At this most glorious time of year, we are confronted with numerous strange and wonderful images that are unique to the season. Among them are facts and stories about shepherds and sheep that are foreign to those of us who do not live near farmlands.
Christmas sermons often remind us of the lowly status of shepherds in the Middle Eastern culture. Even today, the “three kings” or wise men are injected into nativity scenes while the shepherds are often relegated to the background. Invariably, portraits of the shepherds are not complimentary. How often do we miss the profound amidst the profane!
Shepherds are habitually described as dirty, smelly and crude; as ignorant, crass and dull. We are told that they were looked down upon by the more dignified and genteel people of Israel’s cities and towns. In the context of the Christmas story, the keepers of sheep were the first witnesses to the birth of Christ Jesus, and on the story goes…
The brutal misjudgment of men is readily acknowledged but rarely challenged. This seemingly insignificant detail of the birth of Christ is often seen as an oddity of God’s grace rather than a purposeful arrangement of divine sovereignty. Perhaps it should serve as a reminder that our natural perception is usually distorted.
Often neglected at this time of year, is the fact that Israel’s most famous and celebrated King David, began his career as a shepherd. He too, was misjudged by the people of his day, by his brothers and even by his father. But God saw in him something that no one else could know. Buried in the chest of this young shepherd boy, beat the heart of a tender psalmist, a courageous national hero and a wise and noble king.
If our thoughts of shepherds are offensive, descriptions of sheep are usually repulsive. Sheep, we are told, are helpless, weak and stupid. They have no defense against deadly predators other than to bleat out pathetic cries for help. If sheep fall into water or mud, they often drown. They must be constantly watched and diligently defended.
Many dignified and genteel people of our time are offended by biblical comparisons between modern humans and sheep. Pride in the heart of the natural man despises bovid characteristics. But hating a thing does nothing to affect its veracity.
Despite their apparent disadvantages, in some ways, sheep are wiser than men and women of today. Sheep are able to recognize the voice of their shepherd among the voices of many others. They are able to discern the call of the one who cares for them, provides them with nourishment and protects them from hostile deadly enemies. One flock of sheep can be called out of a mixed multitude with a word or a shout.
Scripture often contrasts the sacred with the profane. As unappealing as our impressions of shepherds may be, Jesus chose to identify himself as one of these. Just as David’s family saw nothing worthy of celebrity status in him, the Jews of Jesus’ time could not recognize the heart of God that beat within the Savior.
In the same way, faithful Christians are mocked, ridiculed and despised by godless hordes of people who crow and roar and celebrate themselves. But like wild beasts, the ungodly devour one another only to die violent and tragic deaths, lost and alone.
All of human history proclaims that the perception of man is backward and flawed. Our progress has led us into a new dark age of conflict, perversity and chaos. Information abounds, but wisdom and knowledge are lacking. Free-thinking has become bitter bondage. Every new law generates more grievous injustice. Efforts to alleviate suffering have multiplied it. But at least the natural man can console himself with the proclamation, “I did it my way!”
Since Christ the Lord embraced for Himself, the metaphor of the Good Shepherd, how can I object to being called one of His sheep? After all, regardless of the judgment of men, it’s better to be a live sheep than a dead goat, and that’s no humbug.