That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. (Luke 2:8-9, NLT)
God hides big messages in plain sight.
The announcement to the shepherds is my favorite divine encounter story in the Bible. It is obviously a bucolic scene, but there is also featured an enjoyable contrast of rustic earthiness and divine splendor, not unlike the satisfaction of creamy and crumbly in the mouth.
The glory of a single angel is apparently enough to frighten folk stiff. That’s the case throughout scripture, and it was the case with the shepherds. But then all heaven broke loose and the sky filled with the heavenly emissaries shouting praises to God, creating what had to be an overwhelming and spectacular scene of grace-come-to-earth.
I hope God will let us relive these events one day. This one is at the top of my list.
But what about that big message, you said? We know it wasn’t about the angels and the scene itself. And although the angels heralded the birth of the Savior, this isn’t the big message I want you to see. Instead, it deals with…the rustic earthiness and crumbly nature of the recipients: the shepherds.
Life of the Scorned
I’m certain there were many events and incidents the Holy Spirit could have included in the Bible and did not (cf. John 21:25). But I’m glad this particular one made it in.
You see, shepherds were not an esteemed bunch; their reputation was more akin to tax collectors. Although many folk in the Bible, from Abraham to David to Amos, were shepherds and the task was common and respectable for a period of time, the occupation gradually lost its noble standing.
Many shepherds were cheats and thieves and their actions stereotyped the vocation. Society viewed shepherds as untrustworthy and incompetent, second-class citizens; and they were not allowed to hold judicial office or serve as witnesses in court—just like tax collectors.
The youngest son in the home usually tended the sheep. The elder sons would move on to help the father plow, sow, and harvest, so the younger boy would be left with the sheep. If you’ll recall, David was the youngest of his family; and do you remember the scorn he met from his brother Eliab on the battlefield: “What are you doing around here anyway…What about those few sheep you’re supposed to be taking care of?” (1 Sam. 17:28).
Leveled Playing Fields
God preserves this birth announcement for us and with it delivers an enormous message about human social stratification from his point of view. For God has entrusted outcasts and the marginalized with the prize of first knowing that a Savior has come for them and everyone.
Understand, this encounter did not offer these shepherds more reason to know this Messiah would be a spiritual deliverer as opposed to the political one they anticipated. Contrarily, it would have convinced them that he was indeed the long awaited ruler. Signs affirmed the presence and help of Jehovah to the Jews. The revelation of grace and spiritual truth would come later through Jesus himself. Yet this symbolic event serves a bigger point to us.
And this truth is that God’s grace and immense love is all-inclusive, not about caste and class and petty human divisions that disenfranchise and diminish in our eyes the glory of God in one another. Each of us, regardless of our status, morally identifies with the shepherds’ odious reputation and shares the same guilt in God’s eyes. Nonetheless, by grace we stand tall, shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest, and beside Christ in the presence of the Father.
Grace, a Battering Ram
We like to portray grace as sweet and refined—and it is that; but, like the Word of God John was instructed to eat (Rev. 10:9), it can be both sweet to the mouth and bitter to the belly. It is possible to live infatuated with God until his precepts judge and demolish our sinfully convenient and self-serving configurations.
Thus, God chose not to make his announcement to kings and officials, who with this information could conceivably engineer a plan to further their own power, wealth, and corruption—again leaving those with the greatest need with nothing and being deprived.
Instead, God spared no expense in pomp and gallantry on a few men with nothing more to lose in life and so erects an earthly kingdom from the floor-up.
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:26-31, NIV)
More on this topic in “People of Your Kind!”