“While shepherds feared and trembled
When lo! Above the earth
Rang out the angel chorus
That hailed our saviors birth
Go tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere
Go tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born!”
Few Jewish children at the time of Jesus’ birth dreamed of becoming a shepherd when they grew up. As nomads, shepherds were typically uneducated and regarded as social outcasts. Because of their dealings with animals, gentiles and working on the Sabbath, they were ceremonially deemed “unclean”—prohibited from entering the temple.
Yet on that first Christmas night some 2000 years ago, the greatest news came first to some of the lowliest in society. The poorest and least likely of candidates were made immeasurably rich when they received the most momentous news in history. Not the royals, the rich or religious elite of the day, but common shepherds first received the “good tidings of great joy.” Suddenly in an instant, they would never be the same.
Just look at the contrast in verses that bookend the gospel account. St. Luke 2:8 tells us “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” Exactly what were they doing that holy night? Telling empty tales filled with idle chatter? Sharing off-color jokes? Or perhaps they were bemoaning their meaningless lives?
Just a few verses later in St. Luke 2:20 we read: “and the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen...” So what happened between these two verses in the nativity narrative to transform ordinary, obscure shepherds into some of the first and most effective evangelists?
First, they saw the Glory of God light up their dark world. Then, “they made haste to go and see.” Certainly they were well acquainted with the setting and smells of the stable and manger—but definitely not one occupied by the Lord of Glory. A “king-sized” bed indeed! A wondrous thought—those sinful, rough, bedraggled shepherds humbly bowing before the Lamb of God—“who takes away the sin of the world.” They had nothing to offer Him but their hearts, and the gift they received was one wrapped in swaddling clothes. On that silent night in the least likely place, the least worthy people encountered the “Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
What happened next? St. Luke also tells us that they spread the good news widely to the marvel of everyone. Something supernatural happened to these societal cast offs to turn them into divine ambassadors. Isn’t this the essence of Christmas? God's amazing goodness and grace to the least likely and undeserving, and the light of the morning star penetrating the darkest of hearts? Would not the babe in Bethlehem grow up to teach: "Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and that greatness comes from service? Did not the friend of sinners say, “I have not come to save the righteous, but sinners,” and “unless you become as a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven”?
Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be
Which inspire your heavenly song?
The shepherds didn't miss the real meaning of Christmas because the Christ of Christmas was “everything” to them! They went from “abiding in their fields” to “abiding in Christ,” from “keeping watch over their sheep” to “following the Good shepherd.” They truly experienced “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.”
Today we're so immersed in our materialistic culture, that, like the Bethlehem innkeeper, our lives are too full for Christ. We have so much that there's no room left for Jesus—the only one who can meet our deepest needs.
But when the glory of Christ came to the lowly shepherds, unlike the innkeeper, they had plenty of room for His life to fill theirs. And it didn't stop there. They didn't selfishly keep it to themselves, but they spread the good news everywhere.
In these tumultuous times of social, political and racial unrest, may we pause and remember our true common standing before the Almighty—especially at Christmastime. Let us humbly take a knee next to the shepherds, before the Lord of Glory and trust Him as our all satisfying savior.
Is there room in your heart for the only one who can fill it with forgiveness, healing and peace? Or are you stuck on the 100 mph performance treadmill of life, missing the beauty of the one who went from a wooden trough to a wooden cross to pay the greatest price for man's redemption?
Joy will abound and life will find true meaning when “every heart prepares Him room.” Encounter Him and you will never be the same. Like the shepherds, you'll want to share with everyone the good news that He was “born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth, Hark the herald Angels sing, glory to the newborn king!”