When You Know, You Know
Shepherds were considered dirty rotten scoundrels
When it comes time for Mary to deliver Jesus, Luke’s gospel devotes more time to the shepherds than the other characters combined. Not Mary, Joseph, the innkeeper, or even Jesus. There is so much we’d like to see, but Luke fixes the spotlight on the shepherds. There is something we need to learn from them that is at the heart of the Christmas story.
Because you are good, non-judgmental people, you probably hold a different concept of shepherds than folks did in the first century. We might hold a noble view of shepherds as salt-of-the-earth, hard-working rural who got to spend most of their time outside. But in biblical times, shepherds held the lowest rung on Israel’s social ladder, and night-shift shepherds didn’t even make it to the ladder.
I saw an old SNL clip of Gilda Radner playing Rosanne Rosanna Danna. She could do a good job of summarizing people’s views of shepherds. “They’re smelly, they’re dirty. Most of them are criminals. Shepherd was the only job they could get. God knows what they’re doing all night.”
The angels suddenly appear
We meet the shepherds when they are tending their sheep and minding their business. But there is an interruption—angels appear and invite the shepherds to the most important event in the history of the world. They must have been stunned. The message is that if God invites these most unlikely guests to the VIP section, imagine what God has in store for you!
With their appearance, their lives transform from ordinary to extraordinary. Suddenly, everything starts heading in a different direction. That’s life. Even when you try to keep to yourself, minding your own business, life intrudes and starts making demands on you.
• You didn’t plan on falling in love, but whoops. There it is.
• You didn’t plan on losing someone you love, but there it is.
• You didn’t plan on losing your job.
• You didn’t plan on that good break that came your way.
Despite all of our plans, life interrupts, and everything changes in an instant. But maybe for us, like the shepherds, in an instant, God can bring goodness and joy to us in ways we never imagined.
When the angels appear, they say, “Fear not!” Whenever they appear in the Bible, that’s what they say. Fear not. I’ve always wondered why. Perhaps their visage is more ominous than the doey-eyed Precious Moments figurines we’re used to.
Maybe it was their appearance, but it may also have to do with feeling unworthy in the face of the holy. The shepherds probably thought they were in trouble. Angels coming to us. This can’t be good.
I suspect that the shepherds were afraid because they knew that the presence of these holy angels meant that there was going to be a disruption to their cozy lives. As much as the presence of the angels was frightening, the implication was more frightening still—they might have to change their lives. And as the lady in the viral video says, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”
What we’d rather not know
Maybe there is a degree of willful ignorance we gladly tolerate if it removes us from having to change. I think of myself as a curious person who always wants to learn, and I read, catch up on the news, listen to various opinions, and listen to podcasts, including “Stuff You Should Know.” But that self-image was challenged this week.
On Tuesday, I set time aside to listen to one of my favorite podcasts, The Ezra Klein Show. Ezra interviews thoughtful guests to discuss important issues. I saw the title of this week’s episode, “The Hidden Costs of Cheap Meat.” The show’s description included “How modern meat production harms animals, people, and the environment.”
“No thanks,” I thought. “I don’t want to know.” I have picked up enough disturbing information about the meat packing industry to know I don’t want more. It’s not that it would gross me out as much as it might upset me enough to change some of my consumption habits. Still, I’d rather not. Give me my beef. I’m pretty content to stick my head in the sand.
There is that saying about you don’t want to see how the sausage gets made, and it’s a metaphor from the meat packing industry that applies to other realms. Sometimes we don’t want to know the inner workings of business and political decisions. We might not even want to see how a church budget gets created, preferring to assume that all the correct answers float down from heaven onto the finance committee’s spreadsheets.
New information claims us
Finding new information involves making a claim on us, affecting us, and nudging along changes we might not want to make. Have you ever put off going to the doctor or getting the lab tests because it might come back as bad news? Have you ever just hoped the check engine light would magically switch off? Are there times you avoid the news because it’s too much? I don’t want to know; I don’t want it to bring me down.
Someone told me, “I’m not interested in my faults, and I’d rather not know because if they tell me, I might have to do something about it.” Sometimes, we are afraid to know because we are involved and implicated once we know. When you know, you know. Maybe that is why some would rather not know much about the faith. It’s easier to be standoffish, not change.
Once you see it, you can’t unsee it, and it has an effect.
Remember those Highlight Magazines in patient waiting rooms? I always liked pictures with hidden pictures of other objects embedded within them. At first, it just looks like a regular landscape picture, but there are all these different objects you don’t see at first glance. You have to search and look deeper to discover the treasures.
What the shepherds saw
The angels told the shepherds to see. They wanted the shepherds to see that God’s place was not out there, remote and distant, but here on earth—in flesh and blood. The angels wanted the shepherds to see that there is glory in this ordinary world—a couple going through hard times, giving birth in a smelly stable. They wanted the shepherds to see God was still active in this world.
But the shepherds wouldn’t have seen it if they hadn’t followed the angel’s prompting to look, just like we would look at the picture and not see much there. They needed to be invited to look closer. Go from the field to the manger. Christmas is our prompt to look closer. To go from our ordinary lives to the manger to look deeper, to discover the good news of great joy that is personal for us.
Draw closer to this Christmas season
When we do, we see we are not alone. Emmanuel. God is with us.
When we look closer, we see that it’s not all bad news. We discover that we don’t have any right to play gloomy Eeyore, hopeless, and sour. God is working even now.
When we look closer, we see that people want to live in peace and goodwill with one another. When we look closer, we see that there is room for us to make self-improvements to improve our situations ourselves.
When we look closer, we see our opportunities to birth love into this cold world.
We can give a prompt
The world looks to us for a prompt To see deeper. To get a piece of that good news of great joy. That’s our jam. Good news. Help them see deeper than religious people as judgmental hypocrites. Help them see the good stuff. Prompt them to see all of the good will, the service, the love we offer. Help them see it’s a wonderful world where amazing things still happen. Amen.