Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests’.
I don’t know what your experience of nativity plays is. A recent poll suggests many schools are now as likely to have soap characters as they are angels and shepherds. I have a picture of me aged about 4 with tea towel on head and cuddly sheep, doing my bit as 5th shepherd from the left. Today’s reading of the message of the angels to the shepherds may well conjure those nativity play images. The original story is far less cute. Shepherds at that time were outcasts for both social and religious reasons and considered untrustworthy. They were not the obvious choice to pick as witnesses to Jesus birth. But then an animal feeding trough, which is what a manger is, is an odd place to be born. The Messiah was of royal descent, expected at the palace not lying with the animal feed. But had Jesus been born in a palace I guess the shepherds would not have gone, they wouldn’t be allowed in anyway. But a king born in an animal shed? That’s the sort of place even a shepherd might be welcome. The sign the angels speak of was not simply telling the shepherds how to recognise the baby, but that the Messiah was one of them and that they were welcome. If today those shepherds have become cute kids in nativity plays, we still have plenty of people who are outcasts, the homeless, asylum seekers, immigrants and people on benefits spring to mind. No doubt there are others. God still goes to where such people are to embrace and include the excluded. God is still seeking to break down the boundaries that divide people and bring peace between them and this is a message of hope for our painfully divided world.
And what about me, the 5th shepherd from the left without a speaking part? What about you, whether you got to play Joseph or Mary or ‘just’ a stable animal? As someone on conference platforms and with published books I guess I now have one of the speaking roles. But somewhere inside I’m still the 5th shepherd hoping for a party invite. For those who never get the party invites, Jesus invites you to the ultimate party. For those who are always on the guest list Jesus also invites you, but you’ll have to party with the folks who usually don’t get it. All of us are invited, whatever status you have or part you have to play Jesus welcomes you.
Steve is a freelance researcher, consultant and speaker on contemporary culture, evangelism and new forms of church and also a part-time tutor for the Anglican mission community Church Army. He lives in St Albans where his wife is vicar of the city centre Anglican church.
An invitation, that is what Steve talks about today, an invitation to the ultimate party. So who can you invite to share a little bit of your life today? Share a smile with a stranger on the street, invite a friend round for coffee, or buy a present for a neighbour? Invite someone to share a bit of your life today….