21 September 2017

What happened when…

What happened when… the shepherd heard the choir?

Hoshea hadn’t meant to walk so far. He had only wanted to get out of the city for a little fresh air, and to see some grass! With his feet barely touching the ground now, he was carried along by the crowd, making it impossible to turn back towards the city gate.

People! Everywhere the old shepherd had been since arriving in Jerusalem a few days earlier, there were people! He couldn’t get away from them, or their incessant chatter for that matter! Give him the bleating of sheep any day, and the wide open spaces surrounding the Bethlehem hills instead of the stone and dust of the city. Passover always meant crowds! Hoshea had felt for a long time that he was getting too old for these festivals. Yet what choice had he? Every Jewish male had to attend the religious festivals three times a year in Jerusalem, so here he was yet again!

Oh, it wasn’t that the old shepherd didn’t enjoy celebrating the rescue of his nation from the slavemasters of Egypt. He enjoyed a party with the rest of them! Neither was he ungrateful for the protection from God’s judgement afforded him by the sacrifice of a perfect lamb. After all, wasn’t that his ‘reason d’être’? He bred the very sheep that ended up here in Jerusalem, and took pride in the number of his own lambs that were good enough to be sacrificed as atonement for sin…including his own!

It was just that they had to keep coming back to do it again and again, year after weary year! Nothing seemed to change. Men kept sinning, so sacrifice had to be continually made.

How he wished things were different. There was a time, many years ago, when he really thought things would change.

The memory of it hadn’t lessened with the years, even if it hadn’t delivered as he thought it would. It was the night he had heard the choir sing…never before or since had he heard anything like it! But his thoughts were interrupted by the jostling around him, bringing him back to the now, leaving the ‘then’ behind once more. He was tiring: his old bones aching from all the pushing and shoving.

‘Where are they all going?’ the old man wondered, with an increasing realisation that he would find out soon enough. There was no going back now! The air felt thick with a sense of impending doom. There was trouble afoot. Hoshea recognised all the signs: unruly crowds, too much shouting, and Romans everywhere!

Ahead of him he could hear screaming mixed with taunting cries. In a short interlude of silence the sound of women wailing filled his ears. His mind was assaulted by confusing signals of mockery and despair.

“If you are the Messiah save yourself!” someone shouted.

“Hail, King of the Jews!” another taunted.

Pushing its way through the crowd, Hoshea saw a brown steed of the Roman legion coming towards him. Aloft the creature rode a proud representative of Israel’s occupying force, a centurion, his red woollen cloak catching the early spring breeze as he headed back towards the city.

Instantly it hit him! He knew what was going on. And as he lifted his head high the old shepherd could see the silhouette of crosses against the sunlit sky.

Crucifixions!

Hoshea’s head dropped in sorrow as he remembered his nephew telling him that the Romans were planning executions during the week-long festival.

“Stay inside the city, Uncle!” the young man had warned. “The Romans want to make an example of some political prisoners,” he had explained. “They don’t want any trouble – with so many people in the city, they are afraid of an uprising, so they are executing troublemakers as a deterrent! Don’t be wandering off, Uncle!”

How Hoshea wished he had listened more carefully. His family knew that he was prone to wandering outside the city walls during festival time – homesick as he was. Sheep and goats and fields – that’s where Hoshea felt safest, in spite of the danger from predators. The old shepherd reckoned that jackals and hyenas weren’t as hard to deal with as those of the human species!

The sound of suffering and sorrow was louder now, and Hoshea tried to turn around on the narrow, stony road.

He couldn’t bear to see what the Romans could do to a man! He’d seen it before, and no man deserved to die that way, whatever they might have done! But something stopped him suddenly in his tracks.

A voice, calling out a name – a name he recognised – one he used to whisper in the dark nights by the sheepfold.

“Jesus!”

The One of whom the angel spoke on the night he heard the choir!

“If you are the Son of God, save yourself!”

The words pierced the old man’s heart. It couldn’t be, could it? He had waited so long since that night. Thought at times that he must have dreamt it! Nothing more had happened – Herod had all the baby boys killed, after all. He thought the baby must have been slaughtered with all the others. He’d even stopped talking about what had happened on the night he’d heard the choir. Initially, people were astonished at the story he and the other shepherds had told them, but after a while, when nothing happened, he just kept it to himself. At times it had all seemed so foolish – angels… and a heavenly choir… and a message from God – given to shepherds!

“Jesus!”

There it was again! When they found the baby the angels had told them about, his mother called him ‘Jesus’.

The sound of that name added strength to his aching muscles, moving him through what was more akin to a rabble now. His heart was thumping; sweat dripped into his beard; he no longer felt the stones in his sandals. He had to get to Jesus – that was all that mattered. Hoshea rushed forward to see the One whose name was filling the ever-darkening air. He remembered so clearly the first time he had rushed to meet Him… on the night he heard the choir!

“It couldn’t be Him? Not after all these years… could it?”

“Jesus!”

This time the name he heard was coming from his own lips. The sight before him was so shocking it took his breath away. The Man nailed to the centre cross was unrecognisable – His face beaten to a pulp; a cruel mocking crown of long eastern thorns pushed into His brow; a taunting sign pinned above His head: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS!

Falling on his knees in the dirt the old shepherd was broken. Despite the passage of thirty-three years, and the unforgivable cruelty of man, Hoshea recognised the Man on the centre cross. He had been introduced to Him by an angel… on the night he heard the choir! It was dark on that particular night outside of Bethlehem, but not as dark as the darkness that fell while the old man was on his knees.

“How could it be?” Hoshea wailed. “How could it be that the Christ could die on a Roman cross? How could it be?”

Punching the air with his fists, the simple shepherd, who had been given the privilege of visiting the ‘Saviour’ at His birth shouted, “You said it was ‘good news’; that it would bring ‘great joy’! You said He was the Saviour – Christ the Lord!”

“How can this be?”

Hoshea’s questioning misery was interrupted by one final cry from the Man on the centre cross, “It is finished!”

Looking up Hoshea could see that Jesus was dead. Exhausted he sat on, for how long he didn’t know. It was the noise of an approaching soldier that roused him from his grief. Rising to go, Hoshea watched the soldier pierce the side of Jesus with his short broad sword and the old shepherd saw the blood run down the rough wood and form a thick, mucky red puddle on the dirty hill of Golgotha.

How often had he watched the priest kill the lambs he had brought from Bethlehem? How often had the old man given thanks for the sacrifice of those innocent beasts in order that his sins could be forgiven? How often had he watched their blood run down the altar, knowing it was for him?

And suddenly he saw it! Suddenly he understood the words of the prophet Isaiah that he had learnt as a boy.

“He was wounded for our transgressions…like sheep we have turned astray…the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:5,6)

And as Hoshea turned to go, he knew that somehow he hadn’t seen the last of Jesus. For in his head he heard the choir sing: “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

Catherine Campbell