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Modern-Day Shepherds

We're still inhabiting the Christmas season, in between the Western world's celebration of Christmas, and the eastern Orthodox celebration. I'm reminded of the motley crew who attended Christ's nativity as I read Isaiah 65 right now:

"I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, 'Here am I, here am I.' "

There were plenty of law-abiding, respectable citizens in Bethlehem when Christ was born, and yet the angels summoned a ragtag, smelly group of shepherds. Doubtless, numerous people who were religiously observant and orthodox in their Judaism could have discerned that a king was about to be born, yet it is the pagan Wise Men who travel the distance to see the newborn Christ.

Throughout Scripture, we see God appearing to the ostracized, the alone (Hagar in the wilderness, Elijah at his wit's end, David being hunted like an animal, Moses trying to re-establish a new identity after leaving Egypt). There are a disproportionate number of births in the Old and New Testaments to people who are too old, too infertile, too problematic. Some of these births end up in Christ's genealogy.

And yet, we're perpetually surprised when God leaves the self-satisfied religiously observant (too busy in their pursuits to stop to ask whether they are still actually worshipping God) to their own devices and pours out His attention on someone who's just kinda wrong according to the world's estimation. Who would be our modern-day shepherd equivalents? According to ancient sources (for a summary, see, Jewish rabbis as well as Greek writers of the time viewed shepherds as being untrustworthy and dishonest, likely to not be particularly observant of Jewish law. So, today, the equivalent might be someone at the lower end of the social spectrum, perhaps an on-again, off-again day laborer who spends money as fast as he can make it. The initial news of God incarnate came to people like that. Angelic beings in the sky proclaimed what had been hidden in plain sight in scriptures that these shepherds perhaps couldn't even read for themselves.

And the wise men? While Daniel and other leading Jews in Babylon may have had a fantastic influence on many around them in pointing others to the one true God, their fellow magi are still employed as wise men. They're consulting astrological charts and astronomical signs to determine the time and place for Christ's birth. They're mages, astrologers, king-makers indeed, but based on the "signs." More on the magi of the nativity story can be found here: Bottom line, these are not the equivalent of orthodox, Jewish believers. In modern times, they'd be like neo-pagans stumbling into a church and walking to the front of the sanctuary claiming special knowledge of something about God. It...uh...wouldn't be well-received.

And this is who God revealed His coming to. Oh, and two elderly Jews who spend most or all of their time, respectively, at the temple and are unlikely to be able to spread the word widely before they pass away. They meet with the newborn Christ in between the shepherd and wise men visits (see Luke 2).

That's the 1st century "who's who" list for the beginning of Christ's life on earth. Add to that, Joseph and Mary's situation, with Mary being pregnant prior to their wedding. It's possible that people in their hometown never got over this one, still holding it against Jesus as an adult. Some have pointed out that the peoples' heated question, "Where is your father?" in John 8 is possibly a dig at Jesus' uncertain parentage.

No one present at the nativity or shortly afterward was someone likely to convince many others to listen to them. They were especially unlikely to be able to convince religious people who thought they knew all the right answers, since each had some "ding" against them to disqualify their witness.

Who are we not listening to today because we are so convinced we already have all the answers? Is there any risk at all that, like Isaiah's audience, we are "pursuing [our] own imaginations" (Isaiah 65:2)? I'm fascinated by Isaiah 65's double description of people who are openly doing things not consistent with God's law and yet view themselves as being more sacred than others. It gives me pause.

According to the Christian liturgical calendar, we are still in the season of Christmas. It's a perfect time to reflect, a perfect time to discern where we are at spiritually, emotionally, mentally, physically. Are we on track? Or are we following our own imaginations?

Good news bursts in at the end of Isaiah 65, and it is the good news that will conclude the book of Isaiah (and this blog project) about the new heavens and new earth. In fact, it is the Good News, the part that's often left off in modern American Christianity. What's the point of us being saved? Is it just to get individual bodies into a celestial state of being? God tells us clearly and frequently in the Old and New Testaments. The point is complete restoration of all things. And we get a glimpse of it here in Isaiah 65.

See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more...The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent's food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain.

There is so much here, that we've have to spend numerous posts (and books!) diving into the imagery. But a couple of big-picture takeaways are:

  • Humans are largely to inhabit the new earth and the description in verses 20-25 looks like normal life, perfected, with all the flaws removed.

  • Joy is a hallmark of the new heavens and new earth.

  • God will interact with His people in a special way in this new creation, and His joy will be ours.

  • All of creation will be at peace, represented here by an absence of violence including carnivorous eating.

  • No harm at all will occur in this new creation, that is the fulfillment of all holy sites and holy places.

I may not be from a despised class of people like the shepherds, but I'm a woman writing a blog about the Bible, which causes enough trouble of its own! My husband recently encouraged me by saying that while things don't look great in American Christianity right now, there is good being done and words of comfort, joy, and hope being shared. Some of it occurs in traditionally orthodox circles, and some outside, and both at times might be worth listening to as a correction to the imaginations of our hearts.

Like the shepherds, wise men, and elderly people worshipping in the temple, we have a choice in what happens once one has had an encounter, an experience, a thought of something Greater. Do we continue to go about our lives and just adapt to the level of those around us---not too much, not too little in our fervency? I wonder whether all the shepherds were changed forever by what they saw, or if this even caused some discord, with them parting ways on how to make sense of what they experience. Did some believe and some doubt, after they had time to reflect? Did it cause any change in their behavior? Did some of them (perhaps the children?) live to see Christ's ministry, and did they put two and two together about who he was?

We don't know these answers. All we know is right in front of us--and we don't even know very much about that! All I know is that this is a moment for me to take stock of my mind (following imaginations or following the Lord) and behavior (how am I spending my time?). It's a moment to reflect on the future restoration of all things and make sure my theology and my behavior is mapped onto that, and see where that leads me for the very next breath, next step, next activity. While I wait for that future redemption, what does God have in store for me right now? As I pray this for myself, I pray this for any reading this and other writings and talks prompting new spiritual growth this year. Lord, restore us, and make us truly yours.

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