And there were shepherds keeping watch

Posted: Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Do you realize that most of our mental images about Christian things come from medieval art and Christmas cards? I recently talked to someone about how many Christmas cards show three wise men coming to the Christ child just minutes after His birth. If you read the biblical account carefully, it could have been up to two years after Jesus was born that the Magi offered their tribute to the Child. Herod sought out the male children two years old and younger. We have no idea how many wise men actually came. Christmas cards show three. The biblical account does not give a number. We know it was more than one because the Bible talks about men - plural. But was it two, three or six? We don't know, because the story in Matthew doesn't tell us. You don't believe me? You're sure you've seen it there, in Matthew chapter two. As a matter of fact, the number three is not even mentioned in chapter two. The unnumbered magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I guess that's where we get the idea of three.

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If we're confused about the magi, then we probably misinterpret the shepherds as well. We have an image of gentle folk singing sweet songs by a campfire. In fact, shepherding was a despised occupation. The picture of shepherds in the field getting ready to hear angels sing evokes a positive, pastoral image for us; it reminds us of Jesus' association with the line of David. In the first century, shepherds were generally scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on others' lands. They're not the pleasant Hallmark faces we're used to seeing this time of year. We have sentimentalized them so that they look like gentle folk waiting to go to a homecoming celebration. No picture is farther from reality. No one encouraged his or her child to grow up to be a shepherd. Kids didn't say, "When I grow up, I want to be ... a shepherd." The popular song was, "Momma, don't let your children grow up to be shepherds." Shepherds were mostly ornery, dirty, ordinary people!

Now, notice to whom the angels first go to share their news: the shepherds! Isn't that strange. They ought to be shouting from the mountain tops and parading in the streets of Jerusalem shouting, "Wake up and hear this!" The angels should have gone to the temple to tell the religious leaders what God was doing. They should have gone to the governor and let him know that something awesome was happening in Bethlehem. They should have gone to Herod. After all, he was the current king of Judea. They should have told him that God was doing a great thing in Bethlehem, and that the King of kings had been born. They should have gone to the Jerusalem Empire and said, "Stop the presses! We've got news that's going to sell newspapers." They should have spread it all over the Internet on You Tube!

However, instead of telling somebody important, they got their directions messed up and wound up telling a rag-tag bunch of shepherds. That's not what we would tell them to do. That's not what we would have done. But, that is the way God wanted it. I wonder why? In going to the shepherds, we are reminded that Jesus came for people like the shepherds. The shepherds - not the religious elite, the politically savvy, or the rulers of the people-show us the kind of people Jesus comes to save. He comes to people humble enough to recognize they really need a Savior. When you decide you need a Savior, Jesus will come to you.

• Dr. Scott Williamson is the senior pastor at Glacier Valley Baptist Church.

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