Everybody’s got their lot in life. Some people is born to be a king or a soldier or a fancy priest up in the temple. Others is fishermen, businessmen, wood-builders. Yeah, everyone’s got their lot. My lot in life? Well, I’m a shepherd. Been one near all my life, just like my daddy ‘fore me and his daddy ‘fore him… all the way back to Moses, I expect.
Now before you all run out on me, let me tell you: we shepherds ain’t as bad as our reputation makes us out to be. Oh sure, we ain’t as educated and smart like those scribes and teachers up there in Jerusalem. And we don’t make much money neither, which is why so many of us shepherd’s got a few tricks to help them rich folks make some “involuntary donations to the cause”, if you get my meaning. But that doesn’t make us shady. Just… resourceful.
And, of course, our lot in life has a distinctive smell to it, too. Yeah, we stink. Comes with the territory, out there in the dust and grime, with all that livestock. (Do you know how hard it is to get sheep poop out of a tunic after you been sleeping in it for hours? You know, that reminds me: I think I’m past due for my annual bath.)
O.K., well maybe our reputation is deserved: stinky, stupid and shifty. Least, that’s what most folks around these parts think of us anyways. Can’t hardly blame ‘em. But one thing I can tell ya: at least we stick together. Oh yeah, us shepherds we stick together alright, no matter what comes. We have to: sheep business ain’t so easy as you think it is. Oh I know you’ve got all them happy pictures in your mind of nicely dressed shepherds surrounded by a cute little flock of fluffy white lambs bein’ all friendly with the shepherd. Well I tell ya, you get that thought outta yo mind right now cuz that’s a bunch o’ lies. Them sheep is ornery! Nasty little beasts!
And what they lack in manners they make up for in stupid! Oh yeah, they is dumb! They so mind-numbingly stupid, I wonder how they manage to eat and breathe! Just the other day I found one sheep with his head stuck in a fence — in the same exact place that I had rescued him from three days in a row! Stupid!
And when one tries to escape? Oh, give it up! You ever tried to catch a runaway sheep? Might as well tackle a bull. They might be lost out in a desert, miles from food or water, their wool all tangled with sticks and burrs. You come out there to rescue them; you know what they do? They run away from you! Where you goin, sheep?! The pasture’s over here! Stupid!
No, wrastlin’ with sheep is not for lightfoots, I tell ya. That’s why I always carry my tools of the trade: a staff in my hand and a rod in my belt. Mm-hm, a shepherd’s nothing without his staff and rod. Oh come on — you don’t think I hold onto this thing just to keep my balance, do ya? No, sir. But it comes in awful handy out there in the pasture with them ungrateful varmints.
Yeah. That’s my lot in life. Being a shepherd may not be a glamorous life, but it’s what I am; it’s what I do. An’ I always will; ain’t no gettin’ away from it. But in the end, I wouldn’t have it any other way. For one thing, I got to grow up raising sheep in the exact same fields that King David raised his sheep as a boy, and that’s sayin something I spose. But there’s another reason even more important than that. You see, if I weren’t never no shepherd… I never woulda met the Messiah — the one what rescued me.
Now there’s a story.
Oh, I’ll never forget the night I first met him. (You wouldn’t neither.) It was years ago now; I was just a young boy back then, out there in the fields helping my daddy watch the flocks with some of the other shepherds. We were about a mile from town — my home village, Bethlehem. We was on the night shift. (Yeah, that was all we could get. We were all a bunch of scoundrels, I reckon, so you get what you get.) Course, as a boy, I didn’t much mind the night shift. Kinda liked it, actually. Looking up at all them stars ever night. Wishing I could just reach out and grab ‘em.
But something happened that night I will never forget. That was the night them stars exploded!
It was a quiet evenin’. Wadn’t any wind. And it was late — past midnight — so it was dark. There wadn’t any moon to speak of, just a few clouds. We had a campfire, but it had burned down pretty low, so it was real dark and real quiet. But then, it happened: I saw something — something fearsome and terrible! I was the one what saw it first, but when I tried to yell to the others, I… I was so frightened I couldn’t make a sound. I never been so scared. What I saw was… well, I’ve tried to describe it a thousand times since that night, and I just ain’t got the words to do it justice. But I’ll try.
