The Shepherds' Witness

Reading Time: 4 mins

The shepherds are the most unlikely people to play the role the angels cast them in.

I have a soft spot in my heart for shepherds. The rough-and-tumble passel of neck-beards that the angels appeared to in the hills above Bethlehem are my kind of people. When my dad died — he who at fourteen was a Great Plains sheepherder — folks thought that, given his pride over the fact, we'd have the Sheep Herders' National Anthem sung at the funeral. You know the song: Mary Had a Little Lamb.

We mostly think of the shepherds in this story because of all the Christmas pageants we've seen at church or at school. Little ones are dressed like donkeys and cows, as angels with halos and wise men in bathrobes and crowns, and of course a line of little replicas of Linus Van Pelts, like in A Charlie Brown Christmas, with a blanket on his head and a shepherd's crook in his hand, innocently reciting Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth.

But the guys on the hillside weren't at all like the cuteness we're used to. Jesus called himself the good shepherd, but that implies that a good shepherd is an unusual thing and that most people in that vocation weren’t so good. Having been around sheep at my grandparents’ ranch on the Great Plains, I know that the job isn’t a clean one, much less an easy one. The shepherds were dealing with creatures prone to brucellosis which too many diseases connected to bodily orifices. It might not be a good idea to shake hands with one of these men.

The shepherds in the Christmas story in Luke had to wade through a lot of ick, and they didn’t have the luxury of doing the kind quality craftsmanship done by the carpenter Joseph, late of Nazareth. There was no precision or eye for beauty in wrangling sheep. In this story, these fellas were out in the meadows at night. They’d brought their flock up either to graze on new shoots or to chomp on the stubble from the spring harvest. By day they could see hyenas or jackals approaching and protect the sheep and could maybe spell each other for a nap. But under the stars they’d have had to stave off sleep and watch for dangers.

What’s more, shepherds didn’t have much reputation as reliable people. The bad reputation started with their affinity for sheep, which are the dirtiest, smelliest, dumbest, and most self-involved creatures human beings have ever domesticated. The kind of sheep they raised were the middle-Eastern broad-tailed variety, whose backside waggers were fat and meaty and regarded as a real dinnertime delicacy to set next to your figs and hummus. While the sheep tails were highly desired, the same wasn’t true so for the shepherds. They wore no clothes made of finely spun cloth. Instead they may have worn a rough tunic, and probably on these cool spring nights they had on some sheepskin with the wool turned in. And to stave off the cold, they might have been sampling some first-century warming liquid, if you know what I mean, while they stood near their fires. All of which makes the shepherds the most unlikely people to play the role the angels cast them in.

One of Luke’s big themes in the gospel is witnessing. The whole story of Jesus and his disciples is told to show what those chosen followers of Jesus witnessed. Usually what they witnessed was Jesus’ care for outsiders, for the disreputable, for the outcast, for people in society’s shadows. And the first witnesses in Luke’s story aren’t good guys like Peter, James, and John. No, Luke tells us the first witnesses were the last people you’d want testifying on your behalf. The first witnesses who heard the announcement that the infinite and almighty God has taken weak, human, and finite form were this bunch of half-snockered yokels, scratching their nether regions while telling tall tales around the fire to keep themselves entertained.

If you’re powerful and people jump at your command, you’ll only have ears for your own voice. If you’ve got your act together, you don’t need a savior, who is Christ the Lord.

Suddenly they were surrounded by both angels and the glory of the Lord. And when we’re talking about that glory, we’re talking the presence of God, being wrapped up in God’s very being. Who woulda thunk it? It wasn’t kings and high priests who got the announcement. It was the shepherds. On the other hand, what better people could God have sent the heavenly messengers to? If you’re powerful and people jump at your command, you’ll only have ears for your own voice. If you’ve got your act together, you don’t need a savior, who is Christ the Lord. If you’re perfectly snuggled in your warm bed with visions of sugarplums, you’re not going to run off to see anything born in a cold cattle stall. So God chose the ones most likely to hear and go and give witness. These guys were duly impressed and wanted to see the one whom the angel told them about and whom the heavenly host praised.

What they found when they went down into town to that stable out back of the inn’s “No Vacancy” sign was something they were perfectly familiar with. Mary had indeed had a little lamb. Outside the sphere of good and upright people, the shepherds saw this woman and man, Mary and Joseph, with a baby who was the Lamb of God. When they stepped up next to the manger, the shepherds did the job they’d been chosen for. They became the first witnesses, handing on what they’d first been given. The angels had told them what God was up to here, and they passed on the news to this set of new parents. In their postpartum exhaustion, Mary and Joseph received the news that their baby, a far distant descendant of King David, was the messiah, the savior, the Lord.

And everyone who heard it either went “Whoa!” or pondered it in their hearts. But the shepherds did something utterly unexpected. They didn’t stand around gawking, trying to hold on to the magnificence of it all like we probably would have. Instead, they went back up into the hills to work. After all, there were scattered sheep to pull together at the end of the night. Those shepherds were still the kind of people your mom and dad never wanted you to be friends with, but they were also changed. They’d seen the angels’ announcement come true. And as they walked, and watched, and worked, all they could say was, “Man, that was freakin’ cool.” They’d returned to the hillside pastures, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

During this Christmas, we pray that God would come to us unlikely people, too. We pray that we’d also know this baby is for us. And that we’d be moved to tell as well. If a bedraggled lot like the shepherds can be witnesses, what’s preventing you? You don’t even need a beard or some sheep.