An Artist's Attractive Concept

Dedicated to Tom and Sylvia Yuge, and all our Dear Friends, Living and Departed to Glory

Luke 2: 1-20

What could it really have been like?

A wind of strong and biting cold

made the sheep turn their backs in the fold.

Poor, despised shepherd men!--

smelling of sheep and the sheep pen.

What hope had they? None, with none in sight.

But to them first God send angels as Christ's heralds,

heaven's golden shofars trumpeting his Glorious Son's Delivering Light.

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Announced to whom?

Sorry rubbish, grime and vermin--

offscourings of David's little town,

cast into the fields round

about Bethlehem,

tending sheep on a dull and dismal night.--that's who!

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Did they grumble at their bad luck in life?

Any work paid better.

Honest working men won respect

with trade, skill and industry.

But shepherding?

Society's misfits, dregs,

even law-breakers,

dissolute, lazy, good-for-nothings,

and plain simpletons,

no more brainy than their silly-headed sheep!

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Such were hired out by the owners

and maybe paid just enough to keep them barely alive.

Could they pay King Herod's tax?

All his subjects were taxed, heavily,

in his little rump client-kingdom of Judaea,

and the imperial Romans too exacted a heavy tax,

and there was the temple tax too

--three hard strokes of an iron rod,

enough to break a donkey's back,

much less a man's.

*************************

No doubt the sheep owners of flocks felt they had done all by the shepherds they could

--by paying the taxes for them--

so how did they keep alive, without real wages they could pocket?

The sheep must have filled the gap somewhat

--there was ewe milk at least,

and milk left in a goatskin made curds and yogurt.

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To supplement this there were sometimes wild sycamore fruit,

nuts and berries perhaps in season,

and if they were really forunate,

a partridge or quail wandered in close enough to be clubbed or netted.

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At night the flocks were penned and guarded, in stone wall enclosures,

or thatched pens, and even caves (which Bethlehem had plenty of),

the shepherds taking turns to either watch or take a rest by the dying fire.

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Snoring under their dirty, tattered cloaks,

or sitting up and watching weary hours long--

that was the way of it.

But no, it didn't continue that way after all.

We know the rest of the story,

of a certain most unusual night among these Bethlehem shepherds--

as it was written in the Bible, in the book of Luke.

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Now here, ladies and gentlemen, is where these nobody shepherds suddenly take on...

cosmic significance.

Here is where they cease to be sordid nonentities,

inconsequental nobodies,

and far surpass the greatest kings and V.I.P.s of all history in their importance.

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That is no exaggeration!

Yes, the shepherds we see in Christmas cards,

dressed in respectable robes,

gazing suitably pious and raptly at the Christ Child in the manger

--that is the imagination of an uninformed artist,

not what they actually looked like.

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Who would pay any attention to these low fellows?

They were nothing but shepherds!

Yet that is not how God sees them at all.

God Almighty sent herald angels to them,

announcing the Savior's birth.

And not only this, he sent the angels to them first!

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First, that's the rub,

the sticking point which the artists and preachers completely missed.

These shepherds should have been last to hear of anything so grand,

being what they were, the lowest in the social register of that day.

*************************

But scripture says, "The last shall be first, and the first shall be last."

Last can mean least too.

Following the angel's instructions,

whether they comprehended what was happening to them or not,

the shepherds went and found the manger,

found the Christ Child,

and worshipped him in their crude and unpolished way as best they could.

*******************************

Imagine this much:

they showed up before Mary and Joseph,

uninvited guests just after the birth.

They jabbered about angels and being given a sign.

The sign, they said, led them to him.

Now that they saw the Savior,

and he really was a child in a manger,

what were they to do or think?

And what did Joseph and Mary think of them?

God went to all that trouble to send shepherds to be first to welcome the Savior into the world?

Apparently!

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Though certainly an inauspicious beginning for this Holy Child, the Messiah,

at least shepherds, animals and stables were compatible.

--nothing jarring about that arrangement!

But for the shepherds,

this was the moment of their descent back to reality, from sordid to the sublime and then back to the sordid.

*******************************

It didn't end there for the shepherds.

They had to share their glory with somebody besides the parents.

They must have told many others too,

or we would not have heard about them afterwards.

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But how long did they tarry in Bethlehem,

telling folks about the angels,

and the Savior's Birth

and their own role welcoming him?

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But really--shepherds?--what kind of people were they to listen to anyway?

Who in his right mind would believe them?

It was down-right suspect and even shameful,

the townspeople must have thought,

that holy angels would appear to a group of disreputable shepherds

and not come into town and speak first to decent, honest, respectable Jewry.

**********************

Someone must have gotten his fill and called them fools and liars.

Some one must have told them to shut their big flapping mouths

and go back to their flocks and quit bothering busy people with their "nonsense" and "mad ravings."

