The story of the birth of a baby as recounted in the Bible is one of the most well-known and re-told stories of all time.
Even those who do not profess to be Christians know the story. Linus recounts it for Charlie Brown. Nativity Scenes dot lawns. Secular radio stations cross over and play “religious” Christmas music. Regardless of your personal faith or religious leanings, you cannot escape the story of the baby born in a manger.
Most of us have our favorite, heart-warming parts. Maybe it’s Mary and her willingness to be God’s servant. Maybe it’s Joseph and how he did the unexpected when he stood by his fiancé. Maybe it’s the Magi and their gifts. My favorite part is when the angels announce the birth of Jesus to a bunch of shepherds.
Have you ever wondered about those shepherds? Of all the people, why did God choose them?
In the time of Jesus, shepherds were outcasts in Hebrew society. The nature of shepherding rendered the shepherd “unclean” and barred him from corporate worship. It was a lonely, isolating job for most.
Shepherds had unsavory reputations, were deemed dishonest and unreliable, and were therefore not permitted to be witnesses in any kind of court proceeding. They were simply not trusted.
And yet, God chooses to make His history-altering announcement to this ragamuffin, fringe-of-society group of people.
What was so special about those shepherds? They are just like you and me. Wading around in life that makes us “unclean.” Who hasn’t, or doesn’t, feel invisible? Outcast? Not chosen? Looked down upon? Snubbed?
When we discover God’s purposeful plans, we discover why these shepherds were so special, and we discover God intends for this to be more than a feel-good story for Christmas. He intends us to know we are chosen too.
God Chose Bethlehem
“Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)
The shepherds are first told where they would find Jesus.
The Bible teaches that Israel’s Messiah would descend from the lineage of King David and the Old Testament prophet Micah identifies David’s hometown, Bethlehem, as the place from where God’s eternal ruler will come. The shepherds, like all of Israel, knew the town of David meant Bethlehem.
But these shepherds did not travel to Bethlehem to find Jesus. They were already there.
God Chose Those Fields
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” (Luke 2:8)
These shepherds were in the fields that night. Nearby, close to Bethlehem. This is unusual because sheep stink. So shepherds typically led their flocks away from populated areas. They were not normally tended close to town.
Bethlehem is about 5 miles from Jerusalem, where the Temple was located. The fields mentioned in this passage were likely ancestral fields, passed down through the family of King David. Because of their proximity to the Temple, tradition holds these fields were where the perfect, unblemished sheep were raised for Temple sacrifices.
God Chose Those Shepherds.
God did not choose just any shepherd, in any field, watching any sheep. He chose the shepherds, in those fields, tending the sheep raised for the Temple sacrifices.
“This will be sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)
To us, this might seem a random, if not bizarre sign. Swaddling babies isn’t unusual today and it was not unusual back then. The text rendered “cloths” in the NIV has a broader meaning of “bands of cloths” or “swaddling cloths.” Luke is telling us that Mary did not use any old cloak to wrap Jesus in. Why is this significant?
These shepherds had the daily task of caring for the sheep raised for the Temple sacrifices. They kept vigilant watch over them. Unlike other flocks whose lambs were born out in the remote fields, these shepherds would carefully watch for ewes ready to give birth. They’d bring the ewe to a sheltered place, possibly a cave, near the fields. When the ewe gave birth, the shepherd would catch the newborn lamb in their arms, holding it tight.
They’d then take strips of cloth – swaddling cloths – and bind the lambs limbs in order to protect it from injuring itself, doing all they could to ensure it remained unblemished.
Then they’d lay the lamb in a limestone manger until the shock of birth and immediate risk of injury passed.
The very people society deemed untrustworthy and unreliable witnesses were the very ones God chose to be the very credible witnesses to Jesus’ birth. God chose them, not because they were experts in the law, but because their daily routine made them experts in recognizing the signs that their Savior was born.
A baby born in the place they knew intimately.
A baby wrapped in swaddling cloths like the lambs they wrapped.
A baby lying in a manger like the lambs they laid in mangers.
In a sense, just like the sacrificial lambs had to pass through the shepherds, so did Jesus.
God Chooses You.
“So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” (Luke 2:16-18)
The shepherds were entrusted with great news that had to be shared. So share it they did.
And the people believed them.
This is why I love the shepherds. We are them. Not because we are “the least”. But because they remind us that God chooses us too.
Sometimes we doubt we have a story to share. We think a witness has to be grand to be effective. We discount our life experiences and daily encounters with Jesus in our messy places as insignificant. The shepherds teach us otherwise. In the mundane of our every day lives, we are becoming expert witnesses.
Expert witnesses of His grace and mercy when we have messed up, His peace when life has been turbulent, His comfort when we have grieved, His guidance when we have been lost, and His power when we have overcome.
Someone needs to hear the very good news of Jesus that only you can share. You are chosen to be the expert witness. Will you respond as the shepherds did?
This devotion first appeared in the Christian Community News Magazine. I encourage you to check out the rest of the magazine, especially the Christmas story from Mary’s perspective written by Lynne Saunders.