We never see them in the story again. They were drawn to the Christ by angels, but what became of their lives after this encounter? Did they follow Jesus’ life? Keep tabs on this boy as he grew into a man — waiting for stories of a Messianic King taking the nation by storm, recognizing the whispers about this man from Nazareth for what they were? Were they part of the crowds that followed him from town to town? Or did they just return to their lives as they were, and wonder when news of a Jewish radical crucified in Jerusalem by the Romans for claiming to be God reached their ears.
There’ve been plenty of shepherds that God has appeared to in the middle of nowhere: Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, and Amos. But these guys remain nameless. And it’s a group of them, not just one of them that God singles out to move His people. But nonetheless they are given a task:
“And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. “(Lk 1:17-20)
They’ve encountered the Holy Spirit shining around them; they’ve seen an army of angels, terrifying to behold, but beautiful in their worship to God; they’ve been told that the Savior of their nation and people has been born and are even given directions of a kind to find him and see him with their own eyes. Besides Mary and Joseph (and let’s assume a few close family and friends –i.e. Elizabeth and Zechariah), and some wise kings/astrologers who figure it out for themselves, they are the FIRST to know that God is finally putting this salvific plan in process.
That’s pretty awesome. I’d feel pretty special and privileged. God had picked me out, out of all the people in the world, and all of the tribes of Israel, and all the shepherds wandering the plains, to see His Son and tell everybody that I know. (I think it’s interesting to note here too, that we know nothing about these shepherds. Were they even born of the tribes of Israel? Were they even practicing, devout Jews? Did it matter? It was a pretty smart move by God –kind of like starting a rumor in a busy port town. The message is carried from well to well, from city to city, and suddenly everyone is talking about this baby born in Bethlehem and questions are stirred up about this long looked for Messiah.)
It’s hard to think they were disappointed upon finding an ordinary baby, even an apparently poor one, lying in a manger and not even a real bed. Despite his odd circumstances, they must have felt an incredible hope and a ‘great joy’ as the angel proclaimed. They had hard proof that times were a-changing, that life would be different because of this Son, that God was going to save His people.
But what did they think twenty, thirty, or even fifty years later when nothing about their lives had apparently changed –when they were still shepherds, herding sheep, waiting for news of a conquered Roman Empire. Did they dismiss their heavenly encounter as a dream? Did they give up on the God of Israel? Or did they remain faithful like Abraham, living lives that had quietly changed on the inside, staring up at the stars and remembering that fateful night when they had seen with their own eyes the glories of heaven.
Today we have Christmas lights and cheery music to get us through the darker days of late November and December. But sometimes in January and February I wish that Christmas was a little later in winter so that more of the colder days could be lit up in warmth and hope. When we’re kids we wish that Christmas could be every day. But even after realizing everyone would be thoroughly tired of it if all the popular Christmas tunes and commercials and jingles and ads were hyped up year round, I’d still want the Christmas season (or really the peacefulness of Advent) to be longer than it is now.
If there could be a reminder in every grey and chilly day that heaven touched down to earth one clear evening thousands of years ago and brought peace and a deeper meaning to our dull and difficult days, I’d be alright with that. If hope were as easy to see as a flickering candle in a window, I’d be alright with that. Because maybe we’re all more like shepherds, wandering through life, moving from place to place, with only tidings of a great joy to guide us.