Why the Shepherds? Why did the angel announce Jesus’ birth to shepherds? Given the resources of heaven they could have pulled off one very spectacular announcement in Bethlehem or, come to think of it, in Jerusalem.
We need to go back to the story of ancient Israel. Prophets such as Ezekiel spoke of the kings of Israel as shepherds. But Ezekiel knew what many of them were like: self-indulgent, exploiting people and plundering their property. In Ezekiel’s time Israel had been conquered by the Babylonians. Jerusalem was in ruins and its people were in exile. Ezekiel 34 tells us it was the fault of the shepherds.
Ezekiel’s good news was that God would raise up a new and perfect king – a shepherd-king – in the line of king David, but greater than David. So it was that the angel announced to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid; for 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 Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10f).
It was the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s promise that God himself would raise up a ruler, a shepherd-king, who would do things that Israel’s kings hadn’t done— restore the weak and gather the lost. “Then they will know that I the Lord their God am with them” Ezekiel said (34:30). It was good news.
At the time of Jesus’ birth the shepherds were at the bottom of the social order. They were the lost, the outsiders. Yet it was to them the angel made the announcement.
And there is something significant about the place where Jesus was born. Dr Kenneth Bailey has recently raised questions about our culture’s Christmas story. Our story is that Jesus was born in a barn or a stable because there was no room in the local inn. But when we look more carefully at the Bible text another picture emerges.
NO ROOM AT THE INN?
In Luke 2:7 we read: And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. ‘Inn’ is not really the best translation of the original word. The usual Greek word for ‘inn’ is found in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:34). The word in Luke 2 is the word katalyma, literally meaning ‘a place to stay’ or ‘guest room’. We find this once more in Luke’s Gospel – the ‘guest room’ in a private house in Jerusalem where Jesus planned to celebrate the Passover with his disciples (22:11).
In Jesus’ day poorer families lived in homes with one large extended room. Sometimes there was a ‘guest room’ on the same level or on the roof. And there was always a small area at ground level under the same roof where the family animals were kept at night to keep them secure.
Luke is telling us that there was literally no room, ‘no place’ in the guest room of a private home. A member of the House of David, Joseph would have had a welcoming family in Bethlehem to take them both in. However the guest room was already occupied. Mary had to make do for the birth of Jesus in the living room. What’s more, she used the cattle feeding-trough or manger, set up at the end of the raised floor of the living room to lay the baby down.
The announcement of the birth of Jesus Christ to shepherds is very significant for it tells us that God has reached down from the glory of highest heaven to rescue and transform the lives of the lowliest, even the outcasts. Furthermore, if the angel had told the shepherds that they would find the baby in the home of a highly placed or wealthy official they would have hesitated to go and see him. Instead of asking if they were dreaming or discussing miracles, they said, “Let’s go and see this baby for ourselves.”
Their response sets us a challenge. We weren’t there that night, but we have the record of eyewitnesses. Like the shepherds we need to find out for ourselves whether this baby is as special as those eyewitnesses made out. It means carrying out our own investigation and encouraging everyone we know to do the same – perhaps by giving them a gift of one of the Gospels to read.
Too often we fail to find the joy and peace of Christmas because we have not truly found God’s shepherd-king ourselves. As circumstances have recently reminded me, we are all in need of a savior – someone to whom we need to apologize and whose forgiveness we need to ask. Only when we turn to Jesus and meet him personally in this way will we be able to say to one another and really mean it, ‘Merry Christmas’.
May you know the joy, peace and goodwill that the message of Christmas brings us – during this Christmas season and in the New Year.