The announcement of the birth of Christ had to go to the shepherds first – to a class of people for whom very little excitement ever happened. God would look for those who would be most filled with wonder at what he was about to do. He would want people who wouldn’t wave away or discount this most historically profound event of heaven touching earth – God our Creator taking on our humanity. The shepherds were such a group. It wouldn’t be the first time God would look to shepherds for a special task. In the time of Christ’s birth, the shepherd was considered the lowest of the lowest. Most oen they were not the owners but hirelings paid to risk their lives for someone else’s property. The historians who described elements of the Hebrew culture were not very kind when it came to the shepherd.
They were considered to be thieves from whom locals were cautioned not to buy such things as milk, wool or lambs as it might be stolen goods. They were so untrustworthy that they were not allowed to fulfill a judicial office or be admitted in court as witnesses. The conditions in which they worked for paltry pay were extreme as they led the sheep to grass daily. From the 23rd Psalm, we picture sheep grazing in alfalfa to their bellies, but in truth, this near-desert land had limited rainfall and whatever grass that was available was little tufts found at the edge of stones where night dew had collected and then trickled down the side. The shepherd led the sheep across the desert and over mountains in pursuit of a day’s ration of food. In a video clip I once saw of this process, from overhead the sheep grazing paths looked like someone had drawn a comb through the sand as side by side they walked through the desert, heads down searching for the next tuft. The historians refer to the sheep-herding occupation as “mean and inglorious” which is a synonym with shameful, dishonorable, disgraceful and discreditable. .
The shepherds would be compared to the poor of our day. Those who through poverty are more vulnerable to hardship that brings want, alienation, loss and suffering. It would be more difficult for them to raise their prospects of a better life due to societal perception and bias. And like the poor today, without the material buffer, one wrong decision could come at a high cost. This subgroup would also include the mentally ill who would have a greater challenge to succeed than others and with the added obstacle of poverty would be at the mercy of those they depended on as caregivers. The prophet Isaiah foretold what this Messiah would do for this group of people when He came: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound . . . to comfort all that mourn; to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion; to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.” Isaiah 61:1-3 In Luke 4:18 this prophecy was fulfilled.
Everything God has done in the narrative of the Holy Scriptures has layers of meanings, and we are rewarded discovering what they are and the spiritual meaning they hold for us. This heavenly declaration of the coming of the Messiah that the Israelites had waited for hundreds of years to hear, was coming as it was prophecied – as “a thief in the night” because only a select few of God’s choosing would have knowledge that it was happening.
To receive and experience this profound message in the way it was going to be given, God would want people who were singly connected to the earth and little else, with a learned awareness of a changing environment and then to at last, look up at a night sky seemingly ready to explode.
As the stellar event drew near, the breeze off the distant Mediterranean Sea began to gently shift and bring in the life-giving moisture for morning dew the next day. There must have been gradually building signs of unrest in the sheep as they slept or quietly grazed on the hillside. The shepherd would have the acuity to be drawn to their behavior and begin to search the landscape for an explanation, not looking skyward until suddenly unexplainable light and sound began to escalate their rising dread of what was coming. The shepherd continuously risked his life with the threat of predators, both human and animal, that would attack the sheep so it makes sense that their adrenalin would be rising in this highly charged atmosphere. The scriptural narrative cites the great fear the shepherds felt, even terror. The shepherds crouched to be as small as possible, as their night sky shook with the booming voice of one angel eventually joined by others filling the sky in a glorious chorus of praise. The words of declaration spoken directly to them would be a story for all time, and it has been.
Luke 2:8-20 (NIV)
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 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.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”
This one hallmark event to every believer is so much more profound when the context is understood. That is how God would want us to learn about his intentions for us and the depth that a relationship with him could have. He doesn’t do what conventional thinking says he will do. In fact, he is unconventional. We can only predict what he will do when we choose to seek and align with him. The shepherds saw the new and brilliant star, one they hadn’t seen before marking this event and the place where the child lay. They followed it.
When the shepherds left the stable and went out to tell others what they saw, given what we know about them now, their story was believable only because of the striking change this visceral event must have brought about in them. As they shared their story with genuine excitement and wonder the scriptures tell us “everyone was amazed”. It is my hope that like the shepherds, we are open to this wonder and undistracted from the world can look up and imagine that brilliant white feathered messenger against a black night sky speaking to each of us, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy . . .” Then, with conviction, go out and share it. That’s what our story of this Messiah still does to us and others with whom we share. We are visibly transformed as we respond to the message and leave our familiar comforts and go out to find this Messiah no matter where and among whom He is accessible to us. This is our sweetwater journey.
On our Christmas tree every year I hang several small yellow-gold stars that I made from craft clay that is baked. I carved the words “All is Well” in the clay and then cut out a cross in the center so the light shines through. I gave away several of these ornaments in the last few Christmas seasons because I wanted the broken-hearted, the meek, the forgotten, those bound in prison, those with a spirit of heaviness and those who mourn to know that this angel message is for everyone and because Jesus came and sacrificed His life for us, we are loved and cared for with our daily bread provided. “All is Well” and there is nothing that can separate us from His love. He told us this in the book of Romans 8:31-39 (adapted):
1 What, then, shall I say in response to these things? If God is for me, who can be against me? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for me—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give me all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against me whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for me. 35 Who shall separate me from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
I am considered as sheep to be slaughtered.
37 No, in all these things I am more than a conqueror through him who loves me. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
A Blessed Christmas to everyone – All is well!