Reflection: Thoughts about Shepherds and Angels
Indianapolis First Friends
Pastor Bob Henry
December 2, 2018
Luke 2:8-15 (NRSV)
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,[a] the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,[b] praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”[c]
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
Having the Royal Sensation Choir here today gives such life to the scripture passage we just heard read from Luke. They truly were a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and singing! What a rousing and similar way (as with the biblical story) for us to enter our holiday season this morning. Thank you to Shawn for sharing them with us again this year.
This morning, I am bringing simply a devotional thought for us to ponder on a bit of history and legend behind this biblical story of angels and shepherds. With the help of James Cooper, the Pathos website, and church history, I want to give us some insights that I have found rather fascinating in regard to this biblical story.
Let’s begin with the shepherds. I think I have mentioned this before, but in this day, shepherds were generally seen as having low or little value by people. They were on the fringe of society, dirty and rough, not allowed in the temple because they weren’t ever able to be “ceremonially clean.” Sadly, this left them both ostracized by society and the religious establishment.
And how about the sheep that these shepherds took care of…
The type of sheep the shepherds would have been raising were 'fat tailed' (or broad tailed) sheep. They often had lambs in the autumn and winter, rather than in the spring like most sheep in our country these days.
The biblical account says that the shepherds were quietly attending to their business when a spiritual messenger appears to them. I'm not surprised they were afraid because they spent a great deal of time alone out in the pasture not interacting socially with anyone other than the sheep. And if it was at night, there was no light pollution to help them see – their lamps were all the light they had. Anyone appearing out of seemingly nowhere would have startled them or brought alarm. Remember they were keeping watch for wolves and other animals that would harm their precious sheep.
The messenger’s words to them spoke of the amazing birth of a child and how they could recognize him in a very crowded town. I find it interesting that the words of the lead messenger recorded in the bible is very similar to the words sung during a Jewish Sacrifice Service in the temple, and that ceremony is even accompanied by three blasts of the temple shofar or trumpet.
Interestingly, this account is only the second time in the whole Bible that a group of spiritual messengers rather than only one appeared to people, which from a literary view, would indicate that this was an important message.
This all fascinates me and has since I was a child. Early on, I was very curious about the historicity of the events taking place around the first Christmas. So much so, I asked my parents for a book by Dr. Paul Maier, a professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University, about his perspectives of the First Christmas when I was still in grade school. (Yes, I was a nerd).
Ironically, the material in that book ended up being key in helping me write my very first sermon, which I delivered at the age of 13 on Christmas Eve in my eighth grade year.
Since those days, I have read many theories, mythologies, and histories about the events of the Christmas story. One that has intrigued me is that the historic Jesus might have actually been born a couple of miles outside of Bethlehem - and may have been born in the company of the shepherds.
Just outside of Bethlehem there was a special watch tower called the Migdal Eder, which means The Tower of the Flock. It's thought that sheep born there were used as sacrificial animals in the Jewish Temple in near-by Jerusalem. Unlike typical shepherds, these were very special and were thought of more highly by the religious establishment and society of the day.
According to some sources, the lambs at Migdal Eder had their health checked by resting them in a 'manger' (or a hewn out rock) to stop them from escaping. They were even wrapped in bands of cloth, or what we call, swaddling clothes to show they were special!
Now, I’m not convinced about the historic Jesus actually ‘being born’ at 'Migdal Eder’ but having those shepherds being the first to be told about him makes a lot of sense.
Having seen the new baby, the Bible says "...they [shepherds] spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them." I have a reasonable suspicion this makes them not the typical shepherds of the day – otherwise, no one would have paid attention to their news.
But if they were shepherds from Migdal Eder, they could have told the people what they saw on the way back to the hills, friends and relatives in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the 'middle class' people they sold sheep to and also the people and priests in the Jewish Temple when they took their best sheep and lambs to be sold there for sacrifices.
Ironically, even one ancient prophesy from the Bible speaks of the Jewish messiah coming from the tower of the flock (Micah 4:8).
We may never know the exact history of the First Christmas, but that may not be important. What is important, is that when we hear good news proclaimed to us like the shepherds, that we too would take it into all the world (share it with our neighbors, our friends, our co-workers), and do it without instilling fear, but instead with great joy.
To bring peace and bear good news is our call as Quakers and Friends as we enter this holiday season. Today, may you and I take that “good news,” as the shepherds did into Bethlehem, into our communities in greater Indianapolis.
Queries to ponder: How are you bringing peace and bearing “good news” as you enter this holiday season? Who do you know that needs hope in our world, today?