This week we are taking a look at the Christmas story through the eyes of yet one more person who got to witness it firsthand. When Jesus was born, the news was shouted from the highest heights, but it was shouted to the least likely people to receive the message. Out of this, God revealed something important to us. Keep reading to find out what that is and what it means for our lives today.
A Savior for Nobodies
Another cold night. Just like the last one. And the one before that. And the one before that. I can’t even remember the last time I was warm. I mean, the sun is nice during the day, but man do the nights get cold at this time of year. I know what you’re thinking: Who would be outside at night when the temperature is like this? Me, that’s who! Me, the guy who does the work nobody else wants to do. Me, the guy who always gets overlooked. Me, the guy nobody ever seems to want around. I’ve got to tell you, the lot of a shepherd is rough.
Every day it’s the same thing. Wake up, try to eat while the herd is still pretty sedate, and then get ready for the crazy town of watering and grazing. Once the herd starts moving, we take them to the watering hole. Getting them there is the day’s first challenge. Let me tell you: Sheep are stupid. Stupid, I tell you. And goats? Trouble with a capital T. Sheep wander into danger without any awareness of what’s going on around them. I once saw a particularly stupid ovine break its leg in a hole you or I would have had to try to step in it was so obvious. You’ve got to constantly keep them away from cliff edges when you’re in high country because if they get focused on grazing, they’ll wander off the edge without hardly stopping to look up. They are stupid.
Goats, on the other hand, they’re just looking for trouble. They’ll put themselves in a remote place and then look at you like they don’t know how to get down. I used to try to climb up to them and rescue them, but they’d hop over me and down to the ground about the time I would get there. Now I just leave them. If they break their necks, it’s their own fault. Of course, the owners aren’t going to understand that. They’ll take it out of my wages. But they should try and do what I do. They won’t though. They all think too highly of themselves. No, shepherds don’t get any respect.
You’d think we’d get a little more respect too. I mean, it’s not like the sacrificial system can function without us. Thousands of sheep and goats get gutted and burned on the big altar in Jerusalem every year. The Lord won’t accept us if we don’t. At least, that’s what the priests keep telling us. But I don’t know. It all seems like a giant waste to me. Seems like the Lord would have given us a better system. That kind of thinking is above my paygrade. Things being as they are, you think they’d give a little more credence to the guys who make the whole system possible in the first place. We should get more respect. Don’t I wish. We don’t get respect; we get sent away. Who would want to be near someone who smells like sheep and goats all the time anyway? No, the reality is that we’re just nobodies. The temple may not run without us, but nobody wants to think about what happens behind the scenes. They just want to enjoy the show.
It wasn’t always like this. At least, that’s what they tell me. Abraham—you’ve heard of him, right?—he was a shepherd. Isaac, his son? Shepherd. Jacob, his son? Shepherd. That’s the big three right there. Those are our patriarchs. All shepherds. But do we get any love for it. Hardly. And there’s David too. The greatest king our nation has ever had—shepherd. Oh, they glorify warriors in his image, but where did he learn and hone those skills? On the battlefield? Nope. In a field. He battled lions and bears to keep his flock safe. He even wrote a psalm comparing the Lord to a shepherd. “The Lord is my shepherd,” he wrote. Now some teachers of the Law openly wonder how David could have said something like that. Perhaps because we’re a whole lot more valuable than you give us credit for. Did you ever think about that Mr. Fancy-Pants Big-Shot? I’ll bet you didn’t. Because you don’t even see us unless something goes wrong. There are temple standards to keep after all.
I really don’t even know when things changed. But oh how they did. No one wants us around any more and not just because we smell—yes, I’ll admit it…we do. Because of the nature of the job, we spend most of our days ceremonially unclean. I think somehow that as we lived out on the margins of society physically—because you can’t very well graze sheep in town—people gradually started to move us to the margins of society mentally. When you don’t see people very often, you start filling in reasons why and most of those reasons aren’t very good. When bad things happen in town, we’re easy to blame because we can be thrown under the herd and forgotten about. Let all of that develop for a few generations and today soldiers grip their swords a little tighter when they see us; women cross to the other side of the street, young boys stare, fathers hold their daughters a little tighter…nobody wants us.
