I have to confess that I don't know much about sheep personally. I've had an occasion or two to run across their paths now and then in the days when our family was spending time on Hunterston Farm on Galiano Island of the Gulf Islands in British Columbia. It's a working sheep farm but also has space for vacation homes for people I know, and an year-round home for my all-time favorite Regent College professor and his wife (whom I also took a course from). The road to their home went straight through the sheep's land, so we had to open and close gates to keep the sheep penned. And sometimes yell at them to move from sleeping on the road so we could pass. During our visits there we'd often take walks among them and the ewes would lumber away from us--if they felt like it--and only the lambs had charm to them. In fact, from what I could see, sheep are a dirty, lazy animal, their wool matted with sticks and other things sticking in it that isn't fit to mention in gentle company.
I consider, then, those men whose job it was to take these sheep to the hillsides in search of grass, to herd such lazy, unlikely animals. The climate in British Columbia makes for good eating for sheep, grass is verdant and lush and on Hunterston Farm they are merely moved from one pasture to the next to keep the grass down. But herding sheep is harder work in the dry, rocky terrain of Israel, where the heat and aridity creates the need to search out grass enough to feed sheep. Shepherds must have been nomadic and hardy, their most frequent community the dumb and lazy sheep themselves. Sometimes other shepherds would sit around the fire sharing stories of the work, the day's herding, the lost lambs, the climb, whatever shepherds might talk about at night when sheep were drowsy in the fields beyond the firelight.
And those shepherds might wrap their cloaks more tightly around themselves to ward off whatever chill was in the night air, and drowse themselves. But lightly, like a mother with her newborn baby. Ready any moment to be wide awake at the slightest mew or change in breathing from the herd.
That night, that wondrous night, to these marginalized, set-apart men came the singular moment of all time for they were the first humans to hear the gospel. Imagine that. Imagine being the very first to know that Messiah has come. Waiting not simply through the night, with one ear half-listening, but through all of history for Him to come. And in a heart-beating-out-of-your-chest instant, an angel tells you it is so. "Don't be afraid," the angel says (because the unexpectedness of angels ALWAYs cause fear in mere mortals!). "For I bring you...good news." Good news, indeed. "Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah.." To you. Not simply to the rich and powerful and those living in houses even but to you.
And this is such an earth-shattering moment that all of heaven must burst into song at such news. To those men on the hillside. They have the unparalleled experience of hearing/seeing the choir of heaven whose only 'job' is to worship around the heavenly throne break through the dividing wall between the world and heaven. Between the visible and the invisible. Between what we know in part, see in a mirror dimly and what they see face-to-face. What lies wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger is the very one those angels worship day and night. And these men hidden on the hillside, awake as they've never been awake before, have the Kingly honor of hearing, seeing, having all their senses positively drip in that heavenly choir's harmony.
And once the last chord has rung in the air and only the stars sit quietly in the sky (in the understatement of history), the shepherds say to one another, "Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." Without any discussion, the text says, 'they hurried off...' They found their way to that manger, to the parents hovering over the manger, the animals lowing in the barn.
Let's leave them there, shall we? And think a moment about where we find ourselves when the Good News comes to us. It may not be with such fanfare. In fact, I'd guess that was a one-time only performance by that choir. Incarnation-only, I might say. But we are always more like shepherds than kings when we hear the good news. No matter what our lives look like. I'm not talking about wealth or power or privilege or beauty now. I'm talking about our real place before our real God, the place that made the Incarnation necessary. We are the marginalized. Paupers. Beggars. With our hands out, tattered and torn from what we've done...who we've been. Who we are.
In exactly this state, He comes. The Good News comes. The baby comes. God wrapped not in the cloths of flesh just like ours comes. And we are privileged to hear this news, to have heaven break so open that we are let in by it. This is who that baby is--that heaven sings and we are let in to that song. And let in to heaven itself if we hurry to Him, fall at His feet. Who we are, in our needy flesh worshiping who HE is in His Holy wholeness. God among us. Messiah.