As turkey and Christmas pudding belong together, so too do the shepherds and the baby Jesus. Christmas without “shepherds abiding in their fields” would be unthinkable. Who would dare produce a nativity play and not let the shepherds have a part? One of my proudest moments as a child was when I played the part of a shepherd, wearing a tea-towel around my head!
“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2.8). We’ve heard these words so often, but do you realise that this shows that Jesus was not born on December 25? Sheep were not kept out in the fields in the depth of winter. Sheep were kept out in the fields only between March and November – otherwise it was too cold.
Nobody really knows when Jesus was born. Around 200 AD there were two theories about the date: one that Jesus was born on May 20, the other that he was born on either April 20 or 21. Almost certainly 25 December was chosen because it was the day of a well-known pagan festival celebrating the annual return of the sun: the church replaced the pagan festival with a Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus on the grounds that it is easier to take away an unholy festival from the population when you can replace it with an even better festival
To return to Luke’s account, the shepherds were “keeping watch over their flock by night”. Literally, they were ‘watching the watches of the night’, i.e. they were taking turns watching over their flock by night. Some say that this means that Jesus was born at night. Indeed, some argue on the basis of a verse in the inter-testamental book of the Wisdom of Solomon, that Jesus was born on the stroke of midnight: “When all things were in quiet silence, and the night in its swift course was half spent, your all-powerful word leaped down from heaven’s royal throne” (Wisdom of Solomon 18.14-15). The truth is that we have no idea what time Jesus was born.
What we do know, is that the first people to receive the news of the birth of a Saviour were a group of shepherds – and that is significant. For shepherds then were not just ordinary working-class people. They were a bunch of rascals and rogues, who defied all conventions of decency and respectability. They were called ‘people of the dirt’ – ‘scum-bags’ in our terms, No self-respecting Jewish parent would want their daughter to marry a shepherd. According to one rabbi: ‘You will find that there is no more contemptible occupation in the world that that of shepherds’.
They were not religious people. On duty 24-7, few – if any – darkened the door of a synagogue. Living out in the fields, they were unable to keep the Jewish ceremonial law: not for them the observance of ritual hand-washings and all the other rules & regulations practised by devout Jews. They were rough-and-ready chaps.
It wasn’t only the ceremonial law which they failed to observe: most failed to keep the moral law. They were thoroughly dishonest, unable to distinguish between right and wrong. They had an unfortunate habit of confusing ‘mine’ with ‘thine’. Things went missing when the shepherds went to town. And when they were out of town, they allowed their flocks to graze upon other people’s land. As a result, no shepherd was allowed to play a part in a court of law – no shepherd could be called to act as a witness – they just couldn’t be trusted. They were the Arthur Dalys of this world!
Yet it was to shepherds that God sent the angelic choir. It was to shepherds that God made known that a Saviour was born in David’s city. It was the shepherds, and not the wise men, who were the first to receive the news.
What does this say to us? Surely this: Jesus is good news for everybody, whoever we are, whatever we have done! Listen again to the words of the angel: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for ball the people: to you is born this day bin the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2.10,11). Churches today may be largely the preserve of the middle-classes, but Jesus is most certainly not just the Saviour of the respectable middle-class. He is the Saviour of the world.
Yes, Jesus is good news not just for church-goers, but for non-church-goers. What’s more, Jesus is good news for people who for one reason or another have failed to live up to God’s standards.
As Jesus said on more than one occasion: “I have come not to call the righteous (GNB: the respectable people’) but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5.32). It is this which we celebrate today. It doesn’t matter who we are or what we have done, God accepts us as we are. We don’t have to reach a certain standard of holiness before God loves us, he loves us as we are. We do not have to prove ourselves. The Christmas message is that nobody is outside the scope of the love of God.
But love needs a response. The shepherds responded by going to Bethlehem to look into the matter, and then, on finding Jesus, by praising God for all they had heard and seen. Let me encourage you likewise to go to Bethlehem and look into the matter – to face up to the wonder of God’s love for you. And then to return to your homes and work-places, praising God for all you have heard and seen.