Imagine yourself a shepherd. Out in the fields in the depth of winter. Huddled together with the sheep at the dead of night. Lying across the opening of the pen in order to protect them from the wolves. It was a bleak existence. Far from romantic. Their job necessary because nature is red in tooth and claw. Without their presence the wolves would descend on the fold. Imagine what would have been good news for them. It would have been living in a world where the wolf lies down with the lamb. That was the exact image that was given to the prophet Isaiah with which to imagine the new world that was coming.
The new heaven and the new earth would be a kingdom where there would be a fundamentally new and different relationship within nature. It is therefore not surprising that when the angels came announcing good news and promising peace on earth they should have chosen shepherds to hear the good news first. They were only too aware of the bad news. Peace on earth for them would indeed be not having to be out in the depth of winter and at the dead of night protecting the lambs from the wolves.
It was a high risk strategy choosing shepherds. They had about as much kudos in their society as a convention of used car salesmen would have in our own (sorry, I know there are some wonderful used car salesmen and women). The point is that shepherds were notorious characters in the time of Jesus. They were distrusted. They had a reputation for taking their master’s sheep off into a foreign country, selling a few and coming home and putting it down to “breakages”!
So notoriously unreliable were they that in certain places they were not even allowed to give evidence in a court of law. Along with tax collectors and prostitutes they were generally despised. So forget the rustic images that evoke so much sentimentality on your Christmas Card! This may be one of the reasons why Jesus himself never calls himself ‘The Shepherd’. He always qualifies it. He describes himself as ‘The Good Shepherd’. It’s as if it could not be taken for granted that a shepherd was a good person.
How remarkable and yet how typically counter-cultural are the ways of God. He chooses the lowly and the despised to tell the good news of the coming saviour. Here is God being typically God! Confounding the ways of the world he undermines our expectations. It is one of the reasons that makes me convinced of the historicity of the birth narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Nobody would make this sort of stuff up! It was not convincing!
If you were fabricating such a story you would have the angels announcing the birth of the Messiah to a respectable group of people – like the Pharisees. But no. God turns the world upside down. In choosing shepherds he demonstrates that there is no one beyond the pale of his love and grace.
The angels come with good news promising peace on earth and predicting the birth of the Saviour. They give to the startled shepherds a sign by which they can find him. They tell the shepherds that they will find the babe wrapped in baby clothes. No surprises there then! That’s what you would expect especially in winter. The tell tale sign comes next. “You’ll find this baby lying in an animal feeding trough”. That’s the clue. Nobody would place a newborn baby in an animal feeding trough – in a manger. Why? Because that’s an exceedingly dangerous place to put a newborn baby for undiscerning cattle to sniff and to bite. Such a cradle for the Christ Child was exceedingly unusual. So when they found a baby in such an extraordinary place they would know by this exceptional sign that they had found the baby that the angels were telling them about.
But here in this manger we have yet another hint of the new world that is coming. Just as the wolf lying with the lamb and the lion lying with the ox are counter-nature and signs of the new world so too the fact that a baby can lie sleeping in an animal feeding trough is also a sign of a new relationship within nature in the new world that is coming. The image of the baby in a manger tells us that Christ will inaugurate a new kingdom in which the relationships are radically different not just between different members of the human family but between the human family and the animal world and indeed the whole of creation.
We have not fully understood the remarkable character of this sign and the picture that it heralds. This is truly peace on earth. Shalom. Where there is a new world order. This new relationship is picked up throughout the Gospels not least in the wilderness when Jesus is tested by the devil and finds sustenance in the ministry of the angels and the relationship that he has with the wild beasts.
When the next Christmas Card falls through the letterbox or flashes onto the screen of your computer bearing the image of angel-serenaded-shepherds kneeling before the Christ Child lying in a manger surrounded by domesticated animals know then that these images are telling us a truth at a level much deeper than sheer sentimentality. We sons and daughters of Adam, children hewn from the earth, learners of the Son of Man, the second Adam, are being called into a different relationship with the creator and with the whole of his creation. Little wonder that the shepherds when they got the message ran to Bethlehem!