Shepherds and Sages

Jesus is born! The long-awaited Messiah has arrived and redemption is just around the corner. The hope of humanity has taken the form of an infant child wrapped in shreds of cloths and carefully placed in a feed trough. This is surprising news, but it is good news. And who might be the first to hear of it?

Both Matthew and Luke immediately follow their nativity narrative with an account of the good news going out to two sets of people. In Luke, we read of a host of angels bringing glad tidings of great joy to watchful shepherds. In Matthew, we read of a special star leading a group of wise men to a newborn king. The good news comes to both the shepherds and the sages.

Shepherds

After the birth of the Messiah, a brilliant light appeared to a group of shepherds tending their sheep in the fields outside Bethlehem. The light they saw was the glory of God shining through an angel choir. The angels sent the shepherds a short distance away to the little town of Bethlehem where they found the promised child. Their joy overflowed and they returned to their fields telling others of what they had seen.

Shepherds play a prominent role in the Scriptures and became symbols of leadership and even royalty. Yet they were rather ordinary. They dressed in ordinary clothes and ate ordinary food. They themselves were modest, since one cannot be too self-important caring for stubborn sheep and smelling like earth and manure. They spent their time in the fields and hillsides of Israel, and did not have occasion to muck it up with the influencers of the day in the big city. Likely there were a few shepherds who were a bit rough around the edges – cussing out a stray lamb or making use of vulgar language. In any case, they were earthy people who did their job largely unnoticed against the backdrop of politics and power struggles.

The good news came to ordinary shepherds. That is good news for those of us who are ordinary people doing ordinary jobs. The gospel is not only for the elite intellectual who can grasp all the varied doctrines of the church. Nor is the gospel only for the disciplined monastic who escapes the ordinary life to devote themselves to a single pursuit of deeper communion with God. No, the gospel is also for the worn-out mother, the jaded office-worker, the weary janitor, and the smelly shepherd.

Sages

While Luke highlights the role of shepherds, Matthew directs our attention to the place of the sage. After explaining how the birth of Jesus came about, Matthew jumps straight to the story of the wise men from the east. The visit of the wise men took place some time after Jesus was born, but Matthew condenses his story so their visit is the first thing we read following the birth of the Messiah. Matthew wants to emphasize the significance of this visit.

As with the shepherds, the wise men of the East saw a brilliant light appear in the sky. The light was a special star sent by God. The star sent the magi on a long journey to the royal courts of Jerusalem where they found further clues to the whereabouts of the promised king. They pushed on until they arrived at Bethlehem and the star identified the house where Jesus and his family were staying. The foreigners from afar worshipped the child-king and offered him their costly gifts. Then they returned home and undoubtedly shared what they had seen and heard with their fellow countrymen.

Mystery shrouds the true identity of the wise men from the east. Were they astrologers? Or kings? Or priests? Matthew simple identifies them as magi from somewhere east of Israel. It seems the magi were a specific tribe of priests who dabbled in astrology and occult practices. They were sages who knew enough about Jewish religious tradition to know of a promised King. Their ability and wisdom would have given them a place of prominence in society, and they likely advised kings and other royalty. Not so ordinary.

 But they were outsiders. They were in no way Jewish and in fact came from a region historically hostile to the people of God. So why did these sages travel across the desert to a foreign land and pay homage to a foreign king? Why did God send a sign to lead these pagan priests to the place of a Jewish Messiah?

The answer is quite simple of course: the good news of Jesus is for the outsider. The gospel is not only for one specific people group chosen by God. Nor is the gospel confined to a certain geographic location. No, the gospel is for those who worship the sun, sacrifice their children, belong to a cult, or who pretend to be totally indifferent on religious matters. There is no person who is disqualified from hearing the good news.

Jesus may have been thoroughly Jewish, but his kingdom is worldwide and filled with people of every place and position. The good news is for the shepherd and the sage. For the ordinary and the outsider – and every type of person in between.

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