Summary: This series approaches the Christmas Story by examining the lives of those present from a very historical perspective. This is week two focusing on the shepherds.
Luke 2:8-12 NIV
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
Shepherds – Eye Witness News 2
I remember the first time I was chosen to play a shepherd in my church’s Christmas play. I felt great pride being chosen… I felt great pride wearing my father’s bathrobe… bath towel draped over my head… with a handmade shepherds crook in hand. You know some of Israel’s greatest heroes were shepherds… Abraham, Isaac, Jacob… and who could forget David. David with his sling… his aim that was so precise, he was able to fell the greatest giant. Shepherds were cool… and I felt cool… bathrobe and all. But as a child, there was very little else that I actually knew about shepherds… really… how much does any of us know about these guys?
From our scripture text… we know very little. We know that they were there… we know that angels chose THEM to appear to… but not much else is known about them. What was it like for them? We know that they tended sheep, but what did that mean? Were they like farmers? Were they more like cowboys? What IF… what if we could go back… and see the shepherds just as they were. See them in THAT moment… sit with them in the open field and live their lives if just for that one moment. What IF… this story about the angels appearing to the shepherds were not some event 2,000 years ago… but BREAKING NEWS for all of us today? What if?
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Weathered. Hard. Always moving. Always keen. Always sharp. Strong. Laying their own body down at the mouth of the cave to protect their flock from anything that would are harm them. Scriptures remind us how very rugged these men were. Even our Old Testament text today alludes to their nature… Isaiah 40:11 “11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” It almost harkens images of cowboys… of Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, or Marshall Dylon. Men of grit… men of tenacity… men, of integrity. However, even this does not really get us into the true reality of what is going on within our text today. Sure, we can romanticize the shepherds and make them into something noble… however… the truth of the matter is that they were the farthest thing possible from noble in their day.
In Jesus’ time; shepherds -- specifically, hireling shepherds -- had a rather unsavory reputation. The great historian Jeremias writes "most of the time they were dishonest and thieving; they led their herds onto other people’s land and pilfered the produce of the land." They often went months at a time without supervision, so they were consistently accused of stealing some of the surplus. Consequently, the pious were warned not to buy wool, milk, or kids from shepherds on the assumption that it was stolen property. In fact, they were SO mistrusted… that Shepherds were not allowed to serve on a jury or be admitted in court as witnesses, because you couldn’t trust them.
To help put it into just a little more perspective… a Jewish book known as the Mishnah, also known as the largest compilation of Jewish Oral Law, lists the professions of great contempt… to name just a few: donkey drivers, sailors, collectors of dog dung, dice players, organizers of pigeon fights, and shepherds. Let’s just be clear, these weren’t the sort of men that we would expect to be rubbing elbows with angels.