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Cowboy Christmas

This morning I want to begin by showing you a picture of a typical nativity. We’ve got your Mary and Baby Jesus in the middle. They are the center of the event! Joseph is hanging around looking relieved. The animals are wondering when they are going to get their barn back. The Magi are there, even though it was a year before they visited Jesus. The angel is here, even though the Bible says the angels were elsewhere. But the problem I have this morning, is with the shepherds. The Bible says they were there. But, there is something wrong with the way they look. I think these shepherds are too nice looking.

Let me begin to explain the problem with the way the shepherds look by talking about something we are more familiar with; cowboys and farmers. There is a fundamental physiological difference between cowboys and farmers. There is a difference in raising cattle and growing crops. There is an entirely different approach to life between cowboys and farmers.

In the old west movies when the peace-loving farmer finally has had enough of the bad guys harassing him, he sells the farm and buys a gun, practices - for one scene - and becomes a gunfighter. There is a stereotype that farmers are peace loving, nice guys; while cowboys are a more violent. There is psychological evidence that this stereotype is true.

The reason farmers are peaceful, and cowboys are violent is because of the nature of their products. Famers produce crops. It's hard to steal crops. A farmer may have acres of, let’s say corn. It is difficult to steal corn. To start with, most of the time the fields don’t have any corn. In the winter the fields are empty. It the spring the seed is planted; nothing to steal. While the crop is growing there is nothing to steal. Only for a very short window of a couple of weeks, during the harvest, is there anything that could be stolen. And even then it is difficult. Sneaking into a farmer’s field and harvesting all his grain quietly is a challenge. So, fundamentally, the farmer doesn’t have to worry about anyone stealing his product. All in all, farming cultures have evolved a non-retaliatory social ethic.

On the other hand, the cowboy guards his product 24/7. The cows are always there. Any night, of any season, all year around, rustlers can easily sneak into a pasture, load up all the cows and be gone by morning. A handful of cattle rustlers can quickly make off with hundreds of cattle, with devastating economic impact upon the cattle rancher. While the farmer sleeps peacefully most of the time, there is no rest for the cowboy.

Given these challenges, it is argued that herding cultures have developed a very strong ethic of retaliation. The only way to survive, economically, in a herding culture is to protect your livelihood with lethal vigilance. Farmers, by contrast, are spared all this. And, given these contrasting demands, there is sociological data to suggest that herding cultures are, indeed, more violent than farming cultures.

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This leads me to the conclusion that... this nativity is wrong. These shepherds are way too nice looking. Shepherds, like cowboys, are from a herding culture. These shepherds are out in the night watching their sheep… for good reason. So, nobody steals their sheep. Unlike the farmers who were sleeping away on Christmas Eve, these shepherds had their six-guns loaded ready to put some lethal vigilance on anyone who might be out to rustle their sheep. I guess you rustle sheep. When these shepherds looked around the herd they saw dollar signs. The sheep were their stock portfolios. The sheep were walking 401ks. The herd was, at least, their paychecks.

Perhaps, these shepherds, on Christmas Eve, were hired hands. Most likely, someone else owned the sheep. These guys were hired to stay up all night guarding the sheep. Not a pleasant job for nice people. That makes our nativity even worse. These shepherds would have been hired thugs. They would have worn black hats, spit tobacco and had ugly tattoos. These shepherds would have had names like… Black Bartimaeus … Deadwood Thaddaeus … Ironweed Judas… or my favorite... Magor-Missabib. These shepherds would have been anything but nice. They would not have been on any Hallmark cards. Most likely, this nativity is wrong.

The point in all this is these shepherds were most likely violent men. They had to be. It was their job description. It was their culture. I have always said that it was shocking to find angels appearing to shepherds because: shepherds were uneducated, the bottom of the social ladder, marginalized by their culture, but we need to add violent to their stereotype.

Angels appearing to shepherds is even more scandalous than I had ever imagined. Listen to Luke 2 with this new perspective.

Luke 2:1-8 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world... And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.

Wow, here are two radically different scenes. Baby Jesus all snuggled down into the feeding trough with Mary and Joseph and the animals are all... peaceful. Just out in the fields, near there, are Black Bartimaeus, Deadwood Thaddaeus, Ironweed Judas and Magor-Missabib double-dog-daring anyone to rustle their sheep. “Nobody rustles our sheep.” Two opposite scenes are painted here by Luke; peaceful, serenity - lethal vigilance.

