We sang it just two nights ago: While shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground, the angel of the Lord came down… “Fear not,” said he, for mighty dread had seized their troubled minds; “glad tidings of great joy I bring to you and all mankind…”
We read together the shepherds’ emotional reaction to the angelic announcement and chorus: …and they were terrified.
We discover their immediate and subsequent actions: “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about…” When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child…
We know enough about shepherds in first century Israel to wonder at God trusting them with the most amazing news flash in all of history. One authority says they were “despised in everyday life.” By the time of Jesus, rabbis banned pasturing sheep and goats in Israel except on desert plains. The Mishnah, Judaism’s written record of the oral law, stated that one should never feel obligated to rescue a shepherd who had fallen into a pit. Another historian documents that shepherds were deprived of all civil rights and could not be summoned into court as witnesses. Generally, by law and by custom, shepherds were labeled as “sinners”—a technical term for a class of despised people. Opinions differ and speculations abound about why these reviled people were the recipients of this greatest news.
But I have another question: what did the shepherds do after they “spread the word”? These men couldn’t leave their sheep too long as they were solely responsible for the animals’ welfare. They were already living below what we euphemistically call the “poverty level” and people in that class—then and now—relinquish the privilege of option. Would you believe a scruffy homeless person reeking with pungent body odor who related such a tale?
Is there a story tucked into and under the story that Luke tells? All else is irrelevant when compared with the “greatest story ever told,” but I wonder what else God might be whispering on this second day of Christmas. Who are the shepherds in my life? Do I even stop long enough to hear what they’re saying? Do they come in the guise of children? Might I hear their news in a media report? Should I be looking for them in pictures of anguish that scar my soul? Or do I look away, turn my head, plug my ears?
What angelic message might I be missing?