Sunday 31st December 2023
Year A, The First Sunday of Christmas
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Luke 2.15-21

There is a long Biblical involvement with shepherds, going back to Abel and ending with Jesus by way of Moses and King David, which runs in parallel with the Greek tradition of the noble but simple shepherd, leading from the English pastoral to One Man and His Dog; and these two traditions merge so wonderfully in the shepherds that come to the manger that they are impossible to resist. Faced with the choice of being shepherds or Star-Led Chieftains, most of us would self-identify with shepherds for, no matter how virtuous, generous and magnificent those bringing gifts are imagined to be, we know that what they brought to the Christ Child was paid for out of extortionate taxation.

And yet the way we behave is apt to be more like self-styled wise men than shepherds but this is not really a contradiction as we often admire what we would like to be.

Let us, then, set aside the knotty Midrashic argument about the keepers of animals and focus on what we know about these shepherds.

In the first place, although they were poor and marginal in spite of their Davidic heritage, they were privileged; they were, in the tradition of David, the first to hear of their Messiah's birth; they were treated to the song of the heavenly angelic choir; and having been told to go to Bethlehem, that is precisely what they did; no ifs, no buts.

This kind of behaviour, comprising recognition of the divine and the obligation of obedience might conveniently be described as humility, a word that we have rather lost sense of in English because it is mixed up with the word humble, describing something mean and lowly, when humility is one of the grandest of virtues.

Considering the recognition of the divine, we have tended to replace wonder and mystery with theological abstraction. Now, as I will be collecting another theology MA this week, you might want to suspect me of hypocrisy, but I hope this is not true because the point of theology is not to tame god, to reduce god to human characteristics, the purpose of theology is to help us to understand how we might form a personal relationship with the divine, recognising the extent of the gulf between us; the purpose of theology is not to build towers but to build bridges. The tendency of Western theology and religious practise since the so-called 'Enlightenment' has tended to be both rational and vulgarly familiar, at once asserting human comprehension and treating Jesus like the head of our gang, the one who will get us out of a scrape, the one who will see us right.

And these two tendencies have led to a distortion in the worship of the divine which tends towards the contractual. Too often I hear it said that we must love Jesus because he loves us. No. We must love god because that is our human purpose; that is why we are here, it is our inherent condition. it is not contractual, it is unconditional.

So, let us think back to the shepherds: they recognised the divine message carried by the angels and in a state of humble obedience they went to worship. They didn't think, as far as we know from Saint Luke, that they needed to get down to the stable and do the right thing so that they might be saved, they did it because they recognised an obligation. And so, too, if we want to be true shepherds, we need to disentangle our obligation of thankful worship from any notion of a salvific contract.

As every good journalist knows, a story has much more impact than a theory, which is why we love the Christmas story so much; whether it is minutely and scrupulously historical is less important than what it tells us about Jesus and those who were the first to hear the news. When it comes down to basics, it turns out, not surprisingly, that it is the simple things that matter and, with a twist of cruel irony, it is the simple things that are the most difficult.

Let us then, if only for a short while, be overwhelmed by the wonder of the Incarnation and, consequently, prompted to unconditional worship.