But you know, I think things are going to change. Call me an eternal optimist, but I’m convinced of it. Why? Because He has come? Who? Oh, you’ll want to sit down for this story…yeah, like that. It all started on a night not so unlike this one…
Me and the boys had just gotten the flock settled down for the night. All the sheep were where they were supposed to be. We had rounded up the stragglers. The watch was posted. All the fires were kindled and set to burn for several hours both to keep predators away and keep us warm. We were ready to relax and try to get some shuteye before everything started back up again in the morning.
Do you have moments in your day you try to protect against intrusion? Moments that are part of your regular life rhythm when the pace slows for a minute and you can catch your breath? Those quiet evening hours are this time for us. You might not think it, but a shepherd’s life is tough. It’s nonstop. Again: Sheep are stupid. It’s a full-time job just keeping them from killing themselves each day, never mind keeping them from being killed or stolen, and to say nothing of keeping them watered and fed. We suffer abuse from the elements out in the fields and the abuse of public opinion on the rare occasions we have to venture into town. It gets worse when we camp around Jerusalem like we were that night in preparation for the coming Passover celebration. Everyone would need a sheep or a goat then and they all had to be perfect.
Those few moments between when we got the flock settled and secure and when we started our sleep rotations were the only times we really got to enjoy for ourselves. We shared stories of the day, complained about life, sang songs together, and commiserated over our hard lot. The things that bound us together were highlighted and we became a band of brothers. Anything that interrupted our camaraderie was a most unwelcome intrusion. Our gruffness with strangers in those moments may have hurt our reputation with outsiders, but it protected our sanctuary.
That night, though, the interruption wasn’t one we could scare away.
Elyakim and me were sharing a fire that night on the south end of the pasture. This was fortunate duty as we were nearest the river. Jackals would rarely brave the cold, flowing water at noon. They weren’t about to try it at night. This meant our night was going to be quieter than usual. We needed it too. The last few days had been particularly rough.
I remember the night for how quiet it was. Even the bugs and frogs had gone silent. The two of us were just sitting there soaking it in, the only sound was the occasional crackling of the fire. All of a sudden, we each had a shadow. That was the first thing we noticed. We had a shadow that stretched visibly across the fire. Both of us turned around at the same time and the sky was filled with a brighter light than either of us had seen before. I think this light could have cast a shadow on the sun itself. It was like nothing we had ever seen.
Then, in the middle of the brightness, we began to make out a figure. It was the figure of a man. As soon as we realized that much, we panicked. Elyakim actually fell on the fire and smothered it. He singed his only cloak doing it. We were nearly hysterical as we scrambled around trying to hide from whatever it was. But there was nowhere to go. The light touched everything. There was no hiding from the man who seemed to be the source of the light. He could see us. We had the sense that he could not only see us, he could see into us; he could read our very souls. I can say with absolutely confidence that I have never been so terrified in my entire life.
And then he…it…whatever it was spoke. I’ll never forget the sound. The prophet Ezekiel wrote about hearing the voice of the Lord in a vision he had. He described it like “the sound of many waters.” Have you ever stood alongside a waterfall or perhaps the Jordan at flood stage? Have you ever been near when a legion of Roman soldiers marched past? It was like all those sounds at the same time. I didn’t hear the voice with my ears so much as it was simultaneously filling every part of my brain. It made my teeth chatter and yet at the same time it was as gentle as a whisper. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but I can’t think of any better words to describe it. It was so many things at the same time it nearly overwhelmed our senses even as we could understand every word as clearly as I am speaking to you now.
It said, “Do not be afraid.” Right. Too late for that. At least it didn’t seem to mean us any harm. We kept listening because there was nothing else to do. We couldn’t have escaped it even if we wanted to. It said, “Do not be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Good news. Now there’s something we don’t get very often. Our lives are mostly an unbroken string of “one more things.” We’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Have I mentioned the life of a shepherd is hard? There’s always something else coming and even when things are good, we’re mostly just sitting on edge, waiting for what’s coming next. Good news” Don’t I wish. And great joy? Ha! We keep sheep and goats. Where is the joy in that? I’m ashamed to say it, but I remember sitting there thinking that the only good news that would really be for all people would be the news that that Messiah had finally arrived.
