December 24, 2017
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.
This is a very familiar set of verses to most Americans. Anyone with a television has heard Charles Schutz’ Linus answer Charlie Brown’s question “What is Christmas all about?” with the first portion of this text. Even so, I think these simple shepherds bear a closer look. Familiarity breeds contempt has a sting of truth. The more familiar we are with something, the more casually we often treat it.
This group of men had basically gotten together to share their evenings as the sheep which were their livelihood quietly grazed and slept. Together they could talk, catchup on local gossip and have a quiet meal. One of them, at least, would have to keep watch for predators. But regardless of what had happened, how hectic the evening might have been, in a minute they would all dismiss it all as trivia.
The Archangel Gabriel appears in a blaze of glory to the stunned shepherds. Gabriel seems to be in charge of special birth announcements of late. These would surely have been duties that had long been planned by the Father, and Gabriel may have waited ages to fulfill. The first thing he has to tell the shepherds was the same for several of his previous recipients, “Do not be afraid…” I assure you, if an angel appeared to me, he would probably had to say the same thing.
And now “… for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people“. The announcement of the ages. No event in all of human history compares as a watershed in time. It divides our calendar, it divides the city of Jerusalem and the world, it divides the hearts of mankind to this very day. “… for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord …” The Christ, the anointed one, the Savior long awaited had arrived and who was told of this event? King Herod and the Roman Emperor are passed over for this joyous news.
The shepherds are told in what kind of place the child would be found, how the child would be dressed, but not exactly where. The search would be restricted to the town of Bethlehem that lay at the foot of the hills where their sheep were resting. Interesting that with all the heavenly host filling the sky and singing (oh what singing that must have been and how I long to hear it someday), the sheep are not recorded as running away. The shepherds are not told which stable, so they may have had to search for a while before finding Joseph, Mary and Jesus huddled in a crowned stone cave. These fellows left their flocks unattended, which is unheard of, and may have searched for some length of time to find the family, and then spent at least a little time in worship and talking with parents. Their diligent search was rewarded.
Theses shepherds were also a milepost for Mary and Joseph. Joseph had his faith to believe Mary and the dream he had of the angel telling him that Mary had not been unfaithful and instructing him to marry the girl. Mary had her knowledge that she was indeed a virgin and yet she had just delivered a Son, also foretold by an angel. Now, I know that I have experienced some pretty intense spiritual events, and the next morning I had struggled with the reality of what was certain the night before. Mary and Joseph are nine months into their adventure. There was nothing glorious about their trip to Bethlehem, no private room and doctor waiting. There had been nothing special at all about the pregnancy and birth they had just experienced. Mary must have been resting, and Joseph too both bone weary from the trip and the delivery of the Christ child. They may have moved the manger into one warmer corner of the stable. They may have been resting on piled up hay next to the small stone trough to keep the animals away. Amid all this, they have guests. It must have been an affirmation to both parents that their lives would hardly be normal ever again.
And yet, the visit may have indeed been welcome reaffirmation. Their guests told of angels and promised signs that lead them to the newborn baby. The shepherds searched for a Messiah and King. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. Mary, and probably Joseph too, took these things to their faith as fuel. Their hearts would have been rejuvenated at the verification of their visions of angels, and of the promises surrounding their Son.
The shepherds left the stable praising God and singing praises. The occupation they all had, prohibited them from Temple worship, and yet they knew the songs of praise. I can well imagine as they walked out of town past the full inns and homes that many mistook them for drunks. It seems fitting, since a group of fishermen all speaking in miraculous tongues would one day be accused of the same thing. They returned to their flocks that night, changed forever.
Dear Lord, the shepherds who visited You that first night of your earthly life are storehouses of lessons to each of us. We see their faith, and the urgency with this they sought You and Your family out. The Father send them as reaffirmation to Mary and Joseph, and to us today. Lord, open our eyes and our hearts to all the things you have to share with us in the events that surround your birth, life, death and resurrection. Amen.
Grace & Peace,