Did you just see those three men? I can’t believe it. I said to them—“I can remember as if it had just happened”, I said to them. “I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.”
It was a cold night out in the fields, and we were all wrapped up warm, a little fire on the go, keeping a sharp eye on our sheep. We’d spotted tracks of a brown bear and some wolves the other day, and some of the flock had gone missing. I was holding on to my staff. We weren’t going to get much sleep that night.
We aren’t normally this far out on the fields this time of the year. Come winter, the grass get too patchy and the wild beasts get too hungry. But it had been unseasonably mild—almost as if winter had stopped right at the door and was waiting for something before entering in—so, we figured we could just as well have the flock graze a bit longer and be on our own out here. I don’t like being in the city. Most of them are too full of themselves, city folk are; treating me like dirt just because I’m a shepherd and can’t keep the Sabbath like they do and I smell of sheep. You try tending them all year round and not smell of sheep!
I think there’s nothing wrong with being a shepherd. It’s a good, honest trade; it was good enough for my father, it’s good enough for me. Did you know? King David, Judah and Israel’s greatest king, started life as a shepherd! He was the youngest son, you see, so he ended up with the shortest straw. Or so his brothers thought. King David, now he understood the likes of us, of you and me. Those townsfolk are just too full of it; and don’t get me started about Jerusalem.
We were keeping watch there trying to keep warm, and—I must have dozed off, I guess. Suddenly there was this man: tall, fierce, wearing a white robe. There was something strange about him, but I wouldn’t be able to quite put a finger on what it was; except I noticed he was not dusty. That was rather odd for a traveller on the road. You normally get covered with dust before you are out of sight of the city gates. He was standing just inside the circle of light around our fire, but it was as if he was lighting up the fire rather than the fire lighting him up, if you know what I mean.
This was a man but not like you and me. He just wasn’t. I was terrified. We all were.
He held out his hands, empty. “Do not be afraid,” he said. “Do not be afraid. See, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
In Bethlehem? The Messiah? We all had heard the words of the prophet Micah:
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Had the time that all the prophets spoke about finally come? Were we going to see the end of the Roman yoke on our country?
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
But—what had that got to do with us shepherds? The rulers and kings sit in pomp and splendour in Jerusalem, whoever they are, and lord it over the likes of you and me without ever giving us so much as a second glance.
The messenger continued. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
I had thrown myself on the ground and covered my head, still terrified. Suddenly the light seemed to grow even brighter, and I heard a great many voices.
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!
Just as suddenly it was again dark and quiet, except for the gentle light and crackle of our fire.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
I looked up, slowly, carefully. The man was gone. I glanced over at Abihu who had been sitting next to me. He looked at me. We had both seen and heard. All of us had.
No one said much then, but we knew there was only one thing for it. We gathered our sheep and set off towards Bethlehem. It was heaving with people who’d come for the census, but we didn’t have to ask about too much to find the place where they were; they were staying not in the guest room, but in the front section of the house, where they keep the animals overnight. The place was smelly and dirty.
He was a young man with dark proud eyes; she was barely more than a girl, maybe fourteen years old, clearly worn out from the journey and giving birth, black hair tangled around a tired face. Between them, in a manger, was a newborn wrapped in bands of cloth, exactly as we had been told. Like any other baby, and yet unlike any I’ve seen.
I realised I was on my knees. I couldn’t remember kneeling.
Could it be real? Could this be the promised one?
What sort of king is this? Isn’t a royal birth in the line of David supposed to be proclaimed by heralds with trumpets to the courts of the land? Isn’t it the kings, princes and emperors of this world who are supposed to come and bring tribute, rather than the likes of us?
What sort of messenger is this, that passes by the palaces and the courts to bring tidings of joy to the poor and the rejected and the people of the land?
What sort of Messiah is this, that shepherds and cattle come to see him, and priests and rulers stay away?
What sort of Saviour is this, that all his power and authority come defenceless and wrapped in cloth in a manger?
What sort of God is this, who lays down all of his majesty to share this life with you and with me and break the shackles of sin?
Who is this Jesus that he came for me?
That was a several days back, but it feels like it was a mere moment ago. That’s what I said to those three men who just passed by. Did you see them? I can’t believe it. Tall, splendid and strange. Foreign princes, they are, or sages.
“What are you looking for, good sirs?” I asked. “Are you lost?”
They said they were following the new star that had appeared in the heavens, because it signified the birth of a great king and they were coming to pay tribute. I told them what we’d found in Bethlehem, and they thanked me, muttered something in a strange language, and were off.
Maybe this child is really it, then.
I had begun to doubt what we’d heard and seen.
Maybe he is really the promised one, on whose shoulders all authority rests: Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace; and he has come not to the temples and palaces and authorities, but to us. And when his time comes, he will rise up and call his people to himself saying: “Are you with me?”
I will likely be old by then; but I for one will be saying, “I am with you, Lord. Count on me.” Of course I will. A Messiah, come for the likes of you and me? I had never expected that. God must be more mysterious, wonderful, loving and reckless than I had ever dared imagine.