It came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.Luke 2:15 KJV
Abel. Abraham. Isaac. Rachel. Jacob. Moses. David. Job. Amos. The story of God’s people is full of shepherds – receiving news of how they were to lead and guide God’s people.
The Shepherds of the Christmas story are the first called to be witnesses rather than leaders. In the Old Covenant, God raised up shepherds to lead and guide his people Israel. But at the dawn of the New Covenant, the shepherds become messengers to invite us to accept our true leader, our beautiful shepherd, Christ Our Lord.
Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger… In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.Luke 2:7-8
Why were there shepherds in that region? Bethlehem is only a few miles from Jerusalem, which at that time was the place where God’s people came to make sacrifices of animals. Only ritually pure creatures could be offered in the Temple. We know from an ancient Jewish source, the Mishnah, that cattle in the fields around Jerusalem ‘all the way to Migdal Eder’ were considered acceptable for the Temple. Many Christian commentators have argued that the same applied to sheep, and so these shepherds at Bethlehem were tending those sheep which, if born spotless, would be lovingly raised for one year and then offered as perfect sacrifices.
Some go on to state that when a mother sheep was ready to gave birth, she would be taken to a special cave in Migdal Eder, where the newborn lamb would be washed and wrapped in swaddling bands, and laid in a special bed, or crib, or manger. This birthing place was kept in spotless conditions. Could it be the case that when Mary’s time came and there was no room at any lodging house, she went not to some dirty shed for common animals, but to the space kept clean for the birth of God’s future sacrifices? If so, the shepherds over Bethlehem would know exactly which manger to look in – the one where they laid the pure lambs for the Temple.
The prophet Micah not only named Bethlehem as the place where the Messiah would be found; he also wrote that the Lord’s reign would come to the ‘Tower of the Flock’, which in Hebrew is ‘Migdal Eder’. This tower looks over the fields of Bethlehem and stood over the cave or room where the pregnant sheep were taken to give birth.
So God reveals to shepherds the birth of the Messiah, the future lamb of sacrifice. The story will continue when John the Baptist recognises the Lamb of God, come to take away the sin of the world.
Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Look,your saviour comes,the prize of his victory with him,his trophies before him.’They shall be called ‘The Holy People’,‘The Lord’s Redeemed.’And you shall be called ‘The-sought-after’,‘City-not-forsaken.’Isaiah 62:11-12 Jerusalem Bible
So look, children of Sion! Our saviour has come as a Lamb to be sacrified. The prize of our victory is with him – we know if we are faithful to him, whatever happens to us in this earthly life, our eternal future and reward in heaven is secure. We are the Lord’s Redeemed. We are the holy people.
Two days ago, the most beautiful rainbow I’ve ever seen shone strongly over this very building. This gives me confidence to proclaim today that we, in Sion Community, are sought-after and not-forsaken. We have hope. We have a future. Through our work of pastoring and discipling others, we are also shepherds. Through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, God has also spoken to us and called us. We are friends of Christ here and now, justified by his grace, and heirs looking forward to eternal life.
We already know this, but it is good to be reminded of who we are in Christ. Our eternity is secure. Hope shines over Sion Community. The Lord of Angel Hosts is with us. A very happy Christmas to you all!