To Be the Apprentice of a Newborn
Jesus and the Shepherds take their places in our Creche. They go together as they go together in the climax of the nativity story. Jesus and the Shepherds are tied together, and will be so forever.
Why shepherds? Why did God first give the good news about Jesus’ arrival to the shepherds? Yes, Jesus’ family of course knew. But the shepherds were the first neutral party to hear the news. Why?
There are a few reasons, I’d say. I give them quickly before I get to the heart of what I want to say.
John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, will later call Jesus "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."
So, the shepherds come to see this new lamb who will change their lives.
Then, there is the even-then revered scripture, the 23rd Psalm – "The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want." The Gospels will later point to Jesus as this Good Shepherd.
So, the shepherds are also coming to visit a fellow shepherd, the shepherd’s shepherd, the shepherd of all shepherds, the Good shepherd.
But there's an even more telling reason why God reveals the good news to shepherds first. That reason is seen in Jesus’ lineage. Jesus is the son of David, the Messiah, the new David who will take the throne as King of Israel and renew Israel to greatness again.
And who was David? A shepherd.
The shepherds represent David. David, in the form of these shepherds, comes to confirm that here is the New David, the awaited anointed one, the Messiah, King of Israel. David, in the form of these shepherds, blesses and anoints Jesus, passing the torch to this babe King.
Fine and good. We have some nice bits of knowledge here. But when it comes to spirituality, when it comes to our relationship with God, what is the importance? Who cares that it was shepherds God first came to?
Well, we might ask, who are we in the story?
We are the shepherds!
We are human beings doing our work, paying our bills, raising our families, doing what we need to do to get by. We are more shepherd than infant king, aren’t we? We are more mere common folk seeking meaning and hope. We are the shepherds, at least initially. We are the shepherds looking for joy and peace to be born onto us and in us.
This one in the manger, the infant is the master.
The prophet Isaiah talked about a child that shall lead us. “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.”
This is that little child, the Christian tradition tells us. This is the little child leading us even in a lowly manger given because there is no room to stay in, no crib to be laid.
This is the little child we are to look to as not only our leader sent by God, but as our model for leadership, as our benchmark for what it means to lead – a shepherd king lying in a manger, leading us with his mere presence.
Are we present enough to see this?
We – the shepherds – are the apprentices. We look to this infant lying in a manger to teach us the way of selflessness for the sake of the flock. The baby surrounded by the oxen and the donkeys teaches us what it means to guide and lead, by being present with those we guide and lead.
An infant is without thoughts about the past or the future but resides in the moment. An infant does not judge or ponder things for too long but simply breathes in and out with us, letting us know what we need to do by our watching and listening.
The little one cooing there in the manger teaches us that there is power in vulnerability, there is power in letting love feed and nurture us.
In the Nativity Story we have a story of commoners. At the center of the story are common people who’ve been waiting for some truth, who’ve been waiting for some joy, who’ve been waiting for some hope, who’ve been waiting for a love that saves them.
And wouldn’t you know it, it is through the common birth of a common son, born to soon-to-be homeless, refugee parents, it is through this common human story that divine truth, joy, hope, and love are made real.
Our mentor, the one with whom we seek apprenticeship, is us, is like us, is just as vulnerable, just as weak and needy, just as prone to falling and losing. Baby Jesus, or even the adult Jesus, would not be someone we’d call the winner among us.
There are some whom I know would not find much alluring in this Jesus who, to help others win the game of life, becomes the loser. Jesus becoming the loser for the sake of our salvation begins from the very beginning. Jesus is a child not even born in a room of a shoddy motel but in the barn outside of it. Jesus is a child who goes from being born amid farm animals and laid in a feeding trough to then having to flee to Egypt to escape the persecution and violence of his government. Far from victors of the world’s ways, Jesus and his family are victims, victimized by raw power, hate, and violence.
And so from the crib to the cross, Jesus walks the way of the lowly good shepherd. He defies raw power by being a servant. He overcomes hate with love. He resists violence with nonviolence. He accepts his victimhood. As the ultimate victim, he becomes the victor. And in him, salvation is given and sin and death defeated, as the Universalist teaching tells us.
We are called to be the good shepherd’s apprentices. We are called to sit at the foot of the master cooing awake in a manger and learn the way of simple love.
So as we enter this Christmas week, I pray that you look past all of clutter and chaos all around us this Christmas season and look to the One we celebrate, the One lying in a manger, as vulnerable and frail as a newborn can be. Let us see a lesson in the fragile moments of that newborn’s presence. This tender moment, this tender One, here to save us, namely from ourselves, trumps all pride and greed and ignorance. This little One whom we believe extinguishes the fires of hell with the light of hope, this humble One presents us apprentices with a priceless grace, a renewed life, a love that helps us to love God and others. May we receive the gift and live accordingly.