It was an ordinary night, dark and quiet and clear. The dust-covered shepherds were standing around a small fire, talking about their day. They smelled like dirty sheep. As they talked, they looked around occasionally for wolves, thieves or other predators who might try to sneak into their sheepfold and steal some lambs. The oldest shepherd had seen many would-be thieves in his day and always had a story to tell about past battles that he won protecting the flock.
These Passover sheep were important to guard and keep in perfect health and peace. They couldn’t have any blemishes when the priests examined them for the next Passover, and they would quickly acquire many blemishes running into each other trying to scrabble away from any perceived threats. Blemished lambs meant blemished profits. As a result, they had to be watched constantly, even at night.
Some of the shepherds were sleeping by the fire or near the entrance of the enclosure. One was snoring directly in the small open gateway. “He’s such a deep sleeper that a herd of camels couldn’t wake him!” they pointed and snickered. “It’s a good thing his snoring has scared away everything else between here and Bethlehem! We should have nothing else to worry about tonight! Ha!” They were still joking about their snoring gatekeeper when a shaft of bright light suddenly appeared before them.
They stopped talking and cried out in fear, cowering back. Their sleeping colleagues bolted out of a dead sleep and jumped up, every hair on their bodies standing straight out.
Before their astonished eyes, an angel arose, taller than any man they’d ever seen, in the midst of the light. He unfurled his wings as he rose, smiled, and extended his arms toward them. They yelped again, fearful for their lives. “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!” announced the angel.
The shepherds looked at each other, perplexed, amazed, trembling, shaking their heads and rubbing their eyes. He really was standing before them, and he really was telling them–dirty, filthy, rugged, insignificant shepherds, who were considered too unclean to come in to the temple to worship–this startling news! Shepherds–like women and tax collectors–were reckoned to be so untrustworthy that their testimony was not even admissible in a court of law in Israel. Yet this angel was giving them a message?!
The angel continued: “And this will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” He looked around at each shepherd and grinned. He then looked up and raised his arms. Suddenly the skies lit up with a ring of living, shimmering light. A multitude of angels appeared in the light, swirling and diving and rejoicing! The messenger angel flew up to join them, and they all began swirling in a circle. Then they cried out with one loud, joyful voice, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!”
Suddenly, they disappeared back into heaven. It was dark and quiet and clear again.
The shepherds were stunned. They were shaken. They scarcely dared to move.
They looked around them. Everything looked just like it had moments before. Didn’t anyone else in the whole world see this? They looked toward Bethlehem, still in the dark, sleeping. How could anyone sleep through all that noise?
The snoring shepherd broke the silence. “What did that angel say? ‘You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger’? So… could it be that… the Savior, Christ the Lord, was just born?” They looked at each other, nodding, just beginning to realize the implications of the angel’s words. They had just been told–by no less than an angel! –that their Messiah, whom their nation had been waiting for, for centuries, had just been born!
Another shepherd–the oldest one–said, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us!”
“Yes, let us go now and see this marvel,” said another shepherd, a younger one. He had gotten married just last year and had a new baby himself. The others agreed. They glanced at their sheepfold, then headed out toward Bethlehem with resolution and eagerness.
They talked with each other excitedly about what they had all seen. They assured each other that they were not crazy and had not been dreaming. They talked about the angel and the other angels and the bright light that seemed to come from inside the angels. They talked about how scared they were and what they might tell the other shepherds at the other sheepfolds and what they might tell their families. Who would believe that they had seen angels with their very own eyes?! Not even the high priest had ever been reported as having seen an angel, and they had just seen hundreds!
Most of all, they talked about the Messiah, the Anointed One, who had been prophesied generations ago to deliver His people from the clutches of oppressive Roman rule. They lowered their voices, looking around cautiously for Roman guards, as they struggled to recall the prophecies about the Messiah coming.
They couldn’t afford for word of this angelic announcement to get back to King Herod. He was so fearful of someone killing him and taking his throne that there was no telling what he would do if he found out that the Jews’ Messiah had been born. It was said that it was safer to be a pig in his house than his son, he was such a bloodthirsty scoundrel! Now wasn’t there a scripture in the prophets that declared the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem Ephrathah?
Now they were at the edge of town. Where to begin looking? What did the angel say–they would find the baby in an ox’s feeding trough?
They begin walking around the backs of the houses. They tread quietly along the alleyways, beside the edges of town, watching for Roman guards, straining to hear the sound of a newborn crying or animals made restless by the presence of a tiny new human lying in their food trough.
About halfway through the town and near the edge, they all heard it at the same time and froze–the sound of a baby coughing and then crying. They looked at each other and glanced at the side of a tall mound of dirt and rock at the foot of a hill. A cave. There was the sound of a horse’s hoof pawing a dirt floor, then the sound of a young woman and man whispering softly. The baby stopped crying. The shepherds looked at each other, took a deep breath, and walked around to the mouth of the cave.