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Now, step back for a moment. Imagine you’re God.

You are going to announce the most amazing, incredible, joyous news ever; an event which will change the course of history. You are broadcasting the birth of your only Son, Jesus Christ. You are declaring peace on earth. You are revealing the One who will be the Savior of the world. The Messiah is born in Bethlehem. Finally, He has come!

As God, who do you send the birth announcements to?

--Political leaders? kings, governors, magistrates, even Caesar? You might invite Caesar to come and pay homage to the King of the Jews.

--Religious leaders? The High Priest, other priests, rabbis, synagogue officials, the head of the Jewish ruling council, the entire Sanhedrin.

--Military leaders. Wealthy merchants. Men and women of distinction. Devoted Pharisees. The news media. Fox News or even CNN?

But none of them get the announcement. None of them are invited. Note some foreign kings figured it out by following the star of Bethlehem, and they told King Herod. But, they didn’t get an angelic messenger. Watch where the angels are sent.

Luke 2:9-12 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they (Black Bartimaeus … Deadwood Thaddaeus … Ironweed Judas… Magor-Missabib) were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

There is only one announcement of Christ’s birth recorded in the Scriptures. There is only one invitation from God to come visit Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus. And that one invitation goes to Black Bartimaeus, Deadwood Thaddaeus, Ironweed Judas and Magor-Missabib.

God what are you thinking? These guys are lethal vigilance.

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Imagine the conductor of the choir announcing this to the rest of the angels where they are going to perform. “We have been practicing our “Glory to God in Highest” song now for several… millennia. Our concert has been scheduled. We are going to perform in Bethlehem to some mumble, mumble.” “Where? Who are we performing for?” “To some shepherds named Black Bartimaeus, Deadwood Thaddaeus, Ironweed Judas and Magor-Missabib.” “Seriously?”

Luke 2:13-14 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

Peace on earth? This scene is shocking. This scene doesn’t work. This scene should stop us in our tracks. Peace on earth? These guys were anything but peaceful. Peace on earth? Black Bartimaeus wasn’t interested in peace on earth. “You try to rustlin’ my sheep and I’ll put your peace in the earth.” The angels appear in concert to sing "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests" to these shepherds. It’s bizarre.

God what are you thinking? These guys are the opposite of peace of earth.

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What happens next is even more bizarre.

Luke 2:15-16 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.

And, upon hearing the peace on earth message, the shepherds leave their flocks and go find the baby! Black Bartimaeus, Deadwood Thaddaeus, Ironweed Judas and Magor-Missabib leave their paychecks unguarded in order to find Jesus. It would be like… we stacked up all the money we have in our savings accounts and retirement funds and all the rest of the money we have in $100 bills stacked in the front yard, with a sign that said, “Help yourself”. They left their herds. They quit guarding their sheep. They left their livelihood to go find the Prince of Peace.

Wow. There is power in the Gospel. There is power in the message. The first time the Gospel is announced, Black Bartimaeus, Deadwood Thaddaeus, Ironweed Judas and Magor-Missabib are changed. The announcement sends lethal vigilance in search of peace on earth.

The Gospel still has the power to change people! The Good News still sends violent people in search of peace. The message is the only power which can send lethal vigilance in search of the prince of peace.

Maybe, this is what God was thinking.

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There is one more bizarre thing in this story. I doubt you will even believe this one.

Luke 2:17-18 When they (Black Bartimaeus, Deadwood Thaddaeus, Ironweed Judas and Magor-Missabib) had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed (no kidding) at what the shepherds said to them.

 Upon seeing Jesus, the shepherds spread the word. These shepherds are the first missionaries of the Gospel. All who heard them talking about the baby were amazed. Lethal vigilance became messengers of peace.

Wow.

As Christmas approaches, as you see nativities like this, take note of the shepherds. Maybe, the nativities are not wrong. Black Bartimaeus, Deadwood Thaddaeus, Ironweed Judas and Magor-Missabib were changed by the Prince of Peace.


Tim Stidham

December 16, 2018

Los Alamos Church of Christ



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