An angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord was shining around them. And the shepherds were very afraid. "Don't be afraid. I have some very good news for you — news that will make everyone happy. Today your Savior was born in David's town. He is Christ, the Lord" (Luke 2:9-11 ERV).
Why was heaven's glory revealed to a bunch of nobodies in the middle of nowhere?
While shepherds had once been held in high esteem among God's people, they had become unwanted, left out, and pushed to the side. They smelled like sheep. They slept on the ground. They didn't live in major cities. Their jobs made them little or no money. They came from the lower rung of society. Abraham, Moses, and David were heroes larger than life that were remembered for greater things than shepherding. Shepherds were so yesterday and so not today in Jesus' world.
So why was heaven's glory revealed to a bunch of unwanted and forgotten shepherds? Of all the people to whom God could have revealed this startling birth, why choose shepherds? With all the power brokers in Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Rome, why choose the countryside outside of the insignificant and tiny village of Bethlehem?
Well, there are some possible technical, theological, and historical reasons for this.
- These were Bethlehem shepherds, the shepherds who raised the sheep offered as sacrifices at Passover. So even in Jesus' birth, we are reminded of Jesus' sacrificial death.
- Abraham, Moses, and David were all shepherds and God made great promises to them about deliverance and a Messiah so now God is showing he honors his promises by announcing the coming of the Christ, the Messiah, to shepherds first.
- The image of a shepherd is the image Jesus chooses to use for his example of a leader — one who pastors, who shepherds his sheep and is even willing to lay down his life for his sheep.
While these reasons are important, I believe that there are other more important reasons God announced Jesus' birth first to shepherds.
God is frequently identified as the loving, tender Shepherd of his people (Psalm 23:1-6; Isaiah 40:11; Ezekiel 34:11-16). Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd (John 10:1-18). God wants us to know that he knows us and cares for us and will never abandon us. He longs to bless us and make our lives full. He wants us in his presence and will deal with us lovingly and tenderly. So when the glory of Jesus' birth is announced, it is announced to shepherds to remind us of our Shepherd and the Good Shepherd and how much they love us.
Shepherds were despised and unwanted. They lived far from the busy lives of most people of their day. They were not important — not personally, politically, or economically. If God chose to reveal his glory first to them, then the King of glory is making an important statement to each one of us personally:
Jesus came for me! I am not too low, too insignificant, too unimportant, too powerless, too forgotten, or too anything for God to love me, search for me, find me, and want to bring me home.
So when we hear all the Christmas songs and see all the nativity scenes and read all the birth stories about Jesus that mention shepherds, we are reminded of this:
God is crazy about me! He longs to have me in his presence and offer me his tender care. He will not leave me or forsake me. If I wander from him he will come looking for me ... again! In Jesus, God laid down his life for me to bring me back into his family and will one day bring me into his home, forever.
The story of Jesus' birth is not just something from long ago and far away. The story of lowly and forgotten shepherds keeping watch out in the fields is more than a historical flourish. Shepherds being the first to hear of the Savior's birth is not just a story about shepherds and angels and a poor family with no place to put their newborn baby boy. This is a story about God's grace and Jesus' love for you and me!