If you love the out-of-doors, and if you enjoy endless days of solitude, this is the ideal job. Sheep take on personalities. You start talking to them like you would hiking companions, laughing at their antics, hollering at their stupidity. Some even bond with you, especially lambs who you have to feed by hand when their mothers can’t provide them adequate nourishment. It’s sometimes exciting work, when a wolf or mountain lion is stalking your perimeter or during lambing season. But mostly it is monotonous days of trudging the hillsides and resting against boulders and keeping an eye on meandering creatures whose only defense against danger is to scatter and run. Nighttime is sometimes enjoyable, especially when your brothers and other hired hands decide to drive their flocks back to the central fold and you can sit around the campfire together. Then it’s not so lonely. You talk about what you’re going to do when you get a chance to go into the city for a day. And what you would do if you could find some other work besides tending sheep. Sometimes you talk about girls you have seen or met. The older guys talk about having their own flock someday and about grazing land they have heard about. In truth, I don’t think any of us really expect to become landowners – the nobles and their families have that pretty well tied up. But all in all, it’s not such a bad life. There’s a lot to keep you from getting too bored, if you look for it.
We certainly weren’t looking for any excitement the night it happened. The fire had burned pretty low and several of us had already pulled blankets over our heads and were drifting off to sleep when the sheep began to get restless. That’s always a bad sign – usually signals the presence of a predator on the prowl somewhere out in the dark. And so we all sat up, wide awake. We had just decided who should get up and take torches and circle around camp when we saw a man approaching. We knew immediately that he was no shepherd – no one out here wears white. His garments had a silvery look, brighter than you would expect from the reflection of the moonlight. As the stranger came closer the sheep grew increasingly nervous and, frankly, so did we. I sensed were we in for some kind of trouble. This fellow was not from one of our families, not from anywhere around here, and it was clear from the confidence that he exuded he was not just some disoriented traveler lost in the wilderness. Had he been wearing military attire, we would have guessed him to be the front guard for a royal caravan. But he wore a white flowing robe that – well, it actually had a glow to it. It was then we noticed that our camp was less dark, like the dawn was breaking or like the fire had erupted into a huge bonfire. Neither was the case, of course. It was still before midnight and the fire was a glow of red embers. That’s when we got really scared.
Terror must have been written all over our faces because the first words from the stranger’s mouth were “Don’t be afraid!” You could hear audible sighs of relief from my brothers. “I’ve come to deliver a special message to you,” the man said. To us? we all wondered. Who would be sending us a message, and by such a dramatic courier? But no one dared ask. “This is some very good news,” the man continued, “that will mean great joy for you, for everyone! The long-awaited Messiah has just been born! Just over the hill from here in Bethlehem. You can see him with your own eyes at the inn stable, all bundled up laying in a manger!”
And then, all of a sudden, the heavens lit up with thousands of angels – they had to be angels – filling the night with a light almost as bright as the sun and with the most incredible singing we had ever heard. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to all whom God favors.” It was an explosion of praise the like of which we had never witnessed before or ever expect to again. We were simply awestruck, sat there with our mouths hanging open, dumbfounded. And, then, just as quickly as they had appeared, they vanished. The stranger disappeared with them. And the night was silent again. We sat there speechless for the longest time, just staring back and forth at each other in disbelief.
The sheep had quieted down. But our spirits were so full of amazement that we knew sleep would not come to our eyes this night. We knew what we had to do – go and see if this announcement was really true or just some incredible mirage. Two of the hands would stay behind to guard the flocks and the rest of us would go into Bethlehem to see for ourselves this Savior-baby that Israel so long had awaited. Cradling prize lambs that we had carefully selected from our flocks, we headed out at a trot for town.
It was just as the stranger-angel had said. The baby was there in the village inn stable, wrapped up and sleeping, guarded by his parents and an assortment of domestic animals. We were surprised at how quiet, how normal everything appeared. I think we must have seemed a bit awkward, we certainly felt that way, gawking at this newborn, trying to think of some profound words to say to the parents. But we were shepherds, not priests or nobles. So we quietly offered our lambs to the child’s parents and thanked them for letting us see the baby and then left.
It was on the way back that the wonder of it all started to sink in. We had actually seen with our own eyes the Messiah! How many prophets had foretold this very day! How many generations of Abraham’s children, how many great kings and Godly priests had longed to see this moment! And we had been given a personal invitation by heavenly messengers to be the first to glimpse this momentous event! Shepherds! Absolutely astounding! How do you make any sense of such a thing?
You couldn’t keep us quiet about this amazing night. I told every one who would listen, which actually wasn’t a very wide circle of acquaintances. I don’t think half of them believed me, probably thought we had gotten into some bad wine. But it doesn’t bother me that much. I know what I saw. I know that for some unknown reason the God of Abraham did me this extraordinary favor. Why me?! I have just never quite figured that out.