By Jon Duncan
Join us online for Centerpoint Church’s Christmas Eve Service, available Thursday, Dec. 24, at www.centerpointpagosa.com.
“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.’ When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.” — Luke 2:8-18.
I think of all the characters in the Christmas story, the shepherds are the ones that we most identify with — simple, hardworking, regular people just doing their job.
Many scholars believe that these shepherds were special — that they were watching over the flock that was destined for temple sacrifice. Jewish tradition was very clear that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem and that the announcement of His arrival would be made from Migdal Eder, “the watch-tower of the flock.” This area was located just outside Bethlehem on the road to Jerusalem. Though we cannot be sure, if this is true, the announcement of the angels would have held perhaps even more meaning for them, and the symbolism is obvious: the shepherds that protected the sheep that would be sacrificed to cover the sins of the Jewish people would be the first to hear of the birth of the Sacrificial Lamb that would take away forever the sins of the world. What an amazing way to announce the birth of the Savior.
And, yet, this is not the only possibility in understanding the shepherds of the Christmas story. Other scholars see these shepherds as just regular, ordinary shepherds who were caring for the flocks that would be part of most families of that agricultural setting. What most of us do not realize is just how shepherds were looked at during those days — they were looked down on by many and shunned by many more. Listen to these comments by religious teachers found in the Mishnah, Judaism’s oldest written record of the oral law on how shepherds were thought of in the time of Christ:
One passage describes them as “incompetent”; another says no one should ever feel obligated to rescue a shepherd who has fallen into a pit.
One teacher documents the fact that shepherds were deprived of all civil rights. They could not fulfill judicial offices or be admitted in court as witnesses. He wrote, “To buy wool, milk or a kid from a shepherd was forbidden on the assumption that it would be stolen property.”
He also notes: “The rabbis ask with amazement how, in view of the despicable nature of shepherds, one can explain why God was called ‘my shepherd’ in Psalm 23:1.”
Shepherds were generally under the ban of the Rabbis, on account of their necessary isolation from religious ordinances, and their manner of life, which rendered strict legal observance unlikely, if not absolutely impossible.
Smug religious leaders maintained a strict caste system at the expense of shepherds and other common folk. Shepherds were officially labeled “sinners” — a technical term for a class of despised people.
(Taken from Alfred Edersheim Collection, 3-in-1 (illustrated). “Sketches of Jewish Social Life,” “The Temple,” “Jesus the Messiah.”)
Shepherds were not popular people, not a group held in high regard. They were part of the lower class that was looked down upon and pushed aside; they were prohibited from attending synagogue and considered by many to be outcasts of the Jewish nation. But even though they were vital to the religious sacrificial system of their day, they were often still treated as just a necessary evil, and as long as they stayed outside the city and didn’t try to mix and mingle with everyone else, they could be tolerated and ignored. The Roman historian Flavius Josephus records the number of lambs that would be sacrificed during a Passover celebration — at least during the reign of Nero — to be 256,500; there had to be lambs available for the celebration and shepherds were necessary to watch the herds that would be taken to the temple to supply that need. Isn’t it interesting that these were the men that God chose to be the very first to see the Christ child; this group of shunned and ignored peasants would be the very first missionaries who would share the greatest news ever offered to mankind.
From the beginning, God has always welcomed the lost, the poor, the unwanted, the despised. Jesus came to seek and save those who were lost — in reality, those who realized that they were lost. Those who recognized that they had nothing to offer, no heritage to boast about, no resources to fall back on, no name to drop or group to be sought out by. God delights in using those whom no one else even thinks to use, to include those that everyone else intentionally ignores. And the announcement of the birth of the Savior of the world was no different. God chose the least likely to carry the greatest message. He included as a top priority those that so many were anxious to overlook. He did what He always does. He did what was least expected.
The message of Christmas is still being proclaimed just as it was on that first Christmas night: the Savior is born, the Messiah has come, the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world has come to dwell among us. Jesus’ mission to seek and to save those that are lost is still underway and is still being accomplished. God continues to reach out to those who realize that they are lost, to those who realize that they have nothing to offer the God of the universe in exchange for their entrance into heaven. People like you and like me; regular, ordinary, hardworking people just doing their best to get through life while making ends meet.
So, where does this story find you? Are you lonely, discouraged, abandoned, ignored? Do you feel unwanted, unneeded, unimportant, forgotten? Do you identify with the shepherds of the Christmas story?
Have you believed the message of the shepherds? Have you recognized the child in the manger as the Savior of the world? Have you knelt in wonder before the child recognizing Him as the only answer to your greatest need for forgiveness and acceptance into the family of God? Take heart, God still chooses those who have nothing to offer, with no claim to fame or credentials to brag about. Join the shepherds in adoration at the manger. Bow down. Believe. Accept. Share the good news. The Savior has come.