Nicola, Cameron and Ross join me in thanking you for all your good and kind wishes at Christmas and join me in sending you greetings for 2017.
They didn’t put up blue plaques in Biblical times. If they did, there would have been one in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, ‘King David lived here’ – born here, brought up in this community, put to watch sheep on the local hills, learning here the special combination of care and command that makes a good shepherd and a wise king.
So if you were a shepherd in Bethlehem, you were in an honourable line. On your grazing lands, David guarded his flock. Along the paths you walked, he had grown in courage and confidence. Amid the wild beasts you faced, he had honed the skills with sling and stone that laid out Goliath. You were part of a grand heritage. Israel’s most famous king was one of your forerunners and predecessors. You were in a royal profession.
Yet there were surely times when a shepherd didn’t feel very royal. The work was relentless. No natural breaks, no negotiating with the weather, no sick pay, no guaranteed prices for wool or meat. For shepherds were on the edge – the edge of town where the land opens up, the edge of the desert where there’s just enough grass to support a sheep, the edge of settled life and not quite belonging; on the edge of a wonderful moment in history.
In so many ways the shepherds are like Jesus – royal but on the edge, set in a noble line yet counted among the marginal people of the community. For Jesus is a Messiah of the margins – at the carpenter’s bench and on the dusty road, a man with good news to the poor and nowhere to lay his head, ending up with a criminal’s death and a borrowed grave. As shepherds greeted him, he is the good shepherd – David come again, making God’s kingdom real, yet doing so from the edge, outside the regular circles of power and prestige.
So right from the start of his life, Jesus is greeted from the edge – by shepherds coming from the fields, and out of the night. This is the kind of leader and Lord he will be – a person shepherds can welcome, not relying on structures and frameworks of power and formality, but reaching people who sit outside the main stream of life. As the shepherds return to their flock, we sense that in Jesus blessing will reach the lowly and humble of the world, the overlooked and ordinary folk. God will stir in places many do not notice. God will value unexpected people.
So what might we look for and long for, in our church and community, as God leads us through this New Year? Maybe the experiences of the Bethlehem shepherds suggest how to shape our living and serving, our hoping and praying in the twelve months ahead. We should yearn for the good news of Jesus to be heard by people and in places the world passes by. On the edge – among the hurting and lonely; those whom others find hard to love and to trust; people who have come to live in this land but still do not feel at home here; many who would rejoice to work and cannot find it; any who feel branded by an old mistake; some for whom hope has died; and the residents of modern Bethlehem, a community divided by a wall that we are told is to protect but which isolates and divides. The good news of Jesus is not just for people who feel that life is alright, who connect well with those around them, whose lives are fulfilled and busy. It’s for the edges too, for the exiled and the estranged and the elbowed out. It’s for people whose response to God will not reflect an easy familiarity with church; whose praise may not be practised; but whose faith could be very powerful.
Let’s pray and work to reach the edges as well as the centre of our community. If we do, no-one will put up a blue plaque.
But we might discover a great sense that Jesus is here.
With love and prayers
Russell J Furley-Smith