A shepherd remembers
(Preached at Newbury Baptist Church on December 22nd 2019)
I want you to imagine, if you can, a dark hillside. At first – it looks uniformly dark but as your eyes adjust – you see the indistinct, moving shapes of sheep begin to come into focus. Look harder still – and you will see what appears to be one older shepherd sat on the ground. One arm holds a staff, and the other seems to make a tent to one side.
Look harder now – and see that a boy, aged 8 or 9 is snuggled into that tent – eyes on his grandfather’s wizened face as they are caught up in an animated conversation in the moonlight. Creep a little closer and you can hear what they are saying.
The grandfather is telling him the stories of shepherds from long, long ago. There is father Abraham with his many many flocks and above him the canopy of God’s sparkling stars. There is David, fearless with wolves, bears and giants. There are others – the old man’s face twists as if tasting something bitter when he talks of shepherds gone by – leaders who trampled their flocks and left the lambs for dead.
These are not the stories the boy wants to hear. Tugging insistently at the old man’s robe he pleads with him. Tell me about that night – the night the skies lit up.
The old man stops, looks at the boy’s pleading face, then looks away to the edge of the hillside as if to focus on something in the distance as he speaks. You have to understand, my boy, that we were the outcasts. Nobody trusted us with anything other than their sheep. The rich ones would wrinkle their noses when it was time to bring their lamb to the gate for slaughter. The priests would wring their hands and wash over and over again at the horror of touching us when they took the Passover lambs at the temple gate. This hillside was bedroom, bathroom, toilet and home for months at a time. Even when we did go home, others would cross the village street so as not to be downwind of us.
The boy’s face crumples with sorrow as the old man says ‘nobody wanted us near…and nobody trusted us’ .‘But God did’, the boy whispers, caught up so much in the story that his usually loud voice is hushed. Looking momentarily shocked at the use of the sacred name – the old man looks down kindly at the boy and nods. ‘He did’, he says ‘He did’. And continues the story
That night the darkness was a thing you could feel – like a thick, old velvet curtain draped about the hillside muffling the sounds and dulling the stars. When it started, it was as if someone had poked a hole through from the other side – a sharp needle prick letting through the brilliant light beyond. Then there was another and another and another – 10,000 pinpricks of light – pouring through on those who least deserved it.
The boy looks hurt that his grandfather should describe himself so – but lets him gather himself before the story goes on.I cannot tell you whether it was a voice, a trumpet call or a choir stretching to the sloping edges of the sky – but I know what it said.
GLORY to GOD IN THE HIGHEST it said – the hillside beneath us shuddering with every syllable AND ON EARTH PEACE. ‘To those on whom his favour rests’ the boy continues – for he has heard the story before.
The old man doesn’t hear him. He has stopped talking and his hand is clutching at tufts on the hillside -as if searching for something he has dropped there. He is biting his lip and the boy has never seen him like this. He tugs anxiously at his sleeve as if to ask what is wrong
We went to pieces, boy. We fell to the ground and waited till all the holes in the dark blanket closed over again and we were alone. We were afraid. No-one ever spoke to us – so why should God himself tell us such a thing? Had we imagined it? Had the years on the lonely hill made us hear the thing for which we longed the most? The boy shakes his head vigorously at the very thought, and the old man tousles his hair.
If you had been there, you would have been the first on your feet, boy. The bravest of us did just that. He stood up, tightened his belt like a man on a mission, and told us we should go and see for ourselves. After all – a babe in a manger would be such a thing that it could only prove the words we had heard.
And so it was. We went, we saw, we worshipped and we KNEW both God and ourselves as never before. We had imagined NOTHING.
We had been TOLD – personally told that the world had changed. That night we told everyone we saw – even the ones who wanted to avoid us. The news was bigger and better than us, you see?