The first time was…oh, thirty-odd years ago or so…I was only a hired hand at the time…a shepherd in name only. Just a young kid really. An orphan. Angry at the world. I had no future and really didn’t care either. My entire existence consisted pretty much of doing as little work possible, making as much money as I could, and blowing every dime I made on whatever pleasures I could afford.
I was working in Bethlehem at the time…Bethlehem is where He was born. Why Bethlehem? I would often ask myself years afterwards…why? It made no since for Him to be born there.
I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen Bethlehem…if you blinked as you walked by, you just might miss it. It’s only about 5 miles south of here. Just a tiny insignificant village compared to the splendor of this great city where they are laying Him to rest.
Its name, by the way, means “House of Bread”. If you’ve heard any of His teachings, you might have heard Him say something that I’ve always found ironic…”I am the Bread of Life,” He’d say.
Bethlehem was also the birthplace of our greatest King…David. As a young man, he had been a shepherd…just like me. Only, he had a lot more hope than I ever did. Of course, he lived his life to serve God…while I, on the other hand, only lived to serve myself.
What I’m about to tell you is going to seem daft. Insane, in fact. You probably won’t believe me. Frankly, if you don’t, my feelings won’t be hurt…what matters is that I know it’s true. You’ll either accept what I’m about to tell you…or you won’t. If you choose not to believe…well, I’ll just pray that you do. It’s that important. Deciding whether you believe me or not will be the most important decision you will ever make in your life…because depending on how you feel about this story will determine how you respond to what’s going to happen next.
Anyway, we were just preparing to head back to the pens when the most remarkable thing happened. A light exploded in the sky…so blinding…so pure. All I could think about was how filthy I appeared to be in that light. Every speck of dirt on my body seemed to shine. I felt embarrassed…which is strange ‘cause shepherds weren’t known as the cleanest people in Judea anyway. But the light seemed deeper…it seemed to penetrate the very core of my soul…revealing the filth of my heart. I felt naked…stark naked before the Most High and I was utterly ashamed!
The light subsided somewhat and out of that light walked a man…well, he wasn’t a man actually. We could tell that right from the start. But it’s hard to say exactly what it was. But it was big…I mean really BIG. Its robes were the whitest white I’ve ever seen and its face shown like a bronze fire. Muscles and sinews rippled under the robe…its hands grasped the hilt of a huge broad sword at its side. Its eyes blazed with fire illuminating a face that was as beautiful as the dawn. I knew at that moment what I was looking at…it was a messenger from the Most High! It was an angel.
Not a single one of us could contain our fear. Like a vast tidal wave, the fear knocked us to the ground, trembling in terror like little children afraid of the dark. Covering our faces, we tried to cry out for the creature to leave us alone…but our words wouldn’t come. The only sound from my mouth was the whimpering of terror.
And with the sweetest sounding voice I’ve ever heard and a small grin curling upon its lips, the angel spoke. Heh heh…I’ll never forget what it said as long as I live.
First of all, it tells us not to be afraid…it had something to tell us. Can you imagine? This heavenly messenger from the Most High…standing before a bunch of cowering shepherds…and saying basically, Relax! Needless to say, the angel’s exhortations not to be afraid didn’t have much sway over us.
It continued speaking and the strangest thing happened. As the angel spoke its message to us, a great peace swept through my very being. I no longer felt afraid as I listened to its intoxicating voice…on the contrary, the more it spoke, the more joy filled my heart! Joy, as I had never felt in my whole life. It was as if every fear…every doubt…every failure I had experienced in my life simply vanished. Soon, I was able to concentrate on its words.
This is what the angel said to us: “I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
Then, the night exploded with light once more and literally thousands upon thousands of angels filled the night’s sky. The Shakina Glory of God permeated every inch of sky with its light and with one voice, the angels praised the Most High with the sweetest sound I have ever heard. Not exactly singing. Not exactly speaking. Not exactly music at all, really…but something beyond. Something grander. Something much more magnificent.
