We understand more about the working of our universe today than our ancestors could have ever imagined. The stars do not seem as mysterious as they once did. But with that knowledge has come with an unintended cost, which is a diminished ability to marvel. Because of its familiarity, the work of God’s fingers (Psalms 8:3) is less likely to create reverence in our hearts.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the case for the shepherds keeping watch the night Christ was born. They’re essential to the Christmas story, yet we know very little about the men who first heard the news of Christ’s arrival. Beyond their occupation as shepherds and where they were that evening, we can only be sure of the fact that an angel of the Lord visited them and they were afraid.
Luke 2:9 (NIV)
9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
I can picture those shepherds wrapped up in animal skins trying to stay warm on a cold night, sitting side by side on the stony ground with their elbows resting on their bent knees. For those men, it was an ordinary night, just like any other; no different than the others they’d spent in pastures or on hillsides. Away from civilization, they spent their evenings in quiet darkness, holding court with their sheep and the stars. There was little else to do on these nights than to just sit there and think.
I like to think that, no matter how many times they’d seen the sky, they still looked in amazement and fascination at the canopy of planets and constellations suspended above their heads. Even American author Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a diest, recognized the beauty of God’s handiwork. In his book “Nature,” he wrote these words: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!”
Perhaps the shepherds searched the skies because they remembered the promise that was given to them in the book of Isaiah.
Isaiah 9:2 (NIV)
2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
They remembered the promise and silently kept a vigil while the others slept even though the promise had been made centuries before that time. That night, they waited like sentinels on the wall of the world, and in an instant, the spot where they sat in darkness was overflowed with heaven’s light. Can you imagine what that would be like?
Maybe all those years of gazing at the stars left them open to wonder and allowed them to receive the kingdom of God like a child would. When they saw the lights, their hearts were filled with joy. These ceremonially unclean shepherds, who were considered unlearned men at the bottom of Israel’s social hierarchy, became God’s first tellers of the amazing arrival. The shepherds spent their whole lives with their sheep. They protected them. If a lamb was lost, they would go find it. They never left their sheep, but when they saw this light, they left their sheep and went to see the new baby. They pursued Him with a single-minded determination and eagerness. The shepherds decided to go straight to Bethlehem rather than wait until morning. They went in a hurry to see if what they’d been told was true.
Luke 2:15-16 (NIV)
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.
I can imagine them sharing the story with Mary and Joseph, chatting excitedly and gesturing with calloused hands as they tried to recapture the moment. I can imagine them keeping their voices hushed so they would not awake the sleeping infant Messiah. And when the time came to leave, they went back to where they had come from and they told everyone they saw and by doing so glorified and praised God.
Luke 2:20 (NIV)
20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
The shepherd’s role in the nativity story was over, but their astonishment and worship would have lasted them a lifetime. They were forever changed from that moment on.
That joy that the shepherds had that night should be our level of joy as well, but too often we lose sight of the Source of that joy. Instead of spending the Christmas season stargazing as the shepherds did, we settle for a glittery version of the holiday that clouds our spiritual vision. We forget that we no longer wander in the gloom like they did prior to Jesus’ arrival. Instead, we have the security of knowing that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession.” Each day, including Christmas, we are tasked with telling everyone about the joy of His birth just like the shepherds did over 2,000 years ago.
1 Peter 2:9 (NIV)
9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
The ability to experience and “repeat the sounding joy” of Christ’s coming is limited only by our own limits we place upon ourselves. So this season, may we once again turn our faces to heaven and experience the wonder and radiance of the stars.