The following is the text of a sermon I delivered on December 6, 2015 for the second Sunday in Advent at The Creek Covenant Church.
John August Swanson, Shepherds, 1985.
In the region of Bethlehem, there are shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. It is moonless and surprisingly warm. Three shepherds lay on their bedrolls around the dying fire. Down the hill, in the distance, only a few windows of Bethlehem are still lit. The town is mostly asleep. The fourth shepherd, Annas, sits with his back to the fire and looks out at the flock of sheep, as he has the first watch of the night. A few sheep bleat out, but mostly he hears them breathing deeply in slumber.
The other shepherds don’t speak and though they are tired down to their bones, sleep eludes them. Their minds are full of those worries that seem to only plague us at night when all is quiet. The deep fears we keep at bay most of the waking hours through busyness and distraction. But when there are no more tasks to take our attention, our minds can’t seem to stop the flood of worst case scenarios, existential doubts, and thousands of forms of the unanswerable question, “What if?”
Josiah, the oldest of the shepherds rolls onto his side, feeling each muscle as it aches. As a shepherd, he’s a peasant in his world.  Like his coworkers, he owns a little land, but not enough to feed his family. Each year he tends someone else’s sheep, spending weeks on the hillsides around Bethlehem away from his wife and children and grandchildren. The pay is meager, but enough. Taxes from the local governments and the Roman Empire are costly. If he can’t afford those, he will be thrown into prison until his family can pay up. Living on a hillside among filthy livestock is better than rotting in a debtor’s prison.
Josiah rolls again, unable to find a comfortable position. He knows these are not merely the sore muscles that come with his profession. Each pain is more intense, and they linger longer than last year. He knows these pains are a sign that he won’t be able to meet the physical demands of shepherding much longer. And then he will have to scramble to find work. Just when he wants to be falling sleep, his pulse quickens as he worries about his wife and family. His younger brother recently fell ill and Josiah’s family has started to provide for his brother’s family. If they are any more generous there won’t be enough to go around. They can’t sell off much more of their land. They live close to hand-to-mouth as it is. Josiah feels like he’s on a sinking boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. It’s too far from shore to swim to safety. If he stays on the boat, he drowns. If he jumps off, he drowns. His boss probably won’t hire him for many more seasons. But where else can he find work?
Annas, with his back to the fire, now stares at the sky bright with stars. As the youngest shepherd, he is lowest in authority, even among a group of men who are essentially nobodies in their society. Annas gets all the menial tasks, including the longest watch of the night. His mind turns to the Roman Empire.
He wants Israel to be free. Annas can’t stand the Romans and their oppression. He hates the soldiers ordering people around. He despises the political leaders who announce new laws and taxes on a whim. Annas sees through the cynical attempts of the Roman leaders to buy the people’s good will through building theaters and arenas—just distractions to keep the people of Israel from remembering that they live in exile in their homeland.
Annas is terrified of the Roman Empire’s violent power. He’s seen the bodies of revolutionaries hanging on crosses along the road. These invading foreigners might destroy him, his family, all that he knows. They have the swords, the numbers, the might—and they don’t seem to care one iota about the lives of the Jewish people. Annas knows the history of what happened when Israel tried to fight Rome and was decimated. His fear of the Romans manifests itself in two ways: sometimes his fear becomes hatred and he imagines joining a rebel group and killing Roman soldiers. Other times his fear causes him to freeze. Will he live his whole life under the thumb of an Emperor several thousands of miles away? Tonight Annas vacillates between fearful hatred that makes violence seem reasonable and fearful surrender to the awful thought that he has no hope of freedom. His parents want him to marry and have a family. But how can anyone think of having children in a hopeless world full of so much terror?
Hezekiah lies on his side, his eyes nervously darting from the embers of the fire to each of his coworkers. Earlier in the day he lost four sheep. He thinks they wandered into a ravine, but he can’t be sure. He didn’t tell the other shepherds about it due to his embarrassment. Hezekiah can only hope they won’t find out until the end of the season. Their pay is determined by the number of sheep they return when it is time for shearing and slaughter. Some loss is always expected, but this has been a tough season already. And Hezekiah has been responsible for most of that loss. The other shepherds barely spoke to him for three days when two sheep died under his care.
Hezekiah came to shepherding reluctantly. He grew up working in the grain fields. He is much more comfortable harvesting plants than herding livestock. But the pay watching sheep is better and he has a growing family. He has never felt secure in this role. He is afraid his coworkers think he is incompetent or a fraud. He fears disappointing his wife and children if he does not bring home decent pay. He worries his neighbors will see him as a failure if he leaves shepherding. He dare not speak any of these fears to anyone because he doesn’t want to appear weak. Hezekiah takes a deep, nervous breath, and pulls the blanket over his head.
The final shepherd, Judah lies on his back, eyes closed, lips silently moving as he recites prayers. The other shepherds know him to be the most religiously devout of their group. He regularly quotes the verses from the psalms that refer to shepherding and often reminds the others that the great king David was a shepherd. But tonight, as he prays, Judah feels no connection to Yahweh God. It is as if he is speaking into a void.
Judah opens his eyes and looks into the darkness between the stars. As long as he can remember he has prayed for Messiah to come. His parents prayed for Messiah to come their whole lives. His grandparents prayed too. And their parents and their parents, going back generations. Why has God not sent Messiah, who will lead Israel back into faithfulness, and who will establish Yahweh’s kingdom here on Earth?
Judah thinks about the centuries of waiting for the promised messiah and he wonders why does God delay? Maybe God doesn’t really care about the people of Israel. What if Yahweh has decided to leave the world alone to its own devices? Or what if the belief in God’s redeeming messiah is just a story the people of Israel made up? Judah grows afraid as he entertains this thought. What if all his hope, all the hope of the people praying in the Temple and synagogues, is placed on a figment of someone’s imagination, or worse, on a hoax? What other answers can there be for God’s delay? Either God no longer cares or the hope of Messiah coming to Earth is a lie. And if the hope of Messiah is a false hope, isn’t the whole Jewish faith false too?
Judah finishes reciting his prayer and he receives no comfort. He doesn’t feel God’s presence. His certainty in God’s goodness is not stronger. Instead his doubt has increased. The fear that he is alone in this world has strengthened. Judah looks at the fire, the brush, the rocks. He sees the silhouettes of the sleeping sheep. He looks at the stars and the dark, dark night, and he asks that terrifying question, “What if this is all there is?”
Four shepherds around a fire, ruminating on their doubts and fears. Fearful there won’t be enough to provide for their families. Frightened of the violence and terror in the world. Scared others might reject them if they are truly known. Petrified at the thought that God does not care, or God does not exist and they are alone in the world. These shepherds, who live on one of the lowest rungs of society’s ladder, lie awake unable to sleep and overcome by fear.
Then an angel of the Lord stands before them, and the glory of the Lord shines around them, and they are terrified. But the angel says to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there is with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  Continue reading