There was a light — the brightest light you ever seen, brighter than lightnin’ — like a tiny sun that appeared all of a sudden and was just floatin’ up over the trees. The light was so bright it lit up the clouds in the sky and the hills off in the distance. At first, I just shut my eyes tight. I thought it was so bright I’d go blind instantly if I looked at it. But something inside me made me want to try. I figured I just had to look — even if it meant I couldn’t never see anything else ever again. So I did. I looked right at it… and it didn’t hurt. I was still scared outta my mind though.
The others had seen it by now too. I glanced around and I could tell they were as terrified as I was. Most of them just dropped to their knees or tried to hide behind rocks. I woulda too, but I couldn’t. I was just frozen in fear. I was more terrified than I ever been in my entire life. Fact, I was pretty sure I was already dead.
As I looked closer at that light, I gradually realized there was something… or someone… inside the light. (I didn’t know it was an angel at first. I didn’t figure that out till later). And then I realized, well, he was looking right at me! (Oh, my heart was pounding!) And then…all of a sudden… the most dreadful thing: he spoke! He started talking! And do you know what he said? Do you know what that fiery creature said to us? He said, “Fear not! Don’t be afraid!”
Hah! Can you believe that? He told us not to fear! Right there, in the most terrifying moment of all my life, he told me not to be afraid! And then — all of a sudden — I wasn’t! Something changed in me that moment. Something mighty.
I looked away for a moment, took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and then I looked back at him. His face was like nothing I had ever imagined in my most magical dreams. But would you believe — he was smiling! Right at me! (The others told me later they all thought he was looking right at them, but I know what I saw.)
And then he spoke again, and oh! that voice! It sounded like… like all the temple trumpets blowing at the same time; like a waterfall in a rumbling thunderstorm; like a huge crowd of people all shouting together in unison or singing in harmony. His words didn’t just fill my ears — they rattled every bone in my body.
Now, I’m sure you’re wondering what he said to us. Well, I’ll tell you. He said he he had come to bring a message — an announcement. He said he had some great news to tell us, something that would bring joy and happiness to people all over the entire world. He said, that very day, in our very own village, the Messiah had been born. Now, when I heard him say that, everything inside me jumped to attention. You gotta understand: my daddy been telling me about the coming Messiah as long as I could remember. He told me someday God was gonna send somebody who could rescue us all from all of our fears and all of our troubles. I said, “Daddy, how you know that?” He said, “Son, it’s in the Scriptures! The Holy Prophets they been promising for hundreds of years that he’s coming. The Messiah is coming!”
So when that fiery angel said that the Messiah was born, well I just couldn’t help myself — I fell to pieces. I started crying like a little baby. But I kept listening to him. And he kept talking. He told us how to look for the little baby. He said we’d find him wrapped up in rags and lying in a feeding trough. Course, that didn’t make no sense to me, but I was too excited to give it much thought. I just stood there, wiping my nose and trying to catch my breath. I didn’t know what to do. I glanced over at my daddy. He was still on his knees. But he didn’t look frightened anymore. In fact, he looked… happy. He looked stronger and happier than I ever seen before. He turned and looked at me and… he had tears in his eyes.
And that’s when it happened. The most extraordinary thing I have ever witnessed. That’s when them stars exploded. You see, this creature, this angel that had visited us — turns out he wadn’t alone. Five more suddenly appeared with a great flash just behind him. And then a hundred more up in the sky, and then more and more. Thousands of em! Each one appearing like an explosion of fire and light. It was as if the very stars themselves were coming to life, bursting into living flames.
And then, oh, the wonder! — they started singing. Singing! They sang a song that was so beautiful, so heavenly, I knew then and there that the music I heard that night would never leave my heart for as long as I lived. And it never has. I hear it ever morning when I wake up and ever night when I lie in bed. Them angels still singing. I still hear em.
And then, when the song was finally done (and, oh! we didn’t want it to ever end!) but when it did, those angels left and they flew back to heaven where they came from. And I spose it’s a good thing too, cuz I don’t reckon any of us woulda ever moved a muscle till the day we died if they hadn’t. I looked at my daddy again and I still couldn’t say a word. Neither could he. But the others, why, they couldn’t stop talking. My daddy, he just looked at me. He was grinning so big. Then he nodded, and motioned to me and he jumped to his feet and he started running. I knew exactly where he was headed, so I caught up to him real quick. I could tell the others were right behind us too. Now, they knew right well if anything happened to them sheep, they’d all lose they’s jobs, but no one cared a whit about any of that. We had to see for ourselves what the Lord had told us about.
