This morning I learned that at the time of Jesus's birth there was a Jewish law that said sheep had to be kept outside town and city boundaries - likely for hygienic purposes. I also learned there was another law that said if there were not enough animals to conduct the sacrifices at the Temple, rabbis could and often would go to the countryside to take custody of the animals needed to fulfill the sacrificial requirements. Sacrifices were constantly being made so animals were constantly needed. At the time of Passover, it is estimated some quarter million sheep and lambs would be slaughtered to atone for the sins of God's people.
There's a lot of irony here. These shepherds spent their lives guarding these creatures so they could die. Often at night, the sheep would be herded into a lean to or holding pen and the shepherds would literally lie across the threshold to make sure none would escape at night or that thieves would not come steal their charges. These shepherds would lay their lives down over and over but at any moment a rabbi could come along and take what they spent their lives guarding in order to please God. I would have found it frustrating to be guarding my sheep only to have someone come along and claim the animal for their own and walk off with it - even if it was for holy purposes.
What makes all of this so incredible is that when the angels visited the shepherds on the hillside to announce Jesus's birth, they were essentially saying, "You guys are out of a job." They were announcing that the Lamb of God, born to die to take away the sins of the world had finally come. God chose to announce that He was now "with us" to the very workers who shepherded the sacrifices for His people. Many pastors like to talk about how shepherds were dirty and disrespected people and how amazing it is that God would make His announcement to them first. Yes, that's true. But I find it even more incredible that He would make the announcement to the shepherds of the sacrifices.
That got me to thinking - we are all shepherds. No, not in the literal sense, especially where I live in suburbia where someone is more likely to work in IT or real estate than in agriculture. But we all take care of and follow things that we believe will keep us safe and make us right with God. That might be the careers that occupy every hour of the day or it might be other things that are not so obvious. People are really good at taking care of things like unforgiveness, resentment, and bitterness because they think those things will protect them from ever being hurt again. Some people shepherd fear, anxiety, or depression and bed down with those feelings at night like the shepherds in the fields. If we are honest we wouldn't know what to do if someone came along and robbed those feelings from us. We wouldn't know how to relate to the world if anxiety stepped over us and escaped into the night. Some things we shepherd are good things like children or hobbies but if someone walked over the hill and said, "Those are mine now, they must come with me", we would be pretty resentful - how dare they take the things I kept alive all these years that bring me so much joy?!
But that night, in that field the angels announced God had come. It would take a while to understand that the baby who came was the once-and-for-all sacrifice for the shepherds, the Jewish people they served, and eventually the whole world. The beauty of the baby is that He would provide the way for eternal life and would take care of those eternal insecurities like where am I going when I die and will I be safe and loved? That baby also came to take care of the temporal things that plague mankind - the fear, the anxiety, the temporary pleasures. Jesus is the once-and-for-all sacrifice for eternal life and abundant life here, right now. (John 10:10)
We are all shepherds keeping watch. There are things in our charge that God has purposed for us. There are other things we nurture and value that Jesus came and died for that are no longer our burden. This Christmas season, imagine sitting with those shepherds on that hillside on that holy night. Imagine receiving the Good News that Immanuel, God With Us, is here for you. He's here for the things you're holding onto and guarding with your life. Will you leave those things and follow Him? Will you put everything into His hands - the temporary, earthly things and the eternal things like your life? If you've already trusted Him with your life are there things you continue to shepherd instead of letting Him reign?
The shepherds in Luke 2 were filled with great fear at the announcement by the angels but they made a choice to go and see the baby - they didn't tarry, the Bible says they went with haste. If the idea of turning everything over to the Lord strikes fear in you, it's ok, you're just like the shepherds. Just get up and go with haste -the Savior is waiting.