“When this great army of angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, ‘Come, let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this wonderful thing that has happened!’” –– Luke 2:18, The Living Bible
On a hill outside Jerusalem, just past the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, is a fork in the road where travelers must choose between the Jericho Road and the Way to Bethlehem. On our family’s first day in the Holy Land several years ago, our guide made the obvious choice.
“Let us now go even unto Bethlehem,” he read from the Gospel of Luke, “and see this thing which has come to pass.”
Five miles later the tour bus stopped at the Field of the Shepherds, where its believed shepherds were tending their flocks the night Jesus was born.
“Only one American dollar!” cried throngs of beggar children along the way.
We continued on our way past the unkempt urchins and eventually reached the entrance to the Shepherd’s Field.
A modern shepherd in ancient clothing, also unkempt, stood by the iron gate watching as our group began filing into the place where his ancestors once heard the angels sing.
I was thrilled to be in the Holy Land at last, thrilled to walk where Jesus walked and kneel where he knelt. But when I reached the gate, the shepherd held up his hand and would not let me go inside.
Why? I had paid my admission fee, brought a scarf to cover my head as advised, and even taken care to wear a skirt in case shorts or pants were unacceptable on women.
The shepherd pointed to my arms, the one thing I forgot. My sleeveless top was considered indecent for such a holy place.
But it was July. The temperature was at least 100 degrees, and no one had an extra shirt or sweater I could borrow to make myself respectable.
I was shattered. By my standards I was dressed just as well as anyone else, better than the beggar children or even the shepherd himself. At least I was clean. I was about to cry.
The shepherd caught my disappointment, and smiled. Was he going to make an exception to his silly rule? Not at all, but he did have a solution. Carefully, he unwound the dingy shawl from his shoulders and placed it gently around mine. His smile widened as he opened the gate and allowed his now-respectable guest to join the others.
Not a Christmas goes by that I don’t think about that Bethlehem shepherd. Our meeting taught me the heart of the Christmas story.
Like my choice in clothing, we decent, upstanding folks think we are fine the way we are. Oh, we sin a little now and then, lose our temper, forget to be kind to others, but we’re not all that bad. Why do we need a Savior and his dirty crucifixion just to cover up our tiny smudges and imperfections?
Compared to the righteousness of God, the Bible says, “all our righteousness is as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). My clean but sleeveless top was no more suitable to enter the Field of the Shepherds than our self-worked salvation is to enter heaven and the presence of a holy God.
But because of Jesus, we who accept God’s gift of salvation are presentable – not because of what we have done, but because of the covering he took from his own heart and placed around ours some 2,000 years ago.