Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Shepherd’s Christmas

Story by John Miller

A few hours into his long night’s watch, the young shepherd stood guarding his flock. His eyes and ears strained to catch the slightest sound of any nearby predator.  His sheep lay sleeping, having filled their bellies on the sparse but rich green grasses of desert fields and had quenched their thirst from clear still waters. Each sheep had been carefully inspected and an ointment applied to the heads of those with open sores to keep insects from disturbing them.

The lowly shepherd, having led and guarded his flock by day, had settled them for a secure nights rest. He had given careful attention to the young unblemished lambs that were so few among the sheep.  As was the Abrahamic tradition, these sacrificial lambs were his highly valued possession and were to be closely guarded day and night. This was his night watch; his ancient duty recently entrusted to him by his older brother who slept nearby, leaning against an outcropping of a large smooth rock. His song of security and comfort to his flock was more an occasional “clicking” of his tongue to the roof of his mouth mixed with a soft, low humming. The sheep knew him.

From a distant field, he could hear the lonely song of another shepherd standing watch over his flock. His was a soft, mellow whistle with an occasional high pitch.  Each shepherd in his solitude was grateful for the watchful eye and ear of the distant other. Their keenly sharpened search beyond their flocks into the dark surrounding fields for predators was a combined effort for these men.  All was calm and quiet. All was well on this silent night in the fields outside of Bethlehem.

Suddenly, there came a heavenly event, a resounding sound in the dark skies that would forever change these lowly shepherds; would change the world. The young shepherd prodded his sleeping brother awake with his staff. “Get up, brother, there’s something happening,” he cried out. Fear gripped the shepherds until an angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them.  These simple men had never seen an angel. They fell to the ground to hide their faces. Their sheep stirred but remained asleep.

The angel spoke to them saying, “You have nothing to fear! I come to proclaim good news to you – tidings of great joy to be shared by the whole people. This day in David’s city a savior has been born to you, the Messiah and the Lord. Let this be a sign to you: in a manger you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes.” Hearing this, the shepherds lifted their eyes to the skies to see a multitude of heavenly hosts praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

When the angels had returned to heaven, the two shepherds said to one another,”Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this event which the Lord has made known to us.”  As they crossed the fields, they called to the distant shepherds to join them. Each man left his flocks behind, unguarded by humans. They acted in trust of the angel’s words of proclamation; invited by heavenly hosts, their focus was on beholding the miraculous sight of the Infant Lord.  The shepherds girded their robes at their belts in order to run fast into the town of Bethlehem, whose name means “House of Bread.”

Approaching the manger, the shepherds fell to their knees several feet away from the Infant’s crib. “May we draw closer to see his face, please?” they begged. Their chests heaved and lungs burned from running from their fields.

“Sir, we unclean. Our clothes are ragged and dusty. Dear lady, we have no gift for your Child, except our hearts that pound with excitement inside our chests. We ran from the fields when the angel of the Lord told us of his birth. We left our flocks unattended. We must trust His angels to guard them while we are away.” Their calloused, trembling hands reached out towards the Child’s parents in their plea for permission to come into His presence. “Is it true? Is this child really the Lord? They asked. With heads bowed, they waited for the parent’s response in silent hope.

“Come near,” was Mary’s reply. He is sleeping but I will hold him up for you to see.” The shepherds’ eyes shifted to Joseph, who nodded in silent agreement with his wife. The men crawled close to the Child and his mother. None dare stand in the holy presence of the Lord.

“Welcome, to the world, Lord. We are unworthy beggars before you.” they uttered to the Child. Their quivering lips gave way to silence, as time stood still in their hearts. They gazed for long moments upon the face of the Child. “Thank you sir and dear lady,” they whispered and slowly backed away with heads bowed.  A deeper understanding of the angel’s proclamation had come to them. These lowly men, of no account to the rich townspeople or to the priests and scribes of the synagogue, were chosen to be the first human visitors to the Infant Christ, the Messiah.

 Christ was first revealed - not to honorable and distinguished witnesses - He passed by them, and chose shepherds, humble men of no rank. God’s promise in Chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis, the “seed of woman” was fulfilled in this infant Son of God. This awesome truth was imparted to simple men and in a manner that God saw fit.  Our God Incarnate who became the Word made flesh, Christ the Messiah, The Bread of Life and The Lamb of God was first welcomed into the world by lowly shepherds. After all, their work was to raise and protect the unblemished lambs that would be sacrificed at the coming Feast of Pentecost. By the power of the Spirit, they understood the simple, purposeful and yet unspoken holy name, “Lamb of God.” 

The Infant Child that was refused a decent space for birth in the town of Bethlehem had been given space in the hearts of simple men; had become their first Christmas gift to be shared with the world. Their hearts burned with joy, as they humbly received this gift of God’s grace. They believed. They understood. They would be the first human messengers of Christmas.

The shepherds each returned to their flocks, and found all of the animals safe and secure in the fading night. They had talked incessantly along the way to their fields. Each felt the urge to scream out the news of his encounter with the God Child, the newfound joy was nearly bursting within his chest. But each restrained himself for the sake of the other’s flocks. These uneducated men who lacked rank and were denied entry to the Temple of God, were now filled with the true meaning of the first Christmas; an understanding that came from the Holy Spirit. Wonderful images of the Blessed Infant and joyful thoughts of their first Christmas now filled their hearts. They would not, could not sleep for now.

