During Advent, we are featuring devotionals written by clergy of the Greater NJ Annual Conference of the UMC. For this fourth week, we are focused on reflections related to the shepherds, based on the Gospel of Luke.
8 Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. 9 The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.
10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 14 “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”
15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.
It is late spring, after Easter, and I am standing in the lower level of an old barn with my twin daughters and infant as rain pours outside. We are visiting a church member’s sheep farm to witness an event that happens only once a year: shearing time. I am much more interested in this than my older daughters, who would prefer to be home watching a movie about sheep rather than being up close and personal with them in this dark, dank barn.
John* the shearer is masterful, and I stand in awe as he works. It takes him less than three minutes to shear a sheep, provided the sheep cooperates. His body is lean and muscular, his movements steady and sure. Sweat drips down his face as he bends over each sheep, sometimes wrestling with them, sometimes helping them to remain balanced on the board that is slick with sweat, grease, and lanolin. After shearing about half of the flock he takes a break, and we make small talk as he smokes in the doorway of the barn.
Our conversation eventually outs me and my husband as pastors. Sometimes this information spooks people a bit; they get quiet or begin to explain why they haven’t been to church in who knows how long. Not John. John shrugs his shoulder, takes another drag on his cigarette and replies, “That’s cool. I don’t know that I really believe in God so to speak. But-” he pauses to blow smoke away from the baby. “I like to think that if there is a God, he has a soft spot for shepherds. For people like me.”
I want to tell him that he’s right. I want to tell him how Jesus is the Good Shepherd. I want to tell him how the psalms tell us that the Lord is our Shepherd. I want to tell him that surely God has a soft spot for shepherds, because they were the first to hear the good news about Jesus. Shepherds, who knew how to wrestle a ram and care for a lamb. Shepherds, who had dirt under their fingernails and sweat in their eyes. Shepherds, who probably didn’t listen to church music and probably smoked, if smoking was a thing back in Bible times. That Jesus came for shepherds, for people like him.
But he is already back in the barn, pulling the next sheep from the flock for its annual haircut.
*name has been changed
By the Rev. Amanda Rohrs
For Pondering & Prayer
When has God surprised you in an interaction with someone? Can you think of a time when your image of God grew from seeing the divine in unexpected people?
Prayer: Good Shepherd, care for us as you would a lamb. Guide us as a shepherd would. Surprise us this Christmas. Amen.