There is a shepherd in Matthew’s Christmas story, and it is easy to read right over him. Here is a Christmas sermon that points him out.
Our Shepherd Is Born
A Sermon on Matthew 2:6, Matthew 9:35-36, and Luke 2, with allusions to Isaiah 40 and Ezekiel 34.
If the people are sheep and the leaders are shepherds, then the world Jesus was born into was struggling under the rule of two very bad shepherds. The propaganda of the day declared that Caesar Augustus is son of God, lord and savior and bringer of peace on earth. You can still see this message etched in stone in Roman ruins. What Rome called “peace” could be more accurately called “forced order.” Maybe it was a kind of peace, but what it means for the people was relentless oppressive taxation. It meant the threat of torture and death. Crucified bodies lined the roads—the message being: this will happen to you if you don’t cooperate. The Empire jerked all its subject peoples around. That’s what’s happening when Joseph hitches up his donkey, lifts a very pregnant Mary up on it, and leads it the hundred miles or so from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register. Roman orders.
King Herod was a henchman to the Romans. Rome ceded some local authority to him, and he guarded it jealously. History books list him as Herod the Great because he was a most impressive builder. Under Herod the majestic temple in Jerusalem that Jesus visited was built. Its remnants are still visible. The Wailing Wall is left from Herod’s temple. But Herod was also a butcher. He assassinated members of his own family that might pose any challenge to him. It was nothing to him to order the slaughter of Bethlehem’s little boys. It was all in the name of security. His.
Bad shepherds were nothing new. Through the centuries people longed for a good shepherd, one who would feed the flock, not eat the flock. One who could carry the flock, not exploit the flock. One who would gently lead, not jerk people around. One who would strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strayed, seek the lost, feed the hungry.
It’s no wonder at all that Psalm 23, “the Lord is my Shepherd” speaks to generation after generation. It speaks still. For the sheep are still weak and sick and hungry and lost. One of our congregation’s favorite songs, “People need the Lord,” expresses it so well: people are empty, yet filled with care, headed who knows where. They journey through life in pain, living fear to fear, in a world where wrong seems right, and where people can’t see beyond broken dreams.
Humanity hasn’t yet learned the ways of the Prince of Peace. The shepherds continue to choose Caesar’s model of so-called peace, enforced by military might. I can’t help thinking of what President Dwight D. Eisenhower said in 1953: Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, From a speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 16, 1953. 34th president of US 1953-1961 (1890 – 1969)
Eisenhower was trying to put his finger on something that is wrong with human priorities. In January 2007 a New York Times writer tried to get at that. He reported that the same amount of money spent annually just on the war in Iraq, 200 billion at the time of the article, could also provide health care for all the forty-some million people in the United States with no medical coverage; and provide universal preschool for three-and-four –year olds; and implement all the baggage and cargo security measures that the 9/11 commission recommended; and double our annual funding for cancer research; and immunize all the world’s children against measles, whooping cough, tetanus, tuberculosis, polio and diphtheria. And that’s only one of the world’s many conflicts, to say nothing of all the other violence that fills the news. Oh, when will swords everywhere, everywhere be turned into farm equipment and spears into medicine? The world doesn’t need more Caesars. The world needs a good shepherd.
Luke tells the wonderful story of how shepherds were the first to get the good news. Shepherds on the hillside around King David the shepherd’s town, Bethlehem, were the first to get the announcement: Don’t be afraid. Unto you is born this very day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. That means: No, despite all the propaganda, Caesar is not Savior and Lord. Here is the true Lord and Savior. He is cradled in a very humble place, already reaching out to the poor and the outcast, for that is what people thought of ordinary shepherds: they’re literally dirty and unclean spiritually. You can’t trust them. They’re riff-raff.
This child would embrace the shepherds as his own. They might not have realized it then, but they were greeting one of their own, the one born to be the Great Shepherd of the sheep.
Matthew points that out. We almost read right over it. There’s a shepherd in Matthew’s Christmas story, too: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”
Herod is right to feel threatened. Caesar through his procurator Pontius Pilate is right to regard this child as a troublemaker, but not for the reason they think. He won’t raise an army against Herod or Caesar, even when his followers want him to. He won’t allow his disciples to unsheathe the sword. By the kingdom of love and light this child will expose Caesar and Herod as charlatans and their brand of peace as counterfeit.
He himself will be the true shepherd. He himself will seek out his sheep and rescue them and feed them and make them lie down in good grazing land. He himself will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak. He will feed his flock, carry the lambs in his bosom and gently lead.
O holy child of Bethlehem, be our shepherd, too. Lead us where we need to go; lead us in the right way, restore our souls, stay with us as we travel the valley of the shadow, feed us from your table so that we can do what you would have us do, and do what you want us to do. Cover us always with your goodness and mercy all the days that we live, and let us dwell at home with you forever.
Do not be afraid. Unto you is born this very day a Savior, Christ the Lord. When he sees the crowds, he will have compassion, because they—we—are like sheep without a shepherd, and he will teach us many things.
Do not be afraid. The Great Shepherd of the Sheep is here!