The Sinister Side of Christmas, Part 3

Consider the shepherds.

Some scholars point out that the presence of shepherds in the hills of Judea indicates Christ’s birth was at Passover, not in late December. (Our date for celebrating His birth has pagan origins with no connection to history.) Even the poorest people kept sheep, and often the youngest child was responsible for its care. Sometimes a lamb was kept as a household pet (remember Nathan’s parable in 1 Samuel 12?) and slaughtered at Passover, making the offering even more significant. Extra shepherds were hired at Passover to watch the sheep being readied for sacrifice at this most important Jewish feast. A springtime birth, especially at Passover, would certainly be appropriate for the Lamb of God!

Shepherds were considered the dregs of society–shepherds because they could do little else. They were usually illiterate and many were illegitimate and possessed dubious reputations or were petty criminals. Their credibility was questionable, at best.

Shepherds, then, were the least likely candidates for an angelic announcement such as the one they received when Jesus was born. In today’s royal families, births are newsworthy events accompanied by great fanfare, paparazzi, lavish gifts and verbose congratulations from world leaders. Not so at the birth of the King of Glory. Yet, symbolically, the shepherds were the very best choice as the first recipients of the news–because of their profession and because of their character (the change in them would have been conspicuous.)

One thing we choose to forget about the shepherds on that night is their abject fear. The Greek says that they “feared a great fear.” God had not spoken to His people in 400 years, and these people were not like Anna and Simeon, godly and biblically literate Jews who were expecting Messiah’s arrival. In addition, they were extremely superstitious. Imagine their paralyzing terror when, in an instant of time, an angel of the Lord in all his radiance appeared before them and began to speak. (We always picture the angles hovering over the shepherds like some sort of cosmic hummingbirds, but there is nothing in the text that suggests this. It is more likely that they stood and moved among the shepherds, which may have been even more disconcerting.)

The announcement of Christ’s birth to the shepherds, then, is surely one of the best illustrations we have of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1.26-28:

“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. 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; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”


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