And just as suddenly as they had appeared…they were gone. Night had turned to day and then back into night again. We were alone…our limbs still shaking. Our minds racing. We were completely alone again to ponder this strange and wonderful news. We all sat there in silence. Still stunned at what just happened. We had all heard the stories of the heroes of the Torah being visited by such beings…but honestly, who ever believed that they were true?
After several long moments, the stunned silence gave way to whispers from the other shepherds. “What does this mean?” someone asked. We all knew the prophecies. We, like most Israelites, had all known the legends of the Messiah…but just as with the angels, we had begun to believe it was only the tales of old wives. After all, it had been nearly 500 years since God had sent a prophet to our people. I, for one, had practically given up on God and resigned to the belief in no God at all.
But now…now what? Did this mean that the Messiah had been born? And why here? Why in Bethlehem? It made no sense at all.
Still, our curiosity got the better of us. We hurriedly placed the sheep in the pens and ran into the city. We began our frantic search for this phantom child in the heart of the town, but no matter where we looked, we couldn’t find Him. Our hearts began racing. Our pace quickened as the realization of what all this implied began playing out in our minds!
The King had come! That meant that God would soon establish His kingdom upon the earth! The Romans would be expelled from Israel and His children would be the rulers over all the earth!
This was what kept going through my mind as I raced through the city.
But something wasn’t right. If the Messiah had been born, we expected the streets to be packed with people…praising God, hailing the King, and smothering His family with tribute and praise…but nothing out of the ordinary was seen.
We began asking everyone we met if they knew where the King was. No one had any idea what we were talking about. No matter who we asked…we received the same answer. It was as if we were the only people who knew!
But that made no sense! Why would we be the only ones that God chose to tell? Why not those much more important than us? The priests? Or the Pharisees? Where was the pomp? Where was the fuss?
After searching for more than three hours, we had pretty much given up the dim light of hope that had snuck into our hearts. Hanging our head in dejection, we began to make our way out of the town and back to our homes.
As we trudged toward the gates of the city, we stopped in our tracks as we heard a muffled cry. A cry of an infant it sounded to us…but where had it come from? It sounded as if it had come from a small cave used by merchants and travelers to house their beasts. Why would a child be in there?
I looked from the child and to the mother again. The stable was dark, but for the light of the fire, but unless my eyes played tricks on me, the mother was wearing the wrong clothes! She was wearing the royal blue tunic worn by virgins in waiting…not the typical garb of a nursing mother!
That made no sense to me either…but then, the more I discovered about the whole episode, the more questions came to my mind.
Suddenly, the mother looked up at us with a start. She must have heard one of our gasps. The girl and man sat in silence at our intrusion. They showed no fear of us…yet, seemed beside themselves as to what to make of our presence. She looked back at her child with eyes full of love and wonder…then back at us. And as if suddenly knowing why we were there, she motioned for us to come in and see the child.
I couldn’t move. All of a sudden, my limbs were frozen in place and I shook…tears poured from eyes that had been dry for too long. Long, hard sobs escaped my throat as I looked at that child…my King!
The feeling I had when I felt so exposed in the light of God was the same as when I stood in this Child’s presence. I wasn’t worthy to stand before this child. My soul was so putrid…decomposing…compared to the purity of this baby! Every sin I had ever committed raced through my mind and once again, I felt ashamed. But something was different in this experience. In this child’s presence, despite the obviousness of my filth, I felt safe…I felt at peace…like everything was going to be alright.
Something inside me changed instantly at that moment. I no longer cared about my future. No longer did I care about the future of Israel or concerned myself with whether this child would one day rule all the earth! No longer did I care about my meager problems at all. No…I remember distinctly thinking that this child was the most important thing in all of creation…not because of what He would do for me…for us…but for the very nature of Who He was.
All of my life, I had lived without hope. All my life, I had lived for myself. All my life, I had felt that God had abandoned me. And with one glimpse of that baby…it all vanished. Now, the only thing inside me was joy like I had never felt before.
After spending some time there, praising God and worshiping, the other shepherds and I left…but only for a little while. Our joy threatened to explode inside us unless we released some of it into the world! We began running through the streets shouting that the King had been born! We began telling everyone we saw that the Messiah was among us! We laughed as giddy little girls as we ran up and down the streets, shouting and proclaiming this wonderful news to anyone who’d listen!