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Probably, if they knew what was good for them, they took the suggestion and quietly stole away back to obscurity in the fields.

In camp, everything must have looked and smelled the same as it always had,

and the sheep stared blankly at them with the same dumbness of brute beasts,

they gave no indication, something out of the ordinary had happened shortly before,

so had it?

************************

The shepherds must have scratched

their grizzled faces and wondered if it had really happened.

They were human after all.

Humans feel and think that way,

so they may well have lapsed back

into old ways of thinking,

even though the Messiah's Visitation had begun.

************************

It must have seemed a strange dream to them now

--the sudden opening of the dark sky overhead,

the stunning outpouring of blinding light,

the voices, and more voices,

a multitude chanting,

innumerable bright beings--angels of heaven--

all besides themselves declaring the birth of a Savior, Christ the King.

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Then the caveat added to it,

the sign given to them whereby they might find the Christ child and not mistake someone else for him.

**********************

How many babies in Bethlelem were lying in a manger that night?

as what mother would put her baby

in an animal's feed trough?

They found only one baby in a feed trough.

They had found Him, to be sure,

but what difference had it made?

They were still shepherds, still tending sheep.

Everything continued as before--

yet not quite.

********************

In days and years ahead,

even the shepherds discerned that something was different in the normal, set course of things

--a new step, a strange rhythm, something unexplained, was introduced since that night of the angels' visitation.

The baby Savior and Messiah--

Y'shua by name, for he was to save the people from their sins--

where was he?

*************************

Townsfolk or even Joseph and Mary's relatives must have been told the inquiring shepherds that his parents took him away

to a far, northern village in Galilee.

That was the end of it, it seemed.

But no, at age twelve he reappeared in Judaea,

speaking like a learned scribe concerning the scriptures,

only better and with more authority than any learned scribe, astonishing all the people and the elders with his wonderful wisdom.

Disappearing again, back to Nazareth's obscurity!

Some said he was a carpenter's son and learned the trade,

practicing it after his father passed away.

Others said he was not really Joseph the carpenter's son, but Mary the virgin's first-born, born of the Holy Spirit of God.

Others who thought themselves righteous and good Jews,

out to defend Jewdom's moral standards and the Law of Moses concerning adultery and the stoning of adulteresses,

insinuated he was illegitimate, Mary's child by some unknown person, perhaps even a passing Roman soldier.

Most people who knew Mary, however, wouldn't think of stoning her--so she was not stoned.

Still the whispering continued.

What were shepherds to believe?

It was all so confusing and troubling.

The shepherds must have lost complete track of him,

and thought that was the end of it for them.

********************

They were mistaken.

Years and years later Messiah Y'shua appeared again in Judaea, grown,

when they were now aged men, if any of them still lived.

He did many miracles,

and healed the sick,

and gave sight to the blind,

made lepers clean,

and he fed many thousands with only a boy's lunch of bread and fish,

and even raised dead people back to life.

*********************

If by now they still could hobble and find the strength to follow him and the crowds,

they saw some of these things too.

But then came the very bad end for the Messiah Y'shua, the Nazarene--

he was arrested by the temple authorities and delivered to the Romans for execution by crucifixion,

demanding for Y'shua the worst and most cruel form of death ever devised by cruel men.

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Condemned, sentenced, and executed for what capital crime?

Everybody knew he was innocent,

doing no harm to anyone or committing any sin.

This gentle, loving, miracle-working man, Y'shua the Nazarene and miracle-worker,

was treated to mockery, the base humiliation by the Roman soldiers,

who stripped him naked, put him in a scarlet robe,

and crowned him with a crown of thorns,

while striking him in the face,

taunting him, a prophet of the Jews,

to tell them who struck him!

And flogged him mercilously too, forty lashes less one,

stripping off his skin with iron and glass-tipped whip ends,

laying bare his bones and vital organs,

just as Pilate ordered,

who was seeking to placate the Jewish temple authorities without having to put Y'shua--an innocent man in his estimation--to death.

And his wife Procula send word to him by a soldier and warned him, "I had a dream of him. He is innocent. Do him no harm."

All this did not satisfy the chief priests, the Pharisees and the scribes.

Various trials followed, as they tried to find fault with him to convict him,

but the witnesses could not agree, and this too failed except for the charge he claimed to be God.

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None of his good deeds mattered to all his judges in the Sanhedrin,

or to King Herod, Pontius Pilate the Roman procurator, and the chief priests,

as well as the Pharisees and other religious leaders of the people.

The chief priests charged he was a blasphemer, that he claimed to be God.

If this wasn't bad enough to their pagan overlords, the mighty Romans,

and it wasn't,

for they worshipped many gods and one was about as good as another to them,

they said to Pilate he was stirring up the people against Roman rule, inferring that Tiberius Caesar in Rome would hear about it,

if he failed to punish this rebel against Rome.

