Note: This reflection was originally published to the Experience Mission blog in December 2015.
Lately, I've been thinking about shepherds. Partly because it's Christmas time, but mostly because I recently returned from an EM trip to Israel and Palestine where I walked in the footsteps of shepherds—both Biblical characters and modern day laborers.
We don't think about shepherds very often here in the U.S. The closest association we probably have is a rancher or farmer, which still doesn't do the job justice. No, these men—or more often, boys—live among the sheep, guarding them with their own life and giving up social connections to watch over the flock.
But my time in the Middle East wasn't my first encounter with shepherds.
When I traveled to Lesotho, as the leader of the first Africa IMMERSION team in 2012, I was curious about the shepherd boys who wandered the fields and hills surrounding our village. In Lesotho, there is open grazing, which means the sheep (and therefore the shepherds) often wander far from home in search of good vegetation. I learned that shepherds are usually uneducated or simply don't have other options beyond caring for their family's flock. They range in age from 9 to 18, although some can be younger. Many do not finish high school.
Being a shepherd is a lonely life. Although some boys stick together, most live in isolation, traveling for many miles in a day, passing by villages from a distance. They may not return home for many months. They often sleep outdoors or in makeshift tents and cook meals over a fire. Shepherds have to grow up quickly.
There are a few famous shepherds in the Bible. For example, David before he was king or Joseph before he became second in command to Pharaoh. Often, this was a job reserved for the youngest boy in the family or sometimes the one with seemingly least potential. While other brothers took on the more important responsibilities of managing the family's land or going to school—the shepherds got the sheep. And everyone knows that sheep are dumb.
I met a few shepherds face to face while I was in Lesotho, although usually they kept their distance and simply watched us from afar. I learned quickly that shepherds stink. But I don't mean it as an insult, just a fact! I don't think I would smell very good after spending months walking through fields and hills, either. No judgment.
One little shepherd boy will forever stay in my mind. He was probably 10 years old, maybe 11. He cautiously walked over to our outdoor Kids Club one afternoon while his sheep grazed nearby. I don't know where he lived or how far he had come that day, but the smell of his coat and appearance of his blue jeans made me believe he had probably been gone from home a long time. We were playing a version of tag that required you to hold hands with a partner at all times. I watched the expressions of several children as the shepherd boy stood in the middle of the group and little "teams" formed around him. A few giggled, a few looked away. It was clear that no one wanted to hold his hand.
He hung his head.
I walked over to the stinky little shepherd boy and held out my hand. He looked at me timidly and then gently laced his fingers into mine.
Before long, all of the children were running and laughing together—including the shepherd boy. It was so gratifying to see him be included in the group. Eventually I stepped back and he found a new partner for tag, smiling and jumping up and down with excitement.
It was then I realized the significance of the Bible's most famous shepherds—the ones in the fields near Bethlehem. It's a familiar piece of the story, but fascinating if we take time to really read it.
That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord's glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. "Don't be afraid!" he said. "I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger."
Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, "Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.
When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, "Let's go to Bethlehem! Let's see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.
They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. All who heard the shepherds' story were astonished, but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them.
He chose a group of young, uneducated, probably stinky boys to be a part of the most holy moment in history.
I don't know exactly what they were doing that evening, but I imagine they may have been cold and tired from too many nights of sleeping outside. Or maybe they were in the middle of cooking their dinner over the fire and thinking about how much they missed home. Or maybe they were telling jokes or dreaming about what they would do if they didn't have to watch the sheep.
Isn't it amazing how He still chooses the nobodies to bring the Good News to the somebodies? He still looks at us when we feel stuck or insignificant or just really stinky and says, "I can use you. I want you on my team."
When I was in Palestine, we drove by The Shepherd's Field, which is located in a small neighboring town near Bethlehem. It is this exact field where people believe the angels appeared to the shepherds so long ago. A local friend of ours joked that God chose the shepherds from that town because he knew they were gossips and would get the word out! Although it may be true that news travels fast in a small town, I can't help but consider the greater significance.
Imagine how the shepherds must have felt as all of the prominent business people and leaders of the town gathered around to hear their story. They were no longer the ones living in isolation, far removed from the day-to-day life of the town.
They were at the center of to biggest news to ever happen in Bethlehem. They were the very first bringers of Good News.
Imagine how proud they must have felt to have such a significant role in the story—to get a glimpse at the baby with their own eyes. They probably slept well that night, or maybe they were too excited to sleep.
Imagine what Mary and Joseph thought when a ragtag band of boys showed up to pay their respects. I think they probably laughed quietly to themselves and thought about how the night just couldn't get any stranger—or more perfect.
And doesn't it all just make the story so much better when we understand the shepherds? For me, it changes the way I look at other people and myself. I'm so thankful for a God who sees our potential, even when we don't. I'm so glad that His story is for everyone and that the Good News is still being shared today.
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