“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angels said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests.’ When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.” – Luke 2:8-16
Imagine that you were the shepherds that first Christmas night. You were gathered out on the hillsides surrounding Bethlehem watching your livestock. You were bundled up to keep warm. Having never been a rancher or taken care of any animal larger than my 36 pound Beagle, I have a hard time imagining what they were doing. My best guess is that they were living out the imagery of James Taylor’s classic “Sweet Baby James”:
“Their horse and their cattle are their only companions. They work in the saddle and they sleep in the canyons, waiting for summer, their pastures to change. But as the moon rises they sit by the fire, dreaming about women and glasses of beer. Close their eyes as the doggies retire. They sing out a song which is soft but is clear, as if maybe someone could hear.”
So, as the doggies retire, these shepherds saw an impressive sight. It is hard for me to imagine what shepherds were doing on that Christmas night, but it was even harder for the shepherds to imagine the sight they were getting ready to behold. Out of no where angels appeared in the sky singing a different song (sorry JT). They were singing “Gloria in Excelies Deo!” For me today, it is easy to imagine the shepherds seeing the angels . . . this is a story I have heard since I was born . . . but for the shepherds, this was a very “out of the ordinary” situation. It was not normal for them to see angels on the hillside, no matter how many glasses of beer they may have been dreaming of. This was a unique event! The angels told the shepherds to go to Bethlehem and see a baby which was the Savior of the world.
The shepherds quickly took off for Bethlehem. Can you imagine the conversation they may have had with each other all the way to the stable? “I wonder what He looks like? What could this all mean? I wonder if everyone got this same announcement . . . if so, I wonder how long we will have to wait in line?!?” The questions would have no doubt fired back and forth throughout their walk/run to the manger.
Upon arriving on the scene, however, I am sure the shepherds were probably scratching their heads a bit. There was no line outside the stable filled with government and religious dignitaries and local celebrities. Upon entering the stable, the place smelled more like a barn full of animals than the temple incense. As they approached the baby in the manger, no halo circled His head, and the child was probably crying for His mother to give Him more milk. While the text does not say it, I am guessing that the shepherds were probably wondering (either aloud or to each other) if they had heard the angels correctly. Given the disparity between what they saw and what they had heard, these old school cowboys were placed in a spot that is very familiar to us . . . they were being asked to take God at His Word.
I walk through this story today because many times as I read the Christmas story I think, if only all people could see what the shepherds saw then all people would believe that Jesus is the Savior of the world. To my old way of thinking, the shepherds, based on what they had seen, would not have needed a lot of faith to believe in Jesus as their Savior. The reality, though, is that I still think it took LOTS OF FAITH for the shepherds to believe. In fact, they did not have some of the benefits that we have.
When the shepherds saw Jesus in Bethlehem, they had never heard Jesus preach; they had never seen Him work miracles; they had never imagined the cross; they had never conceived the empty tomb. While they had an angel declaration, there were many facts of the story that they did not have. Based on what they knew, they were asked to take God at His Word (through the angels) and trust Him with the rest. As people today, we have record of His preaching, miracles, death and resurrection. We have the testimony of 2,000 years of Church History, and the corroborating evidence of ancient historians. Given that, however, we have never seen Jesus face to face, and angels have not visited us on hillsides. Based on what we know, however, we are asked to take God at His Word (through the Bible) and trust Him with the rest. When we do this, great blessings come our way.
The Apostle Peter wrote a letter to the first generation of Christians who were growing up in our present reality . . . people who had the testimony of eye-witnesses and the Scripture, but had not physically seen Jesus. To this group (to us) Peter writes in 1 Peter 1:8-9, “Though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and even though you do not see Him now, you believe in Him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” Peter celebrates the faith of those who have not seen Jesus, but still love and believe in Him. This verse of Scripture is talking to you and me!
1 Peter 1:8-9 further indicates that when we believe in Jesus based on what we know (but have not seen), we reap the same benefits that His first followers experienced, “an inexpressible joy” (“Good news of Great Joy”) and “the salvation of our souls” (“a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord”).
At first glance, it appears that we have very little in common with the shepherds that first Christmas night, but in the end, we have something big in common . . . we are both being asked to embrace by faith that the child born in Bethlehem is our Savior, Christ the Lord. Upon hearing this announcement this Christmas will you run to the manger as the shepherds did? Will you believe in Him based on what you know and trust Him for the things that are harder for you to understand? If you will, then joy and salvation await. Those are two Christmas gifts that are on everyone’s list.