The Heart Of A Shepherd

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“And there were in the same country, shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Luke 2:8).

It was the shepherds outside of Bethelehem who first heard the news of Christ’s birth. These men and boys often lived at the edge of society, doing hard and lonely work in all sorts of weather. In many ways, the shepherd was the “average working-class Joe” of Jewish life. To some people, being a shepherd was among the lowest kinds of work. It was physically demanding but vital to the economy of the Jews. Shepherds lived mostly in the wild with only a wool wrap and a simple cover to protect them from rain, wind, scorching heat and freezing cold. Shepherds ate only what they could carry: bread, cheese, olives and if they were lucky, some figs and raisins. They had to be versatile and adaptable to all kinds of situations; ready to rescue any strayed sheep and carry any injured one back to safety to nurse it to health. Dangerous predators roamed the hills around Bethlehem and shepherds armed themselves with slingshots and heavy mallets to ward off the attacks of bears, lions, wolves and jackals. Sometimes they would pull thickets of thorns and brambles together to make a pen for their sheep at night. The shepherd would then lie down in the gate opening to close it off and protect his flock.

The connection between a shepherd and their sheep was so close that he could recognize the sounds made by each of the ones in his flock. Likewise, the sheep knew and would respond to the voice of their shepherd. “My sheep know My voice and I know them and they follow Me” (John 10:27). This “closeness” to their work also meant that shepherds were often unbathed, dirty, and smelly. The nature of their desert work meant that they had little access to water and could only very rarely keep the elaborate cleanliness rituals of faithful Jews. They were in some ways, outcasts and loners, dirty and looked-down upon by others. In a word, they were God’s delight. Because God delights in choosing the lowly and marginalized to do His work and receive His blessings.

The Bible is full of references to sheep and shepherds. Old Testament saints like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David were all shepherds at one time or another. Jesus as our “Good Shepherd” is a beautiful image from Sacred Scripture. In our time, the words “pastor” and “bishop” both derive from ancient words meaning “shepherd” and “guardian” and the staff of the bishop is still the shepherd’s crook. It was appropriate then, that shepherds became the first Christmas guests. We don’t know the names of the shepherds out on the hill that night with their flock surrounding them. Because they were just those “average Joes” working the night shift, their legacy is anonymous. But for a moment, try to imagine what it must have been like for them. It’s a cold, quiet evening, talking with your friends around a fire. The conversation always seemed to come back to the Romans, to politics. Occasionally, the bleating of a sheep causes eyes to scan the hills for any sign of wolves. Not tonight. No, it’s just another cold quiet night on the job. And then—–LIGHT! Not just the light of daylight, but daylight a million times over! The night sky blazes with an army of huge, shining men in armor surrounding and overwhelming them with their light and song. “Do not be afraid,” the clear and beautiful voice rings out from the one closest to the shepherds. “A Savior has been born to you!” The angels spread out their arms and the glory and radiance of heaven is spilled out over the whole sky. “Glory to God in the highest!” rang out the thunderous cry of the army of God. The joy of heaven flowed down to earth that night and into the lives of the shepherds of Bethlehem. For our great and almighty God has the heart of a shepherd. So it was fitting that shepherds be the first to know. And what did the shepherds do? They didn’t stop to debate what it all meant, to argue over theology or form a committee. No. They ran. They ran to the manger, ran to meet their King, ran to the Baby, to fall down on their knees and worship Him, Emmanuel, God Is With Us. May we all have the heart of a shepherd this Christmas season.

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