Christmas from the Hillside

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  Luke 2:8


For a shepherd like me, the darkness of night was always the most dangerous and frightening.  Although all of our sheep were gathered into the sheep pens for the night, every shepherd knew that the cover of night provided the best opportunity for predators and thieves to attack our flocks.  While we took turns sleeping at the opening of the sheep pen, all the rest of us knew that at any given moment we would be called upon to kill a fox, snake or other predator.  We listened for the sound of thieves talking as they prepared to steal some of our sheep.  As tired as we were from the hot sun in the daytime, it was hard to sleep soundly at night.

The darkness also amplified the sense of loneliness and despair of being a shepherd.  I spent most of my days in total isolation from people.  From my vantage point on the hillsides of Bethlehem, I could see the activity in town.  People were coming and going.  There was the laughter of children playing.  However, by the very nature of the job, a shepherd is not a social being.  I could see other shepherds around me, but we didn’t have time to sit and talk, because we were always keeping an eye on our flock.  At night, I was more aware of how isolated I felt.  Although I was young, I questioned how my life could ever have meaning.  I had no skills to do anything other than care for sheep.  How far could that take me?

At night, I had to fight the feeling of total hopelessness.  The religious leaders had emptied the worship of our God Jehovah of any joy.  All that was left were the rules and regulations the religious leaders forced on us daily.  The Temple had become big business.  The Sadducees were focused on one thing, money.  They were experts in developing ways to take advantage of their own people.  The worship that was meant to be a time of freedom to celebrate the greatness of our God had become religious oppression.  Those who were responsible for leading us to God were focused on themselves, not God.  They had become self-righteous and power-hungry.  They had the authority to make our lives miserable spiritually.

It is sad to say, but my “best friends” were my sheep.  I knew each one of them by name.  I remember the night they were born and knew their individual personalities.  Every morning, I gathered my flock together by calling their names.  All the flocks that slept and grazed together at night would separate into the individual flocks by listening to their shepherd’s voice.  The safety of my flock was the first priority in my life.  Unfortunately, my flock served a very special purpose that wouldn’t shorten their life considerably.  At the next Passover, the sheep had come to love and know would become the lambs that each family would sacrifice as they experienced the Passover Feast together.  These sheep were born to die.  It broke my heart every year when we led my flock down the five-mile trek to Jerusalem.  I hated that my precious lambs would be used as a financial scheme to replace people’s “blemished” sheep.

The spiritual oppression of the religious leaders was amplified by the physical oppression of the Roman Army.  Since they toppled the Greek Empire, the Romans had occupied every part of the known world.  Although Caesar was willing to allow other religions in the Roman Empire, he lived on the other side of the civilized world.  The political leaders in our part of the world would use their power to manipulate the Jews through military presence and taxes.  Caesar Augustus gladly taxed the people or controlled them every chance they got.  In fact, people were coming to Bethlehem this very night for a census that had been ordered by Caesar.  I can only imagine how crowded the town must have been.  So many people and so little room.  Because Bethlehem was the hometown of King David, it would be those in his line who were seeking rooms in this small town.  How could we ever be free from this army that was always looking for us to make a mistake they could punish?

Then it happened!  An angel appeared before us.  At first, I was frightened; but the angel assured us that there was no reason to be afraid.  The angel had good news!  In fact, he had the best news we could possibly hear.  Tonight, Bethlehem had become the birthplace of the Messiah.  The One we longed to see was now just a short walk down the hillside.  The Christ would be our Source of Hope and His Presence would end any sense of loneliness.  The One we had longed to see was now a short walk down the hillside. I found that the angel’s announcement had not only driven out my fear, but had given me hope and a sense of being surrounded by God’s presence.  How could I ever be lonely or hopeless again? Somewhere in Bethlehem, there was a newborn babe wrapped in swaddling cloth and lying in a manger.  A manger?  Why would the long-awaited Messiah be born in a stable?

 Then the heavens broke open and the light of Heaven overwhelmed the darkness.  I found myself on the front row for a heavenly, angelic concert.  It was the most beautiful singing I had ever heard.  The angels sang words of praise, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rest.”  There were so many questions I could not answer, but I knew one thing…I had to join the other shepherds in finding that baby!  We would be the first eye-witnesses to the birth of the Kingly Messiah.  How fitting He would be born in the birthplace of our great king, King David.  Leaving our sheep, we hurried down the hillside into town.

We began to search the stables of the town.  We found Him!  There in one of the stables was a young woman named Mary and her betrothed Joseph.  When we looked in the manger, the child lying there was peacefully sleeping.  His arms and legs were swaddled firmly so I could not see anything, but his face.  However, I could see the beauty of God’s Presence in that tiny face.  Seeing this one named Jesus made my heart leap with joy.  Jesus–Jehovah Saves!  What a perfect name!  In the midst of a dark and evil world, the Light had come!  How could a baby defeat the enemies we faced?  He could not move his arms or legs.  He could not speak a word.  I didn’t know how it would happen, but I felt assurance in my heart that this Little One would change the world forever.

My fellow shepherds and I could not stop telling the story of that night.  It changed our lives!  We would never be the same!  I finally grew up enough to leave the hillsides of Bethlehem.  My career brought me into constant contact with people.  Whether they were strangers or friends, I looked for opportunities to tell them the story of Jesus as I viewed it from the hillside.  Don’t stop telling your story about Jesus.  He is the only hope of salvation and eternal life your world has.  That night, the manger held the One who is God in the flesh.  Because we could never reach God with our goodness, God came to us.  Now, that is good news!

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