Bethlehem is no Jerusalem or Jericho, it’s just a little village with a few houses, a few shops and an inn. It’s in the hills and we have some fields and some sheep pens. Some say our sheep are the finest in the world and you know we grow them for the temple. Do you know the temple in Jerusalem is only 6 miles away?
I’m a shepherd and please forget the Christmas pageant shepherds you have, it was a hard way to make a living. It’s easier for me now because the young ones let us old folks spend a few nights at home. Back in the day, I used to have to work that midnight shift. We worked all night listening, waiting, and watching for any danger. A noise you didn’t recognize would set your nerves on edge because it could be robbers or wild animals. You never knew.
I hated the winters. We would sit around the fire to stay warm and grumble, we’d grumble about how nothing good ever happened up in the hills at night. It was a boring life, sleep during the day, watch the sheep at night, then do it again and again. We all wanted to be anywhere else we could be, like Jerusalem or Jericho where there was markets and action.
Now we all knew Micah’s words about how we were a little clan of Judah and how a great king would be born here. We figured they were nothing but the crazy 800 year old words of a prophet. With the Romans in charge we figured no way it would happen now. So we sat around the fire and told stories about our trips taking lambs to sell at the temple. We would tell others how beautiful the temple was and how the chief priest was dressed and we thought that is where a king should come from.
If we weren’t telling stories, we were complaining. We complained about the long hours, the loneliness, and how we missed our families. We were just surviving. Now you know why you need to forget about your Christmas pageant shepherds with their oversized robes and canes or crooks. Forget about the shepherds that look super clean sitting beside still waters.
I’m telling you we smelled, really smelled. If I would blindfold you and stand next to you, you would think we were sheep, we stunk so bad. What’s a bath? I guess we smelled like many street people of today. Then just like you often avoid your street people today, the fine folks in the town avoided us because they thought we weren’t a part of their world and they thought we didn’t belong. Then to top it all off, we always had to work on the Sabbath so we weren’t what they called “Good” Jews. We were looked down on, it’s like people didn’t think we were a human being.
OK, I’m done complaining because you’re here to hear about THAT night, the night I’ll never forget, the night the angels sang. So here we were like usual, cold and tired, gathered around the fire then suddenly the heavens, the whole heaven filled with life and voices. Everywhere you look there was angels, a host of angels. It was almost like the dawn when light begins to appear piercing the darkness and the colors appear.
Then one of the angels got close and declared: Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. (Luke 2:10-12)
THEN the heavens exploded. It had been bright but now it was even brighter and beautiful music filled the night. All angels were singing, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace and goodwill toward all.” Did you hear that? “Fear not” they said, now talk about an understatement. We were shaking, I mean literally shaking with fear. Now shepherds are tough men, hardened by the weather and the work. We had to be tough since we were the lower class but let me tell you when a bunch of angels are going wild and speaking to us, it was more than we could take.
Let me tell you one thing I learned that night, how to overcome my fears. I mean if you could truly hear those angels, there was no need to fear. God was near. I’m telling you, there is no need to only trust in what we can do, when all around us. God is active and alive. No need to live without hope no matter what, when God’s will is for each of us to have peace and wholeness in our lives.
Don’t let your life be ruled by your fears, let it be guided by your faith. You know that through Jesus, miracles came, that power, or money, or status can’t attain. I’m talking about things that can’t be bought, sold or traded. I’m speaking about things of the heart that come from faith, humility, and love. I know the rich and powerful can hear God’s message too, but it’s harder for them, much harder. Granted those kings from the east did and they worshiped the child, the Messiah.
But it was difficult even for them. All they saw was a star and all they were doing was trying to figure out the stars purpose and presence. They brought gifts yet until they saw Jesus, they truly didn’t have the presence of God in their lives. We were the opposite, you know simple men, the “meek” that Jesus would speak of later. We were trained to watch the world around us, listen for sounds, look for dangers. You sit around the fire as much as we did, you think about life, you look inside yourself, you contemplate life. And that night, we heard the angels. Man, did we hear the angels.
We heard them and then we left those sheep and raced down to see what the angels spoke of. The city was asleep and I don’t understand that they didn’t hear with all those angels singing. But only those with ears hear; only those with eyes see. All around us people just slept through it. How many times have you been so unobservant, so preoccupied with life that you missed a very holy moment?
So we rushed to the stable behind the inn, searching for the manger the angels told us about. Then we came to a strange scene, here is this young peasant couple, refugees from the north, they had come to town for that stupid Roman census, they were sitting next to a manger that had a tiny newborn baby in it wrapped in swaddling cloth. Even the animals were in a trance because of the peace and glow that filled that stable.
Now I had delivered a bunch of lambs, but never in my life was I so affected by the sacredness of life. This newborn, and actually all of life is a sacred trust from the One who created all life. Life is a gift and treasure to protect. Something about a newborn reaches our heart and we think of all the hopes and dreams coming. In that manger lay a new beginning. I know it meant a new beginning, not just for the baby and his family but for all of us.
We knelt and then a buddy gave them a little lamb, and another gave them some fruit. Mostly we stared in wonder. Finally I found the courage to speak and that couple really listened. I told them about the angel, the words of the angels songs, and their message. Seriously, we all felt in that stable the peace and good will that had been promised. Somehow, this couple had made the journey to Bethlehem and despite of the risk, this mother had given birth to this wonderful baby. I was convinced at that moment like I have never been convinced before that we never walk alone. Wherever life leads us, whatever each new day brings, we are never alone because God is with us.
We were witnessing the fulfillment of all God had told His people long ago through the words of Micah. I knew as I knelt in that stable that Micah’s words were not empty because here was the proof, the king we had wanted, for so long. Here was the one who would be a shepherd to our people. He would feed His flock and we would dwell securely in Him.
Years later I heard from buyers who represented the temple that this baby had grown to be a man, a great preacher. Listen to what He preached. He is still talking about people like you and me, not those the world would call great, but all of us who are important to God: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.” (Matthew 5:3-6)
Those angel songs told of a new day, a new beginning, a world where all would be loved and loving. Don’t you remember a few moments in your life when things were never the same after? That’s the way it was that night. The words I later heard from His preaching simply reinforced what God had shown us in that stable. We found a greater kingdom, we were comforted and satisfied.
As you go by Christmas this year, take the time to listen, to look, and to think. What is the essence of what we strive for? Is it not found in that little One who came that night, the One who brought hope and joy and peace? Let the imprint of Christmas change your heart, change your way of seeing, and change your way of believing. If there is one other thing I learnt that night years ago, I learned you must be ready when the angels sing. The goodness of the lord is all around us, if we only listen, if we only look.
Then we will know if the hard crust around our souls can ever be broken. If the hardheaded who know all the answers will ever be challenged to look within. If the hardness of heart that grows cold in selfishness and fear can ever be touched by the grace of His love. If the narrow view of our world can be widened to see as God would have us to see. If such things are ever to happen, it will be when we truly know the One born that night.
Then our lives would never be the same again. Once you have heard the message of the angels of peace and goodwill, you too will live in a new way. In the words of the prophet Micah, “And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.” That baby born this night is more than just a baby, He is our Messiah, our Saviour, our Comforter and our Redeemer. Praise God He sent His Son to us on this night!