Sunday, December 6, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Shepherds"

John 10:11-16

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. 13 He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him. 14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.  (Common English Bible)

“The Nativity Scene: Still Life Coming Alive in Advent,” Week Two

In the year 1476, forty-some years before Martin Luther would nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the door at Wuttenburg and set the world alight under a reformation that Christianity had not ever seen before or since, a young boy named Hans in the German town of Niklashausen had a vision of Mary, the mother Jesus, began to preach a life of extreme poverty and devotion to God, and eventually incited the oppressed peasantry living in and around the town—as well as the masses of pilgrims who came to hear his sermons—to rise up against the nobility who kept them down and the clergy who enabled the nobility at the expense of following what Jesus actually said, that the last would be first and the first would be last.

Hans was originally known as the drummer of Niklashausen, and today, we may think the drums to be a pretty cool instrument, whether when playing Rock Band, or watching Drumline, or even just watching our own praise band in action.

But that was not the case back in the time of Hans, in the 1400s.  I’ll let historian Richard Wunderli explain, in his book Peasant Fires:

Medieval Europe knew many musical instruments, but the lowliest instrument was the drum…Anybody could play a drum, which was a despised instrument in polite society.  It was usually associated with mimes and minstrels who performed racy songs in taverns.  Hans’s enemies indeed claimed that he had performed in taverns—that is, until he had his vision.

Drummers were looked down upon, despised, and Hans himself was associated with his instrument of choice by his enemies as a way of trying to discredit him—but it was to no avail, as he became an increasingly popular preacher, and eventually, the only way his enemies within the church and the nobility could do away with him was to execute him by burning him at the stake as a heretic.

Young Hans Behem managed to speak out for his neighbors and people despite his lowly calling and station in life, and believe it or not, shepherds in ancient Israel were hardly any more highly regarded than drummers were in medieval Europe.  So what does it say about a Messiah who not only refers to Himself as a good shepherd, but whose birth was heralded—in human form—first by shepherds?

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Advent, what we colloquially think of as the “Christmas season,” but in fact the Christmas season in the church traditionally refers to Christmas Day and the eleven days afterwards between it and the Epiphany—the day the Magi arrive in Matthew 2 to worship the newborn Jesus and present Him with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Advent, rather, is much like the pre-Easter season of Lent in that it is meant to be a season of preparation—of preparing for the death and resurrection in the case of Lent, and preparing for the birth (“preparing the way for the Lord, (to) make His paths straight,” as John the Baptist puts it, by quoting the Old Testament prophets) in the case of Advent.

This Advent season, we’ll be doing so by going through the characters one by one in the nativity scenes that we all know and love—the setting of Jesus in the manger surrounded by His earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, as well as the shepherds and the angels who herald His birth.  Last Sunday, we began with the angels, and not just any angels, but the archangel Gabriel and His message to Mary that she is to bear a child who will one day bear the name Son of the Most High.  This week, we move on to the shepherds, in their role as the first human heralds of Christ’s birth, and we hear from the adult Jesus here in John 10 on the role a good shepherd must embrace.

That label, though, of a “good shepherd” is a bit of an oxymoron, because shepherds back in those days were not really seen as good—as useful, yes, as necessary, sure, but not especially as good.  Israel is not a country blessed with a great deal of arable land; in fact, a significant part of the land is the Negev desert which is, well, a desert.  So of the limited arable land, a shepherd’s flocks can consume an awful lot—if you’ve ever seen sheep eat, you know they can eat a great deal.  It isn’t even unheard of in parts of the world for sheep to be used for mowing down swaths of grass.

So shepherds were not really liked because of the wholesale way their flocks would consume land.  My New Testament professor in undergrad would say that for Jesus to refer to Himself as “the Good Shepherd” would be like, if Jesus had come today, referring to Himself as “the Good Used Car Salesman,” or “the Good IRS Auditor.”  The same sorts of professions that are commonplace and accepted for us, but not really liked, not necessarily possessing of good reputations—that’s what we’re talking about here.

Which means that it is extremely important not only that Jesus refers to Himself as the Good Shepherd and does so in such a public manner, but that the very first human witnesses and heralds to the birth of Jesus (after His earthly parents, of course) are in fact a group of shepherds.  We all know the words from Luke 2:8: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” (KJV)

So these guys aren’t only shepherds, they’re shepherds who drew the graveyard shift—they’re not even the highest guys on the totem pole in their own profession!  But they are the ones to whom the heavenly host of angels is sent to be told of Christ’s coming.  And surely this had to do with more than just convenience—there were other people geographically closer to the stable where Mary and Joseph and Jesus were: the inn was full, remember?  So the shepherds were chosen for a reason.

These shepherds were nobodies.  God relies on nobodies to be vessels of love and grace to a broken and bleeding world, a world made even more broken and even more bleeding in San Bernadino.

Jesus was born a nobody, to a couple of nobodies, and was first witnessed to by a group of nobodies.  Yet still, He ends up saving the entire world.  You.  Me.  All of us who choose His love.

Imagine what a nobody like one of us could do.  Admittedly, lacking the divine mantle of Jesus ups the degree of difficulty, but not so much that you remain unable to make a difference.  Indeed, if we were so unable, the angels would never have bothered appearing to the shepherds to begin with, because the shepherds were dramatically affected by what had happened—as Luke says, they returned home rejoicing and praising God for what they had seen.

So what does it mean, then, for us, for one of us to be a good shepherd, a good nobody?  It is to do not only what our shepherds in the fields did, rejoicing and praising God—although that is certainly part of it—it is also to, as Jesus says here, in John 10, to be completely devoted to your flock: to each other, even to the point of giving up your life for one another, should it come to that.

We must be completely devoted to one another just as we are completely devoted to God.

And you don’t need to be a somebody to do that.  Yes, as Bible scholar Raymond E. Brown pointed out, for John, Jesus is *the* Good Shepherd.  But as far as all of us, we all are capable of being good (albeit less good) shepherds.

Hans Behem, the young Drummer of Niklashausen, probably fits into the nativity scene too somewhere…after all, the Carol of the Drum (aka “Little Drummer Boy”) is all about a youth with a drum who cannot afford anything else to give to Jesus but his time, energy, and, well, his drumming.

The truth is, you don’t need to be Jesus to be good, you need to listen to Him.  You don’t need a famous name, or vast reserves of wealth, or to be born on third base in order to be devoted to other people.  In fact, all of those things can act as hindrances to such great devotion if we let them—and many do in fact let them.

In your anonymity, in your humbleness, in whatever point of life you are in, you remain entirely capable of devotion, and not just during this one month of Advent, but for all twelve months of the year.

That is our collective charge and responsibility as Christians, as followers of *the* Good Shepherd.  And through such complete, pure, unyielding devotion, may the world continue to be forever changed for the better, a world as oppressive and violent and hurtful as the world then, and a world that remains as oppressive and violent and hurtful today, that world can still yet be changed.

It was so over 2,000 years ago in a little town in Israel called Bethlehem.

May it also be so today.  We need it to be so today.

19 days to go, my brothers and sisters.  Remain devoted.


Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 6, 2015

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