The First Gift of Christmas

Daily Devotional for Thursday, November 19, 2020 from Rev. Eric Douglass

Luke 2:8-11: In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

In these meditations, we are looking at the various characters in the Christmas stories of our Gospels. Today we turn to the shepherds, beginning with a little background.
Shepherds were the people who watched the flocks. While we often romanticize about these characters, dressing them up in clean clothing and honest professions, this was not the case in the ancient world. Shepherds were at the lowest level of society and were avoided by almost everyone. They were frequently accused of being thieves—for they often grazed their herds on other people’s land. They were known for being uneducated and impoverished, and were decidedly lacking in hygiene.
I enjoy going to town. The market is full of wonderful and strange fruits and breads and clothes. I love them all: figs and dates, feta cheese and tomato paste, tunics and ribbons. The selection is beyond what the imagination can buy. But I am a shepherd boy…every seller knows that I am poor. They shoo me out of their shops, even as they hawk their wares to nicely dressed women and freshly washed men.
The market is also the brightest place in the world. There are colors to the fruit, smells to the breads and spices, and brightly dyed cloths. You can hear the rush of robes and see the smiles of greeting. But I am a shepherd boy…no one knows me, and no one greets me. I am ignored. One of the silent objects that are always in the way.  
I hate being a shepherd.
So, you ask, why do I go to the market? Because of the entertainment! There is something satisfying about slipping into the nicest shop and watching the horror creep onto the owner’s face. He or she will make excuses to the customers, and then gently push me out, waving hands and arms as if I am a contagion. Of course, this is when I try to look confused, as if I have no idea what the owner wants, and we engage in a merry dance that goes on for a quarter of an hour. Or perhaps I dig into the pocket of my tunic and extract the only coin I own in the world, and confuse the owner by asking how much a nice ribbon costs. By this time, they are almost always exasperated, and simply beg me to leave…which I do.  
I hate being a shepherd.
At night, when I’m tending in the hills, the stars shine in a way that city dwellers can never know. I enjoy this display…for maybe 15 nights of the year. Then there are the hundreds of nights where I am alone with these ever silent stars. I can hear the merriment in the cities. I can imagine people getting together to share a nice meal, at a real table with real wine and real smiles and playful banter. They talk about the events of the day and make plans for visiting temple and spending money on frivolities. Shepherds don’t have that luxury. We have only six members in our little band, about a thousand sheep, and a myriad of silent stars.
I hate being a shepherd.
At night, when the wind is howling through the ravines, I imagine that it is the priests in the temple, using a low sing-song voice to chant their prayers to God. Sometimes I close my eyes and wonder at the sounds that my ears shall never hear. It helps to pass the cold nights. And then a word is spoken in the darkness:
“Do not be afraid.”
I look up suddenly, startled from my daydreams…fearing a wolf attack or a bear rampaging through our camp. There is light all around, but it is not at my level—as if held by another shepherd—but up in the sky. The light is blinding. Like a second sun, blocking out the stars and the moon, and even the twinkling lights from the nearby town. I look furtively around, but there is no place to hide. My pulse is pounding. I am afraid.
“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
By squinting, I can just make out shapes, and there are dozens…too many to count. Figures in the sky. And they are singing!
“Glory to God in the highest…”
Then it is dark again, the light gone as quickly as it came. The stars come out and the moon peaks from behind a cloud. But the words keep coming back into my head: “I am bringing to you good news….to you is born…” Why had they said: “To you…”? They were treating me as if I mattered. I’ve never mattered. No one trusts me with a message. No one greets me. There are no happy smiles when I appear. I am no one. The message should have gone to the priests in the temple or the elders in the town.
I turned this around in my mind, but no matter how I come at it, the plain truth is that I had worth to them. They trusted me with a message. I felt something in my chest that I had never felt before. And I knew that it was time to go.
The shepherds in my little band searched hard that night. Bethlehem is a small town, but a band of shepherds asking all the good people about a newborn, was bound to raise an alarm. Most thought that it was a perverse joke that we were playing on them. Others simply slammed the door in our face. One kicked dirt at me. It’s hard to be a nobody with an important message. The message fell on deft ears. No one came.
But we kept faith. We continued the search, road by road and alley by alley. At one of the shabbier homes at the far side of Bethlehem, as I was beginning to knock, I heard the cry of an infant. A young man came to the door. He took in our shabby clothes and dirty faces and wild hair…and he smiled.
We crowded into a small guest room and delivered our message of angels and lights and singing and a messiah. The father gripped the back of his chair tightly, as this cascade of revelations was repeated. Tears streamed down the young mother’s face. The husband bowed low before us. The message had not failed. And there, in a guestroom filled with cows and moldy hay, I found that I was valued. This was the first gift of the Christ child.
For the first time in my life, I was glad to be a shepherd.

Our Lord:
The gifts of Christmas are not a tree
and lights and ornaments.
The gift was a child that you sent
to reveal how valuable we are to you.
You sent your son for us.
The gifts of Christmas are not the hate
and the distrust and the exclusion
that we deal out to others.
They are made in your image.
You sent your son for them.
The gifts of Christmas are acceptance
and compassion and caring.
The intangibles of a deeper life
that brings healing to the stranger.
You sent your son to guide us.

About the Author
Eric Douglass is the covenant pastor at New Hanover Presbyterian Church, where his work emphasizes adult education. Writing meditations is a natural extension of this. During the current pandemic, his goals have been to ensure that the folk at New Hanover see the deep connection that they have to God and the community, even though the community can’t meet in person. This connection is not just one of continued fellowship, but of God’s presence in the community. God stands with us, no matter what path we are on. In this way, God acts like the father and mother who refuse to abandon their child, no matter how wayward that child, or how difficult the situation. Psalm 23 captures this perfectly: “The Lord is my shepherd.” Eric is a graduate of the University of Missouri, initially earning a degree in biology, and then his medical degree from that university’s Medical School. After practicing medicine for many years, he earned a Masters in Divinity and a Masters in Theology from Union Theological Seminary, here in Richmond. Since that time, he has authored two books, frequently delivers papers at the Society for Biblical Literature, and is an adjunct professor at Randolph-Macon College. But the work he enjoys the most is teaching at New Hanover. Whether in casual discussion during the coffee hour, or a structured Sunday School class, or a Wednesday night special event, this is where he finds authentic people engaged in living out their life with God. Eric lives in Mechanicsville, VA, with his wife (Felecia). He enjoys doing fine cabinetry work and hiking. He has two children, Michael and Daniel, who both live in the DC area. His family is especially fond of playing board games, through which they have whittled away many a winter’s evening.