Summary: A contextual Christmas Eve meditation on the birth of Jesus from the perspective of the shepherds- based on an article by Doug Greenwald
Born Identity: Savior
When Luke tells us in 2:8 that there “were shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night”, he is giving us clues about when Jesus was born and why he was born. Any first-century Middle Eastern villager reading this text would wonder why sheep were in the fields at night. Normal practice would to keep the sheep in sheepfolds at night for protection. Furthermore, sheep were not allowed in the wheat fields around Bethlehem because they would trample the grain thus lessening the harvest yield. So what is Luke telling us with these seemingly innocuous details?
What might have caused the shepherds to keep their sheep out in Bethlehem’s fields that birth night? Two possibilities are suggested. These herds were too large to fit in even the largest of sheepfolds and it was birthing time for the sheep. There is strong indication from the Mishnah3 that these sheep in Bethlehem’s fields may have been one of many large Temple flocks kept in the greater Jerusalem area (remember Bethlehem is only 6 miles south of Jerusalem. Some estimates suggest that 200,000+ newborn Pascal lambs were needed every year for Passover sacrifice because the influx of pilgrims at Passover from all over the world was several times the population of Jerusalem. Consequently, Temple flocks had to be enormous in size for tens of thousands of lambs to be birthed each year. Since no one field could hold all these sheep, they were dispersed to various fields around Jerusalem. Yet even these dispersed flocks were so sizeable that no sheepfold was large enough to hold them for night-time protection. So on the same night that Jesus – the Lamb of God – was born, most likely Pascal lambs destined for the Passover sacrifice were also being born in Bethlehem’s wheat fields. The connectedness of Christmas and Easter is already established, the very reason Jesus was born to die.
The “Good News” of the birth of Jesus was first announced to these Temple shepherds. Now shepherding was viewed as a despised profession – one scorned by observant Jews as unclean.6 There were also rabbis during this time who held that shepherds, because of the wandering trespass nature of their profession, could never be forgiven because they could never make retribution for the grasses their flocks ate (stole) from someone else’s land.7 The religious culture of that day therefore considered the shepherds reprehensible people practicing a shameful profession. It was to just this kind of a hopeless person living in chronic, cultural shame that God directed the angels to announce His incredible Good News! These Temple shepherds were expected to provide 24/7 watches over these flocks and the Pascal lambs being born to ensure their unblemished nature and suitability for Passover sacrifice. How ironic that these very same Temple shepherds nevertheless decide to leave those Temple sheep and newborn lambs to come and pay homage to the newly-born perfect Pascal Lamb who would also be sacrificed without blemish.
Now fast forward with me to Palm Sunday. In the year that Jesus died, He was crucified on the 14th day of Nisan (a Thursday).8 That meant that Palm Sunday was the tenth day of Nisan, the very day “that the thousands of Passover lambs that were to be sacrificed were taken up to Jerusalem and kept for three days in the homes of those who were to eat them.”9 Thus on Palm Sunday when entered Jerusalem, Passover lambs were simultaneously entering the city gates and crowding many of Jerusalem’s streets. On that remarkable day, both Jesus and thousands of Passover lambs shared the same thing in common – both were going to be sacrificed four days later.
These shepherds, despised and forlorn because of their shameful profession, started that day thinking that it was like every other day. But now they unexpectedly leave their flocks and go into Bethlehem only to find a baby lying in a manger, the lowliest of circumstances. How appropriate, then, that Jesus’ birth was first announced to shepherds earning a subsistence living in a shameful profession, and 33 years later this baby would die on a shameful Cross. And for much of His 3 year ministry, Jesus lifted people out of the shame to which the religious culture had relegated them. In rescuing these marginalized “outsiders” from their respective prisons of shame, Jesus gave them a hope and a future. As He did so, He also invited them into a new community of restoration (salvation) – The Kingdom of God. For these people, mired in culturally imposed shame and with little or no hope of ever being set free from it, this truly was “Good News!” This night, it was a child who taught the shepherds what this night was really about.
Jimmy Gupton tells of when he was 93 and ready to go on home to God. For the 1000th time, he had prayed for God to take him home. His wife had been gone for 7 years and it was getting harder and harder to go through the motions of the holidays. He had a big silver Christmas tree in the attic but attaching the 150 branches was a big job and it was almost impossible for him to see the holes to insert the branches. So he had just left it in the attic, packed away for several years. His family was pressing for him to move in with them but he just couldn’t leave his home and lose his independence. As he sat down and watched the news, he saw a story on the Salvation Army shelter in downtown Charlotte. There were over 200 women sleeping in the shelter, “out of work and out of hope.” Jimmy wanted to help but he didn’t have much money. He turned off the lights, said his prayers and then climbed into bed. But instead of falling asleep, he kept seeing the women at the shelter. “Those women were needing help, just like me,” he thought. And then an idea came into his head. What if two needy folks put their needs together? What if one of those women moved in and took care of the house in exchange for a place to live?