The Birth of Christmas: While Sheperds Watch Their Flocks By Night

One of the things I love most about Christmas is the cards we receive from many friends around the world who tell us what’s happened in their lives in the past year. When I was a boy my mom used to hang all our cards on the door frame between our living room and our dining room and I can still see the progression of those cards on that door frame until it was totally covered. Lynna and I keep a large basket full of cards in our entryway, a constant reminder of those we love and miss.


One of the greatest themes on those greetings is that of the shepherds watching their flocks by night when suddenly they were surrounded by the light of God’s glory, and they became “sore afraid” (KJV). As the cards depict the angel’s coming, the sheep were white and wooly and the shepherds were full of wonder and worship. Undoubtedly that was true, but there was another side to the story, one not quite so romantic. You see, sheep stink and shepherds steal, or at least that’s how they were thought of in antiquity. Shepherds smelled like sheep so they were unwelcome in polite society; further they were regarded as the least trusted members of their world. Think of how easy it was for a shepherded to steal a sheep and report to the owner that a wild animal came and devoured it or that some thief climbed over the wall of the fold and ran off with it. That’s the key to Jesus’ assertion that He is the Good Shepherd because He entered through the door of the fold and not over the wall. There were rather few good shepherds in ancient Israel.


Now we have new insight into the angel’s appearance to shepherds who watched their flocks by night; now we realize how amazing it was for angels to come to shepherds, the very least in their culture. This gives us insight into the words,


For I bring you good tidings of great joy for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.


These shepherds desperately needed a Savior, one who was born the Lamb of God to take away all the sins of all those who cheat and steal, who lie and deceive, who break trust and justify their actions—and cover it up with the perfume of success. The message came not as a romantic event on a glory filled hillside, but as a desperately needed announcement for all who sin and have an overwhelming need for righteousness before God. So those shepherds came to Jesus with the stink of the sheep on them and the rejection of society all around them—and they were accepted freely by the Savior who came to save them.


Not all sinners stink, of course, but all sinners are the same to God: men and women who need a Savior who is Christ the Lord. It was no accident that the angels appeared to shepherds and no wonder that the shepherds were sore afraid. What else can you be when you are surrounded by the glory of God that penetrates to the very core of your being and reminds you of your desperate need for the Lamb of God to take away your sins? It is also no accident that the angels came to those who were at the bottom of society, the least regarded in their world. It shows that the Savior—the Chief Shepherd—sweeps up all in His arms, from the bottom to the top whether marked by the stink of addiction or the pride of achievement—and calls them to worship Him.


This year as you look at all the beautiful Christmas cards you receive, especially the ones with the shepherd scenes, thank God that the angels spoke to the least of the least and realize that their message is for all no matter what our status may be. Remember Jesus came to make us all smell like Him to God and not like the sinners we are. And if you have not joined the shepherds in worshipping Jesus in that manger, now is the time to respond to the Savior who is Christ the Lord born in Bethlehem so long ago to transform us all into the aroma of Christ to God. Remember, sheep stink and shepherds steal, but there is a Savior who transforms us all, from the least to the greatest, into worshippers of Christ.


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Bill Lawrence is the President of Leader Formation International, Senior Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Ministries and Adjunct Professor of DMin Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary where he served full-time for twenty-four years (1981-2005). During this time he also was the Executive Director of the Center for Christian Leadership for twelve years.