I was nine years old the year I spent Christmas Eve silently weeping in my bed because I was certain that I would be receiving no presents on Christmas morning. I had become convinced that I hadn’t been good enough to deserve any gifts at all. I don’t know what sins I had committed that I thought were so unforgivable. I don’t know where the idea had come from; certainly my parents would never have suggested it. But the idea had been growing until that night when I tossed and turned in my bed, anticipating my sadness and shame when my little brothers began tearing into their presents and I would be sitting in a corner alone, watching. If you can imagine my little-girl’s hopelessness that night, you can also imagine my joy on Christmas morning when, what to my wondering eyes did appear, but a pile of presents just for me. My hopelessness was transformed by what I saw.
In a way, we are all in a similar situation. By rights, we should all be tossing and turning in our beds. None of us deserves the gift we receive in Jesus. But instead, God came to us and gave us a gift meant just for us—a gift of love and joy and peace and hope. And I wonder if at least one of the shepherds, who came to the stable that night so long ago, looked through eyes blurred with tears of relief and joy when he saw the gift that was meant for him.
We tend to have a positive image of shepherds. After all, David was a shepherd. The survival of the flock depended on the shepherd. The shepherd protected them, guided them, and made sure they had plenty of fresh food to eat and water to drink. The imagery of the 23rd Psalm connects God’s care to the care a good shepherd gives his sheep.
Kings and priests were expected to fulfill these same responsibilities towards their people, and the ones who didn’t were considered bad shepherds. There’s a whole chapter in the book of Ezekiel where God chastises the leaders of Israel for being bad shepherds to their people. They had not cared for their sheep. They had used the sheep for their own benefit, but they hadn’t strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bound up the injured, brought back the strayed or sought the lost. Shepherds had a duty toward their sheep, and in the Old Testament world, the image of a good shepherd—one who cared for the sheep and all their needs—was a positive and powerful one.
But by the 1st century, the role of the shepherd was no longer respected. In fact, one writer describes shepherding as a “despised occupation.” Shepherds were thought to be lazy, shiftless, and untrustworthy. Their work with the sheep made them ceremonially unclean. They were suspected, possibly with good reason, of grazing their flocks on other people’s land. In the collection of early Jewish writings called the Mishnah, the writer advised fathers not to train their sons to be herdsmen, because “their trade is the trade of thieves.” Clearly, simply working as a shepherd in 1st century Palestine put a big ugly black mark next to your name.
But it was to shepherds that the angel first announced the good news of great joy. They were the ones who heard that a Savior—the Messiah, the Lord—had been born in the City of David, the Shepherd King, and he had been born to them. This was the crowd who heard the angel choir’s song of benediction: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”
It wasn’t to important people with lots of money and influence. It wasn’t to the “in crowd,” who dressed in the latest styles and lived in the fanciest houses. It wasn’t to members of the most crowded synagogue in town or the one with the most impressive building. It wasn’t even to the poor who were considered honest and hardworking. The angel appeared to some of the least respected people possible. It was a dramatic way to emphasize who would receive the blessing God had brought about—all people. The rich and the poor, the clean and the dirty, the respected and the disrespected; young, old, male, female, Jew, Gentile; the powerful and the powerless, the deserving and the undeserving. “See,” the angel said, “I am bringing you good tidings of great joy for all people, for to you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
The message could hardly have been any clearer if it had been spelled out against the night sky by a heavenly skywriter. And yet, I wonder if, on that starry night so long ago, there might have been at least one shepherd who thought that the gift the angel had announced was not for him. He had heard the angel’s words; the angel had said that the good tidings of great joy were for all people, but surely (he might have thought) that couldn’t apply to him.
I picture him trudging along the dusty highway with the other shepherds as they made their way to Bethlehem. As he walks, he remembers all the times he has fallen short—the times he hasn’t given his best for God, the times he’s let his family and friends and neighbors down. He thinks of the fights he’s gotten into with the other shepherds over who has the best sheep or who was hogging all the greenest grass, and the times he watched over his shoulder for the landowner whose grass his sheep were eating. Maybe he thinks of all the times he has looked up into the night sky and wondered if God was there at all, when he was hurting from yet another insult, shivering through yet another cold night spent alone, nursing yet another pain in his body that never seemed to go away. With all his failings, how could he possibly be one of those whom God favors? Surely the angel’s “all people” didn’t include him.
When he and the other shepherds arrive at the stable, he hangs back, trying to fade into the shadows, certain there is no gift for him there. But as he stands there, he is drawn by the light that spills through the open door. The warmth from inside touches his weather-beaten skin. He hears the voices of the other shepherds, as they tell Mary and Joseph what they have seen and heard, trying to contain their excitement so as not to disturb the sleeping newborn. He hears them repeat the words of the angel, “Fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be for all people.”
In that moment, in the darkness outside the stable, hope begins to stir in him. He creeps inside and sees before him the holy infant whom the angels sang about. As he gazes into the face of the Christ Child, he sees the gift that God has sent for all people. He sees the gift that God has sent for him.
Now, two thousand years later, we come to the stable much like the shepherds. Some of us hear the angels’ words and know immediately that they are meant for us. We rejoice in the great news we have heard, and we make our way to the stable as light-heartedly as lambs dancing beside their mothers. We hurry, anxious to see the one God has promised and the angel has announced.
But others of us come, uncertain of whether God’s promises are meant for us. We know our failings and our weaknesses. We know our doubts and our fears. We come to the stable reluctantly, afraid that we will be turned away where others are welcomed. We drag our feet, knowing that we don’t deserve to be in the presence of the holy child. And yet, we are drawn to the manger to look into the Christ Child’s face. We are drawn by the light and warmth of God’s promise. We are drawn to the stable by hope.
We come to the stable—maybe with joy, maybe with trepidation. But when we gaze into the face of the Christ Child through the eyes of a shepherd, the Good Shepherd gazes back at us. He doesn’t see us only as the black sheep the world around us sees or that we ourselves may see. He sees us for who we are and all that we are—the good, the bad, and the ugly; our faith, our doubts, and our fears; our fleece as white as snow or fleece as black as coal. But mostly he sees us as people of inestimable worth—people God loves so much that God sent Jesus the Son to teach us, heal us, forgive us, and redeem us, so that anyone who believes in him will have eternal life. When we stand before the manger and look through the eyes of a shepherd into the infant’s face, we see there the evidence of God’s love for all people. We realize that when the angel spoke of good tidings of great joy for all people, that “all” included each of us.
This is the sure and certain hope that was given to us at Christmas. The hope that the prophets spoke of is no longer just a promise for the future but has already come to pass. Our hope is not for something that might happen but is secured in an events that have already happened: Jesus’ birth, when God came to us in the form of a human being, his life as one of us, his death that stared down evil, and his resurrection which conquered death. And, our hope is anchored in what will happen in the future: the completion of God’s kingdom here on earth, when Christ comes again.
So, come to the stable. Come and kneel before the Christ Child, and look into his face. Allow yourself to be transformed by hope in God’s promises. For it is in Jesus’ face that we see the evidence that God’s promises are being fulfilled even now. Come and see the one in whom our hope is secured—Emmanuel, God with us. Come and see with the eyes of a shepherd, and feel the loving eyes of the Good Shepherd looking back at you. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young