A Closer Look at the Shepherds, Religion and the Gift of Christmas

The Christmas Gift of a relationship that frees us from religion.

This Christmas, as you reflect on the amazing gift of Jesus, God in the flesh walking among us so that we could know him. I challenge you to fully consider what knowing him is all about and how different it is from the confines of religion.

It is extremely common for church people to say “Christianity is a relationship not a religion.” But the implications of that saying are really hard to live out. Most of us just don’t actually want to get rid of our religion we just want to add a little relationship in there cause it sounds nice.

What is religion?

See, I think at the core of all religion, if we are completely honest with ourselves are the desires to be right, in control, and comfortable. None of these desires are inherently bad. (I mean you need serious counseling if your deepest desires are to be wrong, out of control and uncomfortable!) It is just important for you to understand these desires and how they motivate you. Also, it is important to know that you most definitely aren’t always right, you are never really in control of the most important things in the world around you (like your health, the health of loved ones, accidents, other people’s behaviors, the economy, feelings, weather,…) and being uncomfortable is part of dealing with the messiness of life.

So even if you aren’t technically in a defined religion, I’d say that all of your attempts to be right, seek power over the uncontrollable things in your world, and to make yourself comfortable with where you are and how you live: that’s your religion.

When my son called me in the middle of the night telling me that my 3-year-old granddaughter was being rushed to the hospital because she was unresponsive, I sat on the floor and cried my eyes out and screamed to God to make it OK. There was a definite religious part of me that was seeking something I could do to control this situation. I wanted to bargain, sacrifice, beg, manipulate or whatever I could come up with to get a guarantee that my beloved granddaughter was going to live. The relationship part of me, was yelling at God because I knew there was no guarantee. I don’t like that. I hate that. I wanted one. What he did do was give me peace to know that even though I’m still crying as I write this, he’d never leave my side. He is with me in even the worst thing I can imagine. The Christmas gift of his presence will never guarantee me freedom from the extreme hurts of this life. His presence will give me power, peace, purpose, and joy even as I carry those hurts with me.

Relationship means heart change over behavior management.

The biggest difference between walking with Jesus and following a religion based on his teaching is that religion teaches us to act better while a relationship with Jesus teaches us to actually become better. When I sit down and pray to Jesus who knows me and walks through life with me, I don’t impress him with things I did…I’m not even approaching an “impressing Jesus” level of goodness. What happens, is I continually see areas where I need to grow and he empowers me.

Religious people can’t handle that freedom because it means admitting: I’m not right, I’m not in control and that makes me uncomfortable. They keep trying to explain away the freedom Jesus taught. They try to replace true heart change and growth with new and better rules to manage behavior, bigger and better vision statements to give us something to focus on, and mega churches to keep us entertained. And much of American church culture has abandoned the relationship in search of control through political power for the institution.

The things Jesus taught are continual burrs in the butt of the religious community of his day and all the days that followed: even the religious community that has bizarrely been built up around his teachings.

The Shepherds of the Christmas story demonstrate God’s heart for relationships

The part of the Christmas story that best demonstrates God’s heart for a relationship with ALL of us, is the inclusion of shepherds.

In ancient Israel, shepherds were the lowest of the low. They were so disrespected that their testimony was disregarded in court. They were considered ceremonially unclean (probably a lot because they were physically filthy). And as much as we like to picture them all sitting around playing harps and reciting Psalms to God, that is pretty far from human nature and reality. (Trust me, I have 3 awesome sons and that’s not how guys sit around and talk!)

This was a group of guys who followed sheep around, living off the land, fighting wild animals, and doing all of the other nasty nastiness that goes along with caring for sheep. I imagine them being kind of a weird combo of cowboy, homeless person, and sailor/Italian (because I think they probably used a lot of profane language, whatever it was back then).

Religion doesn’t embrace “dirty” messed up people

Consider the story of the shepherds and what religion has done with them through the years compared to how the wise men are portrayed.

Through the years, I’ve seen hundreds, maybe even thousands of nativity scenes. I’ve seen collections from around the world, hand-carved, wooden, artful masterpieces, toilet paper roll children’s crafts, and even live ones. But one thing I have never seen is: halos on the shepherds.

