with a good deal more ‘Thou shalt not’ about it.
“To you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
The angel had to repeat this bit too. Even after having gotten over the shock of not being dead, it took a lot for Eli to take on board that not only was the Messiah, the promised saviour, who he’d heard stories about all his life but never really wasted too much time actually thinking about, not only was he actually coming, he was coming tonight, and he was coming in the town whose lights they could see in the valley below them. And the angel had told them to find him.
Suddenly they are surrounded. An army of angels, each as imposing as the first, singing “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth”. The sound is overpowering, just like the men themselves. Being in their presence is like standing too close to the sun, it feels like no human being can stand it for too long. But then they are gone, leaving the shepherds standing about, trembling, the echo of the song still ringing in their ears. Eli’s sons turn to him, the same crazy hope burning in each of their eyes.
“Can we go and find him?”
Eli looks at them, and smiles.
“Go.” He says. “I’ll watch the sheep.”
Eli sits by the fire, watching the sleeping flock. Somewhere down in Bethlehem he hears the singing start. Not pure, clear voices like the angels, but the rough voices of his sons, as they make their way back to the fields, praising God for all that they had seen. The Messiah has come, and God has chosen him and his sons to be the first to see him. What did it mean? He’s pretty sure that the rabbis and the priests wouldn’t think they were good enough. But maybe God does think they’re good enough. Now that really would be good news.