It was a starry night: stars may be beautiful, but man it was cold that unforgettable night! The earth might have been sleeping, but us shepherds were wide awake. It was more than our lives were worth to sleep with so many sheep to care for. We were chilled to the bone. Only those deranged or us shepherds were out on an open hillside on a night like this.
Dark lonely nights
It was cold, dark and lonely sitting on a Bethlehem hillside. The vast impenetrable darkness of the sky, which only the brightest stars penetrated, was like our relationship to God. We saw his greatness but knew him not at all. Our lives were cold, dark and lonely too. We were ostracised, shunned and ignored. Just because we were shepherds we were looked down upon and our words never trusted. Did the God of our fathers, who made the vast expanse of the sky, care for us in our loneliness as we drifted in the darkness of a cold world?
Oh, what a night!
We had heard a few distant wolves, but apart from that it had been a quiet evening until… Oh what an unforgettable night it suddenly became! The wonder of it is forever etched in my memory. What a marvel to be a first-hand witness to an event of such significance that it would reverberate down the centuries and across the nations!
The dark night sky suddenly split open with an explosion of light that was beyond anything this world could produce. An angel appeared shining with an all-consuming transcendent brightness that was lighter than light. We were frozen. Dead in our places. Gripped by a sense of dread and guilt, intuitively convinced of our mortality and worthlessness, crushed by a weight of glorious appearance. We expected to sink without trace under its weight when we heard him say, ‘Do not be afraid!’
The voice of another world enveloped us with warmth, security and acceptance. Our fears evaporated and he commanded our total attention, not out of dread but as if it was the only natural, sane and good thing to do. We were hardly expecting to hear what he said next though! ‘Good news! In Bethlehem today. A Saviour!… Born for all people.’
‘Good news… All people?’ Did that include us shepherds too? What! Who had ever given us anything! This must be a dream. But, no, this Saviour was in the ‘city of David’. Bethlehem! Had we misheard him? Was that a mistake? Surely he meant to say in Jerusalem? No! It was in little Bethlehem that this baby was to be found, and he called him ‘Christ the Lord’ who was ‘wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a feeding trough!’ Shepherds have a rough lot in life but I had never heard of one of our offspring being born and placed in an animal feeding trough! This was utterly unheard of, making no sense. Whose idea was this? A special child, exalted beyond measure, yet lying in the place where animals feed.
Glory to God
Then the night sky exploded and a vast company of angels sang the praise of the God of heaven. It was louder, brighter and greater than anything we’d ever heard. They sang, ‘Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill to men.’
The sky reverberated with the glorious sound of angel voices and the night sky itself echoed their praise of God. The sweetest sound! Words full of healing richness as pure truth penetrated heart, soul and mind, as their song washed over us. Then, they were gone. The sky was again dark and empty.
We stood like those stuck in a dream, waiting to be woken up. I do not know who broke our stupor and said, ‘Let’s go and see this for ourselves.’ But it was the only sane thing to do – as if this was the thing we had been waiting our whole life to hear. Consumed with an irresistible desire to go and find this child we left our flocks. Can you believe that? What a journey! We hurried with excitement, anticipation and expectation; full of questions and wondering what would we would find. Who had ever invited shepherds to the birth of a King?
The King’s residence
What we found was not an artist’s romantic depiction. The smell of animals prevailed in the gloomy darkness. The baby was so ordinary, so human. He even cried. There was no beauty in his looks (Isaiah 53:2). His parents were ordinary folks: just a carpenter from Nazareth and his young wife. Yet, we knew we were in the presence of one greater than greatness. This Christ-child’s innocence transcended the scene and we were irresistibly drawn to him yet at the same time felt so unworthy to be near him. So different from us and yet he was one with us. Above us and yet with us. That was why he was called ‘Emmanuel’.
What did it all mean?
As we reflected on what we had seen it was like a veil being lifted from our eyes (2 Corinthians 3:15-16). This was the fulfilment of God’s divine plan, written in the Hebrew Bible. We had seen the fulfilment of the prophet’s promise made so long ago (Micah 5:2) of a great leader, an ancient one, coming from Bethlehem! Under this same sky, our father Jacob had buried his wife Rachel; Ruth the Moabite chose to come and live as she followed her God; and King David grew up here (Genesis 35:19; Ruth 1:22). God’s Christ had been born. And we shepherds had been brought in from the cold to see him.
The Shepherd of Israel
We understood why the history of our people is indelibly intertwined with shepherds. After all our God is the ‘Shepherd of Israel’ (Psalm 80:1), who gathers in his sheep. We shepherds followed in the footsteps of our fathers, the patriarchs and King David, who all tended flocks! And did not God call David, a shepherd, to ‘shepherd his people’ (Psalm 78:70-72)? Now one greater than David was here! The Good Shepherd, the Great Shepherd, the ‘Shepherd King’ had been born.
Who will believe our report?
We could not keep quiet about what we had seen and began to tell anyone who would listen. However, many refused to ‘believe our report’ (Isaiah 53:1). We knew what we saw; we knew what we heard and we knew whom we found when we entered the stable: the Saviour, Christ the Lord. The shepherds’ Saviour, who would become the sacrificial Lamb of God to pay the price of our sin (Isaiah 53).
What about you?
Jesus was born on a cold night to bring us in from the cold. He is the light of the world who shines in this world’s dark night. He was born in a borrowed stable as the King of Kings! He came to end our helpless existence to give us abundant life. He was rich beyond splendour but chose to become poor; born in insignificance, ostracised by many in life. But it was through his poverty that many can become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). There is a revelation that is more profound and wonderful than the sight of the angels filling the night sky. It is when someone realises the magnitude of what God has done in his grace in bringing you in from the cold. Have you been brought in from the cold?