Pondering the shepherds

Only one of the four gospels, Luke, reports of the appearance of angels to shepherds. It is told in a couple of paragraphs in the midst of a consistently brief narrative of the birth of the Christ child:

“And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,’Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!’”

The Gospel goes on to tell of the shepherds going to Bethlehem and finding Mary, Joseph and the baby lying in the manger. It also reports that when the shepherds reported what had happened to them, “All who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.”

It is a very curious encounter.

One assumes that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, that the shepherds had no prior experiences that helped them to understand what was happening to them. Their usual routines were dramatically interrupted. Then after all of that heavenly glory, which had filled them with fear what they discovered was a baby lying in a manger - a rather humble and common set of circumstances.

Babies are nice. They are fascinating. Looking at a baby can fill one with awe that is beyond the power of language to express. They are also very common. In 2013, UNICEF estimated that an average of 353,000 babies are born each day around the world. Of course world population is much greater than it was in the time of Jesus’ birth, so the birth of a child would have been much less common. Still it was an everyday occurrence.

Thinking of the Gospel story, I can’t help but wonder if the Shepherds had any idea what the angel meant when announcing “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Assuming that the shepherds were Jewish, which seems likely, they would have had some familiarity with the prophetic statements concerning a messiah. They might even have heard rabbis extolling a vision of the coming of someone who would restore Israel to its place of world prominence and liberate them from the oppressive powers of the Roman empire that was a constant drain on the local economy and resulted in significant suffering and premature death for many common people.

The lot of shepherds, however, probably wasn’t that much different under Roman imperial rule than it had been in the times of the Israeli monarchy. The shepherds probably knew the stories of King David, who started out his life as a simple shepherd boy, but who was chosen and anointed to become king of the people. they probably knew stories of Solomon, son of David, who amassed a huge fortune and lived a life of luxury in the midst of the people. But they probably knew that even if there were to be a huge political upheaval, the lot of shepherds was likely to remain a very humble life indeed.

From what evils do you think the shepherds felt they needed to be saved? What would a savior mean in their lives? Higher wages? Personal security? Better health? More food? Before their encounter with the angel, what do you think they were praying for in their lives? After seeing the baby in the manger, how were their lives different?

One thing, of course, is obvious. They had a story to tell, not that many people would believe what had happened to them. It would be three decades before Jesus called disciples from the ranks of a generation younger than the original shepherds. And there is no specific record of Jesus calling a shepherd to be a disciple anyway. It would be nearly a century before the story of the encounter between the angel and the shepherds would become a part of Luke’s gospel. It would be three centuries before the religion that arose in the wake of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to become mainstream in the region. The descendants of the shepherds who eventually became Christian might not even have known their personal relationship to those shepherds.

Angel song and a baby in the manger might have remained the high point, but still a mystery, to the shepherds for all of their lives.

For those of us who ponder the lot of the shepherds these millennia later, it is worthwhile to ponder our own lot. Do we believe in a savior of the world? If so what would salvation look like? Political change? World peace? A change in the gap between the rich and the poor of the world? Food enough for all? Healthcare for all babies born? How do we imagine salvation? For what do we pray?

And, there is an even more perplexing question. Would we recognize the savior of the world even if angels sang the song and we were allowed to see the tiny baby? Or would we simply tell a lot of stories that left those who heard them wondering?

Christmas is a season of pondering questions, most of which are rhetorical. I don’t know the answers, but it still seems meaningful to ponder the questions.

This particular season of our lives seems to be notably dark, with many people expressing a sense of hopelessness that I have not previously witnessed in my time as a minister. The timing seems right for us to pray for a savior.

Like those shepherds of old, however, we aren’t sure what we are praying for.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!