You ever hear people use the term “culture shock”? I’ve only experienced it once in my life, when I came back to the US after two years in Namibia and found myself overcome by the pace of life in the States, the stark difference in the two cultures, and my inability to find my footing, so to speak. Culture shock!
In Israel, I found myself experiencing something similar, at least in a spiritual sense. Things I thought I understood from Scripture went suddenly from a vague black and white picture to a startlingly clear, color-filled 3D movie. It was like a giant culture surprise. (And not just because the Cokes were in Hebrew, which was awesome. “This is like an Old Testament Coke!” I told Wes, which he didn’t find funny at all.)
Like the shepherds’ field in Bethlehem. I know what you’re thinking – what in the world is the shepherds’ field in Bethlehem? Not too far from the Church of the Nativity (which is the site of Jesus’s birth) is a field designated as the shepherds’ field where it’s believed that the shepherds were keeping their flocks at night when the angels told them that Jesus had been born. It looked a lot like what I thought it would, and I could imagine the angels filling the night sky, terrifying the shepherds and causing a joyful ruckus (for lack of a better word) as they rushed into Bethlehem to find the child who would be wrapped in swaddling cloths.
Swaddling cloths. How many times have I read that and not paid much attention to it? What does it matter? Well, our guide began to explain to us that when sheep were going to be sacrificed at the temple, they’d be taken from the flocks that the shepherds were watching over. The shepherds would take the sheep meant for sacrifice – a near perfect sheep, unblemished and without fault – and prepare it for transport to the temple. How would they keep it from being damaged in any way? They’d wrap the sacrificial lamb in swaddling cloths. So, when the angel told these shepherds that the specific baby they were looking for (because Jesus couldn’t have been the only baby boy born in Bethlehem that night – it was a busy place) would be wrapped in swaddling cloths, there would have been a greater connection in their minds. Unto us a child is born… wrapped in swaddling cloths, prepared already for sacrifice.
Mind blown, y’all. Not the shepherds’ minds. Mine. Actually, theirs were probably blown as well. Because angels filling the sky all of a sudden doesn’t happen every night, you know.
But there was more!
You know all those pictures of shepherds with wayward sheep slung over their shoulders? You’ve seen the pictures and have probably said, like me, “Aww, look at how the shepherd loves the sheep!” Well, our guide altered that picture for me just a little. “A shepherd would carry a sheep like that because he’d just broken its leg,” he told us. “The sheep would wander off, the shepherd would break his leg to slow him down and serve as a warning to the others, and carry him back like that because the sheep could no longer walk.” Hard core, right?
“Jesus doesn’t break our legs, though,” our guide said. “Rather, He becomes broken for us, in our place. Because He is the good shepherd.”
A different shepherd, most definitely, The words that He said came to mind, about how His body would be broken for His disciples, for us. The good shepherd, who lays down His life for His sheep. How much richer these analogies are now, when put into the context of a biblical era shepherd’s life!
The good shepherd. The sacrificial lamb. He was both. And He was so much more, so different than what the culture around Him expected Him to be. Our guide explained how most rabbis of Jesus’s time worked, how the students – the brightest and best students who were finishing up what was standard for all boys in terms of study at the synagogues – would come to them and would ask to be their disciples, how the rabbis would brush them off initially (almost snobbishly), and how only after a time would they consent to let the best and brightest students follow them. It was all student-initiated, with the rabbis being distant.
But Jesus. He went to the young men who’d gone no further in their synagogue studies because they’d shown no true promise in the world’s eyes. The young men who were back in their father’s professions, not expecting anything more because they weren’t the best and the brightest. They weren’t going to approach a rabbi because they weren’t qualified in any way to learn from anyone. But Jesus CAME TO THEM. The greatest rabbi the world will ever know (because He’s God Himself!) came to them, not with disinterest and apathy, but with a personal invitation. Follow me. Think about His words to His disciples later, about how they didn’t choose Him… He chose them. It makes sense, so much better sense than it ever did before, when it’s put into this context!
Culture surprises, all over the place. At the Jordan River, water in the middle of nowhere (literally), where John the Baptist had to have been a wilder man than we could even imagine to have survived in the desert harshness that surrounded him. (And in an area that even now is heavily secured with parts forbidden to the public because of the active land mines that are still underground, remnants of the war with Jordan. Crazy! Right there by the Jordan River!) At the Qumran caves, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found in 1946, God’s great surprise to a Bedouin boy looking for his lost sheep (!!!), who stumbled upon some of the oldest and most reliable copies of Scripture that are still God’s promises to us in 2019. (The enduring Word of God, more than a document of antiquity!) At the Mount of Temptation, overlooking Jericho, where we saw the bustle of the city come to life just as Jesus would have from where He stood, where He answered every one of Satan’s offers with God’s words, God’s commands, God’s promises.
From black and white to technicolor. Cultural surprises, everywhere we turned. What a gift. Thank You, God, for letting us see Your Word with new eyes!
Up next… Jerusalem.