Words by Nahum Tate
While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around.
“Fear not!” said he, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind;
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind.
“To you, in David’s town, this day
Is born of David’s line
A Savior, who is Christ the Lord,
And this shall be the sign:
“The heav’nly Babe you there shall find
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swathing bands,
And in a manger laid.”
Thus spake the seraph and forthwith
Appeared a shining throng
Of angels praising God on high,
Who thus addressed their song:
“All glory be to God on high,
And to the Earth be peace;
Good will henceforth from heav’n to men
Begin and never cease!”
Why the shepherds? Angels might have appeared to the rulers and priests of Israel, announcing the birth of their long-awaited Messiah, but they did not. Nor did they appear to the common citizens (and other visitors) in Bethlehem. We make much of the shepherds being lowly and humble, and that is true enough. But there were other poor and humble people throughout the land. And there were “important” people who waited to hear the news.
There is something about shepherds that is close to the heart of God. All the way back in Genesis– Abel was a shepherd. The early patriarchs– Abraham, Isaac, Jacob– were all shepherds. Moses, when God called him, was working as a shepherd. King David started as a shepherd, tending his father’s sheep, while his older brothers were serving in the army. The prophet Amos was a shepherd. Jesus used several parables about and allusions to shepherds and sheep as well. (See Matthew 18:10-14; John 10 among others.)
Shepherds are humble, yes, but there are other traits that I think are at work in the story of the Nativity– some important, and others incidental:
- Shepherds watch. That seems pretty self-evident from songs and passages, but it’s also important. The shepherds weren’t watching for angels that night, but they were alert, combing the area for dangers, pitfalls, straying sheep, wandering predators…There is nothing in the Bible that says that the angels were invisible to anyone else in the neighborhood; only that the angel appeared to the shepherds and was joined by the hosts of heaven.
- Shepherds must focus on others. Much is made of the “lowly” station of shepherds. But that is the nature of the job. A “Good” shepherd is one whose focus and efforts are directed at the sheep. He doesn’t “climb the ladder of success”, “toot his own horn”, “keep banker’s hours”– in fact the shepherds of the Nativity story were the “night shift”, tending the flocks when it was cold, dark, dangerous, and thankless!
- Shepherds were familiar with “unconventional” birth. An announcement that Messiah was born in a stable and could be found wrapped in strips of cloth would come as a surprise to shepherds, but not as an impossibility or a cruel joke. Shepherds (anyone whose livelihood depends on the safe delivery of livestock) would understand and rejoice over new life, even in unexpectedly humble or unconventional circumstances.
- Shepherds were often “left out” of ceremonies and celebrations, because of their frequent contact with blood and death. The angel’s announcement had special meaning in the inclusion of shepherds, which was to show that even those who had been deemed ritually unclean were to be included in the “Good news of Great Joy!”
- The shepherds were “abiding” in the fields. These were not the temporary visitors thronging to Bethlehem for the census. They were not the patriarchs of great families living in walled compounds or great estates; neither were they awake in the middle of the night plotting, scheming, or creating havoc. They were humble, but they were faithfully doing their work.
This Advent season, may we consider the shepherds and learn to be watchful, other-focused, joyful, ready to accept the Good News, and faithful in all that we do and say in response to our Good Shepherd!