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. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you: he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you; You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
What did it mean to be a shepherd at the time Jesus was born? It wasn’t a very glamorous job. Instead, it was a job that was pretty much towards the bottom of the “most desired job.” It wasn’t a very high paying job or glamorous job. But it was a job.
The shepherds who were Jesus’ first visitors were basically night watchmen. They would take turns, making sure the sheep were safe throughout the night. There wasn’t a shed or a lean to where the sheep stayed in throughout the night. The sheep were out in the open: right where wolves or coyotes or thieves could easily take them if the night watchmen weren’t doing their job.
I grew up on a dairy farm but my sisters and I also had sheep. They were our 4-H projects, something we raised and sold as a way to earn money for college. We planned the time for the ewes (female sheep) to lamb (have their babies) based on when the fair was. So, during the month of January – often the year’s coldest month – is when our ewes would have babies.
It wasn’t uncommon for us to end up with bottle lambs. These are lambs that lost their mother or the mother decided not to care for. We’d become their pseudo “mom,” making sure they’d get fed every few hours.
When I was about 10 or 11, one of my ewes had twin buck (boy) lambs. She didn’t make it. Suddenly, I was responsible for caring for these cute and leggy little guys. When we’d end up with bottle lambs, Mom would let us keep them in the house for a week or two. We’d put them in a big cardboard box in the back entry room into the house. There was a little electric heater in the room which would help keep the babies warm.
The challenge is that like human babies, baby lambs need to be fed every few hours. We’d convert old glass pop bottles into feeding bottles, using special lamb milk replacer to make milk. The milk was poured into the old pop bottles and attached a nipple. Whenever we had bottle lambs, we had to be a little careful about which pitcher of milk was grabbed out of the refrigerator. Usually marked on the side, if you didn’t look carefully, you might end up with the wrong milk on your cereal!
Getting these twin boys fed was a huge responsibility for a pre-teen. I’d feed them in the morning before school. Mom was great about making sure they got fed during the day. As soon as I got home from school and a few more times each day, I’d make sure they’d get fed. Once they were a couple weeks old and getting out of the box, Mom would decide they were big enough to go back outside with the rest of the mommas and babies.
This would mean feeding them in the dark a couple times each day. I can clearly remember going out for the last feeding of the evening, about 10 PM, in the cold, crisp air. I’d take a flash light to help guide my way. By now, the boys knew the schedule and would be waiting for their midnight snack. As soon as they heard me walking towards the sheep yard, they’d run up by the fence, waiting for me to arrive. I’d stand in the moonlight, holding tightly onto the bottles while the little guys sucked on them like there was no tomorrow.
These guys depended upon me and my Mom to get them fed. They knew who their shepherds were. We took our job seriously.
What would have happened, had one night, during that last feeding of the night, an angel had appeared to me? Would have I trusted myself and believed it? Or would have I thought I was simply tired, sleep-deprived and dreaming? Would have I carefully listened to the important message the angel shared, or would have I only been interested in getting in out of the cold and crawling into my bed to warm up?
Thank goodness those shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem weren’t skeptics. Just as the angel had announced to Mary, the angel also encouraged the shepherds not to be afraid. Not be afraid? Who was the angel think he/she was? Somehow, the shepherds kept their wits about them, heard what the angel said, which was re-enforced by a whole bunch of angel friends.
The most important job of the night is no longer making sure no wild animal tackles a sheep. Or making sure the sheep don’t get caught in some brush. Finding the long-awaited Messiah becomes job #1.
Bethlehemwasn’t a terribly large town 2,000 years ago. But without a star to guide them to the right cave, it probably took the shepherds more than one attempt to find just the right cave where Baby Jesus was. The shepherds are persistent and find the baby who by now was sleeping in a manger. His astonished parents were trying to get their heads around the events of the last day.
The shepherds, well, they were simply amazed. Why were they chosen to be that baby’s first visitors? No job would be too humble for Jesus. He’d be willing to do whatever his Father asked him to do, including being a sheep night watchman, if necessary.
I think about how those twin buck lambs depended upon me, my Mom and sometimes my sisters who helped out when necessary. The boys heard me coming, long before they saw me. They trusted that I would bring them dinner. They were so excited to see me; their heads would bob up and down, anticipating getting to drink out of the bottle. After they were done eating, they’d baa at me, as if to thank me for filling their little tummies.
Like any baby, as they got a little bigger and their tummies slowly increased in size, we’d give them increasing amounts of milk and lengthen the time between feedings. Even as they received fewer feedings throughout the day, they still knew who their shepherd was.
Do you know who your shepherd is? As you’ve gotten older and moved from spiritual milk to more solid food, do you still anticipate spending time with your shepherd? Or do you think you can do it more often on your own? When you get into trouble – when wild things come into your life – are you able to call out to your shepherd, ask and receive help? Or do you simply think you can handle any situation on your own? Do you thank your shepherd night watchman for looking over you and your family?
Luke’s gospel tells us the shepherds were so astonished by the night’s events that they told everyone what had happened. Their lives were changed forever. Yes, they were still shepherds. But in their often simple lives, something big had happened.
I pray that in our simple lives, something big will happen that will change our lives forever. Maybe getting to know your shepherd a bit more might be one of those things.
Let us pray: Shepherds, why this jubilee? Why your joyous strains prolong? What the gladsome tidings be which inspire your heavenly song?