While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks


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!”

Words by Nahum Tate

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.  

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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.
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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!

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Go, Tell It on the Mountain


Go, Tell It On The Mountain

While shepherds kept their watching
O’er silent flocks by night,
Behold throughout the heavens
There shone a holy light


Go, tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born.



The shepherds feared and trembled
When lo above the earth
Rang out the angel chorus
That hailed our Savior’s birth;


Go, tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born.



Down in a lowly manger
The humble Christ was born;
And God sent out salvation
That blessed Christmas morn.


When I was a seeker
I sought both night and day
I sought the Lord to help me
And He showed me the way.


He made me a watchman
Upon the city wall
And If I am a Christian
I am the least of all.


Go, tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born.

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During the Christmas season, we often focus on giving.  And it’s certainly appropriate.  But there is another aspect of Christmas that sometimes gets overlooked– Telling.

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Christ came to earth humbly, but he didn’t come secretly.  Angels announced his arrival to the shepherds; stars aligned and shone brightly as a signal to the wise men.  Prophets had foretold his coming for centuries.  John the Baptist even went ahead of Jesus, baptizing and preparing his hearers for the good news yet to come.  The earliest followers of Christ were eager to tell of his words, his deeds, and his glorious resurrection.  Many lost their lives doing so.

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If the birth of Christ was reason to fill the night sky with songs and wonders,  reason enough to send angels and stars, prophets and messengers; what about the news of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension?  Why do we allow this amazing news to sit on a dusty shelf, unopened and unshared?  Or treat it like a secret, good news for only the few, the righteous?

We have the greatest news in all of history– more important than any political scandal, more amazing than the latest technology, more joyous than any other announcement imaginable.  Emmanuel– God WITH US–He came, he lived, worked, spoke, laughed, shared, loved, cried, ate, slept, and died, WITH US.  And he died and rose so that we could continue to live WITH HIM!

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God didn’t send all the signs and wonders– he didn’t come into the world to be a guilty secret.  And though there is still a risk involved in proclaiming the gospel, it is no less good, and no less NEWS now than it was nearly 2000 years ago.  Let’s TELL it!  SHOW it!  POST it!  SING it out!– Everywhere!

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Father, Thank you for this wonderful news. Thank you for the Greatest Gift–Yourself.  Give us hearts filled with joy and courage, and lips eager to share your grace and love with those we meet.  Help us to be faithful messengers of that grace and love; transparent and true in word and deed.  May every mountain and valley, forest, meadow, desert and ocean ring with the hope and glory of your nativity, your ministry, and your death and resurrection.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo


Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains.Refrain:
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be
Which inspire your heav’nly song?
Come to Bethlehem and see
Him Whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.
See Him in a manger laid,
Whom the choirs of angels praise;
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid,
While our hearts in love we raise.
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This has always been one of my favorite Christmas carols to sing.  I love the movement of the melodic line and the harmonies, especially when singing the angels’ chorus:  “Gloria, in excelsis Deo!  Gloria, in excelsis Deo!”
(Glory to God in the Highest Heavens!)

Yet, if we think about it, the angels seem almost to be having a joke.  There is something ironic about hosts of angels praising the glory of God in His highest Heaven, when they are announcing that He is, at that moment, a wailing, helpless infant, wrapped in rags and borrowing a feeding trough for his bed, miles from the warmth and comfort of a home of any kind, let alone the glory of His rightful throne.

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And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 

Luke 2:8-18 (NIV)
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And this is how God chose to appear, and chooses to work– confounding the power of the powerful, the wisdom of the wise, and the goodness of the self-righteous.  God does not glorify that which is already a spectacle.  Instead he glorifies the lowly and unqualified things of the world by coming into them, working through them, and reshaping them for His use.

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And so, may we have eyes, ears, and hands to work in the same way–to raise up, encourage, bless, and honor those who cannot yet see the Glory around them, the Glory God offers to share freely.  May we be the host of God’s messengers to spread the Glorious news of Christ’s gift of life and salvation.  May we be like the shepherds, jubilant in our acceptance of His great news.  And may we be, like the babe himself–humble and kind–bringing Glory to the world around us, no matter how dark or unwelcoming it may appear.  Remember, God himself is with us!

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Gloria!  Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

What Child is This?


What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.
Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby;
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Words by William C. Dix

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No other name in all history elicits such differing and intense responses.  Jesus, the son of Mary
Jesus, the Son of God
Jesus, the Son of Man
Jesus, the Son of David
Jesus, the Christ
Jesus, the Messiah

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Who is this child– ruler of the universe,
Laid in a feeding stall,
In a simple stable,
In a small town,
In a captive land?
Son of a carpenter (illegitimate, by some accounts),
In the royal line of David (but so far removed as to be of no account).

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Yet angel hosts sing “Gloria!”
Kings and philosophers travel from distant lands for just a glimpse,
Bringing priceless treasures and humbled hearts,
While the beleaguered puppet king of a conquered people 
Prepares to destroy him.

Will he rise to take his place in Herod’s palace?
Will he lead a revolt to free his people from Rome?
Will he bring together rival factions among the priesthood?
Will he …
Die in agony, betrayed and scorned?

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This, this is Christ the King;
The Lamb of God.
Savior and Sacrifice.
“The Silent Word”, 
Pleading,
Healing,
Bleeding,
Ascending.
Even in his humble life and
Ignominious death
He rose to change the world–
Stopping time and dividing it into
All that came before and
All that has happened since.

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This is Christ the King
Bruised for our sins,
Betrayed by our selfishness
Cheapened by our compromise and corruption.

Bring him incense, gold, and myrrh;
He is more than our tinsel, jingle bells, and platinum charge cards.
He is the King– He is a Babe; the son of Mary.

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