The shepherds had a heart and a spirit that the more sophisticated town dwellers of Bethlehem did not have. Where those preoccupied with making money left Jesus out of their thinking, the shepherds hastily abandoned their midnight watch, fixing their priorities on something infinitely greater, the holy child of Bethlehem.
There is a tradition among the Jews that these shepherds, who worked in the hills close to Bethlehem, kept sheep that were designated for sacrifice in Jerusalem. A colleague, this week, shared something with me that he had gleaned from personal study, which ties with in with this Jewish tradition and perhaps explains why the babe in the manger was such an important sign; that the sacrificial lamb was kept close by the shepherds in a stone manger. If these observations are correct then the words of the angel to the shepherds were so significant that these men would have instantly appreciated the meaning:
They left their flocks designated for sacrifice, they left the sacrificial lambs they watched so carefully to worship the one lamb, who would bear way the sin of the world. He too was lying in a manger designated for sacrifice; the beginning of a journey that would lead Him to the cross on the Calvary’s hill.
These men, however, who laboured in this practical, yet deeply spiritual work of preparing lambs for the slaughter sensed the significance of this moment; peace to all men – the Christ has come! It is no wonder that night was so happy, they could not contain themselves and whoever heard their description of that evening were amazed at the report; the angels, the choir, the light, the good tidings, the child and the manger.
Whatever happened to these shepherds in the years following that momentous night?
Presumably there were young men among them who lived to see the public ministry of the Messiah thirty years later. As they heard the news of the multitude fed with a little boy’s lunch, of cripples walking, of blind eyes seeing, of Legion being emancipated, of Jairus’ little daughter being raised from her cold bed of death – did they know that this was the work of the child of Bethlehem? As they heard of His crucifixion did they weep, remembering that evening when they first saw the child in His virgin mother’s arms? – the peace and calm so utterly different from the venomous mob which surrounded him at Calvary, Mary’s smiles replaced by her wails. When they heard of the resurrection did they remember the triumph of that midnight hour “Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, good will to all men”? – the then apparently helpless babe rose as Lord of all defeating death and bringing light to a darkened world.
Whatever the shepherds knew and witnessed in subsequent years they never forgot that evening which shaped the destiny of mankind. They talked about it until their dying day, the light, the angelic choir, the message of hope, the simple child in the Bethlehem stable. The Christ was born! The light had begun to shine!