The report from Bethlehem: A shepherd signs in

“Now there were in the same country shepherds abiding in their fields by night….” (Luke 2)

(Herewith we present a report from the youngest shepherd of that fateful night in the field outside Bethlehem, with the occasional editor’s remark in italics.)

I was not supposed to work that night, it being a school night. My friend Elihu asked me to fill in for him.  Now, my father is not real thrilled with me hanging out with some of these characters who work night shifts with the sheep.  Shepherding is the ultimate unskilled labor and only those who can’t do anything else–or hesitate to show their faces in public in the day–need apply.

But Father knows I’m a good student and agreed that we could use the money.

Anyway, that’s how it happened that I had the most amazing experience of my young life.

Did I say I’m only 15? So, it’s not like I have seen everything, but this is surely the high point of my life so far. I can’t imagine it getting any better.

Shepherding anytime is no fun, but at night it is the most boring work imaginable. The sheep are not grazing and not even wandering around. They’re asleep. Even dumb animals know night-time is when you shut down and get some rest.  But, I’m not complaining. It’s a job, and there aren’t many of those around for people my age.

Mostly, we were there to protect the flocks from the wild animals. Several small flocks were intermingled across the meadow. It’s too much trouble to herd the sheep back and forth from their farms each evening and morning, and labor being cheap, there we were.

There were four of us on duty there that night. What were we talking about? I ‘ve almost forgotten. Something about Elihu’s real reason for missing work, I think. Yitzhak seems to think he has a girl somewhere and she sneaks out to meet him when her father isn’t looking. Since Yitzhak has done that a time or two, we teased him about being such an expert on the subject.

Scholars say shepherds in First Century Judea were notoriously dishonest and often disreputable.  It says something interesting about the Heavenly Father that they were chosen as the very first welcoming committee for the Lord Jesus. In a similar fashion, in our Lord’s parable about guests in the royal wedding banquet of Matthew 22, those who accepted the invitation were “both evil and good” (v.10). Clearly, the Heavenly Father is no Pharisee!

The night was dark. I mean, black dark. Then all of a sudden, it was like the noonday sun decided to pay a surprise visit. The world lit up. And this fellow–an angel we realized later, but it wasn’t obvious at first–was standing there in midair about 10 feet above our heads. I mean, just standing there, suspended in space.

I don’t have a history with angels, of course, but if they’re all like this one, they say the weirdest things. This fellow pops up out of nowhere like this and we are all struck stone-dead, and he says, “Don’t be afraid.” Yeah, right. I’d like to see him try that.

Well. He gave us a moment to recover, then he said–wait a minute–Ian wrote it down, I have it here somewhere. “Behold! I bring you good news of a great joy which will be for all the people.”

Good stuff, huh? I mean, you never know about angels. In the Bible, some angels were holy terrors, slaughtering people right and left. So, when they show up, you are not quite sure what you’re about to get. So, people have a right to be terrified at first.

“When they show up.”  Ha. Did you get my funny? Like I see them all the time!

Anyway, this angel had nothing but good news.

He said, “I bring you good news of a great joy! For today a Savior who is Messiah the Lord has been born for you in the City of David.”

No kidding!  He’s telling us of all people! We’re shepherds. Day laborers. Okay, night laborers.  But not theologians or scribes or anything like that.

This term “good news” would become the best one-word description for everything the Lord Jesus did and said.  In our lingo, the word is “gospel.”  Our Lord was to tell the disciples, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). Paul said, “I’m not ashamed of the gospel of Christ. For it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes….” (Romans 1:16).  A good question for every minister and Bible teacher to ask themselves is: Why is this message good news? And then, Do I proclaim it as good news or something less?

Now, the City of David is thought by some to be Jerusalem. But we locals know Bethlehem had that title first because David was a native son. So, when the angel said “the city of David,” we knew he was talking about where we live.

Think of it–the Messiah! He is here. Born this very night! Born right up the road.

The angel wasn’t finished. “Now, this will be a sign for you. You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Well, we had a thousand questions but before we could engage our brains to ask even one, the sky was filled with this heavenly choir. I mean, they stretched out into the distance as far as you could see. It was impossible to tell how many there were. And they were singing, in a way. But not like any song I’d ever heard.

The song was a praise chorus. You wonder, do angels sing choruses? These did. Who knew?

