By Stephen Green. (First Published in Christian Voice January 2007)
They were the first to hear. A group of shepherds gathered in a field probably on a hillside near
staying out all night to look after the sheep. We don't do that in
, except maybe at lambing time, and the sheep would not be lambing in the autumn or the winter anywhere. We don't do it and they did, because we obviously don't have the predators they had.
Luke 2:8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
So there they were, and there they saw, then they heard at first one angel, then the angelic host. Out in the field, doing their ordinary work, was where the glory of the Lord came upon them. They were keeping the night watches and as they watched, they saw the unexpected. If we are to see angels, we will normally see them unawares, so this group of men had an experience granted to very few indeed.
9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And who wouldn't be?
10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
This is the first indication I can see in Luke's gospel that the divine message of salvation in Jesus Christ is for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. And it was a group of humble shepherds who heard it first. In them we see an echo of the humility of God Himself, coming as one of us.
11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
We learn nothing of any discussion the shepherds may have had, we just hear their decision. Possibly one at least was for staying put with the sheep, but presumably they worked out that if God was powerful enough and close enough to them to entrust them with this momentous news, and with the directions to find the Saviour, Christ the Lord, then He could also be relied upon to keep the sheep while they went to see. They were doing trust and faith and I like that.
16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.
18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.
So the shepherds are more than dumb bystanders. They have carried a message to Mary and Joseph about the nature of the child lying before them wrapped up in a feeding-trough. Even though her cousin Elizabeth described Mary's embryonic child as 'my Lord', the last time Mary heard the fullness of things like that was when the Angel Gabriel told her:
He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:
And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. (Luke 1:32-33)
That He is a Saviour is of course contained in His name in Hebrew: Yeshua, meaning 'He saves'. Here that meaning is confirmed by the shepherds. And that this salvation is to bring great joy 'to all people'? Even the Gentiles? Even the Roman soldiers marching about outside? This is radical for Mary and Joseph. Almost as confirmation of her own thanksgiving prayer, sung in Anglican churches as the Magnificat, God is taking the foolish things to confound the wise, exalting those of low degree. A stable, a manger, shepherds and a young Jewish girl called Miriam. According to the old rhyme, 'How odd of God to choose the Jews.' Even more telling of God's sense of humour is to choose a woman whose very name means 'rebellion' to bear his only-begotten Son. God making a tabernacle in rebellious mankind. Who would have thought it?
I notice the shepherds made all they had been told by the angel 'known abroad.' And 'all they that heard it wondered.' Is this just Mary and Joseph who have been told? 'Known abroad' and 'all they' seems to imply that there were more than two and possibly quite a gathering in that lowly stable already. Perhaps some women from the inn had helped deliver the baby. Perhaps others had come to do ordinary 'baby-worship' and now found they were worshipping for a quite different reason. As the song says, 'Let's make a baby King!' Maybe a young man, or a doctor had dropped in, or an elderly fellow had popped his head around the door. There would normally be segregation between men and women in strict Jewish society, but in
at that time, who knows? Luke does not tell us, he just says things like 'all they that heard,' and keeps us guessing.
'Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.' I'm sure she did. There was a lot there to think about. Tradition is that she kept these things close, learnt to heart or written down and in time told the historian Dr Luke who recorded them for our benefit.
But what of our shepherds? Their job was done. They didn't know they had to deliver a message, but they had delivered it just the same. They had also seen the glory of God for a second time that night, this time in the person of a baby, just as they were told they would.
So they returned. They returned glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. But they returned nevertheless. There is a time for everything. A time in this earthly realm to spend time wondering and worshipping in the presence of God, and a time to return to work, in this case, to watching over the sheep, keeping them safe.
God has his timing. Go before He calls, and nothing will be there. Go too late, and they will have gone. Go in His time, and see the Christ-child. Equally, stay too long, after God's time, and who will keep those sheep safe?
In an age when too many people yearn for continuous spiritual excitement, let us remember that the shepherds never had a repeat of that glorious night. It happened just once for them. It only had to happen once for them to be able to tell their grandchildren what happened in a field near
'We were watching the sheep, then there were all these angels, and we had to go to Bethlehem, and we saw a baby, just like they said, the Messiah, and we told those already at the stable what we had been told. Then we got the feeling we had been there long enough, so we went back to the sheep.'
And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.