And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,and on earth kpeace lamong those with whom he is pleased!”
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
I may be the most famous person you’ve never heard of. At least in the world you come from, my story is well known. But not my name. In fact, it’s likely, at this time of year, every one of you has some sort of commemorative scene or book or statue that’s supposed to be… me. But after a couple of thousand years, a couple of billion people, and countless villains and heroes, it’s no wonder that time has erased the reality of that moment, of that morning, of …me.
I am a shepherd. And I know that as soon as I tell you that, your mind closes. You’ve heard it a hundred times. Your children and grandchildren have dressed in bath robes and played my part. You have “live nativity scenes” with someone who is supposed to be me, but it’s always a grown man with whiskers and a cup of hot chocolate. Time has erased the reality. But since I’m here, and you’re here, let’s chat for a while. It will be brief—you’ve much to do.
The way you would describe us, the way that best captures what our lives were really like, is that we were gypsies. Now I don’t mean racially, but culturally, we were gypsies. My family didn’t own the animals. We were hired by a landowner to watch his animals. Trouble is, the landowner, every landowner, assumed we stole them. Fact is, hunger drives you to do a lot of things you’d rather not do. And it’s not so much that we were out with the sheep on that night, as though the rest of the time we were in our houses. We were always out with the sheep. At least it’s true that we were always out. Sometimes there were no sheep. But we were always out.
And that’s the summary of it. We were out. The Roman folks thought we were thieves, or worse. And the Jewish folks thought we were unclean. In fact, they had a law that said because we stayed with animals that were used in their temple sacrifices, we couldn’t go into the temple. Our place was outside, in the women’s and Gentiles’ court. Well none of the shepherds that night were either. But it’s not really true to think of us as outcasts so much. To be an outcast, someone has to notice you, someone has to regard you if they plan to cast you out. We were really invisible, no named nobodies, with nothing to offer society except to protect the animals they valued more than us. Not outcasts; ignorable sub-humans.
And there we were, “out in the field, keeping watch over the flock by night.” What that means is that we were having an ordinary night in an ordinary way. The sheep and goats were accounted for, we had a small fire, and one of the other shepherds was standing up out by the edge of the animals. It was the most dangerous time, actually, between the dusk and the darkness. It’s the time when the wolves and the dogs and the wildcats are most active. They are hard to see in that half-darkness. They hunt silently, and then you hear the horrible sound of a lamb screaming as it’s carried into the desert. Then the silence comes again. I hate that time of day.
Everyone was huddled down. The fire was just embers, and honestly, I was already asleep. That’s why when it happened I thought it was sunrise. It’s the light I remember most. The light woke me before the sound. For just a few seconds it was that awkward neverland of thinking you’re dreaming about having a dream. But then came the sound. No way to describe it really. It was a voice of sorts; loud and beautiful and scary and joyful . And we understood it. It was the sound of talking, sort of. But more than talking. It’s really like the message went straight into us. Our ears and brains must’ve been hearing and thinking, but the message went straight in. And it said we shouldn’t be afraid! I remember thinking, “Too late!”
The sound, the voice, was coming from a man. But you know it wasn’t a man, and we knew then it wasn’t a man. He was huge, and he was regal, and he was, now don’t laugh, he was glowing. And when he said we shouldn’t be afraid, at that instant, in that moment, we weren’t. The fear just burned off, evaporated like the morning mist that hangs in the low spots of the desert. He told us about the baby and a manger and that the baby was the Messiah, Christ, the Lord. And he told us we should go find the baby. What he didn’t tell us was what to do when we found the baby. Then for a minute or two there were thousands upon thousands of …angels, I guess. They sang, all of them, all at once. And then they were gone. All at once.
It took us no time at all to get the camp secured and head into Bethlehem. But the next couple of hours were pretty rough. The town was absolutely packed with people, caravans, and animals. A bunch of shepherds rushing around in town at dawn looking into strangers’ cattle stalls were not exactly welcomed like messengers from heaven. We took more than one kick, a couple of pails from the innkeepers slop jars, and no small number of threats. We didn’t belong there, shepherd gypsies who live in the desert with the animals.
But we found him—all of the mangers, and all of the inns, and all of the people, and all of the threats, and all of the uncertainty, and all of everything completely vanished when my uncle turned around and whispered to us, “It’s him. He’s in here!” And so he was. Then his mother motioned for us all to come inside. No one else had done that. And as we squeezed in, I remember the smell. It smelled like hay and manure and wood and dust. It smelled like sheep and goats. It smelled like home. In His presence, it smelled like we belonged.
The baby was there all right and so were a few of the folks from the inn. And we didn’t wonder what to do. We took off our hats, got down on our knees, and we told the baby’s father and mother what had happened. And the most peculiar thing of that most peculiar day, was that they seemed to know we were coming. And they seemed relieved when we told them our story. Not surprised, but relieved. It’s as if we had confirmed a message they had received, and they welcomed us to confirm a message we had received.
Now what do we do? Well, we went back to camp. We went back to shepherding. We went back to our ordinary lives. But you must know, that everything had changed. Absolutely everything was new and fresh and filled with hope. The Messiah had come. To us! For us! Shepherds on the edge of town! God had chosen the very ones no one else even saw to tell the news of Messiah. To tell the news to the baby’s parents, in a cattle stall, in the presence of the King. We were unafraid.
I know what happened to that baby. I was actually with my family of shepherds years later on the edge of Jerusalem. It was dusk when I heard it. It was that haunting sound again. The sound of a lamb screaming, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”