On the night Christ was born, Almighty God did something that at first glance seems absolutely unnecessary. He sent a brilliantly dressed angel to disturb a band of shepherds. Shepherds. Herdsmen who in the late watches of the night near Bethlehem were faithfully going about their lowly business.
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” Luke 2:8
Why does God terrify these shepherds with his glory? They are not family to Joseph and Mary. They are not skilled at delivering babies. They are not influential. They won’t be racing into Bethlehem to pull some strings at the overbooked inn.
Why does God make known to them what He is about to do through Mary's baby?
The answer to the question comes from the virgin herself. When Mary learned she would give birth to man’s Redeemer, she sang the song we call The Magnificat. In the song she says, “Now God is bringing down rulers from their thrones but lifting up the humble”(Luke 1:52).
The shepherds represent the humble of earthly societies. The shepherds are the kind of people that God ordinarily - but not exclusively - chooses: the weak, the lowly, the despised. The apostle Paul spoke frankly about this arrangement of divine election: "For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.... (1 Corinthians 1:26-28).
The shepherds are visited by a host of angels because God has prepared them to hear the good news that through Jesus humble sinners gain salvation.
How did God prepare them to receive this good news? He gave them a lowly vocation where the testimony of the curse was heavy upon them.
Tending livestock easily and often left the shepherds of Israel ceremonially unclean. They were regularly in contact with many dead things not to mention the occasional carcass of the diseased or devoured lamb. The shepherds touched many unclean things and the weight of law spoke scrupulously against them. Thus their lowly and despised vocation served to remind them that apart from grace they were not much before God. A truth that must strike every sinner's heart if they are to see the gracious face of the Lord.
We well know that not all men of lowly vocation are humble in heart. But if you were a shepherd in Israel at the time of Christ’s birth, you did not spend your time thinking you could be somebody else. You did not spend your time in dissatisfied scheming, pining for some other kind of life. There was no upward mobility. There was no lottery to win. There were no Small Business Administration loans to secure. Shepherds in Jesus’ day were not thinking the grass was greener somewhere else. For them grass was grass wherever you found it. If you were a shepherd you were meant to be a shepherd. You accepted from God’s very own hand your lowly vocation. And in that acceptance you were made weak and weary, the very things that might also ripen your soul to hear the good news the angels sang.
God, of course, has given all of us a lowly vocation. God has made every one of us either a son or a daughter. Those are lowly vocations. God has made some fathers. He has made some mothers. These are lowly vocations. God has made many of us husbands. He has made many of you wives. These are lowly vocations. When by God’s grace we accept these lowly vocations, when the legal duty of them bears down upon us, when we stay under them in the ordinary hours of life, then we can be humbled with a humility that ripens us to hear the gospel again or even for the first time. How so?
When a daughter strives to submit to her mother in obedience to God, when a son labors to obey his father in obedience to God, when a husband plans to secure the good of his wife in obedience to God, when a wife generously respects her husband in obedience to God, when we faithfully and humbly live in our lowly vocations at home and at work in obedience to God we discover how broken we are, how weak we are, how sinful we are, how unclean we are and that discovery readies us to hear the Good News that Jesus came into the world to save sinners just like us.
For the humble in heart there is a Savior. For the unclean flock there is a Shepherd who touches our flesh, cleanses us, lives among us and brings us to forever green grasses.
As the carol says, it is “the weary world rejoices” that Christ is born. The proud deal with the weariness of vocation by throwing off the duties of the law leading to dissipation. The humble, on the other hand, find strength in the covenant blood that speaks forgiveness and the hope of eternal rest in the Lord's pasture.
Have life's lowly vocations made you humble in heart? Then give glory to God for He is the one who gave you such a heavy gift so you might hear and believe the Good News which lightens every yoke.
Have life's lowly vocations made you angry and selfish? Do you grumble and gripe your way through home and work? Are you kicking against God’s appointments? If so, you do that because you are horrified to discover how weak and broken you really are. Don’t be afraid of that discovery. There is a Savior for men and women who are weak and broken under the weight of sin and the demands of the law. In fact, God only saves such. Hear again what the angel said to the shepherds:
"Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”