And then the angel went on with what the news actually was: “Today in the city of David a Savior was born for you, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” There it was. Good news of great joy indeed. The Messiah had arrived. I’ll confess that we were skeptical even as the angel spoke, but how could you argue with what we were seeing? The Messiah was here. The One for whom all of our people had been waiting for longer than anyone could remember. The Messiah; the One who would finally rescue our people from the hands of the Gentiles who had been ruling over us for so long. He was going to restore the glory of the nation and maybe, just maybe, that would even include bringing the glory back to our humble profession.
But if this good news got us excited, what came next left us completely baffled. The angel said that the sign for us to find Him would be a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger. What on earth did that mean? Was this baby supposed to stand for something else? Perhaps it was to point us to the newness of the Messiah’s reign? But the thing about strips of cloth and a manger didn’t make any sense. I mean, being born in David’s town—Bethlehem—made sense given that the Messiah was to come from David’s family line, but He was a king. He was a leader. Bethlehem, near where we were camping that evening, was barely a blip on the map, especially when set alongside Jerusalem so near to it. Jerusalem was the city of kings. No king was ever placed in a feed trough at his birth. And infant kings were wrapped in blankets of the softest silk, not strips of linen. How were we to find a king in a stable?
If we thought we were going to be left to puzzle over what all of this meant, we were badly mistaken. No sooner had the angel finished speaking than the light shining around us grew even brighter. I wouldn’t have thought that possible, but it was. Oh, how it was! It was like the whole heaven had opened and the very glory of God was falling down around us. Then came the sound. It was more beautiful than anything I’d ever heard before. It was like a singing that had been going on from eternity past was breaking out all around us. Where there was one figure shining before us, now the entire sky was filled with them. All of them were singing as one, but with such rich harmonies that my mind couldn’t even process everything I was hearing. The words of their song pressed into my very soul and lifted my heart to join with them in jubilant praise: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people he favors!”
It felt like we had been there forever praising the Lord with His heavenly choir. We had been there for all eternity and would be there for the rest of it. And then they were gone. In the contrast between the heavenly light and the brilliant sky beautifully, but dimly, lit by stars we were all momentarily blind. The silence of the night was pressing by comparison with the chorus that had been ringing like a thousand trumpets only moments before.
We looked around at each other for a moment and then did the only thing we could do: We ran for Bethlehem. We left the flocks. We left the fires. We left everything and ran. Fortunately, it was the middle of the night or we’d have probably attracted a fair sight more attention than we did. A posse of shepherds running into town would have set many to panicking. They would have only had trouble on their minds. As we rushed into town, we were looking for a stable—that’s the place a manger would be. As we hustled from stable to stable, we found nothing but animals. There was no Messiah wrapped in cloth in any of them. We were getting more and more frantic in our searching—and starting to attract more attention than we wanted. Finally, we saw it. Right on the edge of town. It could hardly be called a stable at all. It was nothing more than a shallow cave. It would have been sheltered well from the weather, but with no air movement, it would have been bad even for the animals forced to live in it.
Smell or not, though, there they were. There was a man and a young woman—a girl, really. And they were on their knees in front of something that was being eyed by some rather irate goats. It was a manger. And would you believe that right inside of it was a baby, wrapped tightly in strips of linen that had obviously been torn from the father’s own cloak.
I’m not sure how to even begin to describe what it was like bustling into that shelter together. At first the mother and father looked horrified. They probably figured we were there to do them some harm. It’s what anyone would have thought in their place. The father stood up to put himself between us and the child, but I quickly held up my hands to show we meant no harm or offense, and then started to explain how we got there. I didn’t get very far though. As soon as I uttered the word angel, a change came over both of them. It was like they didn’t need to hear anything. Their faces alone reflected that we had said the magic word. The only thing I could conclude was that angels had somehow figured in their story as well.
Then they let us see the child. I know you won’t believe me, but there was something different about this kid. I’m not even sure what it was. When I looked into his dark little eyes, it was like all of the problems of the world began to fade into the background. They didn’t matter anymore. Only he mattered. And I know kids that size don’t smile, but this one did. It wasn’t cute like you’d expect. Well, I mean, he was as cute as any little one is when he’s that size, but it was more than cute. There was something ancient about the look in his little eyes. There was something knowing about his smile. And good too. It was good like nothing I’d ever seen before. Honestly—and stay with me here because I know it’s going to sound incredible—it was like I was looking into the face of God.
