Lets now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that God has made known tous.
- Luke 2:15
The Wise Men we can understand, but why would the birth of the savior of the world be announced to shepherds - first? They were so, well, ordinary. They were poor, they seldom bathed, and if youre looking for a religious reason, they didnt even observe the simple, ceremonial hand-washing. And when was the last time any of them dropped coins in the Temple offering box?
Such was the impression the orthodox religious leaders had of the common shepherds at the time of Jesus birth. But if these proper ones could have seen beyond their mostly man-made religious laws, they might have recognized that, if it werent for the shepherds, where would they get their perfect, unblemished lambs to sacrifice on their perfect, unblemished altars?
Shepherds had provided a great service to the religious practices of Gods people since the days of Abraham. But even if they played no religious role at all, as they would soon learn, the Son of God claimed no special advantage over the common man. As Bible commentator William Barclay remarks, It is a lovely thought that the shepherds who looked after the Temple lambs were the first to see the Lamb of God.
Whenever I think of the shepherds in the Christmas story, I have another lovely thought: my own experience on that same Judean hillside about 25 years ago when I, too, encountered the Bethlehem shepherds.
Only one American dollar! cried a throng of beggar children as our Holy Land tour group entered the field of the shepherds outside Bethlehem. Dirty little things with their worthless trinkets intruding on our holy expedition. I pulled my skirt and my own neatly clothed children closer to me, lest those other children touch us with their grubby, outstretched. Eventually, we pushed our way past the urchins and reached the entrance to the Shepherds Field. A modern shepherd, also unkempt, stood by the iron gate watching as our group filed into the place where once his ancestors heard the angels sing.
I was thrilled to be in the Holy Land at last, to walk where all those stories Id known since I was smaller than the children I now held by the hand - or shooed away - took place. But when I reached the gate the shepherd guard held up his hand and wouldnt let me go inside.
Why? Id paid my admission fee, brought my little scarf to cover my head, and had 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 attire for such a holy place and I couldnt go inside.
But it was July, the temperature was at least 100 degrees, and no one had an extra shirt I could borrow to make myself respectable.
I was shattered. None of this made sense. 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.
Just when I thought I couldnt hold back the tears any longer the shepherd smiled, unwound the dingy shawl from his own shoulders and placed it gently around mine. His smile widened as he stepped back, opened the gate, and let his now-respectable guest go inside.
More than just a kindly gesture from a stranger, our meeting taught me the heart of the Christmas story as I might not have understood it any other way.
Like my choice in traveling clothes, 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 were not all that bad. Why do we need a Savior to cover up our little smudges?
We just do. 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 Shepherds Field than our own, self-worked salvation is to enter the presence of a holy God.
Because of Jesus, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas, we are presentable to God, not because of anything we have done, but because of the covering he took from his own heart and placed around ours that first Christmas so very long ago.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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