December the 21st finds us again in the Gospel of Luke chapter 2, verses 8-12:
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. 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.”
Pastor Rod took a photo of a shepherd while he was in Israel. It shows the shepherd leading and his sheep following closely behind him. I love that photo. You can almost hear the shepherd calling his sheep. And his sheep, knowing their shepherd's voice, follow him.
A shepherd's equipment consisted of: a goat skin bag to carry food such as bread, cheese and dried fruit, a rod which was a weapon to fight off wild animals threatening the flock, a staff which was used to count and rescue the sheep, a drinking water container, a collapsible leather bucket for drawing water for the flock, a knife, a sling to lob stones near sheep that were wandering too far and to kill attacking animals, and a flute made of reeds to play for his own entertainment or to soothe the flock.
The life of a shepherd was filled with long days of hard, tedious work. It was a 24 hour a day profession. Shepherds had to live, to sleep outside guarding their flock. Shepherding was once thought of as a noble profession. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were all shepherds. Moses was a shepherd, and so was David. And Jesus is the Good Shepherd. By Jesus' day, shepherds stood on or very near the lowest rung of the Israeli social ladder. Rabbinic writings from that day describe shepherds as dishonest, rough and even dangerous. And the nature of their work made them ceremonially unclean. So why were shepherds the first to hear “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people?” Why not the Pharisees or the Priests?
By the time of Jesus' birth, the self righteous religious elite maintained a caste system, with themselves at the top and common people on the bottom. And shepherds were at the bottom of the common people. But isn't that just like God, to tell the least, the lowliest first. Jesus spent His entire ministry with the lowliest. And the religious elite were consistently on the outside, envious of His authority and criticizing Him for spending time with sinners, for eating with sinners. Even Jesus' own apostles were commoners; fishermen, a tax collector, a zealot and more.
Bethlehem was only 5 ½ miles south of Jerusalem, and most of the sheep used in temple sacrifices were from that region. The hills surrounding Bethlehem were prime grazing land. I found different opinions about the time of year this was, depending on which commentary you read. One said because the shepherds were outside during the night, rather than having their sheep in pens, indicates that the season was warm (evidence for the theory that Jesus was born during the Feast of Tabernacles, in early October). Another said that the shepherds worked in that region night and day year round, so it is impossible to draw any conclusion as to the time of year. If we needed to know the time of year, God would have given us that information. The important thing is, Jesus came:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
I looked up my notes from a few Christmas Eves ago. DanMike said that evening that stuck in my mind. I'll try to say it as he said it: The Word became flesh because that makes every infinitesimal speck of our existence related, somehow, to His. I love that!
This is the Gospel, the Good News that the angels announced to the shepherds:
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 2:10)
Here are a few examples of shepherds in the Scriptures:
In the 23rd Psalm, the shepherd's psalm:
"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." (Psalm 23:1)
In Psalm 79:
Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture,
will praise you forever;
from generation to generation
we will proclaim your praise. (Psalm 79:13)
In Psalm 100:
Know that the LORD is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. (Psalm 100:3)
He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40:11)
In the Gospel of John:
"I am the good Shepherd; the good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep." (John 10:11)
Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep. (Hebrews 13:20)
And, again, in the Gospel of John, we are told by John the Baptist:
The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
Now if that isn’t good news, I don’t know what is!
The ornaments that go beneath the tree tonight are a silhouette of the hills overlooking Bethlehem, a shepherd out among the hills with his sheep, and one angel.