Summary: God’s choice of the lowly shepherds, as those to whom the announcement of Christ’s birth came, shows that his love is available to all on the same basis -- faith.
Most people in America are familiar with this passage, even if they rarely crack open a Bible. These verses from Luke have even entered the popular culture, through Linus’ famous speech in the Charlie Brown Christmas video. Every December since 1965, in between televised scenes of the Grinch slithering around Whoville, and George Bailey being saved by Clarence the angel just as he’s about to jump off the Bedford Falls bridge, and Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer running around the North Pole with Herbie (an elf who wants to be a dentist), we have Linus, who discovers the true meaning of Christmas in the gospel of St. Luke, chapter 2.
Now, it’s certainly a welcome change of pace this December to hear the Bible being quoted on television, instead of the Florida election laws. And I’d much rather turn on the TV right now and see Charlie Brown, or even the Grinch, than that smooth-talking lawyer David Boies. But my concern is that with all the annual repetitions, the familiarity of the story of the shepherds can cause us to take it for granted – to overlook just how amazing this incident really is. Because it’s not just a story of God’s love for some shepherds. It’s a story about God’s love for us. And if we consider this story carefully, we’ll see that it has a message of love and hope for each one of us here.
Let’s start by looking at the most obvious feature of the story. Who does God announce the birth of His Son to? Who does he invite to come and see the new baby? A ragtag collection of sheep herders! There is only one announcement of Christ’s birth recorded in the Scriptures, only one invitation from God to anyone to come visit Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus. And that one invitation goes to a bunch of uneducated, smelly, low-class, social and religious outcasts, a bunch of shepherds.
Let me tell you a bit about shepherds. They were the last people you’d expect God to take notice of. First of all, they were religious outcasts. 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, they were out in the fields, watching over the sheep. A modern day example might be a trucker or a shift worker, whose job keeps them from regularly attending church. It wasn’t really their fault. But they were looked down on, from a religious point of view. Whatever might have been in their hearts, they weren’t 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 wasn’t considered trustworthy. And on top of all that, they really didn’t 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 didn’t 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. And 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.
“The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.” – John 10:2-4 (NIV)
Being a shepherd was lonely, wearisome, usually very boring and tedious, and sometimes extremely dangerous. It gave them a lot of contact with sheep, but very little exposure to people. No wonder that David in the Old Testament, the shepherd who became king of Israel, was such an accomplished musician. Many shepherds learned to play the flute or some other instrument, because they had hours and hours with nothing to do but watch sheep eat grass. [Does that make you feel any better about your job?]. Shepherds just didn’t have much social contact. Put it this way – you probably wouldn’t want your daughter to marry one.