It didn’t take us long to find him. Bethlehem is a pretty small village — just a few hundred people. And everyone was sleeping, so all the lights was out. All except in one little stable. We all stopped outside and caught our breath. We just looked at each other, and then, without a word, we stepped up and looked inside.
And sure enough, it was just exactly like the angel had told us. There was a donkey and a goat and a couple chickens, dirty straw scattered all over the ground. And there was a lady and a man. (I remember thinking that they both looked real tired.) The lady, she looked up at us and she just smiled. It was the prettiest smile I ever seen. And they both had their hands stretched out, resting on a box of hay. And I could see the man’s hand was trembling. And there in that box, lying in the hay, wrapped up in strips of cloth that looked like they’d been ripped from the man’s own tunic, was a tiny little baby. And he was sleeping. We didn’t say nothing, of course. We just all got down on our knees. I could tell my daddy was crying. (I didn’t look at him, I just heard him blowing his nose in his scarf.) I couldn’t keep my eyes off that little one.
I can’t say much about that moment. They aint’ no words for it. Spose the best I can do is tell you, when I was a boy, my daddy he used to tell me about the the temple up in Jerusalem, and all the priests that serve the Lord up there. And ever year, on Atonement Day (that’s one of my favorite holidays) Daddy’d tell me the story about how the Highest Priest would go on that one day into the innermost room of that temple, carrying nothing but the blood of a lamb. He’d go into a place they called the “Holy of Holies”. I always wondered what it meant for a room to be called Holy. I had always tried to imagine what it must be like. But there, on that night, in that stable, I finally knew. And now, to this day, whenever anyone talks about a “holy” place — that little hay barn is the spot I think of. Now, I know I gots to be careful about what I say, an’ I don’t mean no disrespect, but that night, next to that little baby, I felt like we was in the presence of the Lord God Almighty Himself.
Now, you might think my story ends there. And in some ways, I spose, I wish it did. But it doesn’t. And what I’m about to tell you, I none too proud about.
You see, that little family didn’t live in Bethlehem. (They was just visiting, and they didn’t stay long.) But I did. That’s where I grew up. The thrill of that night stayed with me for an awful long time. My daddy never did stop talking about it. A lot of people didn’t believe him, but he didn’t care. He told ever person he ever met all about it as long as he lived. I even heard him singing that angel song on his bed the night he died.
But after he was gone, things sorta quieted down a little. I remember I used to go into Jerusalem ever once in a while. (It’s only a couple hours away, walking.) I always thought maybe I might run into that little child. I just knew I’d recognize him if I ever saw him. But I never did. And as the years went by, it all started to fade. Eventually I stopped thinking about it altogether.
In fact, after a while I started wondering if I could trust my own memory. Ya see: my daddy told me that when the Messiah came, he’d rescue us. He’d save us. But nothing like that ever happened. Things didn’t get better. In fact, they just got worse. The Roman soldiers started coming around more often, always demanding higher and higher taxes. When I grew up, I took over the sheep business, but I could hardly keep food on my family’s table.
Now, you probably think it strange that a shepherd couldn’t feed his family, what with all them lamb chops all around. But you don’t understand: those sheep weren’t for us. The flocks of Bethlehem weren’t just ordinary sheep. And we weren’t just normal shepherds. Remember that temple up in Jerusalem I told you about? You know what they did there? They sacrificed lambs to the Lord there. Ever single day. Hundreds of ‘em. And thousands more on the holy days. So where do you suppose they got all them sheep? That’s right: The shepherds of Bethlehem were their sole suppliers. And I’m here to tell you, they didn’t pay us too much. No, between them and the Romans, we barely had enough to keep a few crumbs of bread on the table.
Things was bad everywhere. The whole world seemed like it was fallin’ apart. Far as I could tell, there weren’t no Messiah coming around to save me or my family. And all them Scriptures and stories,… well I just got to the point where I stopped believing em. The song was still in my head, but I just didn’t sing it no more. Fact, ever time it came into my mind, I tried everything I could to push it back out — right along with everything else that came from God. I figured if I’m gonna have the reputation of bein a scoundrel, I might just as well live like one.
And I did. For a lot a years.
