A funny thing has happened since I journeyed through the Holy Land. My understanding of the Bible and my faith have not been the same—Christmas is a good example.
When I visited the Shepherds’ Fields outside Bethlehem, I was surprised to find that they are actually on very steep slopes. They are stony and dusty, with very little vegetation.
This is a far cry from the idyllic green pastures filled with snowy white sheep that we see portrayed on Christmas cards and, because of this, I now have a new respect for the shepherds.
Along the slopes there are plenty of caves and it was in these caves that the shepherds took shelter while looking after their sheep. It was while I was sitting in one of these caves, with a ceiling blackened from the smoke of countless fires, and listening to the Gospel account of the shepherds, that the coming of Jesus into the world took on new meaning for me.
These poor, dusty, rustic cave-dwellers were actually the only ones to receive an announcement of the Messiah’s coming (Messiah means ‘the promised one’). It wasn’t the religious leaders, or Roman overlords, or the wealthy or influential who were chosen to receive this proclamation—it was the shepherds.
One Gospel writer records it this way: ‘Today in the town of David a saviour 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’ (Luke chapter 2, verses 11 and 12).
Bethlehem lies on top of the steep hills where the shepherds worked, so to go into the town meant they had to climb. When they arrived there, what would have amazed the shepherds was finding God’s son had been born in a cave, just like the caves they lived in, with Jesus lying where the animals were fed.
The parallel could not have been any clearer or amazing to the shepherds. Here was God’s son coming to them, just like they were—a shepherd in a cave. And it’s no wonder they then went home to their caves rejoicing.
Christmas reminds us that Jesus, who later described himself as ‘the good shepherd’ (John chapter 10, verse 11) comes, not in some idyllic, sanitised, peaceful and cosy rural setting so our sensitivities will not be repulsed, but just where we are and just as we are.
This Christmas, let’s take up that proclamation to the shepherds and realise that not only has Jesus come—he’s come to us. That’s really something to rejoice about.