I find it beyond wonderful that Jesus’ birth announcement went out to the Shepherds. It appears in Luke’s record of Jesus’ birth. The announcement did not go out first to the powerful, to the ruling elite, to the rich, beautiful, or gifted. Instead – it went out to shepherds – the very bottom of the societal ladder. Yet, it is to this rough bunch that the heavenly host appears with an announcement that can hardly be believed. “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you’.”
Jethro listened to the night as he stood silently on watch. The crickets were singing as usual, and some of the sheep in the flock were grazing with a few calling once in a while to their lambs and the lambs calling back. These were the normal night sounds of a flock, and Jethro knew them well.
Tonight he was not only watching over his flock, but he was also watching over the flocks of the other shepherds gathered around the campfire in the bowl-like depression below him. Jethro was still a young man, but he had earned the responsibility he carried on his shoulders this evening. For seven years he had worked with the men who sat about the fire below, and for seven years he had profited from the patient knowledge of these men. In turn, he had slowly earned their respect as he went about his duties by day and watches at night without complaint. As his flock had increased he had been able to begin selling a small portion of that increase. Without the help of those below him, his start as a shepherd would have taken much longer. Although they were only shepherds, Jethro owed them much.
Five flocks were gathered together this evening. For two days, they had grazed the hillsides to the south, but tomorrow they would move farther to the eastern hills. There was good grazing there according to Daniel, who had gone to look yesterday. He had only returned late in the evening; and because of the length of the trek, he had not spoken until this morning. Jethro had been on the middle watch that evening and had actually been a little startled by the silent Daniel who had appeared out of the darkness and cast himself down on the ground to fall asleep almost immediately. It had not been until the following morning that he had told the other shepherds and Jethro about the excellent grass he had found on their eastern flank. Tomorrow they would begin their move toward that new ground.
Jethro moved a few yards to the west. The sheep were very quiet tonight. Actually, the sheep were never totally quiet. In a small flock or large, there were always animals that were grazing and calling to one another. But on this night, there were very few on their feet and moving about to feed. It made for an easier watch. Fewer movements to catch your eye meant less walking about to make sure there was no predator. But even as Jethro watched, one by one, the last stragglers knelt down to chew their cud. Jethro could count on one hand the few times he had ever seen a flock totally at rest. It was just not very common, but it was noteworthy when it happened.
The quiet increased as the sheep contentedly lay about him. Then, as if that very quiet had been commanded, a silence fell about the flock. Jethro sharpened his watch, but there was nothing to see. Even the breeze dropped off. The stars overhead seemed to take on a new luster against the night sky, but Jethro noted that the moon had not yet risen. Silence like this almost always was the harbinger of trouble, change, something new on the wind. Yet nowhere in the sea of wool before him did he see or sense trouble, only – the silence. Even the crickets had stopped their chirping. Jethro found himself holding his breath in expectation of – he knew not what!
Then – a glow illuminated the small depression where they camped. At first, Jethro hardly noticed it, but in a mere second, it touched every corner and enveloped them all. Indeed, it seemed to cling to their clothes and outline each person present. Jethro cried out a warning and those by the fire quickly awakened the shepherds already asleep. Great fear and awe swept over them all.
Immediately, a figure appeared in their midst, a tall figure with wings furled, and the radiance that surrounded him set the entire clearing ablaze. It was both wonderful and terrifying at the same time. Several of the men cringed and fell on their faces crying out in terror. And then – then the angel spoke, “Do not be afraid. For I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
And then, a wonder of wonders, suddenly the night sky lit up with the Glory of the Lord. From horizon to horizon it – it just exploded, and a great company of the heavenly host was suddenly revealed, and they filled the sky to bursting with rank upon rank upon rank of angelic beings! And they spoke saying the wonderful message over and over again, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” And their words were the words of men, but their speech held more than music. It was the melody of heaven itself, beyond the mere announcement, beyond beauty, beyond glory. And it echoed and echoed again in Jethro’s heart as it repeated itself over and over. But even as Jethro was swept away by the wonder, that great joy that accompanied the words spoken broke out on each man’s face. It overcame them all so that they could not stop smiling as its very beauty and meaning overcame them and their hearts sang with a joy that was unexplainable.
And then the angels were no more, and the Glory of the Lord that had shone around the shepherds and even through them – it faded. But the presence of heaven that had shown itself before them continued to reverberate in their hearts. That holiness, that righteousness of the heavenly host, the angelic joy that had filled the night sky, it remained – almost physical. As one they stood, still gazing up at the stars overhead for long moments, still totally enthralled.
And then a young shepherd, a boy actually and the youngest son of Jason broke the silence. And in his joyful enthusiasm, he cried out, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has told us about.” And immediately voices from around the camp echoed in agreement. Quickly they broke camp and hurried off for each knew that Bethlehem was just a short distance away, just beyond the horizon.
In later years Jethro never lost the wonder of that evening. For as they approached the stable, again he experienced the very presence of heaven in his heart. Its rightness – it touched them all as they gazed at the scene. For it was just as they had been told. The babe lay in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and his mother – Mary – listened in quiet attention as they spoke of the angelic announcement which had drawn them to the stable. And Mary’s husband Joseph, quietly thanked them for their praise of God over the birth of the child.
Jethro had gazed at the child in rapt wonder, such a dark-haired surprise! And even as he looked at the sleeping bundle, the child quietly awakened and Mary gathered him into her arms. Jesus – that was what they were told his name was. And as Jethro watched, the baby looked at him, met his eyes, and Jethro extended his work-roughened little finger. The baby, Jesus, reached out through the swaddling clothes which Mary had loosed and grasped it. Even in later years, Jethro had no words for that moment in time. He seldom re-told it, but on those rare occasions when he did, those who listened were struck with amazement at the glow of joy the shone from his weathered face.
And Jethro remembered how they had told all they encountered that night of what the angels had told them. And all they told were amazed. And slowly, reluctantly even, they had withdrawn from the stable yard and returned to their flocks in the field, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen – for the joy that was almost beyond grasping, for the message that was for all people, “A Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”
By Advocate Paul Gibson