Of all the people that God could have sent Jesus’ first birth announcement to it was to a bunch of shepherds on a hillside. At first glance it seems to make sense if only for the fact that it was night time and most other people were probably asleep (I‘m sure that’s what I thought was the reason as a child)! On further examination, the inclusion of these locally based shepherds always seems a clever counterbalance with that of the wise men from the east; in contrast to the Magi’s wealth, status and extravagant gifts, the appearance of a heavenly host (literally an army of God’s angels) to these poor, smelly shepherds really does demonstrate that this birth was to be good news to everyone, regardless of origins or status.
However, there is an even deeper meaning in the presence of the shepherds in the Christmas story. While the wise men highlight Christ’s divinity and kingship, the shepherds are a reminder to us that Jesus was to be our ‘chief Shepherd’. We see these two ideas combined in Matthew 2:6 in the prophecy concerning Bethlehem as the place of Christ’s birth. Matthew brings together the prophecy in Micah that indicates Jesus’ status as a coming ruler, born in the city of David, but he also weaves in the words of 2 Samuel 5:2- that this mighty ruler would also be a caring shepherd to the people of Israel.
Chances are that you don’t know too many shepherds; they’re certainly not as numerous as they were in the ancient world. So what did being a shepherd entail? Well, it was an unglamorous job and often the responsibility of the youngest child so that quite possibly most of the shepherds the angels appeared to were children by today’s standards. Shepherds provided food and water for the sheep, protected the flock from danger by fighting off wild animals and human thieves, and they led the sheep in paths that were safe, keeping the flock together and going after sheep that strayed. This degree of vigilance was a full time job; even at night they kept watch over the flock.
This is the type of shepherd that Jesus is to us. Unconcerned about taking on such a demeaning job, He is content to roll up his sleeves and get in among a dirty and stubborn people. His shepherding role tells us that He doesn’t expect us to have all the answers. Instead, He wants to take responsibility for us, protecting us, providing for us, and guiding us. It is a task from which He never rests.
Lord thank you for your faithfulness to us. Even though we are a stubborn and wayward people, you consider us worthy of your constant oversight and involvement in our lives. We invite you to be our shepherd once again this Christmas, leading us in paths of righteousness for your name’s sake (Psalm 23:3). Amen.