Friday, December 07, 2007

Christmas for "notorious sinners"

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. (Luke 2:8-9, NIV)

Echoing in my mind is a lesson that recurs every year at this time, so forgive me for plowing familiar ground today. It's a powerful lesson I learned about shepherds nearly 10 years ago, in one of my first ministry classes. Some who have listened to me for a while have heard this before...feel free to tune out. But it's an image that bears repeating...

What brings this image back to mind is my recent reading of Mike Yaconelli's book "Messy Spirituality," and a passage entitled "Notorious Sinners." He writes, "'Notorious sinners' refers to the scandalous category of forgiven sinners whose reputations and ongoing flaws didn't seem to keep Jesus away. In fact, Jesus had a habit of collecting disreputables; he called them disciples."

So I think it's especially important to repeat this particular Christmas image now...when a great deal of what society sees as "Christianity" comes down to pseudo-righteous people pointing fingers at other groups, and yelling "You're a sinner! You'd better repent or you're going to Hell!"

(As if we all weren't if, somehow, there were people who somehow didn't have lifestyles that were unacceptable to God in some way...)

You see, on Christmas eve, one group of key players in the story are shepherds. And in Biblical times, shepherds were considered some of the most distrusted, dishonorable, dishonest, and lowly people of all the world. I absolutely love what professor of ministry Donald Messer says about shepherds:

"Far from being a noble profession, the job of shepherd in first-century Palestine was one of the most despised trades, along with gamblers, usurers, and publicans. Contrary to our romantic images, shepherds were generally considered to be thieves. Far from being viewed as reliable and responsible, they were habitually known to graze on other people's lands and to pilfer the produce of the herd. Their social and religious status would not be much higher than pimps and drug pushers in our day. They, like the publicans and tax collectors, therefore, were deprived of their civil rights. They could not fulfill a judicial office or be witnesses in a court. It was forbidden to buy wool, milk, or a kid from a shepherd - because it was widely assumed that it would be stolen property. One ancient writing reports that 'no position in the world is so despised as that of the shepherd.'" (Donald Messer, Contemporary Images of Christian Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), page 172.)

Now those are DEFINITELY "notorious sinners."

Yet Luke reports that the first ones to hear of Jesus' birth were shepherds - among the most despised people in the New Testament world! Can you imagine their shock - to find out they were the first ones to be eye-witnesses of God's majesty? And can you imagine the people they talked to afterwards? No wonder Luke writes that everyone who heard of Jesus' birth from the shepherds "wondered at the things told them by the shepherds"!

When you read it that way, it's not a very pretty scene, is it?

No, it's not. And it's not meant to be. God didn't mean it to be pretty. God meant it to be real.

Let's put it in today's words. Jesus could have come as a triumphant warrior-king, bristling with power, to smite the evil and establish a kingdom built on power. But that wasn't God's plan at all. There was no royalty, no engraved invitations for the rich and mighty to the arrival of God's son. Instead, there was an obscure town of Bethlehem, in the filthy corner of a barn, in a feed trough, where a confused carpenter was witness to the birth of God's son to his teen-aged wife-to-be.

Wonder with me at how the despised and lowly men tending sheep felt as angels from Heaven give them the telegram: "...Born to you this day is a Savior, which is Christ the Lord." The news of God's son had come - not to those who felt they deserved to hear, sitting comfortably at the Temple - but to those who needed the news most! Creatures who thought that their sins had left them without a prayer were the ones who found that the salvation of the world had come first to them!

And what does it say of the one who becomes "the Good Shepherd"? Messer points out that this oxymoron is the equivalent to saying "I am the the Good Homosexual" to the religious right, or "I am the Good Fundamentalist" to the gay & lesbian community, or like saying "I am the Good Terrorist" - because in those days, shepherds were just that despised. Messer writes, "It is no wonder that after Jesus called himself 'the Good Shepherd' the Gospel of John reports, 'there was again a division among the Jews because of these words (John 10:19)" (page 173). Jesus identified with the lowly, and with the despised - and yet turned that despising description on its head, transforming the label as he did everything else he touched.

In these days of insanity - when businesses are encouraged to "keep the 'Christ' in Christmas" so they won't get boycotted - it's important not to lose the amazement and wonder of those who witnessed the birth of our Savior. And let me never forget that if God could be present and "with them" in the mess of the stable, surrounded by the disreputable and untouchable ones of that time, then God can and is surely with me, during the messes of my life, and when I feel unworthy and apart from the rest of the world.

It is in the most impossible of my own times and situations that I have to remember the amazingly unlikely people and places that were part of the story of God's arrival on earth. And I also remember that I am the unlikely - and undeserving - recipient of the gift of grace brought by Jesus to the world.

May I continue to stand by the manger in wonder at the astonishing love of God - for you, and for me!


Michael said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing this. :)

Hope said...

I cannot believe blogger is actually going to let me leave a comment on your blog. It's been forever since I've been able to do so. There. Got that out of my system.

"Creatures who thought that their sins had left them without a prayer were the ones who found that the salvation of the world had come first to them!"

Thank you for this. Thank you.
Your journey has changed me. Just know that, okay?


Oh. My. Goodness.

I had no idea.

Thank you for this...

[rhymes with kerouac] said...

Sorry, dude. "new creation" is [rhymes with kerouac].

It's a long story. We should have one of those $4 coffees at Starbucks one afteroon. Have a chat.

Oh, the places we'll go!

wilsonian said...

Thank you so much for this, Steve.
This is all new to me... what a powerful lesson and another reminder of how our Saviour turned life inside out.

Poor Mad Peter said...

It's a good thing to revisit this story every year. And a good thing to remember Mike Yaconelli. God's abundant Grace to you, Steve man.

Heidi Renee said...

From one notorious sinner to another dear brother THANK YOU - I needed this and shall re-read it a few times this season.

Have you read Dangerous Wonder yet??

Bear Me Out said...

Amen, bro. I don't know who said it first, it may have Alan Jones (dean of Grace Cathedral, San Fran.) "The opposite of faith is not doubt. the opposite of faith is certainty." ANd Paul Tillich said, "Doubt is not the enemy of faith, but an element of it."

I share your messy spirituality.

ScottyO said...

Thanks for the inspiration brother, I was looking for someone who had some similar impacts impressed upon them. I started my own blog, though I don't expect to keep up with you. You have been very dedicated to this. Please check out what I have done from time to time and toss me some questions or comments. I'd appreciate the challenge or encouragement.