“Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”
So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds.” Luke 2:18
I was on the roof of a commercial building, many years ago, while it was being roofed. I will never forget the roofer, covered in sweat and tar and dirt, told me an amazing fact about his chosen trade: “You have to have a strong back and a weak mind” he said. It is thankless, hard, hot work, if not exactly mentally challenging (with apologies to any roofer friends out there). And I imagine the life of a sheepherder being about the same. I mean, they live with sheep, eat with sheep, bathe with sheep, sleep with sheep. And the hours of drudgery and toil cannot be exactly stimulating – do they, too, need a strong back and a weak mind (with apologies to any shepherd friends)?
So there they were, bedded down with their sheep after another long day in the field. They probably were telling stories and rude jokes while they ate their hummus and pita. And every night they lay out under that big star-filled sky. They must have known by heart what to expect when they looked up – the stars never change their patterns, they are always reliably where they are supposed to be. All was peaceful and their only fear should have been a predator on the ground – maybe a coyote lurking nearby hungry for a lamb chop. Not much changed in their lives. Their expectations, hopes, dreams – and fears – were as reliable as the starry night above them.
Except for this night. The sky was ablaze with… something? An amazing luminous creature, unimaginably bright and stunning, filled the sky. They were terrified – scared out of their wits. Fully prepared for a predator attack on their flank there was nothing in their experience to prepare them for an air attack. They had no defenses, no way to counter. Their strong backs couldn’t help them now, their simple minds couldn’t process and overcome the spectacle.
And then it spoke. And it turns out that angels are as reliable as the stars, too, for it said, like all angels before and since, “Do not be afraid.” Because angels know they are a little intimidating and they are quick to disarm and reassure whoever they happen to be visiting. Or so I am told and so it seems throughout recorded angel history. And when angels appear it is always with big news – they don’t stop by to chat. And tonight was no different. The news that was delivered to these simple sheepherders was the single most important message in the history of mankind.
So why these rough and tumble, down and dirty shepherds? Shouldn’t the news have been delivered to the religious leaders? Shouldn’t those in charge – Caesar and the local Governor – been put on notice first? What about the powerful business leaders, the movers and shakers, why were they left out in the dark? The people with the least influence, the fewest resources, the most minimal skillset were the first to hear that all of mankind was about to be introduced to the savior of the world.
And I find that reassuring. Because once again in the story of Christmas we find that humility is a virtue, perhaps the most useful of all. A humble person knows when to be afraid, knows when something is beyond their ability to understand. It is the simple, the weak, the downtrodden, the forgotten that seemed to get remembered in epochal events. Caesar was luxuriously and confidently asleep in his palace bed when God announced his son’s birth – to guys laying in the dirt with sheep. The shepherds didn’t try to leverage the news for their benefit, didn’t try to cash in. Because that same humble attitude is also an obedient one. And the rich and powerful and influential and religious would have elevated themselves to be the focus of the event.
The shepherds quickly overcame their fear, listened to what the angel instructed, enjoyed the heavenly choir’s song (!) and sprang to action. They ran. They left their sheep, their fields, their reliable life and ran. But they did not run away from that which originally made them afraid – they ran towards that good news that had been delivered to them. And having found Jesus just as they were told they believed – and spread the word.
I hear a lot of fear expressed this time of year. Afraid Uncle Bob won’t like his gift. Afraid the plane will be delayed for snow. Afraid the turkey will be dry, we won’t get it all done in time, didn’t mail cards to everyone. Afraid the credit card will be declined, and UPS won’t make it by Friday. And it’s a shame. Because the only thing to be afraid of at Christmas is that all that fear causes you to miss what the shepherds saw, what they heard, how they responded. They were afraid when their simple world was upended. But they overcame that fear, tossed aside their trivial life.
And ran to Jesus.
So much for a weak mind.