Some people are born outcasts. Others have the label of “outcast” thrust upon them.
There’s a reason why the Christmas song talks about “certain poor shepherds.” They weren’t just broke, though the job didn’t pay much. They were outcasts, the lower rung of society.
Even in the first century they wouldn’t have been highly respected. Even in today’s world, working with animals isn’t always a privilege. I remember a young lady starting college to become a veterinarian. It sounded so great on the surface, right? I mean, who wouldn’t want a job where you spend all day, every day, playing with puppies? This young lady knew better, of course—but I still told her to give me a call when they have to work with cows and horses and she realizes what that elbow-length rubber glove is for.
I was kidding, but only partially.
WHO WERE THE SHEPHERDS?
Even in the first century, shepherds weren’t well-respected. In Luke’s biography of Jesus, he tells us that among the first to hear about Jesus’ birth was a gathering of shepherds:
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. (Luke 2:8)
Let’s not mince words, here. These weren’t sheep being raised to make sweaters for the local Nautica outlet. The ancient Jewish writings talked about the need to raise sheep—a lot of sheep—in preparation for Jewish sacrifices, particularly that of Passover in the Spring. These shepherds would have been taking care of sheep that would eventually make their way to the temple, which during the Passover season would probably have more closely resembled a slaughterhouse. Talk about your dirty jobs.
THE ANGEL’S ANNOUNCEMENT
We can only imagine their surprise when they are greeted with an angelic visitor. If you read carefully, you notice that at first only one angel appears to make the initial announcement:
9 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. 10 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. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:9-12)
What sort of “sign” is this? There’s probably nothing significant to the idea of a “sign;” most likely it’s meant to simply confirm that this is the baby they’d been looking for. Still, it’s somehow fitting that a group of shepherds would find a baby laying in a manger—an animal’s feeding trough.
Luke goes on to describe how the sky now exploded with an angelic choir:
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13-14)
And here we have the two distinct sides of Christmas: the king of kings, Lord of Lords, God made flesh—yet found lying in a manger in a pile of dirty hay.
Jesus was God in the flesh, yet he spent so much of his time among the lowly, the outcasts—people just like the shepherds.
People just like you and me.
IT COMES TO PASS
The story wraps up with the angels departing, and the shepherds arriving at the manger:
15 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.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:15-20)
Interestingly enough, the shepherds became the first “missionaries,” so to speak. They were the first to spread the word of Jesus’ arrival.
But what’s also interesting is that these shepherds were out of a job—or at least they would be in thirty-odd years when the Lamb of God proclaims: “It is finished.” Jesus’ birth heralds his death. It heralds the death of all death, in fact. Though these shepherds raised sheep for religious slaughter, Jesus’ death would wipe away sin in a way that no other blood could. And that’s how there can be “peace on earth” as we’re fond of quoting the angels as saying. Even the outcasts can be confident that new life is available to them, even a life that begins as just a little child, asleep there on the hay.