Pilate, honored as "Caesar's friend," had to do something then, of course,

and he not only had Y'shua flogged,

but he gave the execution order,

crucifixion.

It was done exactly as Pilate ordered,

the professional Roman soldiers carrying out his command with brutal and indifferent efficiency.

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The shepherds, who were,

to put it nicely,

not well versed in learning and the scriptures--

they were illiterate and unschooled--

saw only the good deeds, the healings and miracles,

or heard about them from others,

but however they learned about him,

they knew his was a righteous life (for no one could impute sin to him, though his many enemies tried often enough to settle the question).

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Was it right to treat a good man so? they must have wondered.

Surely, it was not!

Something was terribly wrong, to put to death such a good and kind man who loved and did so much good to poor, ordinary people.

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But if they still had hoped in him as the Savior the angels announced FIRST to them

(which they never forgot and still did not comprehend),

their hopes were dashed when he was laid in the tomb.

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Men don't ordinarily come back to life and walk out of tombs.

All was over!

The shepherds returned to their own hopeless condition with no prospects for improvement.

But no...it was not the end,

they were mistaken again.

News, the most stupendous, astonishing news ever heard on earth, came that Y'shua the gentle Savior had risen from the grave!

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"Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace and good will to men!"--the angels' proclamation had come true in its fullest sense then.

*******************************

Still, frail mortal clay must be given a little space, a little time, to grasp the greatest event ever transpiring on earth.

What? Risen! No mere man could do that!

He really was what he claimed to be all along!

His resurrection proved it!

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It proved He was indeed the Messiah, the Christ of God, the Savior of the world.

It proved man's greatest dreams for happiness could now be fulfilled, utterly, eternally! How? Through Christ, by Christ, they would now all start to become reality.

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Oh, utterly besides themselves with wonder and joy,

they must have wanted to see him immediately, without delay,

as hundreds no doubt did after hearing the glorious news.

Yet if they could not see him, being too old or infirm by this time,

they also must have heard he ascended into heaven.

*****************************

Their jubilation turned to despair. Gone? Forsaken?

A more crushing blow could not be imagined or suffered by these shepherds--they had lost Y'shua forever!

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But no, again they were mistaken!

His disciples, twelve originally but missing one,

that disciple called Judas of Iscariot who betrayed Y'shua to the temple soldiers who were sent to arrest him,

somehow gathered boldness of spirit

came out of hiding and went forth telling the news of this Savior, Y'shua.

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Proclaiming the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to all men, despite all the opposition and threats from the chief priests who forbade them to preach and honor Y'shua's name,

the disciples continued telling about Him,

explaining the way of salvation in Y'shua, which was made available to all men through his suffering, death and resurrection,

*******************************

Shepherds, with dirt-balls hanging from their robes, were first to hear of him--

would they be last to believe on Him for salvation?

They had their chance to decide, as all men must, from that age to ours.

And we who are last to hear of him,

will we be like the indifferent townsfolk of Bethlehem who went about their activities, soon forgetting Joseph and Mary and the flurry of strange events starting with the crazy shepherds?

To them he was just another baby

born of a young Jewish couple,

and, naturally, they wouldn't think of bowing down to him.

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Or will we,

in our own time and circumstances,

choose to forget about ourselves

and worship him in spirit and truth,

like those simple, crude, unlettered, unpretentious shepherds?

They fell their faces on the dirty stable floor before the Child in the feed trough, not caring if they got dirtier than they already were.

What words came out of their mouths now?

They knew no pious phrases and liturgy,

they hadn't been in Christmas services before holding up little candles and sweetly singing "Silent Night" with the congregation.

But something as good or even better was this:

they must have remembered what they had heard a short time ago,

the angels' joyous proclamation.

Brokenly and with many gaspings mixed with tears, they echoed:

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, with good will toward men!"

Truly, this is all that God wanted from them,

praise and worship to God in the highest.

rising from their ignoble clay vessels

onto God's ears like the greatest assembly of angelic philharmonics!

Praise from any others on earth could not have sounded sweeter to Him,

given by such cracked and marred vessels of humanity as these--shepherds, God's favorites.

Note: To whoever reads this account, it is the best I can do, to try to picture how it was and how it may have felt to some of the very first human eyewitnesses. I hope not but still may be condescending to the shepherds, as I have not been one myself. But I confess I have been sordid, lived in vile sin, and though I turned from it to Christ I have the least justification for looking down on shepherds. Events proved they were God's favorites, to use Sylvia Yuge's perfect description. May the Lord look on me with a fraction of the favor he had when he looked upon the lowly shepherds! God bless you! A sinner saved by grace, rescued by God from what I am--Ron Ginther

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