Summary: This is an examiniation of the life of shepherds to discover the role and responsibilities of the church in the times in which we live.
I want to take this passage of scripture from the pages of the Christmas Lectionary. Allow me to take a winter passage and expound upon it this summer. A traditional Yuletide text and expound upon it this summertime, this passage for the cold days of December and lift it up for us this hot day of July. Perhaps by examining this text with the Air conditioner rather than the heater, we will be able to see something fresh in this passage.
Although this passage is tells the story of the circumstances in which our Lord was born, it may also serve as a basis for the role of the church in endeavorin to handle some of our contemporay problems. It is night in the text; it is also night in our world, and the darkness is so deep that we can hardly see which way to turn. As we face uncertainity in our country we can’t find our way. There is uncertainity in the political world, uncertainity in the economic world, uncertainity in the religious world and uncertainity in our personal world. We can even see who to trust or who to follow. Political leaders have abandoned the masses, and our system of government seems to be for the rich people by the rich people, leaving the common people in a state of darkness. It is night.
As in the text, so in our world today, the deep darkness of night is interrupted by the sound of angels singing. This band of angles is singing to the glory of God. They tell a group of shepherds to fear not. What a wonderful passage when we can put ourselves in the place of the shepherds. They are the ones that receive the good tidings of great joy. They are the ones that have the privilege hearing the angels speak and sing. The question is why did God in his Sovernity chose them rather than Royality or even Merchants, but some night-shift shepherds. Let us examine shepherds and perhaps we can discover the quailities that God saw.
A shepherd pastures or tends a flock. Abel is the first shepherd is mentioned in Bible. Abel the son of Adam and Eve whose sacrifice was acceptable. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jacob’s sons were all shepherds. Because they were shepherds they were not allowed to dwell near the Egyptians, because they considered the shepherds unclean (Gen.46: 34). First, they were religious outcasts, they were considered unclean. According to Jewish religious law, these men were unclean. Their line of work prevented them from participating in the feasts and holy days that made up the Jewish religious calendar. Why? Well, somebody had to watch the sheep. When everyone else was making the trip to Jerusalem to make sacrifices at the temple, or to participate in one of the annual feasts, shepherds were out in the fields, watching over the sheep.
Shepherds were lonely people. They spent weeks away from the cities, camping out in the fields with their sheep. They had to keep moving to keep the animals on fresh pasture. They were rough, uneducated men, accustomed to hard life. Most were illiterate and unrefined. People in the cities looked down on the shepherding life. Shepherds could not keep the ceremonies and traditions of the scribes and elders of Israel. They were not allowed to serve in the courts as witnesses because of the rough lives most of them lived. The Talmud stated, "No help should be given to heathen and shepherds." Shepherds had a lowly position in society.
In addition, shepherds were looked down on, from a religious point of view. Whatever might have been in their hearts, they were not able to participate fully in the religious life of the community. Not only that, but shepherds were borderline social outcasts. Since they were constantly on the move to find new pasture for their flocks, they were looked on with suspicion. Kind of the way people today might look at gypsies, or carnival workers. They were often accused of being thieves. If something came up missing - it must have been those shepherds. They were not permitted to give testimony in a legal proceeding, because their word was not considered trustworthy. On top of all that, they really did not have much contact with other people. Most of the time, they were "living out in the fields" (v. 8). This was not a 40-hour a week job. They did not come home at night. They were with the sheep 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. During the day, they led the sheep to grass and water. They watched while the sheep grazed. They kept an eye out for predators like wolves. Therefore, at night, they actually slept in the sheep pen with the sheep to guard against theft and animal attack. A good shepherd could identify each one of his sheep by sight. He knew his sheep and they knew him.