Outside of Joseph and Mary, the very first humans to lay eyes on the Christchile were Bethlehem’s shepherds. How absolutely marvellous and appropriate that is, and on multiple levels.
On a similar night, a thousand years before, another shepherd was called from these same fields to receive God’s message and become King of the Jews. His name; David, son of Jesse. Now, the heirs of David’s first occupation were the first to gaze upon the heir to David’s throne. This King’s reign however, would not be limited to 40 years like His ancestor. As the prophet Isaiah had said, “And of His kingdom, there shall be no end.”
In the first century, outside of Jerusalem, Israel was still primarily an agrarian society. Sheep and goats, along with cattle and donkeys, were the primary symbols of wealth. Shepherds tended to be servants, men too old to go to war anymore or the youngest sons of the landowners. They were men and boys of little station, yet given the awesome responsibility of guarding and guiding the wealth of the nation.
Sheep and goats are far from the stupid creatures they have been portrayed to be over the years. As someone who has owned many of them over the years, I can attest to the fact that they are quick learning and crafty creatures. In fact, it is said that a sheep can remember a human face for up to two years.
While not stupid by any stretch of the imagination, sheep and goats are, however, prone to wander. They don’t pay attention to their surroundings and are easily lost. They are also prey animals, hunted by creatures as diverse as hawks, owls, bears, wolves and lions. It was the shepherd’s responsibility to keep the flock safe from themselves and from the many predators roaming the hillsides and the skies surrounding Bethlehem.
Shepherds were not men of standing, but they were frequently courageous. David, himself, described how as a boy, he was forced to tackle both a lion and a bear in defense of his father’s flocks. And it is these men who are the very first to see the Savior and carry the good news of His arrival. They were nearly two years ahead of the Wise Men.
By the time the Magi arrived with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, Jesus was a toddler and the shepherds had already spread the message of the Messiah’s arrival to the surrounding villages.
Not much has changed in the last 2,000 years. It seems that the wealthy, the important, the positioned in society, take a little longer than the ordinary citizen to catch on to God’s truth. It’s not that they are bad people, at least not any worse than anyone else, but on occasion, money, privilege and power distract their possessors. The rest of us, having fewer speed bumps, are able to get on board a little faster.
The good news is, the Wise Men, did catch on and did follow the star and did arrive at the party. Sure they were a bit late, but it’s never too late.
God is still calling shepherds and Wise Men to meet his Son. Young and old, male and female, from all races and languages we are invited to sing with the angels, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will towards men.”