Dressed in their bathrobes and head-dresses and holding their cardboard shepherd’s crooks, the little boys in the Christmas play are more than axillary cast who heard the angels sing, visited the new born baby and spread the joyful news. The shepherds signal the fulfillment of a dramatic promise—the arrival of the Good Shepherd.
At this time of the year we properly celebrate Advent and focus on the wonder of the incarnation. Right up there near the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the incarnation—the Word made flesh. We focus on the new born Savior as the angels announced to the Bethlehem shepherds the birth of the Messiah (Luke 2:11). The long awaited Promised One has arrived and the Magi sought the new-born “king of the Jews.” Savior. Messiah. Coming One. King. Yet, as pastors, we need not neglect at Advent the promised good Shepherd. “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd [pastor] of my people Israel” (Matthew 2:6/Micah 5:2).
What can be learned about pastoring from the shepherd stories about Christmas?
John Taylor, in his Tyndale Old Testament Commentary on the Book of Ezekiel, observes Ezekiel 34:23-24, “These verses seem to abandon the concept of God as the one good Shepherd, as He plans to install His own chosen nominee to act as shepherd for His people.” God does, indeed, declare that he will be Israel’s shepherd: “I will shepherd the flock with justice” (34:16), yet also declares, “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David…” (34:23). Granted that the term “shepherd” is interchangeable with “king” in Ancient Near Eastern parlance, Taylor remarks that the concept of shepherd speaks of the “tender, loving qualities of the God of the Old Testament, and strikes a death-blow at those who try to drive a wedge between Yahweh, God of Israel, and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The only Nativity hint we get regarding the shepherd mission of Jesus is the appearance of the angelic host to “the shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night” (Luke 2:8). As far as we know, the first non-family members to celebrate Jesus’ birth are shepherds. This cannot be mere coincidence. Shepherding was a low-ranking occupation in the culture. “They [shepherds] were, then, peasants, located toward the bottom of the scale of power and privilege,” writes Joel Green in his NIC NT Commentary on Luke. Shepherds certainly represent the opposite pole of power of Caesar Augustus and Quirinius (Luke 2:1). Yet, this Baby would redeem and restore dignity to the vocation of shepherding as it applies to God and his people.
As a bunch of Israel’s “shepherds” went to the dark side in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 34), just as many or more abandoned their shepherding vocation in the Gospels. Jesus often gazed upon thousands of people, remarking, “They are like sheep without a shepherd.” Dangerous wolves would come among the flock of God, the church, Paul warned the Ephesians elders (Acts 20). “Be shepherds!” Paul exhorted. In the USAmerican church there is a complex, complicated relationship between shepherds and sheep, pastors and people, leaders and led. Perhaps Advent is as good a season as any for pastors to “re-up” what it means to be like Jesus, the Good, Great, and Chief Shepherd.