Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Shepherds on the Hill

High on a bluff, opposite the City of Bethlehem sits the traditional site of the Shepherd’s fields.  Set well back from the edge of the bluff are some shallow low ceilinged caves, such as those commonly used by shepherds watching over their flocks by night.  Each cave is large enough to hold a fair sized flock of sheep.  At night the shepherds built their campfire and lay down in mouth of the caves.  The shepherds were the door of the sheep.  Walking to the edge of the bluff one looks down on the fields of Boaz.  Boaz was the father of Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David the King, who was the direct line ancestor of Jesus on both Joseph’s side and on Mary’s side.  Joseph’s genealogy is given in the Gospel of Matthew, and Mary’s in the Gospel of Luke.


         The flock they guarded was large enough for several shepherds to tend.  Shepherds were usually single men too young to marry, or landless bachelors.  It was rough work, dirty work, tending sometimes recalcitrant, wayward, and often stupid sheep.  It could be dangerous protecting the sheep from thieves, wolves, and as David tells us from marauding lions or bears.

        There were no city lights, no ambient light; the only illumination starlight and the waning or waxing moon.  Looking across the fields of Boaz, Bethlehem would be silhouetted blackly on the horizon.


            The account of the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke is plain and unadorned.  A young couple, Joseph and Mary, travel by foot, no donkey; only the wealthy could afford a donkey.  The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is approximately 70 miles depending on the route they would have chosen.  On arriving in Bethlehem, the city of their ancestor David, they found that there was no room in the inn.  The customary inn was little more than one room and a courtyard, with a cave for a stable nearby.  They took refuge in the stable which, all things considered, was probably considerably cleaner than the inn would have been and had the advantage of privacy.  The newborn baby is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid on the hay in a stone manger.  The only hint in the passage of things to come is the simple reference affirming that Joseph was of the lineage of David, but so also was Mary.

            The theological weight of this part of the story rests solely on the appearance of the angel to the shepherds on the hill.

Luke 2:8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 

            At first only one angel appears.  The radiant light of the Cloud of the Glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds, and we are told that they were filled with fear.

Luke 2:10 And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.  11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." 

            That is the heart of the matter, all else is trappings.  The baby is the Savior who has come into the world to save his people from their sins.  He is the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed one who is the Lord.  The title is evocative of Psalm 45.  The one who is born is the Living God in the flesh.

Psalm 45:6 Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: the sceptre of thy kingdom is a right sceptre.  7 Thou lovest righteousness, and hatest wickedness: therefore God, thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.  8 All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad.

            In the birth of this infant the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled,

  Isaiah 9:6 For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.  7 Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.

            It is only after the central message is safely and clearly delivered that the multitude of angels appears.  The phrase, “Lord God of Hosts,” actually means “Lord God of Armies.”  The multitude of the heavenly host appearing is the Angelic Army of the Lord. 

Luke 2:13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,  14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!"  15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us."  16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.  17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 

It is significant that it is to simple working class men that the angels appear; not to prelates or scholars, not to rulers or priests, not to Sadducees or Pharisees.  Why?  Because God knew the hearts of these men, and He knew that they would respond with joyful faith.

Luke 2:18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.  19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.  20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

            Do I need to make the application?  I certainly do.

1 Corinthians 1: 26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,  29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.  30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.