Upon reading Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:1-14, (15-20) in preparation for today, I knew I wanted to pay close attention to Mary as this was her moment where she would birth the Messiah into the world. After months of holding this child, the prince of peace would come through her. A great relief, I’m sure, to the mother whose back was sore from riding on a donkey and body tired from carrying the baby for so long.
Imagine my frustration when she gets only one line in Luke’s telling of the story: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).
And it was so. Just as quickly as God says, “let there be light”. And it was very good.
It is important, however, to recognize who the author of Luke does spend time focusing on: Shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night (Luke 2:8).
So, I began to ponder these shepherds. History of scripture tells us the role of the shepherd is misjudged by all outside of the Israelites. To walk with the dirty animals and sit close to the soil, to labor outside of the city with no attention paid at all to you, and work on your feet all day. All these roles were so foreign to the “good life” of the esteemed and high citizens of the city.
And yet, I believe, that the shepherds knew how precious their sheep were to the people of Israel. They treated them as holy sacrifices which brought God near to them and kept the people in God’s favor. Of course, we know now the concept of the “good shepherd”. As the prophet Micah foretold, out of the clans of Judah would be a ruler over Israel and He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord. Perhaps the shepherds hadn’t quite connected those dots, but they knew their job well. As Phillip Keller wrote, “Under one man sheep would struggle, starve and suffer endless hardship. In another’s care they would flourish and thrive contentedly.” This was the role of the shepherd: to draw the sheep near and guide them as a flock.
And so, they were outside the town of Bethlehem, burning the midnight oil. Devoted to their role, honorable in their service, and sturdy in their steps. Imagine how quickly their knees weakened when the angel arrived and drew them near. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see--I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord." (Luke 2:10-12).
The angel invites the shepherds into the great news of God. A Savior, the Messiah, the Lord is for them. And as if to draw the shepherds themselves into heaven with them, “Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" (Luke 2:13-14)
There was no dispute, the shepherds would go. Suddenly they found themselves becoming the flock, to draw near to where the angel led them. They went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger (Luke 2:16). Perhaps, the Shepherds knew this stable having just this morning taken the sheep from there. Perhaps, they knew the trough that they found the child laying in because they had filled it time and time again with food for the animals. Perhaps, this is my imagination, and this was their first time in this spot.
Regardless, they drew near to the newborn laying there, and “when they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child” (Luke 2:17). Suddenly, they become aware of Emmanuel, God with us. God nearer to them than ever before. They know how precious this child of Mary’s is without dispute. These shepherds embrace this moment of God being so close. Soaking in the baby from head to toe to create a permanent picture in their mind. Repeating the story to the young couple in the stable of the heavenly host exulting and praising God. Their work, a pattern of protecting their sheep, now changed to ushering in the last sheep. The sheep who would become the shepherd.
And so “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” (Luke 2:20). Rather than keeping it to themselves, they know and recognize the great joy a shepherd can offer to a flock when they share great hope that came in Christ that day. They draw others near to share in the hope, the love, the joy, and the faith. Knowing that though the story has only just begun this news means God is closer than ever and peace is among them.
My friends, for some of us this Christmas is more isolated than ever. In fact, I’m finishing up this blog listening to the rain on my roof from my bed alone in my apartment. I’m wondering if this spoils our candlelight service tonight. I’m wishing for snow and family and normalcy. And even still, with water falling from above and in my loneliness, God is drawing me near. May we as a flock recognize this great news and greet it with great joy. Even just for a moment, let us allow ourselves to draw near to God and then to one another in whatever form we can.
And, yes, Mary still shows up in this story reminding us of what posture Christmas Eve should bring us. When we hear this nativity story, may we be like the shepherd and may we be like Mary who “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19). God is near. And God is drawing you closer this day through Christ. Amen.