The Lord is my What?!
Shepherds were the lowest of the low, they say. Smelly, rough, uncouth probably untrustworthy. Not the sort of people you’d want to invite for dinner. And the angels went to THEM instead of anyone higher up the social scale. Incredible!
Yet hold on a couple of months until we do a series in Psalms, and somehow that angle gets completely forgotten.
“The Lord is my shepherd”, we read, and the emphasis is all on how wise, good and caring shepherds are, with the occasional amusing aside about what an insult it is to us to be called sheep.
In fact, throughout scripture the role of shepherd appears again and again, and always with a noble, Shepherd-King theme. David was called from shepherding sheep to shepherding Israel. Time and time again throughout the Old Testament God calls kings his shepherds. Jesus himself said he was a shepherd and he charged Peter with shepherding duties over the sheep of God’s pasture.
I was going to write this post the other way round, considering what it means to us that God called himself a smelly outcast. Given that apparent cultural concept of shepherds, would the first hearers of Psalm 23 not have heard it with nose-wrinkling surprise? ‘The Lord is my what?!!’
But the more I’ve researched it and read around it and studied the footnotes and cross-references in my Bible, the more I wonder if it’s the Christmas sermons that are getting the emphasis a bit skewed. Yes, the angels went to those on the hillside not those in the palace. Yes, Jesus was an unusual and unexpected kind of King, but could the significance be more that the chief shepherd went to his fellow shepherds? That he revealed himself to them not just because they were lowly but because he was one of them. He wasn’t born in a palace because he wasn’t a palace sort of a king. He did appear to shepherds because he was a shepherd sort of a king.
Yes, it was a great honour for them, but not primarily because God was saying ‘even though no one else regards you, I’ve noticed, and you are welcome in my presence’ - why not go to the lepers at the city gate, if that was the point?. Was he in fact saying ‘I’m coming to my own. You are my kind of people. I’m going to do what you do - not what Herod does, not what the Pharisees do - I’m here to tend my flock.’
Of course, we need to be alert to the other cultural evidence available, and if the facts are that shepherding was at the bottom of the list of desirable jobs presented by careers officers, then that needs to be said, but perhaps we need to think about why God’s people had such a low opinion of such a kingly job. (And while we’re at it, maybe we can look at how come Bethlehem, the promised home of the Messiah was such a backwater, not a bustling city, inhabited by pushy parents thinking their little boy might be the Promised One.)
Either way, preachers, please help us understand the symbolism correctly and how it links with the full sweep of Scripture. Thanks.
Sorry if I’ve just messed up your Christmas sermon!