Why don’t the shepherds get halos? The Bible story (in Luke 2) says that they came and saw Jesus and then they went and spread the word about him. That’s the formula for becoming a Christian: believe, then tell people. The Wise Men, on the other hand, are only reported as telling Herod about Jesus, so why do they get halos, even their own holiday, and not the shepherds?

I believe, one reason, is because shepherds don’t fit in well at church. Shepherds get the carpet dirty, they smell bad, they don’t know the lingo, their manners are questionable, and they just make us uncomfortable. When they get excited, they shout “Hell YEAH!” and not “hallelujah”. Even after they worship God and follow Jesus, they continue to smell bad, hang around with the wrong crowd, be poor, and have rough manners. They don’t like sitting still for hours and they are far from refined. Shepherds will never be good representatives of what religion wants to represent.

Wise men come in with royal robes on and they bring lavish gifts. They meet with rulers and religious leaders. They speak the lingo and their manners are refined.

Jesus’ message of acceptance is hard for religious people to accept!

Jesus’ message that EVERYONE can have a relationship with GOD is absolutely mind-blowing. Our human nature can’t seem to handle not having to earn it. We can’t believe that God doesn’t look at people the way we do. That he sees value in everyone AND he doesn’t give a flying rip about the things that we are impressed by.

Jesus continually argued with the religious leaders of his day about how they were too caught up in following rules and not caring about people. They were quick to condemn others who couldn’t meet their standards. They lived with high moral standards and strict behavioral guidelines, which they thought were going to impress God. However, most of them missed God when he was living right there with them.

This is why I love Jesus so much! He absolutely was a burr in the butts of the snooty religious elite. Right from his birth, Jesus was confounding their teaching by proclaiming his coming to some of the people deemed unacceptable by the religious leaders. Then, I think God kind of threw it in their face later when he had FOREIGNERS (oh my!) come searching for the new born king. They even went to the leaders, AND ASKED THEM, where the messiah was supposed to be born, and the religious leaders still didn’t get it!! (More on that tomorrow)

People who did get it: prostitutes, mentally ill people, poor people, working class folks, uneducated people, traitors, people with handicaps, sick people, blind people, and a whole slew of other “messy” people, who knew they were a mess! (Yes! Go Jesus!)

This is the absolutely, unbelievable, awesome, amazing, in-your-face, different thing that Jesus did. He made a relationship with God all about our heart and desire to know him and not at all about our ability to pull off being super religious. He entered our mess and he desires to live in a relationship with us in the middle of our mess even when it stays messy.

 Halos are a picture of what religion does with the message of Jesus

 A funny thing about halos: Where did the tradition come from?

Back in the old days, most people couldn’t read. They learned about Bible stories from paintings. Halos were invented so that you could tell who the religious people were. Otherwise, they just looked like everyone else. When you see the halo, you know “oh, super holy person doing something super holy.” Without the halo, you might think David was just killing someone because that is what happens in war. With the halo, boom super holy death scene.

I think halos are a crazy ironic symbol for what we do with Christianity. We try really hard to paint a picture of life being perfect and always positive. We romanticize everything to the point of being ridiculous. We paint a picture of Christians walking around in this other-worldly bubble of holiness, that denies our real struggles, pains, and problems.

And then when life and people are messy, we don’t know what to do. For example, it doesn’t fit our theology to think that the prostitute who followed Jesus probably still had a hard life. She didn’t actually get a halo to wear around so that everyone knew she was suddenly holy. I’m sure people still judged her as a whore, especially religious people and I bet she messed up even after following Jesus.

The Christmas gift you have been offered:

So, here’s the deal. If halos were a thing that people actually got. Jesus would be the Oprah Winfrey of handing out halos. He’d invite you and your messed up out of control life on to his show and he’d say. “Look under your seat…Halos for everyone” And you’d get to follow him around being completely in his kingdom and growing in the knowledge that you’ve been wrong about a lot of things, you aren’t in control, and this life is going to be really, really hard at times. But he is going to give you peace in the middle of the uncomfortableness. So, grab your halo and know that you are in even when you keep messing up. Even when you are hanging out with your fellow shepherd friends and the local priest hears you swearing like an Italian sailor, you still get to keep the halo that Jesus gives.