|Text: Luke 2:8
There were some shepherds in that part of the country who were spending the night in the fields, taking care of their flocks.
Hills near Bethlehem,
Dear friends at St Paul’s,
It’s a quiet day here on the hills outside Bethlehem so I thought I would write a few lines to you with this Christmas card and tell you some of the amazing things I have seen and heard.
I have just come back from Jerusalem. What a crazy place! The place was crowded. People had come from all over the place to celebrate the Passover. The only reason I was in Jerusalem at that time was to deliver some lambs to the temple for the festival. The place was crawling with Romans (I spit on them) and of course every religious leader you could think of was walking the narrow streets of Jerusalem all dressed in their finery on their way to or from the temple. When they saw me they did a wide circle around me because I was considered unclean and I probably did smell a bit like sheep.
Jerusalem seemed a bit crazier than usual. I heard people talking about a man who rode on a donkey into Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives and everyone calling out and welcoming him as the king who would bring freedom from the Romans. Now that would be something! This reminded me of things I had heard as boy from the rabbi who said that one day a Messiah would come who would bring freedom from all our enemies.
But as I listened to the talk on the streets I could hear disappointment and confusion in the way they talked about this man. Apparently he had been arrested, put on trial before the Jewish Council, badly treated by the soldiers and taken to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, and sentenced to death. I asked one of stallholders at the market who this man was and he said that his name was Jesus of Nazareth and that he was about to be executed with two crooks outside the city. (At the time the name didn't mean anything to me).
Just at that moment I heard shouting and what sounded like an angry crowd heading toward me down the street. There were Romans soldiers poking a man who was badly bleeding with the end of their spears. He had a thorny crown on his head, his back was bloody and raw and I could see that every step was painful as he carried a heavy wooden beam that I knew he would be nailed to in typical Roman fashion.
I saw women sobbing and in amongst their tears I heard the name ‘Jesus’. For some reason that name rang a bell. I couldn’t quite get a handle on why that name was so special but I just knew that I had come across that name before. Sure it was a common name but in the back of my memory I knew there was something special about that name. The street was very narrow and there were lots of people but I decided to follow along to see what was going to happen.
Sure enough when the soldiers got to the place the locals called Golgotha, this man was nailed to a cross and hoisted up. The crowd went wild laughing and making fun of the man who was in so much agony; everyone except a woman who seemed strangle familiar. I racked my brain. Who was she? It was obvious she was the mother of the man on the cross. She had a couple of friends with her who were also obviously upset.
And then it dawned on me. Is it possible that the man on the cross was the baby I had seen in Bethlehem 30 odd years ago and this was his mother, Mary? As I considered this, it slowly came back to me.
It was back in the days of Herod the Great. I was just a kid back then, in fact, it was the first night that my dad allowed me to stay out in the hills of Judah minding sheep. I was so excited to be out there with my dad and uncle.
As I sat there under the starry sky I could see lanterns along the road carried by people heading for Bethlehem to be counted by the Romans so that the Emperor could figure out how much tax we had to pay. Everyone had to return to their hometowns. Bethlehem was just a small village and it was so crowded. People were even camped around the edge of town because there was nowhere left to stay in town. My father and my uncle and I decided to stay out in the hills until it was over.
Well, this particular night we got the sheep settled down and we were sitting round the fire. My dad and uncle were joking and telling stories.
I was starting to get sleepy when suddenly there was a bright light all around us, and a man dressed in a shining robe appeared out of nowhere. He was glowing, like he had a fire inside him.
I can tell you that even my dad and uncle were pretty scared and it wasn’t often that I saw them show any fear. It was an angel. He said, "Don’t be afraid of me. I haven’t come to hurt you. I have brought some good news—wonderful news for everyone. Today in Bethlehem, a Saviour has been born to you. He is the anointed One—the Lord."
The angel told us to go see this baby, who would be wrapped up tightly and lying in a manger in Bethlehem. Then the whole sky was full of angels singing, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to those he favours.’ Then, as suddenly as they appeared, they were gone.
I recall the stunned look on the faces of my dad and my uncle. They just looked at each other and then at me. They didn’t say a word but I could imagine what was going on in their heads. "Was this a dream? Did we really see and hear angels? Did the angels really tell us that the Messiah had been born in Bethlehem? Did they really tell us, the poorest and most ordinary people in all Judah, to go and find the one promised in the scriptures?"
Finally I couldn’t stand the silence any longer. I said, "Let’s go to Bethlehem to see what the angels had been talking about".
My uncle stayed with the sheep and dad and I hurried to Bethlehem and found a man named Joseph and his wife Mary with their baby lying in a manger in the stable of an inn. The animals had been moved to one end, and one of the stalls had been cleaned out. Mary was sitting on a pile of straw. Everything was all exactly as the angel had said.
My father told Joseph about the angel. Joseph said they’d come to Bethlehem for the census, but there’d been no room for them at the inn. The baby was coming, so the owner let them use the stable. Joseph also told us how an angel had told them that Mary had been chosen to be the mother of the Messiah and that his name would be ‘Jesus’ because he will save people from their sins.
I watched Mary while the men were talking, and I was struck by how calm she was. It was like God’s own peace was resting on her. I looked into the manger and there was a new born baby. I remember how wonderful it felt to be looking at the baby the angels had described as the Saviour – the anointed one, our Lord. I had a baby brother and so I knew a bit about babies but somehow this baby in the manger was different.
On our way back to the sheep dad and I were so excited we woke up quite a few people as we walked through the streets loudly talking about what had happened. We even croaked out our version of the song the angels sang.
A little while later we saw soldiers galloping toward Bethlehem and then heard lots of screams and shouts. Herod had sent in his soldiers to kill all the baby boys, my baby brother was one of them, and so I thought that the little baby in the stable had also been killed. I can tell you that this was the saddest day ever in the history of our small village. I remember well the sadness that filled our home that day. What is more, I couldn’t see how the baby I saw in the manger would be able to escape.
Well there I was looking at the cross and there was no escaping death this time. I heard his last words, "Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they are doing". He was praying for forgiveness for his enemies. I don’t agree with Romans very often but I do agree with the one who said, "This was righteous man! An innocent and good man."
I was quite sad that the baby I had seen in Bethlehem had come to an end like this. I started to head back to the hills and to my sheep when I heard people whispering that the man called Jesus who died on the cross had come alive again. He had been buried but people had seen him and touched him and had a meal with him. I don’t know how this can happen but I believe that it is possible. After all, the angel did say to dad and my uncle and me that the birth of this baby was good news that will bring joy to all people. He is the anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ our Lord, sent by God to bring peace between God and humanity and peace between us all.
As I look back on all of this, I realise that I will never fully understand it all. It’s all too complex for a simple shepherd but I do know why I felt the way I did that night as I looked into the manger. I was looking into the face of God's love. He loved us so much he sent his only son to be our Saviour. I invite you to join us shepherds and sing praise to God for the great thing he has done for us, his dearly loved sheep.
From the hills outside Bethlehem I wish you and your family God's blessings as you celebrate this Christmas.
© Pastor Vince
24th December 2010