Well, one day I was leading my sheep to Jerusalem. It was Passover, which to me means market day. Course, I only brought my best ones. The priests wouldn’t accept any animals less they was spotless. The critters couldn’t have a single blemish on em if they was gonna be fit for the sacrifice. So I picked out the very best of the flock and I was leading em up. Now, like I said, them priests considered us shepherds to be “unclean” — which means we weren’t allowed anywhere near the temple, which was fine by me cuz I didn’t want anything to do with it. I just wanted to get my money and go. So when it came time to sell the sheep, I always set up shop down by one of the city gates called the Sheep Gate. The priest picked that spot; they liked it cuz it was right near the temple. But I hated it cuz it was also right next to the Roman quarters where the soldiers stayed, and where they tried all the criminals, and I hated bein around all them Roman soldiers.
On that particular day, there was a big noisy crowd there outside the gate. Appears the Romans had just finished nailing up some lawbreakers on a hill not too far from where I was working. That’s what them filthy Romans loved doin: They’d arrest some scoundrels and they’d gut em or flog em and then pin em to boards and hang em out in the sun till they bled to death. Gruesome affair. I’d seen them crosses many times and it always made me sick to my stomach. But today, there was something peculiar about one of them sticks. It had a sign on it with writing. Now, it was a good distance away, and I ain’t much of a reader, so I asked the fellas next to me what the sign said and they told me it said, “King of the Jews”.
Right for a moment there, my heart just stopped. I said, “King of the Jews? You mean, that there’s the … the Messiah?” Now you might think I’m making this up, but I’m telling you right now just as straight as true, that as soon as I said those words, that man on that cross he lifted his head and he looked past all that crowd, all the way over to where I was standin’. And then I knew. It was him. I could see it in his eyes. It was that little baby that I seen way back there in that holy stable.
And I asked them, “What’d he do? Why’s he up there?” And they said, “Hard to know for sure. Some folks say he was just a crazy rabble rouser. Some say he claimed to be God. Most people say he just spent too much time with the scoundrels and prostitutes.”
“Was he a scoundrel?” I asked.
“No.” they said. “Ain’t no one says that about him.”
Well, I guess it goes without saying that I couldn’t get that out of my mind. For days I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. I seen men die before. But not like him. I kept thinking: I knew who he was. Who he really was. The angel told me. Maybe if I…. maybe if I’da told more people the truth about him — like my daddy always did — well, maybe he wouldn’t a wound up hangin’ from that stick, like a… slaughtered lamb. Maybe it was my fault he died.
And then I thought about how I’d been living all these years. I couldn’t help but think that I was just like one of them stupid sheep… always running. Running away from the one who was trying to rescue me.
I had forgotten the song.
So I decided one day, about a week later, that I would return to Jerusalem one more time. Go back to where they killed him, maybe find where they threw his body. Try to pay my last respects somehow. And I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t thinking about throwing myself off a cliff after that.
So there I was at the Sheep Gate, looking up at that hill, just thinking about everything. Thinking about how I had helped kill the Messiah of Israel. When suddenly from behind me, I heard someone say my name. I thought it was one of my priest customers, an’ I wasn’t in the mood to be polite so I swung around rudely…
…and it was him. He was alive!
I just looked at him. I didn’t say a word. I couldn’t. I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. My mind was just exploding all over the place. In that moment I was gripped with the exact same fear that I had felt all those years ago out under the Bethlehem sky. Only this time, it was me who dropped to my knees, just like my daddy had done before. I sank my head in the dirt. I couldn’t look up. I was so afraid. I was literally terrified.
And then… he spoke to me again. And do you know what he said? Do you know what the Messiah said to me? He said,
“Fear not! Don’t be afraid! — For, behold! I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the world. For unto YOU was born THAT day, in the City of David, a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.”
And you know me — I just started crying like a baby. And then he reached down and touched me, and he helped me to my feet. And then he looked at me,… and he smiled. He took me in his arms. He embraced me. Can you imagine that?
And that, friends, is how the Messiah rescued me. Because in that very moment, I figured it out. I suddenly realized what it all meant, what the Prophets had been saying all along:
He was the “lamb” of God,
…born in the hills of Bethlehem,
…destined to die one day in Jerusalem,
…as a sacrifice… for me. For everyone.
So now, I’m telling everyone about it. Everyone I know, everyone I meet, just like my daddy done. Cuz now, he’s my Messiah.
He’s the Shepherd what rescued me.