There they were.
They saw a pair of horses, dull brown, waving their heads slightly as they got a good look at their unexpected night visitors. One pawed the ground lightly, but stayed in place.
They saw a young woman lying on the ground, covered with a blanket. She was weary and disheveled, with grass and hay underneath her and scattered on the floor of the cave. There were bloodied rags tossed to her side.
They saw a young man, weary, disheveled, sitting on the floor next to her, caressing her hand with one hand and smoothing the wavy dark hair of a newborn baby with his other hand. And the baby was wrapped in strips of swaddling cloth–and lying in the manger.
The couple was just as startled to see their visitors frozen in their doorway as their visitors were to see them!
“Please do not hurt us, my wife has just had a baby and we are poor,” said the young man, rising to his feet and reaching into his money bag. “Take the few coins I have, but please do not hurt us. Please… please have mercy upon us.”
“Sir…” said the aged shepherd as he stepped forward. “We are not here to hurt you or take from you. We are here… if you can believe it… because an angel appeared to us about 3 hours ago and told us that… well… a baby was born tonight and we would find him in a manger. Please, forgive our intrusion.” He looked back at the other shepherds, who were now all standing together, craning their necks to get a look at the baby.
“May we… see your baby?” said the young, married shepherd. He thought, That man’s about my age, maybe a little older. That baby… He looks like my baby! He looks like a regular baby.
The young and exhausted woman glanced up at her husband. “Yes, you may,” she said.
The shepherds crept forward cautiously, gingerly, as though they had never seen a baby before. One of the horses snorted lightly but did not move from his spot.
“One other thing,” said the old shepherd as he stepped up to the young father. “The angel told us…that this child was going to be… the Savior, Christ the Lord.”
The young father looked down at his wife with amazement. “We, too, have been told some strange things about this child,” he said simply. He was tired, but his smile brightened.
By now, the shepherds were all kneeling by or bending over the manger, gazing in rapt wonder at this baby, who was glancing around trying to focus his gaze on all the new faces that peered down at him. “This is our Savior?” said one of the men questioningly.
“Well,” replied the old shepherd with a smile. “It takes time to grow a Savior, apparently. But I believe that the Blessed One will introduce Him to everyone in Israel, not only just a few of us, in due season.” He smiled widely at the baby and tenderly touched his soft cheek with the crook of his sun-leathered finger, then continued.
“Men, it is indeed a miracle that the angel came and told us of this child’s birth! We’re just a bunch of filthy, rough and seasoned old shepherds. No one likes to see us or smell us coming. And yet we were privileged and blessed to be informed of the birth of our Messiah. We have truly seen and heard remarkable things tonight. It is now time to let this young couple get some sleep and some privacy.”
Reluctantly, the men stood up, still gazing at the baby, who by now was yawning and closing his eyes. He looked like such an ordinary baby. And his parents looked like such ordinary young parents. The old shepherd thought, they were poor, too–they apparently did not get here in time to be able to acquire a room for the night, and they could only afford strips of swaddling cloth for their newborn. He felt sorry for them as he contemplated their poor lot.
Just then, the young man stopped the shepherds as they were turning to leave and made a surprising revelation.
“My wife and I… well… we want to thank you for stopping by to see us.” The men stopped and looked at each other, then at him, and he continued.
“You see, the Lord told us both individually that my wife was to be the mother of the Messiah. When Mary went into labor tonight and we were not able to find a place to stay, I was afraid that I was not doing the right thing. I prayed, “Lord, my wife is about to go into labor, she is about to bring the Messiah into the world out on the streets! What do I do?’ I was humiliated that my wife was being forced into this cave to have a baby, and that, without a midwife. When you arrived telling us that an angel had directed you to seek us out here and you found us, it confirmed the word of the Lord to us. And it helped me to trust in Lord our provider and to stop being anxious. Thank you again. Now we would like to share our stories with you, in turn.”
The shepherds learned that the newborn’s earthly father’s name was Joseph ben Jacob and his wife was Mary, the daughter of Heli. They listened with fascination as Joseph and Mary shared the amazing journey they had embarked on 9 months ago. They all praised the Lord for His mercy in showing them this tiny portion of His plan for salvation. They encouraged and strengthened one another in the Lord. Then they parted, rejoicing.
As they were leaving town that night and throughout the rest of their lives, these shepherds stopped anyone who would listen and told them about the incredible events they had witnessed those few hours. Though their testimony would never be upheld in the official courts, their testimony in the community grew like a raging wild fire. Ever watchful of prying Roman eyes and ears, the undercurrent of Messianic expectancy once again rose to the heavens as they talked excitedly in hushed tones about this strange news. The news never died down. And everyone wondered what would happen next.
Once again, God had chosen the foolish things of this world to be unlikely ambassadors for the very best news that has ever been told. That comforts a foolish one like me!
An excerpt from what I hope will be my first book, a holiday devotional for women to be published next year called One Starry Night.