“Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, 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, goodwill toward men!’ (Luke 2:8-15)
I once led a Christmas service in a village in rural Ireland and explained in detail the significance of God’s coming to the shepherds with “a multitude of the heavenly host praising.” The shepherds, I explained, were outsiders, prohibited from temple worship, considered unclean and categorised as somewhat stupid… I trailed off, looking at a sea of frozen faces (and my wife making those finger-across-the-throat motions).
It turned out that every single person in the hall was connected with sheep-farming.
I felt, to coin a phrase, sheepish.
But still, it’s true. God chose –and chooses- the foolish things to confound the wise.
And God sent a song to the lowly shepherds that has never since been silenced:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”
In fact, the birth of God was a shock to everyone involved – a massive thing to get your head round and defying our sense of unworthiness. The shepherds were perhaps among the most surprising guests. Spending most of their lives outside the city, with their animals for long periods of time, away from civilisation and looking for pasture, shepherds lived in a blokey, down to earth world.
And, like I said to the shaking heads at the Christmas service, they were regarded as doing unclean work.
Most people would have expected the arrival of a King to be an event for royalty, diplomats or the clergy, yet God is having none of that, and through the visit of the angels, prioritises inviting the shepherds. The invitation of the shepherds emphasises a very important truth – something we all need to be clear on – that there is front row space for everyone to be at the side of Jesus, and not just to witness his family, but to belong to it!
John puts it this way – “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1, v13)
When we hear from God, He gives directions just as He did to the shepherds. He doesn’t keep us in the dark or keep us guessing. His answers sometimes come in a form we don’t recognize. We say, “Surely this can’t be God.” We are often so afraid we will miss God, and it paralyzes us from doing anything. The angel gave the shepherds enough information to get them started and to know what to look for. He will always give the next step after we take the first step.
When has God suddenly broken into your life, and how did you feel? Were you afraid? When God breaks in, let us be ready to hear what He is trying to say. Let us not fear the message He brings. It is one of Good News and Great Joy.