There are certain groups in Australia that attract more attention than most when they come to visit a local town or community. Bike gangs, particularly, attract an entourage of law enforcement. Police set up road blocks, have extra personnel on standby, and watch on mass as the bike gangs roll into town. When they do, there are always more than a few, and locals become a bit wary, more because of the reputation these groups have than the reality of who they actually are. On the most part they’re fairly harmless, and actually boost the local economy. It’s normally when another rival gang shows up, or they consume more alcohol than they should, that trouble breaks out.
It’s a strange phenomenon, but sometimes churches act similar to people who visit them. They remain aloof and wary, not sure how to take them, or what to say to them. Particularly if the visitor is markedly different to them. The judgmentalism we often see in the world, creeps too easily into churches. Not every church which claims to be friendly is truly a friendly place to the outsider. In fact too often outsiders find it almost impossible to break past the subtle barriers churches set up. The problem is that churches that do not welcome the visitor are communities that lack joy. They miss out on the renewal such visitors bring, especially when they stay.
Shepherds were a group of people with a reputation that made most people wary. They were a rough crew, with a rough reputation, who lived a rough life. They would take the sheep out into the paddocks, and live among them. They were there to protect them from wild animals, and other shepherds, and to watch over the sheep so they got the right food and water. But they were always the most honest and trustworthy people. The occasional sheep would suddenly disappear, ending up on a roasting spit for the shepherds. The occasional lamb would disappear, sold on the side to line the shepherd’s pockets. It is truly a story of amazing grace that saw the angels appear before this motley crew and declare the birth of the messiah.
The shepherds would have been fairly apprehensive about what they experienced. Who would believe them? Who would trust them to tell this story? Why would God entrust them when God truly knew how dishonest they were? And yet God came to them, and declared the birth of His Son. Not only did he declare it, he asked these people to be witnesses to this. God took the lowly and poor, the outcast and questionable, and made them His witnesses.
God still does that. He takes us, people who know how far short we fall before the perfection of God, and asks us to be His witnesses to a new generation. The message is still the same – God so loved the world that He gave His Son to redeem it. The people He uses are no different to the shepherds of old. And he knows that as His people take up the call to declare God at work in the world, there is a degree of apprehensive joy that becomes apparent. We know of the angels, and the child, and the truth of Christmas, because of the shepherds. Your friends, neighbours and colleagues, know of Jesus because of the joy He planted in your life when he made you His. We are called to declare Jesus, with a sense of apprehensive joy, because we, like the shepherds, have been called to do just that.