That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them.
“Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior — yes, the Messiah, the Lord — has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize Him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”
Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others — the armies of heaven — praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” — Luke 2:8-14, NLT
If you read the Scriptures long enough, you come to realize that the Lord just doesn’t do random. Everything is always part of a plan; everything always has a perfect purpose and a right time.
Which is why, on the face of it, this story seems so odd. You might think the announcement of the birth of the long-anticipated Messiah would have taken place at the temple in Jerusalem, before a decked-out High Priest and thousands of rapt onlookers. Instead, the most celebrated birth in history was first announced on a lonely hill beside a tiny village in the dead of night, to a few terrified shepherds and their sleeping flocks of sheep. It’s the modern equivalent of angels appearing in a homeless encampment beneath a highway overpass.
What was God up to?
If Bethlehem had any notoriety before the birth of Jesus — and it didn’t have much — it was famous for King David and sheep. David had been born in that anonymous little burg and had probably learned shepherding in those same fields mentioned by Luke. Bethlehem was equally well-known for its sheep, for it was here that the sacrificial lambs were raised and protected, until that day when they would be laid on the altar of the temple in nearby Jerusalem, an atonement for sin.
Caring for sheep was at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. Children usually served as shepherds for the family flock, but as they grew and took on other duties, shepherds were sometimes hired from the community. Some of these hired hands were known to steal sheep for their own flocks, and some failed to protect the sheep from danger. Shepherds gained such a bad reputation that their testimony was not permitted in court. Because their dirty job made them malodorous and ritually unclean, they were unwelcome in the temple.
At the Jerusalem Comedy Factory, shepherd jokes always brought down the house.
MOISHE: Say Lev, how do you know when a shepherd is lying?
LEV: I don’t know, Moishe. How do you know when a shepherd is lying?
MOISHE: When his lips move!
LEV: Ba-da-boom, ba-da-bing!
It was to these disreputable outcasts that the angels first brought news of the miracle in Bethlehem. Why?
One practical reason might be that they were the only ones still awake. The text suggests it was late; in all likelihood, Bethlehem had long since fallen asleep. But as David observed in Psalm 121:4: “He who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.” The Kingdom of God is a 24/7 operation; while the world snores, God is busy. Shepherds had to keep alert for thieves and wild animals stalking the flocks at night; they were therefore ready when the angel appeared.
Another clue from the text is found in the angel’s proclamation: “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people.” The phrase “good news” is the Greek evangel from which we get our English words “evangelize” and “evangelical”. But notice that this particular good news is broadly inclusive — the angel says it is for everyone, for all people. That would have been especially good news to ones so used to being excluded, discounted and marginalized.
So by appearing first to the shepherds, perhaps God was making it plain that no one was to be excluded, no one fell outside of the circle of God’s love; this Messiah would bring joy to all people.
There is another possible reason for the appearance to the shepherds found in the words of the prophet Isaiah as he describes God’s good news mission, using words that Jesus himself would later claim:
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon Me, for the LORD has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent Me to comfort the brokenhearted and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed. He has sent Me to tell those who mourn that the time of the LORD’s favor has come… — Isaiah 61:1-2, NLT
In other words, this was not some kind of trickle-down good news that would reach shepherds after it was first enjoyed by the more privileged and worthy. This good news was focused directly on everyone who had been beaten down and swept aside by mainstream society, and by a corrupt, religious patronage system that favored the rich and powerful. Jesus’ ministry would reach rich and poor, sick and healthy, Jews and Gentiles, sinners and saints. It would sweep away favoritism and classism, substituting true justice and compassion.
Finally, I think the angels appeared to that motley crew of shepherds because of the sheep. The flocks around Bethlehem included the temple flocks, where the first-born unblemished lambs were nurtured before they were taken to Jerusalem and killed, spilling their blood as an offering for the sins of the nation.
Resting nearby in a manger and wrapped in cloths was another sacrificial lamb, the first-born of his parents, Joseph and Mary, conceived in a miracle, the very God of creation disguised as a newborn baby. And when he was grown, the man, Jesus Christ, would spill his blood on a cross outside of Jerusalem, offering himself as the atonement for the sins of the whole world.
So perhaps this appearance of hosts of angels to lowly shepherds was an act of poetic symmetry, a foreshadowing of things to come. When the angels had gone, the shepherds hurried to Bethlehem and found the child. They stood beside the manger, gawking in wonder at a newborn baby, never comprehending as they did so that this promised child was the Lamb of God.
Art credit: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1668.