An angel brought an unusual message to a group of shepherds in the night, somewhere near Bethlehem. They were watching a flock of sheep who were bedded down in a field, not in a stable or sheep cote. A little history lesson – sheep were allowed in cultivated fields twice a year, after the fields had been harvested and after the poor of the community had gleaned the fields. Other times they were elsewhere, either in the hilly uncultivated countryside or in the caves that doubled as stables, where feed and water troughs carved from large stones could be seen (otherwise known as mangers).
In any case, these sheep were in the fields with the shepherds watching them. One minute they were alone in the darkness, the next minute the night sky lit up with a blast of light. One minute there were only sheep and shepherds, the next minute an angel was standing beside them. I don’t know about you, but I would have been terrified too and probably think the world was coming to an end.
Then the angel spoke. The first thing he said, as usual, was “fear not.” Easier to say than to do! He delivered his message, a lot of other angels showed up to give a loud and glorious “amen” to the message, and then they all left.
There are several points that struck me about this passage from Luke chapter 2. One, God has a thing about shepherds. When he plans a turning point in the history of mankind, you might just find a shepherd in there somewhere. (Abel, Abraham, Moses, David, etc.)
Second, these shepherds knew what the Messiah coming meant. No long theological lesson was necessary. Shepherding might be the lowest position on the economic and social ladders of the day, but these were not ignorant men. Jews for many generations had been waiting for this message.
They weren’t foolish, either. If the angel said the baby Messiah was somewhere in a Bethlehem feed trough – a stable/cave – wrapped up as newborns always are in swaddling clothes, then he was. Let’s go see him for ourselves, how many chances do you get like this in a lifetime!
And so they did. Now, the angel didn’t specifically tell them to go visit, but the hint was pretty broad. There may have been several babies born in the neighborhood that night but only one would be lying in a feed trough. That made him a cinch to locate.
The third point has to do with sheep. Bethlehem is where the sheep for the Temple were raised. Only sheep raised in Bethlehem could be used for sacrificial animals. The hillside sheep, the cultivated field sheep, the cave/stable sheep – these were Temple sheep. Sheep to be killed and offered as sacrifices for sin fed from that “manger,” the feed trough. What an appropriate place for the baby Messiah’s first cradle.
In the creation account in Genesis 1, when were the sheep created? On the 6th day, just just before Adam was created. Why do you suppose that was? Well, from what I’ve learned about sheep, they require a shepherd to survive. Sort of like human beings.
Who was the first shepherd? I asked that question when teaching Sunday School last week and some said Abel. After all, Genesis says he kept sheep. And he sacrificed one of his sheep to God.
But who did God give those sheep to in the first place, to look after? Who taught Abel how to be a shepherd? Adam and Eve were given that responsibility. From the very creation, God ordained shepherds.
Jesus, the Lamb of God, slain from the foundation of the world, and Jesus, the Great Shepherd! There’s a lot about shepherds we can learn from the scriptures. Father God has a thing about shepherds…