In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Lk 2:8-12)
The shepherds give me hope. Although years of hearing the story have made most of us desensitized to this fact, almost every detail of the Christmas narrative is the last thing we would expect and the unlikeliest thing for anyone to fabricate. Shepherds are actually portrayed in a very positive light in the Bible. God and His Anointed One are framed as a shepherd on multiple occasions, and it doesn’t get much nobler than that (Ps 23:1; Mic 5:4; Jn 10:11-18). Yet by social standards, these shepherds had little to boast of. Imagine alternating between sleeping and taking shifts to watch the sheep outside in a field night after night. It doesn’t sound like a particularly desirable profession, does it? The details of the scene make it almost certain that these were lowly herdsmen hired by those who could afford to pay others to perform the most unwanted of the duties of caring for their animals. The nature of their lives often left them isolated from many of the normal cultural rhythms of the ancient world. We are probably right to imagine that in many ways they lived on the fringes of society.
And so it was, in the fullness of time, that the One who was both Christ and Lord came and dwelt among us (Acts 2:36; Jn 1:14). The Word had taken on flesh and for the first time in thousands of years, there was a real sinless Man on the earth who could overthrow the tyranny of death. God’s sovereign decree goes forth to dispatch the angel to make the royal announcement and he is sent to…shepherds? Really? Consider, for a moment, all the possible candidates to be the recipient of this wildly good news that night. The angel could have been sent to the chief priests in Jerusalem. They would have made good allies for Jesus down the road. He could have stood before some of the scribes who sat on the Sanhedrin to garner support for the new king who had been born. Herod might not have believed, but he definitely would have been scared if it was an angel who told him about the birth of Jesus rather than the Magi. And what about Caesar? Why not just go straight to the top? The angel could have announced to the most powerful man in the world at that time that the One who was going to establish a kingdom that would topple every world government had been born (Dan 2:44; Isa 9:6-7)!
All of these figures with their status and power were, it would seem, irrelevant to God. For He does not see as man sees. He does not look at the outward man, but at the heart (1 Sam 16:7). He is the same God who about a thousand years earlier had passed over seven sons of Jesse in order to choose the young lad who was so utterly disregarded by his family that he was out tending sheep when the famous prophet Samuel came for a feast. Bethlehem was the city of the shepherd-king. Could it be that it was in those very same fields where the shepherds tended their flocks that David had spent his many lonely days and nights? We will never know. Yet we do know that God chose the outcast to bring into the burning center of His story on that very first Noel. And that should give us great hope that He can do the same for our weary hearts as we celebrate the one before us on the calendar this year.