What’s with the shepherds at Christmas time?
In his biography, Luke explains that after Jesus’ birth a crowd of angels appeared to a group of shepherds out in the countryside and announced to them that the Christ-child had been born.
He tells us there “were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night”. And then, out of the blue, “an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified” (Luke 2:8-9).
The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-13).
And so, these shepherds hurried off and became the first recorded worshippers of God-become-baby.
Have you ever wondered why shepherds? Why didn’t the angel announce this birth to the rulers of the day? Or to the townspeople of Bethlehem? Or the wise men? (I’m sure they would have appreciated a bit of navigational assistance.)
Shepherds would have been (for want of a better term) the working class of the day. Their work would have been pretty thankless, monotonous and then at times dangerous, looking after sheep out in the fields day and night, providing for and protecting them.
So for one thing, it’s oddly fitting that the God who’s first night’s sleep (ever!) took place in a food trough that would be visited by every-day nothing-too-special kind of folk like shepherds. But surely there’s more to it than that.
It’s when you think about when Jesus was born and the way the angels speak about it that it starts to make sense.
Our kids have been born at the very respectable times of 9:30am and 6:30pm—essentially within (extended) business hours. Jesus’ birth… perhaps not so much. In verse 8 of Luke 2 we’re told the shepherds were out in the fields at night when the angels appear to them after Jesus’ birth. And judging from what they say, the angels are pretty pumped. The first angel says he has “good news” that will cause “great joy” (v. 10). Then a whole multitude of angels join in on the celebration, praising God saying:
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” (v. 14)
I take it that these angels appeared to these shepherds because they were there. The angels came to those who were… awake. Remember, the shepherds were the shift-workers, the tradies, the late-night road workers of the day. When God almighty became a baby and all the heavens wanted to explode with excitement, who on earth was there to tell about it? It’s as if the angles looked for the first people they could find near that stable in Bethlehem and lo and behold… it was some shepherds! Everyone else was tucked up in bed.
The news was so good—this baby was so special—that they just had to let it spill to the first people they could find. These almighty heavenly beings were just so determined that this bubba would be honoured by anyone and everyone that they let loose in a field to a bunch of complete randoms and their fluffy (or perhaps flea-bitten) friends.
Have you ever had news so good that you just had to share it with whomever happened to be there?
After visiting his first grandchild for the first time, a friend of mine found himself talking to (and then happy-crying with) a complete stranger on the street!
The angels were no different. And no wonder. More than any other, this baby would grow up to bring “glory to God and peace on earth to those on whom his favour rests” (v. 14). He would honour his Father every day of his life and most of all in the hour of his death. And in doing so, he would win the peace of true forgiveness for all those who follow him.
That’s pretty exciting stuff. The angels were on to something. So this Christmas, let’s join with the angels in joyfully telling anyone and everyone that the Christ-child has been born!