Not Quite So Unfortunate After All

“Today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!”

One day a wealthy father took his son to the country to visit a poor family. He intended to teach his son how unfortunate others can be. When they arrived back home, the father asked, “Did you notice how difficult life can be for some families?” “Yes sir, I sure did. We have one dog at home, and they have four. We have a pool that reaches to the middle of the garden; they have a creek that has no end. We have lamps lighting up the backyard; they have the stars. Our patio reaches to the front yard; they have a whole horizon.” That’s when the son concluded, “Thanks, Dad, for showing me how fortunate others can be.”

Modern perspectives on Biblical shepherds have become overly romanticized. Our stained-glass windows depict them donning fine unblemished robes with staffs firmly clasped in hand, wounded lambs admirably hoisted upon shoulders, nurturing back any flock prone to wander, all of which are far cries from reality. In New Testament times, to tend sheep for a living was far worse than being poor or unfortunate, like the father/son story recounted above; dregs of society desirous of pity much closer to the mark.

Shepherds were utter outcasts; their eyewitness testimonies got summarily tossed out of courts. To enter Temple worship was to risk one’s life (actually). To bump into a stranger was to defile both equally. By habituating with ceremonially unclean animals, they became ceremonially unclean themselves. I wonder if a statement like this would have been lost on all, “The only way for something dirty to get clean is for something clean to get dirty:”[i] which is an excellent summary statement of what was soon to come.

Keep in mind, “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first” wasn’t a popularized phrase at the time. That wouldn’t occur for another 33 years. So, had the general public offered up their best guesses on who might see the Lord’s Christ first, nobody, not in a million years, would have picked shepherds. Worse than being picked last, they were the types never picked at all.

It reminds me of a shared experience from childhood. You might recall standing on the playground when two captains were selected, each picking back and forth down the long line of kids divvying up teams. That’s when you muttered to yourself, somewhat aloud, “pick me anywhere, but whatever you do, just don’t pick me last,” semi-hoping one captain might overhear you and extend mercy. It wasn’t fun for a kid, much less a whole life.

I’m not sure of a perfectly comparable scenario from Bible times, but I’m sure something similar existed. And whatever it was, shepherds need not worry about being picked before last. They’d already walked away assured they weren’t going to get picked at all.

In that light, can you imagine, just for a moment, how spectacular it must have felt to be those poor, unfortunate shepherds one night near Bethlehem? As they sat “out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock at night.” Can you fathom how overjoyed they must have been to be the first people, not last mind you, in the history of creation to witness God’s glory (doxology in Greek) the birth of His Son! Even more profound would be to hear the Heavenly Host sing the doxology to you directly, not as in you all collectively, but to you as an individual, “Today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!” (Lk. 2:11)

In Philip Yancey’s good word, “As I read the birth stories about Jesus, I cannot help but conclude that though the world may be tilted toward the rich and powerful, God is tilted toward the underdog.” Maybe today, you see yourself as unfortunate, or perhaps even the underdog. But from what I can gather looking at those shepherds, that might be a good thing. Maybe you’re not quite so unfortunate after all.

[i] Sinclair Ferguson

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