The First Sunday of Christmas
31st December 2023
In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Last year, we heard many of the great Old Testament stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses. We heard God’s promise to Abraham that through his descendants, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. And we noticed that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all pastoralists, nomadic to a greater or lesser extent, living in tents and driving their flocks through the lands of the fertile crescent. We noticed too that Moses himself worked as a shepherd in the time after he fled from Pharaoh; and it was while he was a shepherd that he encountered the Lord in the burning bush.
Later on this year we will be hearing many of the stories of King David. David too was a shepherd, and, like Moses, called by God to swap shepherding the flocks for shepherding the people of Israel.
And shepherds recur again and again in the bible through the Old Testament – we might think of Psalm 80, which begins “Hear us, shepherd of Israel”, or we might think of Psalm 23, with its confidence in the Lord my shepherd, or we might think of the prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel with their denunciations of the corrupt shepherds of Israel, and their promise that the Lord Himself will come to shepherd His people.
And shepherds recur again and again in the New Testament. They are important in Jesus’ teaching, whether we are thinking of the Parable of the Lost Sheep, found in both Matthew and Luke, or Matthew’s distinctive parable of the separating of the sheep and the goats, or of Jesus’ emphatic self-identification in John’s gospel: “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”
So the presence of shepherds in Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus is surely no accident. Modern interpretation of this story tends to focus on the status of the shepherds as outsiders: it was not to the comfortable townspeople of Bethlehem that the angels revealed the birth of Christ; nor was it to the religious elite in Jerusalem. Rather, it was to these rough unlettered men, literal outsiders, keeping the sheep in the hills around Bethlehem that the angels’ message was proclaimed. And this of course is an important perspective, one that is consistent with Luke’s special emphasis on outsider characters, and the ways in which Jesus turns things upside down and confounds expectations.
But there is another angle by which we can come at the presence of the shepherds in the Christmas story. The setting of the story in Bethlehem, the hometown of King David, already gives us a pretty big hint. The presence of the shepherds provides us with an important link: a link with King David. Jesus is portrayed as a descendent and successor of the great shepherd-king of Israel, and also as the fulfilment of the promise given to David that his kingdom would be established for ever. Jesus may not be known or recognized by the townspeople of Bethlehem, nor by the religious authorities in Jerusalem; but it was from the ranks of the shepherds that King David was drawn, like Moses and the Patriarchs before him, and it is the shepherds who are among the first to recognize Jesus the Good and True Shepherd of His people.
Why is David so important in the Old Testament? And what might the connection with David have to tell us about Jesus? This is too big a subject to deal with now in one go, so I’m just going to sketch out a few ideas today, but we will be returning to these themes later in the year when we will be reading some of the stories of David in our Old Testament readings.
David is a warrior. He defeats the giant Goliath when he is still a boy, and as king he secures the boundaries of his land and gives his people peace. Jesus too is a warrior. He does not take up the fight with His enemies with the sword, but His struggle is real nonetheless. In His ministry of healing, in His ministry of teaching, in His confrontation with corrupt authority, and above all in His struggle with sin and death on the Cross, we see Jesus fighting on our behalf, defending His sheep from those who come to kill and destroy. And here we see too that Jesus is both the fulfilment and yet also a subversion of the David story: the Lord tells David that he is not the man to build him a house, because he has shed much blood; Jesus sheds not the blood of others, but His own blood, and so He is the man to build a temple of living stones to the Lord.
David is remembered as the great king and hero of ancient Israel; and yet he is very much a flawed hero. He suffers the temptations common to all those who wield worldly power, and a times he succumbs to them. He builds himself a fine palace and gathers together an extraordinary collection of wives, and yet still finds himself compelled to commit adultery with Bathsheba.
Here we again see that Jesus is both a fulfilment and subversion of the David story: Jesus manifests His power only in acts of love and compassion to those around Him; He renounces the trappings of wealth and power; and although He appears like David before Him to have been a man who was appealing to women, nevertheless there is no hint of anything inappropriate or exploitative, just that same love and compassion. And whilst David wields the King’s power of life and death, at times dealing with his enemies without mercy, Jesus too wields the power of life and death, but He chooses death for Himself that He may give life to others.
Every year at our Christmas carol services we sing the great carol “Once in royal David’s city”, I suspect without reflecting all that much on the significance of this designation beyond the geographical connection with Bethlehem. But recognizing Jesus as the “Son of David” was a key aspect of the understanding of the first disciples, and so reconnecting with the David stories and their connections with Jesus will enrich our understanding of the Holy Child of Bethlehem, to whom, with the +Father and the Holy Spirit, be all praise and glory now and unto ages of ages. Amen