The Three Shepherds (Christmas Eve)
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“The shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing which has taken place.’” But like other group conversations which Luke reports in his Gospel, this seems to be the summary of the discussion. I’m pretty sure the conversation had to be more involved than that.
Although Luke doesn’t mention it, there were probably at least three shepherds who offered opposing views on whether they should all leave the sheep and head into town. And they all had good and reasonable points. Their names have been lost to history, so I’ll just refer to them by the names of three other famous Jewish guys – Larry, Moe and Curly!
So after the angels departed and went into heaven, some of the shepherds said, “OK, let’s go see what’s up.”
But Larry said, “What do you mean go up and leave the sheep? We’ve got a job to do. We’re not supposed to be galivanting around in the middle of the night. Who’s gonna protect the sheep from wolves? And from thieves? And what if the owner of the sheep has insomnia and comes down here to see what’s going on and finds us missing? We’ll all get fired! I get the point about seeing what God is up to, but God also called us to be shepherds. And after all, the angels didn’t actually tell us we HAD to go and see, only that if we did, there would be a sign for us. Is this really a good idea?”
Then Moe spoke up. And he said, “Hold on here. How do we even know those were angels? Have you ever seen an angel before? I haven’t. How do you know those weren’t demons pretending to be angels? What if what their purpose was to draw us away from the sheep so the wolves could come running in and eat them while we’re gone? How do we really know if this message is from God?
And finally, Curly chimed in. “You know,” he said, “I’d be willing to go up later. But it’s late. I’m REALLY tired, and going into town is long, uphill climb in the dark. Let’s wait until tomorrow or the weekend. After all, these folks just had a baby – they’re not going anywhere for a few days anyway!”
And the thing is, all three of these stooges – I mean, shepherds – have a point! They do have a job to do; not one of them could prove these were really angels; and they were all tired (and unlike the scenes in our Christmas cards, the town of Bethlehem is a long, hard climb UPHILL from the “fields” where the shepherds were watching their flocks.)
But somehow, after all this discussion, the shepherds decided to go anyway. They decided it was worth the risk. They decided to take a leap of faith.
Now usually, we just read this summary of the shepherds deciding to go to Bethlehem and move on to the rest of the story. But maybe one of the messages of the Christmas Gospel is to consider the conversation these shepherds must have had before they decided to go. And that’s because, at least for me, all three of these shepherds live in my head whenever I think I hear God’s call to redirect my attention or energy.
For me, at least, I know there are times when I think God may be directing me to stop what I’m doing and pay attention to something else. And at those moments, I almost always initially think:
- Wait a minute! I’m busy. And often, I’m busy with things I think God wants me to do or to be involved in. You are, too. We’re busy doing work that makes a difference in the lives of others. We’re taking care of our families. We’re trying to be good friends and neighbors. Do I really have time to stop what I’m doing and pay attention to something else?
- How do I know this is God calling me to drop what I’m doing, and not just me being subconsciously interested in some distraction? After all, what does an “angel” really look like? Is the suggestion of my friend or co-worker the message God is sending me? Or the feeling in my heart that I should pay attention to something new? Or the simple fact that I’ve observed something and can’t shake thinking about it? Are those the “angels” God is using to tell me to pay attention to something different? It’s sometimes hard to tell.
- I’m tired! Especially at this time of the year! Can’t we just wait until after Christmas? After the New Year? After the Annual Meeting in January? After Lent is over? I mean, there’s practically never a time in my life where I think, “Oh, I’ve got lots of energy and time to just run around and see what’s new out there!”
And maybe these things are true for you, too. And these thoughts aren’t bad. After all, it’s good we’re busy with things that God has already called us to be part of. It’s good to try to discern whether we’re listening to God or to our own thoughts. And it’s good to pace ourselves so that we’re not overwhelmed and exhausted.
But Christmas isn’t just about God doing something new and different in Jesus long ago and far away. Instead, the message of Christmas is that, in and through Jesus, God is always doing new things in our lives, and calling us to be part of those new things.
And so, like the shepherds, it’s important for us to remember that the thing which might at first appear to be a distraction may indeed be the thing God wants us to pay attention to. It’s important to entertain the possibility that what might seem like just the voice of a friend saying, “hey, check this out”, may also be the voice of God’s “angel” calling us to pay attention to something we hadn’t considered before. And it’s sometimes important, as tired as we may be, to get up and climb uphill so that we don’t miss out on the new things God is doing in our lives.