Summary: The story of the Shepherds reminds us that to find the heart of Christmas we must look beneath the wrapping paper.
The last few embers of the fire are dying out. The air hangs heavy with a silence broken only by the occasional bleat of a lamb. Huddled together for warmth, the shepherds are alone with their thoughts. Each one scanning the horizon. Looking. Perhaps casting a longing eye to the distant lights of Jerusalem. The golden trimming of Herod's temple twinkles in the moonlight. One day the sheep, they watch, are destined to make that journey through the temple gates. But these shepherds never will. While only a few miles away from the center of their faith, cultural taboo and religious law keep these men from ever joining the throngs of happy worshippers. They are outcasts on the low end of the social scale. They are reduced to always being on the outside looking in. With a sigh they pull their cloaks close about them and settle in for another long night.
In the distance the song begins low. A smudge of light appears upon the horizon. It grows brighter and brighter. More and more intense. The gentle song whispers in the olive trees. The words taking shape in the night air. At first the shepherds shrug it off as the last vestiges of a too sweet dream. But as song and light increase, sleepy eyes are rubbed to behold the radiance.
Suddenly the evening explodes! Shock and surprise reduce these brave guardians to cowards. They try to retreat into the ever-shrinking shadows. They huddle together now not for warmth - but for security. They are afraid. With a fear none of them have ever known. They await whatever sentence is about to overtake them rooted to the spot.
Then a strong, yet warm voice breaks their paralysis. "Do not be afraid!" Covered eyes are uncovered to behold the one who speaks. Standing in their midst is one of the holy ones of God. The glow of glory etched in gold around his wings. "Do not be afraid!" While easier said then done, the shepherds turn questioning faces to this angelic messenger. "I bring you good news of great joy...today a Savior has been born to you."
Then, if it were possible, the sky grows even brighter with the glow of thousand upon thousands of angels in massed chorus. Their praises reach into every fiber of the shepherds' being. Their very souls vibrate with the sound of the angels singing. "Glory to God in the highest! Glory to God in the highest!" The men listen in rapt silence as the song fades into the night. Soon even the glow subsides. Leaving one last flicker upon the hillside. The message of Christmas has been delivered.
I wonder how reluctant those shepherds were to leave that hillside? The sheep no longer mattered. But the afterglow must have had a tight rein upon them. They must have wanted to milk the experience for just a little bit. It's understandable. Looked down upon by all who saw them - God had looked at them. Overlooked by the world at large - God had chosen them to receive good news. They had received an audience with an angel and a private concert to boot. Their faces were still warm from that heavenly light. No, I couldn't blame them for soaking up the ambience for a little while. To bask in the glow. It would have been easy to stay. But the true glory awaited.
Finally one of them said: "Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened." So off they go leaving their sheep to the care of God. Running across fields and through streams; up one hill and down the next; lungs on the point of bursting. Soon they arrive at the gates of the town of Bethlehem. Even at this late hour, the place is alive with noise and light. Filled to overflowing with those awaiting the census - the scene is one of barely controlled chaos. People and animals litter the streets. No one has time for a group of obviously drunken shepherds who have deserted their posts. Such wild stories they tell of angels and songs and saviors. Under the gaze of a skeptical world - their tale does begin to sound a bit strange. Could it all have been a dream? A leftover from that last drop of wine taken at dinner? Perhaps they should return to the hillside where it had all began. Subdued they turn to depart. What did they really expect to find?
Just outside the city gates there is a small cave used to shelter animals from the cold. A small campfire flickers in the opening. A solitary figure keeps watch. Lost deep in their own thoughts the shepherds barely notice as they pass by. Then suddenly the night explodes once again as the shrill cry of baby splits the night air!