December 28: Why We Need Shepherds

LUKE 2:15–20

When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them.

Consider This

The lowly shepherds. Probably the greatest cast of supporting extras in the whole Christmas story. After all, they’re the role four out of every five kids probably played in their church’s Christmas pageant. But it’s time to move the shepherds from supporting role to main characters.

Even in Jesus’ day, shepherds did the grunt work. They had the job no one respected or wanted, but society needed someone to do.

This often supports the most common interpretation of why they were the first to hear the good news. God is intentionally identifying with the lowest and forgotten, giving the gospel to the poor and marginalized first.

That is true, but it’s not the whole story. Why are these shepherds so excited that this baby is born? Because it’s not just who heard the good news first, but why and where.

First, there is the connection to King David. Like the characters in today’s text, David was a lowly, forgotten shepherd boy’the eighth son and runt of the litter—when God chose him to be king. He was from Bethlehem, and the promised Messiah was to be a descendant of the shepherd king from B-Town. In other words, he would be one of their own.

But to really get what’s happening here, we need to go back to the beginning, to our mission failure in Eden. The first time blood is spilled to cover humanity’s sin and shame is when Adam and Eve are “naked and ashamed,” and so to cover them up “the Lord God made clothing from animal skins for Adam and his wife” (Gen. 3:21).

From then on, animals kept having their blood shed for us. All the burnt offerings on the altar in the temple: the cattle and sheep and goats and doves and pigeons.

And the lambs. The ones sacrificed at Passover to remember the lamb blood spilled to save God’s people from slavery in Egypt.

Which brings us back to our story in Bethlehem. In Hebrew, Bethlehem means “house of bread,” and in Arabic it means “house of meat.” Why? Because Bethlehem was the town where the lambs for the Passover sacrifice were born and raised. So these aren’t just any shepherds who helped keep people fed, these are the shepherds who helped keep people holy.

These were the very shepherds who had a job because we needed a messiah. I think somewhere they knew this news would impact them the most because if the Messiah was really born, they would eventually be out of a job. And they rejoiced. What does that tell us about their level of darkness and anticipation?

So the gospel first went out not just to the lowest in society, but to the ones it would first impact the most. But why is this good news and not just a fun fact? Because there are three big Jesus statements in the New Testament tied to this moment:

First, Jesus says, “Yes, I am the bread of life! Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, but they all died. Anyone who eats the bread from heaven, however, will never die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and this bread, which I will offer so the world may live, is my flesh” (John 6:48–51).

Second, he says, “I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep” (John 10:14–15).

Third, John the Baptist declares, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

This is a eucharistic moment. It was the Lamb of God from Bethlehem who, at the Passover meal of lamb from Bethlehem, took bread, broke it, gave it to his disciples and said, “This is my body, given for you. Do this to remember me.” Then he took the cup of wine and said, “This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (see Matthew 26:26–28).

And so, the One born in the “house of bread” will one day eat this meal with us again in the house of our Heavenly Father.

The good news is that God is intentional in all things. No part of the story is frivolous, and no person has just a bit role. And every time we eat our Lord’s Supper, we can remember that Jesus didn’t just die for our sins but was also born for them.

So come, let us adore him.