Christian Articles Archive

Shepherds, Angels, and a Manger

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

 

Shepherds, by William Hole
Painting by William Hole

The hundreds of sheep were quiet now, except for an occasional bleat. Night had fallen, stars were sharp in the nippy sky, and shepherds reclined on a steep hillside above Bethlehem, watching their flocks.

The men talked quietly, their low voices soothing to the animals. Old Elias had spent his lifetime on these sheepfields. Then there was Judah ben-Ozzri, twenty years old and cynical. His uncle had been imprisoned by Roman occupation troops for some minor offense. When he could, Judah plotted secretly with a unit of Zealot guerrillas. David, Israel's greatest king, had been a shepherd on Bethlehem's hills a millennium before. As a teenager, David had defeated the giant Goliath and thrown off the yoke of Philistine tyranny. Judah ben-Ozzri longed to do the same. If only a Leader, a Deliver, would come and drive the cursed Romans from their land!

"The lambs will all die before long," he muttered darkly. "Only the ewes will survive."

"Eh?" said Elias, a bit too loudly. His hearing had faded over the years.

Judah spoke a bit louder, "The ewes will be sheared next summer, and bear more lambs, but the lambs themselves...."

"What?" asked Elias, leaning closer.

"The lambs," said Judah loudly into his ear, "won't live beyond Passover. In the Jerusalem temple, they'll be sacrificed."

"Ah, Passover in the temple," returned Elias. "On the Holy Day they'll sacrifice a lamb for each family."

Jerusalem and its temple were just six miles north of Bethlehem, and supplying lambs for the Passover sacrifice was these shepherds' livelihood.

"Passover..." reflected the old man. "I wish I could have seen the first Passover!"

Elias would rather talk than listen, since it was hard for him to catch the words when others spoke.

"Moses was our Deliverer on that first Passover night when God's judgment fell upon Egypt." As he spoke, his listeners could picture the destroying angel that had passed through Egypt. "The Egyptian firstborn were killed," said Elias, "but each Israelite slave family had sacrificed a precious lamb, and put its blood across the top and on both sides of their doorways. Their sins were atoned for, the lamb's life for theirs. And God's terrible judgment passed over them."

"The ewes will live on," repeated Judah, "but the lambs will be sacrificed."

"What?" said Elias, but Judah didn't say it again.

"I don't think I'd like to be a lamb," the youngest shepherd said solemnly.

The shepherds now fell silent, and tugged their heavy cloaks about them to shelter them from the whistling wind. Their eyes were accustomed to the blackness. Every few moments they would look up to scan the hills for wolves or thieves. They weren't about to lose sheep by carelessness.

All of a sudden their hillside was flooded by the light of a thousand arc lamps, blinding them with its intensity. When they could finally see, a man in shining apparel stood before them. "Do not be afraid," he declared in the ringing voice of a herald.

"I bring you good news of great joy
that will be for all the people.
Today in the town of David
a Deliverer has been born to you.
He is the Lord's Messiah."

"The Messiah! The Deliverer!" breathed Judah ben-Ozzri. "He is come at last to set our people free."

They could scarcely comprehend. Good news! Great joy! In the town of David, the Son of David is born this night. The Lord's Messiah! The shining man, glowing with the very Shekinah glory of God, had declared it. It must be so!

The angel continued: "This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying an a manger."

What a strange sign. But there was no time to think.

Now the shining angel drew himself to full height, and as he opened out his arms, the radiance and glory upon him began to spread until it covered rank after rank of angels, the heavenly host, the army of God himself — more and more, company after company, battalion after battalion, began to fill the sky. And now they began to chant, to shout in unison.

"Glory to God in highest."

The sound bounced off the hills and echoed from the valleys, like the rumble of thunder, like the roar of a great waterfall, the shout of triumph reverberated. The shout of worship, the shout of honor, the shout of glorious praise.

"Glory to God in the highest," they shouted together with one enormous voice of worship.

"Glory to God in the highest," they chanted in unison, the overwhelming resonance blotting out everything else and infecting shepherds with its utter joy. The host of God, overcome with awe at the archangel words, now shouted again, "Glory to God in the highest! And on earth Shalom — peace — to those whom God has favored."

Again and again the waves of praise rolled over the hillsides, until finally the voices began to fade, and only in the distance could the shepherds still hear shouts of "Glory, glory, glory," that finally diminished to silence at last. The brilliant light, too, was fading, like the final streaks of sunlight dipping below the horizon and painting the clouds red and pink in departing splendor.

Old Elias was first to speak, "Praise the Lord, dear friends. We have witnessed what the prophets only dreamed of."

"Angels," breathed the youngest.

"The hosts of God's army," said Judah.

"Something greater still," Elias said. "The chance to see the Lord's Messiah with our own eyes. You heard the angel. He's here, yonder in Bethlehem, and we must find him. The angel told us how — a baby, wrapped in the swaddling bands of a newborn, lying in a manger.... A manger," repeated the old man.

You could find dozens of cattle troughs if you searched all the outlying farms, but a manger with a newborn lying in it — that was the sign! In Bethlehem itself, Elias could think of just one — inside a cave at the very edge of town where travelers' animals were quartered. The old man careened down the hillside at a pace that left the younger shepherds breathless. He was ahead of them now, almost running to the cave behind the inn.

When they finally caught up, the old man was standing at the doorway to the cave, tears running down his cheeks.

"The Son of David," he was saying, "The Lord's Messiah. The Deliverer has come."

The shepherds moved inside and knelt at the manger, peering at the sleeping baby boy, all tightly wrapped in swaddling bands.

The youngest explained to the mother, "An angel told us," he stammered, "and then thousands, millions of angels filled the sky, lit up with God's light. 'Glory to God,' they shouted, and we joined them until we were hoarse, until they were gone."

Then Elias addressed her. "Young woman, mother of this blessed Child. You are one of the favored ones of whom the angels spoke, upon whom God's glory and grace is resting tonight."

You could see her lips form the words, "Yes, I know," but no voice came.

The old shepherd went on, "The angel told us that your Child is God's promised Messiah, our Deliverer."

Then the old man was silent. He just knelt there for a few more moments. Finally he rose up, took the mother's hand, and pressed it with his own. "God has entrusted you to raise his own Son, my dear. Our prayers are with you."

He motioned his compatriots towards the door, and they got up, leaving the cave and its manger and its Christ-Child. Nor were the shepherds silent about what they had seen. They spread the good news far and wide.

Then they went back to their flocks, and carefully tended lambs that were destined for sacrifice on Passover. And though they could not know or understand it, the baby Deliverer in the manger would not challenge the Roman oppressors, but instead deliver us from the sin and death that oppress us all. For these lamb-herders had seen God's Lamb, born to be a Passover sacrifice for the sins of the entire world.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, Shalom, for us all.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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