Unfortunately, no one believed us. Some claimed that we had consumed too much wine or that we’d simply spent too much time in the desert sun. Most simply called us liars or feared that we were up to some kind of con.
In all fairness, these opinions of us were all quite understandable…
Hired shepherds were NOT the most respectable people in the world. I’ll be honest…we deserved our extremely foul reputation. We were dishonest by nature…we were scoundrels, brawlers, gamblers, drunkards…and anything else negative you could imagine.
The people naturally asked the same questions that we, ourselves, had been pondering since first being visited by the angels…why us?
Then, I realized something. This revelation couldn’t have possibly come from anyone but God…but I knew exactly WHY He had chosen to reveal to us the birth of the King and no one else!
We were exactly the kind of people that the Messiah had come into the world for! The downtrodden. The unseemly. The destitute, wicked, and sad. It was for me and those like me that He had come! So in that light, who else would He have chosen to reveal the good news to? After all, does a physician present himself to the healthy or the sick?
I beamed from ear to ear with this epiphany. Oh, how wonderful and sweet it tasted on my lips as I began running back to the stable to be with my King! How marvelous the joy that pumped through my veins.
The Latter Years
Then, one day, they were visited by several viziers and philosophers from some far off land to the east. These men had seen a glorious star in the heavens and had followed it to the house my Lord’s family were renting by that time. Like us, these…these wise men knew. They knew exactly who this child was and like us, they bowed down and worshiped him. It was a glorious few nights as we all broke bread and basked in this child’s glory. But the morning after these nobles left my King, my brothers and I arrived at their home to find it empty. Abandoned.
Soon after that, Herod, in jealousy and fear, had all the young boys who were two-years-old or younger…killed. Slaughtered. I’ll never forget that cold dark day, nor the cries of anguish that filled the air. On that day, blood ran through the streets and the wails of mothers throughout Bethlehem is said to have been heard all the way to Jerusalem.
It was then that I realized my King was taken somewhere far away to keep Him safe.
I didn’t see my King again until about three years ago. I had always wondered what had become of Him and every year, I expected news of His kingdom…but that news never came.
Then, I began hearing tales of a prophet like no other wandering the towns of Judea and Galilee. He was said to be able to cure the worst of illnesses! He gave sight to the blind. He gave hearing to the deaf. And in some cases, He even gave LIFE to the dead.
I knew immediately who it was and I quickly sold the few sheep I had accumulated over the years and raced to find Him yet again!
I found Him in a small fishing village of Capernaum. As soon as He saw me, He smiled and motioned me forward. It was as if He remembered me…although I have no idea how. He even called me by name!
From that moment on, I became one of about seventy disciples that traveled with Him and learned from Him so much. You wouldn’t believe the things that I’ve seen Him do. But even more so, you couldn’t imagine the joy and peace that came from just being in His presence.
“So, what now?” you might ask. You’re wondering what I’ll do now that my King is gone. No one really knows for sure. Only God knows His own business, but…heh heh…I believe the others have it so wrong. He told us what was to come…but they, being so young, never really listened. They didn’t hear what He told them about this very day. But I did.
Everyone thinks the Romans forced the Messiah upon that cross. People think they’re the ones who drove those nails into His wrists and feet. But I’ve got news for them. The only reason the King was on that cross was because that’s exactly where He came to earth to be. It was His intended destination from that very first, glorious day!
The others have forgotten the Prophet…they have forgotten what the Prophet said about our King…but I haven’t:
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.
After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light [of life] and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
I wrote this with one thing in mind…as we celebrate this wonderful time of year…as we enjoy each other’s company and exchange wonderful gifts, just remember that that small child laying in that rickety old manger was God in the flesh. Infinite God in the wrapping paper of a delicate, finite infant. The prelude to the ultimate gift. The gift of salvation. Of forgiveness. Given to us in LOVE. There is nothing greater. When that small child entered into our world, it was for one purpose and one purpose alone…to hang upon that old rugged cross…for me…and for you. And thank God for that!
Merry Christmas, everyone!