“Glory to God in the highest heaven. And peace on earth to everyone He favors.”

Something like that.

Then, just as abruptly as they came, it was like someone blew out the light and they were gone. Just vanished. Leaving us standing there with our jaws hanging open and no one saying anything.

Okay. What happened next? Everyone wants to know.

Well, after our heart rates returned to normal and we could breathe, we all stared at each other muttering something like, “Did that just happen?” “Did you see what I saw?” “Have I lost my mind?”

That’s when Yitzhak said something that made sense, for once in his life. “Fellows, the angel told us how to find the Baby. He’s lying in a feed trough in some Bethlehem stable.”

“Yeah,” said, Ian, “and wearing those cloth strips women wrap around babies.”

That ought to narrow it down, we decided. There couldn’t be two such babies lying in mangers in our small town.

Nowhere in the story are the shepherds commanded to go into Bethlehem and see the Baby.  The angel gave them credit.. Surely, if right-thinking people knew the Messiah was here, they would go, wouldn’t they?  And yet, in Matthew 2:3, people in Jerusalem all heard the rumors and many learned that “the King of the Jews” was born in Bethlehem, only 5 miles down the road. However, they were not interested enough to make that short jaunt.  Contrast this with the Magi who traveled unknown distances to see the Holy Child. How far would you travel if you knew no more than they did?

We shepherds were asked how we decided about abandoning the sheep to run into Bethlehem. We did talk about it. But it will not surprise you to know no one was willing to stay with the stupid sheep. (I hope you’re smiling.) We were all going to
see that Baby! Besides, the sheep had barely even noticed all the commotion. They were settled down for the night. We could risk leaving them for an hour or so.

So, we ran–surely you don’t think we took a leisurely stroll–into the city. Maybe a mile or a mile-and-a-half. Then, we spread out, up and down various streets and alleys,  peering into stables. That’s another thing. People ask if we didn’t create a ruckus that night as we went searching through those stables. I tell them to think: What’s more natural than shepherds going in and out of stables? No one thought a thing.

Finally, Yosef found one with a small light. He looked in and saw there a young family gathered around a feeding trough. Trying not to create a scene and wake up the baby–it was in the dead of night, after all–Yosef stepped outside and gave the signal we’d agreed on: sort of a hoot like owls do.

That’s how it happened that we visited the stable that night and saw this wonderful little family. Naturally, we told the mother and father about the angels. They were as intrigued as we were. We got the impression they had been feeling mighty lonely until we got there.

Well, there’s not a lot to see when you visit a newborn, right?. I mean, they’re all pretty much the same. So, it being the middle of the night, we didn’t want to overstay our welcome. We offered to help the mother and father and get them anything they need, but they said they were doing fine. They thanked us and we went on our way.

Those who travel to Israel and visit Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity are taken down to a lower level and shown the “place,” the space where it is said Jesus came into the world.  That bit of “space” has been marbled over and prettified so that you have no sense of this being the holiest bit of earth on the planet. But it’s worth remembering that our Lord was born into no marble palace.  Some who study these things say the health threats (dangers of tetanus, etc) in Judean stables are enormous, and that the Father was bringing His Son into the worst nursery possible! Think what that says about His love.

Yosef and Ian didn’t want to return to the field, but were just dying to wake up their parents and tell them what had happened. So, Yitzhak and I took over and went back to work. The sheep were fine, of course, but we counted them to make sure.

Everything was the same as we had left it.

But we weren’t the same. We were changed forever. We can’t quit talking about what we have seen and heard.

Anyway, that’s my report. You may want to talk to the other guys. Yosef and Ian are still telling everybody, so you’ll not have any trouble getting their story.  Yitzkah, you might have to run down.  Look for him over at his girl’s house.  And Elihu, the shepherd who missed out on everything?  He thinks we’ve all lost our minds.

Every generation before and since has been fascinated by that stable scene.  Medieval artists airbrushed out all the scary parts and added halos above or golden plates around the heads of the Holy Family. They inserted cherubic angels and would have made the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce proud. But this was no greeting card stable filled with Disney animals and sprinkled with stardust. 

“He emptied Himself and assumed the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of men.  And being formed in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Wherefore God hath highly exalted Him and given Him a name above every name….” (Philippians 2:7ff.)

Jesus Christ is Lord.  What a Savior.  We praise Him forever.

 

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