The First Missionaries
Perhaps you’ve seen it before, but I’m sure I missed this little gem until recently. I’ve read and heard the story about Jesus’ birth so many times, but somehow I never caught the fact that the first people to tell others about Jesus were the shepherds! What might it have been like for these first missionaries?
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
Here they were, doing their jobs. It was probably quiet out in those fields. All the sheep were sleeping under the watchful eyes of the shepherds. They weren’t doing much but it was very important to remain awake and alert. Perhaps they were chatting with each other to pass the time. Perhaps they were rehearsing the scriptures they’d been taught as little boys, reciting the Psalms of David, or re-telling the stories of Abraham and other prophets and heroes they grew up loving. They passed the time while keeping careful watch over the hundreds of sheep in their care. Anything could happen, especially in the dark. They were good shepherds who wouldn’t let anything bad happen to their sheep.
And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.
The shepherds’ careful watch over their sheep at night was to protect them from surprise visits by wild animals or thieves. But this was a surprise that no one expected! These good shepherds were minding their sheep and, all the sudden, it went from dark night to light so bright their eyes needed time to adjust. They may have been afraid for several reasons: imagine that the light’s brilliance made everything else – including the sheep – invisible. As if being unable to see anything else wouldn’t be scary enough, a towering, magnificent being – taller than anyone they’d ever seen, suddenly stood in the field where they were guarding their sheep. What were his intentions? Are the sheep ok? Thinking of themselves, they likely wondered what would happen to them? Was this a Roman trick to torment or abuse them?
And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
The angel started with “fear not” to help the shepherds calm down so they could hear the good news. However, this instruction on its own might have been insufficient so the angel directed them to look, to “behold”. The Lord wanted to make sure the shepherds not only heard the great news, but that they saw it for themselves. He wanted these shepherds to experience … Him. It had been over 400 years since anyone had experienced God this closely. This was an event equivalent to the stories of Abraham, Jacob, David, and Daniel! So the angel compelled them, “Hey wait! Don’t shrink back or run off in fear! Wait. Look, I’ve got something amazing you’re not going to want to miss!” And these good shepherds stopped abruptly.They bravely paused to listen. They heard with their ears, saw with their eyes, and knew Almighty God was doing something incredible. The too-familiar, long-awaited prophecy was being fulfilled!
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
It was as if the rest of heaven just couldn’t contain themselves! The shepherds were listening! They were paying attention! And this occasion was like none other. The birth of a baby is always cause for celebrating, but this baby was different. There had never been and never will be another like Him! Perhaps the shepherds attempted to count the heavenly hosts – but there were too many! It was a multitude, and they were praising God! A feeling of awe replaced the shock of being surrounded suddenly by the overwhelming glory of God! These shepherds knew this experience was undeniably from Almighty God, and they couldn’t be quiet about it. This was a once-in-a-lifetime, never before in all of history experience!
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.
Perhaps it took a minute for their eyes to adjust back to the dark. Maybe they stared at each other momentarily before quickly counting their sheep for reassurance. One thing was certain: these shepherds weren’t going to miss out on this! Nothing like this had ever happened to lowly shepherds. Encounters this close to God’s glory only ever happened to prophets and priests. No way they weren’t taking this opportunity, so they left their posts. Maybe they delegated someone to watch the sheep, but perhaps, they were so awestruck that they didn’t waste time figuring that out. They hurried to Bethlehem to confirm for themselves what the angel had said. The shepherds that participated in the unfolding of Isaiah’s prophecy were unrestrained in their enthusiasm. Everything the angel told them was true! Their excitement burst forth as they told everyone – including the baby’s parents – their story. Perhaps Mary and Joseph listened with knowing smiles and rejoiced with the shepherds that Emmanuel had come.
As the shepherds returned to tend their sheep, their excitement overflowed and everyone they saw heard the story of God’s prophecy being fulfilled that very day. The people hearing this incredible story were curious, maybe some were skeptical, some were astonished, but regardless of the reaction, the shepherds told everyone the story of God’s amazing glory and grace, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.