In the list of most people’s favourite Christmas films is Elf. It tells the story of Buddy, a human elf who leaves the North Pole for New York. As with all the best Christmas films it is sentimental, funny and full of memorable lines, mostly said by Buddy. If you haven’t seen it then do. One of these Buddyisms is the line, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” And singing loud and spreading cheer appear in Luke’s account of the nativity where we are told that the armies of heaven appeared to the shepherds, praising God and blessing mankind with peace on earth (Luke 2:13-14).
Shepherds were not the obvious choice as witnesses to this event. Our view of shepherding is coloured by the many references that Jesus makes to it. But being a shepherd was hard work. Today’s equivalent would be an angelic visitation to a construction site or an Amazon warehouse.
So, what does a bunch of shepherds do when confronted by this angelic choir? The sheep are threatened by wolves and thieves, so surely they can’t simply walk off the job. Matthew 18:12-13 tells of the shepherd who abandons the 99 sheep to search out the missing one. Whenever I have heard that parable, I have always thought what a risk it was to take. You might find the lost sheep but come back to discover the wolves have had another half dozen. And yet that is what God does for us time and again. Every forgiveness carries the risk (or certainty) that we will backslide. The shepherds in our story take a risk and the sheep are left to fend for themselves. Just as a group of Galilean fishermen abandon their nets 30 years later to follow Jesus, telling people the Good News becomes more important to the shepherds than doing their day job. Here it isn’t the 99 that are left exposed but the whole 100, as the shepherds go in search of The One. And, like the shepherd in the parable who rejoices on finding the lost sheep, the shepherds here also rejoice when they find what they are searching for.
Luke paints a picture of a group of men bubbling over with the need to tell everyone they meet about what has happened. Luke 2:18 tells us that “all who heard the story were astonished.” Not disbelieving or accusing them of being drunk or abandoning their duties, but astonished, as should we be each and every time that we hear the story. Astonished that we should be so cared for and loved that Jesus came to be among us and later died for us.
As PF volunteers write to prisoners or speak on Sycamore Tree, we are all conscious of the need to be careful in the language that we use. But that does not mean that the people we support can’t be astonished. The facts that we volunteer, don’t judge, and offer love and compassion all reflect what Jesus did for us. And they can astonish some of those we meet. We know that the Good Shepherd will go out to seek them and my prayer this Christmas is that, as they hear the Good News, in their astonishment they will allow themselves to be found.
John Vaughan is a Sycamore Tree Tutor, a Prayer Line Coordinator and a member of PF Warrington.
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