As that last thought processed through my mind, I remembered what the angel had said again: A Savior was born for you. Then it hit me: This was the Messiah. The thing the angel said about a child wasn’t mere metaphor. This child—this little baby wrapped in strips of linen cloth and lying in a manger—was the Messiah. All the hopes of a nation were fulfilled in this tiny boy. Yet how could this be? How could this infant bring restoration to the power and position of a people firmly under the boot of Rome? The only thing I could think in the moment was that He was going to do this in a way entirely different from anything we’d known to think to that point. If He was the Messiah we had all been expecting, He was very far from being in any kind of a position to bring meaningful change to the status quo. Maybe…maybe He isn’t the Messiah we’ve been expecting at all. Maybe He’s the Messiah we need.
But, can I tell you something that’s been on my mind ever since the angelic choir disappeared and things got still for a second? I can’t for the life of me figure out why we got told. I mean, this was the Messiah. This was the guy—the kid as it turns out—everybody has been waiting for. He’s to be king in the line of David. Why were we there?
I’m not alone in wondering this either. We were so jazzed when we left the cave in the wee hours of the next morning that we started telling everyone we saw about what we had seen and heard. This just served to draw more early risers out of their homes and we told them as well. The reactions we got were pretty mixed. Most merely yelled at us to quiet down and go back to our flocks. You could tell from their eyes that they didn’t believe us. I can’t say I blame them. A few listened a little longer, but their expression was the same as my own question: Why were we of all people told? Why not share the news with company more fitting a king? This alone proved to be a bridge further than just about anyone was willing to go with us. But again, I understand. If it hadn’t happened to me, I never would have believed it myself. Ever.
So again, why us? The more I’ve thought about that question, something has occurred to me. Would you be willing to hear me out? Here goes: The plans God has for His people are bigger than we think. Here’s what I mean: The angel said that was good news of great joy for all the people. That means everyone. No one was excluded from that. And I know we usually think of “all the people” as really meaning people who are like us, but the more I’ve thought about it, I don’t think that’s what the angel meant. I think it really did mean all the people. And the invitation to us just proves my point.
We’re nobodies. Nobody notices us. Nobody thinks about us. Nobody wants us around. They may enjoy the service we provide, but they don’t want to think about how it happens. Have you ever felt like a nobody? You know, even though we are sitting at the bottom of the social ladder, I don’t think we’re the only people who feel like nobodies. One of the advantages of being someone everyone overlooks is that you get the chance to watch a lot of people without their realizing it. Something I’ve noticed is that everybody feels like a nobody every once in a while. Everybody does. We may not want to admit it because it’s not a very pretty feeling, but at some point, we all wrestle with the question of whether or not we matter, of whether or not anyone would really notice if we were suddenly gone. Do I have you depressed yet? I don’t mean to, but it’s just true.
But here’s the thing: If us nobodies were the somebodies God decided to give the first opportunity to lay eyes on the Messiah, that says something about what He thinks about us. You can tell a lot about someone by how they treat the people they don’t have to be nice to. God doesn’t have to be nice to anybody, but especially people like us. And yet, again, we got first crack at this kid, Jesus, who is the Messiah. Don’t you see what this means? It means you don’t have to be a somebody in order to know Jesus. The Messiah, this Jesus, really did come for everybody. This really is good news of great joy for all the people. Every single one of them. Even the nobodies. Even nobodies can know Jesus.
Listen, I think I’ve already made it abundantly clear that our lot is a pretty rough one. Nobody aspires to be a shepherd. We wind up here because we can’t get accepted anywhere else. You may or may not feel like your life has taken that kind of a path to get where you are today, but whether you do or whether you don’t, you can know Jesus. Even nobodies can know Jesus. I know that because I am, and I do. The real question here is whether or not you do too. Maybe you do and good for you. But maybe you don’t. And I don’t know what the reason for that is—and if I were you, I’d probably think it was a good reason too—but I’m here to tell you that no matter what it is, you can. Even nobodies can know Jesus. And if nobodies can, everybody can.
The angels were as clear as they could be that night: This is good news of great joy. It’s good news of great joy for everybody who knows Him. And no matter who you are, you can know Him. Even nobodies can know Jesus. Even nobodies can know Jesus. I hope you’ll know Him.