The shepherd’s lonely night watch would never again be the same. Each man reveled in the dirt on his garment and the worn sandals that marked him as humble and lowly, yet he was regarded to be of great worth by his Savior.  Each pondered how to tell his family of this night’s blessing. Would he be believed? Their nearly inexpressible thoughts consumed them. “Silent Night, Holy Night!”

The awakening dawn invited their weary eyes to search skyward, where in its passing dark night, the song of angels had heralded great news of the newborn God-Son, Emmanuel.  The nearby rolling hills now hid the little Town of Bethlehem where they had seen the face of The Lamb of God, The Good Shepherd. It was the first Christmas morning.


One may wonder why the Biblical account of Christ’s birth is so simple, so brief. This divine and incomprehensible act of love needs few Scriptural words. The brief account of this miracle birth stirs the Spirit-inspired hearts and minds of men who endlessly re-count that which is bound up in the deeper mystery of God’ infinite grace – His purposeful and unchanging truth. God’s infinite wisdom, so often seen as foolishness in the eyes of most men, exceeds all human wisdom that will ever exist in the world.  The God-child’s lowly birth place, his call to lowly messengers of the field to witness his humble beginnings was pure, divine and purposeful. The “Seed of woman,” which God promised to fallen mankind in the Garden of Eden, the Incarnate Redeemer who would reconcile sinful man to Him, was in made flesh upon the earth. He lay in a manger.  It was the first part of Christ’s “emptying himself of the outward glory and majesty of His deity in preparation for His redemptive work on the Cross of Grace; of becoming flesh, God incarnate and being welcomed into a needy world by humble messengers, shepherds – simple men without exalted life agendas. And this year we hear their humble message once again, Christ has come! “Merry Christmas to all!”

Witness to the King on a Donkey

Witness to the King on a Donkey

He’s coming. You’re there among the noisy, pressing crowd outside Jerusalem’s gate. You struggle to see past flailing arms and the colorful, cloth-covered heads of ancient humanity. You raise your arms to fend off the palm leaves they are waiving that brush close to your face. Ruddy, sunburned faces peer past you, as if you’re not there.  But you see them and their eyes tell a story. Some are friend, some are foe.  Some appear mildly curious, some are gleeful. Some don garments of wealth and some are beggars.  Others have a look of hatred; these Temple spies nervously dart their eyes about, as if they know that their thoughts are exposed to Him.  A few are crying. 

 A woman stands close by. Her face is drawn from exhaustion. Her eyes, red and swollen, reveal a torment from years of knowing; a prophecy spoken to her by old Simeon in the Temple is about to be fulfilled. Her heart is breaking. You know of her.

Cries of desperation and praise rising from the throng reach a crescendo, “Hosanna!”  “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” The air about you is ionized. The hair on your arms and neck is statically charged. You feel His presence, even before you can see Him beyond the pressing throng of gawkers. You have the sense that tens of thousands of unseen angels are covering the hillsides, whispering words of comfort to their Master. An unspeakable peace wraps you in awe and wonder about this Jesus, the Messiah. He’s coming.

“What will He look like?” you wonder. Memories of stories read and songs sung paint images of Jesus in your mind. You recall images of the Infant Child in the manger, the young boy seated among the elders of the Temple, the carpenter working alongside Joseph and the man baptized in the Jordan.  Your mind is flooded with the seemingly countless and varied images of Jesus on church walls, in painted murals along the freeway and on walls of old city buildings, on post cards  in the shops and malls. He has been depicted as being white, black, Latino, Asian and Middle-Eastern.

He is the centerpiece on Facebook for many Christians. Countless slogans use him in the sale of wares. He is depicted as Master, Savior and, all too often, as an errand boy. Is He like any of those images?  Is He the homeless man, bearded and dirty that you ignored on the street yesterday. In your mind you know this Jesus has possessed a place in your heart for a long time.

Or, perhaps there was no room for this Jesus in your heart.  You’re unprepared for this encounter. If He weren’t atop a donkey, if you hadn’t a vague recollection of stories having been told about Him, if the pressing throng of ancient flesh was not praising and pleading, what manner of person would you expect to see?  If the scene before you was not a spectacle would you even care?

Why are you there, just beyond the city gate? What does He want from you? He’s coming.

He’s close by now. The young donkey’s hooves clogging on cobbled stones slow to a stop. There is no crowd. There is just you and this King on a donkey.  He is in front of you, silent. Jesus. He’s ordinary in appearance, yet indescribably beautiful! He’s looking right at you with loving, understanding eyes that penetrate your very heart and soul. His look tells you that you are known and loved, that He has always loved you unconditionally.  You know it.  He has created every cell of your body and owns your heart, soul and mind and the gasping breath that finally escapes from your heaving chest. “Hosanna!” 

What are you to Him?  Lover? Doubter?  Hater?  Scoffer?

You’re at the gate.

                 Story by John Miller