Today is the third Sunday of Advent. Many of us will light the shepherds candle and sing Joy to the World. We’ll read Luke 2:8-20 and talk about how joy was for all people, even lowly shepherds. That first Christmas night was celebrated by a carpenter, an unwed mother, and a few dirty, smelly shepherds from a nearby field. There is certainly a message of hope in the clear demonstration that Christ had come for all…
But why not shepherds? Did the angels just appear to the nearest group of people they could find, and it happened to be shepherds keeping watch in a field? Things in the Bible don’t usually “just happen.” That doesn’t seem to be God’s way. Were shepherds the lowest and most humble of Jewish laborers, sort of like the fishermen Jesus would later call as Apostles? He told Peter and his companions he would make them fishers of men. They were from a certain class of society but there was also symbolism employed in their calling. Consider the shepherds again.
Jesus would later preach in his ministry that he was the Good Shepherd (John 10:1-18) one that loved the sheep and was willing to lay down his life for them. All we like sheep have gone astray (Isaiah 53:6) and a shepherd is what we need. Church pastors are sometimes analogous to shepherds tending a flock. And when the time came Jesus was also the Lamb of God, an all-sufficient sacrifice slain to take away the sins of the world. The Last Supper was a Passover meal and there is clearly a correlation between the spotless lamb sacrificed in Egypt, with its blood displayed on the doorpost, and Jesus’ blood shed on the cross of Calvary. Jesus was both sheep and shepherd (and so much more).
Shepherds came and found the baby just as the angels had said. They made known what they had heard from the angels and returned to their field glorifying and praising God. They were in effect the first bi-vocational preachers! There are lessons in this story about responding when called, humble service, and about how Christ is for the poor and unlearned and not just the rich, scholarly or politically powerful. But don’t overlook the fact that the angels proclaimed his birth to shepherds in particular.
So did there just happen to be shepherds nearby so that the angels could just happen to appear to them, heralding the greatest news that had ever been heard in the world by anyone? I really don’t think so.