In the story of the birth of Jesus, the Christmas story (the one that doesn’t include a man in a red suit or an animal with a red nose), we witness something that at first glance can seem a little random. The Shepherds are a well-known part of the story, but they might seem to come out of nowhere. The wise men saw the stars and followed it to Bethlehem because of a prophecy. They seem to make sense in the story. But why does the story of Jesus focus on the journey of Mary and Joseph, the journey of the wise men and even the politics of the time and then suddenly include a bunch of Shepherds?
Who are they anyway, besides a bunch of men who look after sheep? The Bible doesn’t give us names, but there are lots to say about the background on these Shepherds and their lives.
I don’t know how many of you watch movies or read stories that are set in “Medieval” times, but I am crazy about them! If you are at all familiar with circumstances or the living conditions of those times you’ll know that it wasn’t easy. The people were tough because their lives were tough, at least for the poor. The people from the rural or farm areas had it even worse. They had to perform tasks that required hard labor and because of their isolation, it was often difficult for them to get supplies. However, a shepherd’s lifestyle was even harsher. They had no set homes like farmers. They just had sheep.
Now, taking care of livestock was quite different to how it is done now. There were no set pastures with sturdy fences and sheepdogs to protect the flocks. The Shepherds were responsible for the lives of their sheep and had to lead them to different pastures that were spread all over the country. They had to find enough water and keep wild animals from devouring members of the flock. It was dangerous, it was tough going, and it was isolated. Because of this isolation, shepherds were often viewed with suspicion. Imagine how fearsome a man must look like after spending weeks away from civilization, with only sheep for company. With a huge beard, long hair and probably a strong smell, he’d resemble a wild man.
In addition to having such an appearance, shepherds were also regarded as ceremonially unclean. This means that they were unable to follow the Jewish laws and rituals because of their responsibilities to their flocks. This made them unclean in the sight of the Jews and being unclean means being apart from God. They wouldn’t have been allowed in the temples and other Jews would have wanted to stay away from them, in case their uncleanness was contagious. Yet they were made a part of the Christmas story.
”And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” Luke 2:8-10 (NIV)
Why would the angels appear to people like these? The pure, radiant, powerful angels of heaven, appearing in great numbers to the shepherds in the field. Men with huge beards, that live lives that are regarded as savage.
“Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Luke 2:11-14 (NIV)
After the birth of God’s Son, it was announced to the shepherds, and a multitude of angels rejoiced in front of them.
Because Jesus came as a ransom for all. For ALL. The good news is not limited to the religious elite or the privileged few who are lucky enough to be born into the right family with the right bloodlines. No. Jesus came to saw all. Everyone. Even those who were outcasts or peculiar or unimportant. Jesus came for the clean and the unclean. Jesus’s birth was accompanied by the proclamation of this message.
“…a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”
A savior, a hope. Someone who came to free the world from the burden of sin. His coming was cause for celebration, not just for the religious elite, but for all, and how the shepherds rejoiced!
”The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” Luke 2:20