I would like to share with you the third of my Christmas posts from December, 2011. It has been updated slightly. This December 12-14 is the final production of our church’s “This Very Night” – ten wonderful years!
Luke 2:8 says, “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” (NIV)
In the narrative of the birth of Christ, the shepherds played a significant role. But what do we really know about them? Why did God choose shepherds to be among the first individuals to witness the birth of the Messiah?
For the past ten years our church has presented “This Very Night”, a pageant of drama and music portraying the events surrounding this historical event. While the entire presentation is captivating and moving, people are especially struck by the realism as peasant people of the day walk in with live animals – chickens, goats, a rabbit, a duck, and sheep. As the narrator recounts some of the Biblical account, sheep are “Baaaa…ing” in the background and while it is comical, it makes the story spring to life. Another highlight is seeing our precious little children dressed up in shepherd and angel costumes and singing with great enthusiasm. Most of them know every word!
Shepherds are referred to many times in Scripture. One of the first professions recorded in human history is that of the shepherd, Abel (Genesis 4:2). Other well-known shepherds were Abraham, Lot, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Joseph, David, and Amos. In the Old Testament times, shepherding was a respectable, though humble, calling and sometimes a source of great wealth (Genesis 13:2-6). It was often a lonely and solitary life as they would spend many days, nights, and weeks in distant fields and hillsides tending to their flocks. Since sheep are totally dependent on their shepherd, unable to care for themselves, the welfare of a flock was subject to the attentiveness and caring nature of this person. A dedicated shepherd was willing to risk his own life for his flock by fighting off predators and rescuing lost or wounded sheep.
In the time of Jesus’ birth, however, shepherds were a despised class of people, had a bad reputation as being dishonest and thieves, and were considered “unclean” by Jewish religious leaders. As such, they were unable to observe certain ceremonial rites and could not testify in court. We don’t know if the shepherds in Luke’s account were of such reputation, but they would, at the very most, be looked down upon and treated with suspicion.[i]
This makes me wonder why God would choose for them to be the first to hear of the birth of Christ, the Messiah. Did they know anything of the Old Testament prophecies that caused them to be more open to the good news the angels told? Or were they just curious? Shocked that the angels would appear and speak to them?
What we do know is the shepherds recognized this message came from the Lord, they hurried to find and visit the baby, and then spread the word about Jesus to anyone who would listen. The result…all those who heard the message were amazed at what the shepherds said. (Luke 2:8-18)
I find it very significant that when Jesus grew up and began to minister, He often used sheep and the shepherd to teach people valuable lessons about their relationship between God and themselves. He even referred to Himself as “The Door”, “The Gate”, and “The Good Shepherd” who would give His life for the sheep. Those who choose to believe in Him will have forgiveness of sins and eternal life. (John 10:1-30)
These lowly shepherds who were the first to visit the infant Jesus would later be restored to a place of honour by the Good Shepherd as He repeatedly used this powerful analogy to lead His own flock of believers and disciples. Before He returned to Heaven, Jesus passed along this ministry to Peter saying, “Feed my lambs and take care of them.” (John 21:15-16) As a follower of Christ, I also have this responsibility and it is one I take very seriously and have dedicated my life this calling. It is an honour to be given the opportunity to shepherd some of God’s flock here on earth!
Here is another of my favourite Christmas carols:
While shepherds watched
Their flocks by night
All seated on the ground
The angel of the Lord came down
And glory shone around
Until next time,