I sat on a hillside one chilly night, out in the country where the darkness blankets the earth like a woolen comforter. Away from the city. No noise. No bustle. No blue-light specials or Black Friday deals. Just silence. Darkness. And stars. Lots of stars.
And as I shivered in the dewy grass that eve, I imagined what that night must have been like, that night when that shepherd became the first to visit the newborn Jesus. Oh, I know, there was more than one shepherd on that Nazareth hillside. But I’m thinking of just that one. The one I can relate to. The one that did what I would have done. I’m sure there was one like you. You know which one I’m talking about.
He’s been nodding off for quite some time. His eyelids dip up and down. Mostly down. He shivers from time to time and occasionally struggles to pull his tattered cloak closer. His breathing is measured as his head tilts forward until his forehead rests on his trusted staff.
He almost misses it. He almost sleeps right through the most extravagant light show the world has seen since Creation itself.
First, one angel — that’s right, live from Heaven — an angel of the Lord appears out of nowhere, steps up to the smoldering campfire, and boldly proclaims his news. Our drowsy shepherd’s eyes fly wide open. His staff clatters away onto the rocky ground.
Then — before he can even breathe — the finale. Darkness erupts into blazing light! And shouting. A noise the world hasn’t heard since God spoke it into existence so long ago. A holy choir of angels shakes the very ground beneath him.
Our shepherd isn’t nodding anymore. Shaking, perhaps, but not nodding. Funny, he’s not even drowsy anymore.
And then they’re gone. Deafening silence blankets the shocked shepherd and his friends. His mouth hangs open in crisp night air. His eyes wide.
Then a bleating sheep surprises the stillness. A stirring. In each of them.
A dream? Our shepherd can’t help but wonder. He turns to his friends. No, their mouths are hanging open, too. Not a dream.
Our shepherd breathes again. Finally.
“Um, g — guys?” Our shepherd manages to stammer. “Did you — I –” His words fade into an incredulous but pregant pause.
Each bearded head bobs slowly in unison.
“Great joy?” he sputters. “A savior? A baby? Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
Even more vigorous bobbing.
He scrambles to his feet, leaving his staff lying in the dust.
Nods, scrambles, the bustling of cloaks and the shepherds scurry down the hillside like schoolboys at recess, bubbling with excitement and scattering shep with eager cries.
What about the Sheep?
I lay in the field that night enjoying the stillness. The stillness the excited shepherds left behind in their rush to the Savior. And I couldn’t help but wonder — what happened to the sheep?
Now I’ve heard it said that these were responsible shepherds. They would not have abandoned their sheep. If one theory is to be believed, the sheep they were guarding were of great value (more on that in the days to come). They chose lots, perhaps, to decide who would stay with the sheep and who would seek the Savior of the world. Or, perhaps, some young lads got stuck with the duties. Certainly, the responsible critics say, these shepherds wouldn’t have abandoned their sheep.
Well, the Bible doesn’t tell us the sheep’s fate. But I do know one thing. If I had been that shepherd, if I had seen the angels, had felt the ground shake with their thunderous pronouncement, and had heard the glad tidings of great joy that fulfilled treasured prophecy, nothing could have kept me away from Bethlehem. Not rain, snow, sleet, hail — and definitely not sheep!
At least I hope not. Some days, I wonder. As, no doubt, do all of us.
What about the Change?
The shepherds heard the news of a Savior. They believed. And, once they recovered from the shock, they moved. I think they trusted the sheep to the care of the Great Shepherd. I could be wrong, but I suspect the last thing on those shepherd’s minds was the sheep.
Salvation had finally come to the world. And they wanted in on the ground floor!
Their seemingly irresponsible actions remind me of another group of irresponsible laborers who would enter the Christmas story some three decades later. They were fishermen. While dutifully working with nets and boats, another messenger called them to come and see the Savior. They too believed. They left their nets on the beach. Their boats stranded along the rocky shoreline.
They walked away from it all. All that mattered was that the Savior had called. So they answered. Cares for the tools of their trade vanished. The Messiah had come!
As we look back on the shepherd’s exuberant response, we see a pattern repeated millions of times since that starry night. It is a pattern of transforming faith. Of salvation. A pattern of redemption for all who trust that the Savior has truly come for them.
God chose to send His message to those sleepy shepherds by way of angelic advertisement. Finally, a way for man to be at peace with God. That way was born that day in the city of David. God called. They believed. They abandoned the cares of this world and ran to their Savior.
They weren’t disapointed. No one ever is. Jesus is always better than advertised.
For our startled shepherds, there was the babe, lying in a manger, just as the angels said. Even his swaddling clothes matched the description given the searching shepherds. The search paid off. It always does. When God calls us to His Son, the Savior we find always exceeds our wildest expectations.
Understandably, the shepherds got a little excited. OK, so they got a lot excited! They told everyone they could find. It seemed to bubble out of them. “It’s the Messiah! We’ve seen him!” They shouted, “He’s here. He’s really here! The Lamb for which we have all waited!” And to the skeptics, they protested, “”It’s true, I tell you. It happened just as we said. And I – I touched him.” Or was it He who touched them that night?
No matter how they told the tale, one thing is certain. Those shepherds would never be the same. The Savior of the world had entered their lives. They responded by glorifying God. What a transformation! From snoozing shepherd to raving preacher. Then concerned only with guarding sheep, perhaps even those scheduled for sacrifice, and now consumed only with glorifying the God who had provided the Lamb for the final sacrifice.
The Christmas Message
That’s what Christmas is all about. That’s the message of Christmas. The call. The Savior. The sacrifice.
And our response.
“Glory to God in the Highest, peace and good-will toward all men on earth!”
The message rocked the placid hillside that night in Nazareth. It rocks the world today. Wherever the message travels, night erupts into brightest day. Shepherds turn into preachers. Fisherman to martyrs. Bitter sorrow into profoundest joy. Darkest despair to undying hope.
When Jesus comes, nothing is ever the same. This is the Christmas message. And it’s for you.