December 9, Cumbria, England, Modern day
If you were to place yourself into the role of any Christmas character, who would you be? Pastor asked us this last week in church, and for me, it is no real question. It is what I always wanted to be. It is what I am.
He also said that the shepherds back in Jesus’ day got no love. I can sure understand that. Half his congregation can understand that. Here in this barren corner of northwest England, we are almost all shepherds. My dad was a shepherd, his dad, and my grandpa’s grandad was a shepherd right here on this spot. I do know that there have been shepherds in these bleak, cold hills since well before Jesus’ time, but four generations are as far as I know for sure that there were shepherds in my own family. Uncle Ted can tell me better if I ever bothered to ask. He’s big on that genealogy stuff. For me, it is just God, my family, and my sheep.
Nobody except my neighbors, who are also shepherds, can really understand that sentiment. Like I said, and like the pastor said, we shepherds get no love. I remember back when I was in high school, I had to have a meeting with my school counselor. This was back when the internet was the newest thing in town. The counselor had found a website that was supposed to be able to pick what the best career choices would be for her students.
So here I was in her office as a guinea pig while she tried out her new toy. At this point, there was no question for me that I would be a shepherd. Don’t misunderstand, it is not a luxurious or glamorous life. It certainly is no easy life. But it’s my life, and I love it. Even as a rebellious teenager, I loved it. So this counselor started asking the questions her website was feeding to her. Do you love animals, yes or no? Do you prefer working indoors or outdoors? Do you like working alone or in groups? Do you like working with numbers? Who would ever answer yes to that one? On and on these questions went. When it was finished, the counselor pushed send. We could hear the buzz and hiss of the modem establishing a connection. We sat for a minute or two while the website was “thinking.” Then it fed back the answer. A zookeeper. That stupid program created by some city slicker in California couldn’t even imagine a shepherd as a career choice. Like I said, no love.
If you were to place yourself into the role of any Christmas character, who would you be? Maybe for you, a different answer would pop into mind when the pastor asks the question. Perhaps you really like music, and you would want to be the drummer boy. Maybe you are more of an intellectual type, you love books and stuff, and so you could imagine yourself as one of the wise guys. Or you might be a single guy thinking of popping the question to that special someone who makes your heart race. Then Joseph is your guy. Or you might be a single mom, and Mary comes to mind. Maybe you are an older gentleman or lady, and you can best feel for Zechariah or Elizabeth.
Not me. I am a shepherd. I am sure that the way we do things now, here in northern England, is a lot different than they did it way back two thousand years ago in Israel. But actually, it might not be. My grandfather and my dad in his younger days were part of a generation that tried to modernize and update the industry. They got away from the Herdwick sheep we had always been rearing in these hills and tried to bring in the more lucrative Suffolk sheep. Of course, there isn’t enough grazing for these fatter sheep, and so they also had to import a lot of grain. Also, those lowland breeds cannot survive our winters outside, so big pens with heating had to be built.
For a while, this worked, but then the prices for food and fuel started to skyrocket in the late ’70s and early ’80s. So dad, like most of his neighbors, decided to give up on this modernizing trend and go back to doing things the way they used to. These days, the focus is on leaving as small of a footprint as possible. Also, we seek to be as independent of outside resources as possible. It may not be the most lucrative way to go, but it is the most sustainable. I would love to be able to leave a legacy so that my grandkids’ grandkids will be able to raise sheep right on these same hills I walk every day.
All that to say, maybe the way we do things now might not be as different as one might think. Oh, I am sure that they didn’t have cell phones or were able to hop into a VW Amarok to drive to town once or twice a month, but in the things that count most, those Bible shepherds are more like me than those guys down in California creating web page. If the pastor is right, then they got just as little love in their day as we do now.
What would it have been like being a shepherd on those hills when the angels showed up? Would those shepherds have had kids who get picked on in school because they showed up to class smelling like sheep? I hear all the time about how stupid sheep are, but that is a myth. OK, ok, it may not be a tall tale but it is a very selective presentation of facts. Sheep are dumb in some ways and smart in others. But what is not a misrepresentation is that sheep are smelly. We all get used to it, but there’s no avoiding it. They stink. When we get around city folk, they think we stink.
Maybe everyone smelled pretty rancid in those days before showering was part of the morning routine. Still, those city folk in Jerusalem and Bethlehem probably thought a bunch of hill dwelling shepherds had their own special kind of stink. I wonder, were Mary and Joseph holding their noses when these guys obeyed the angel and came into town to visit the newborn king? My guess, the young couple were probably more appreciative of the three kings’ visit than when the shepherds came crashing into town. I could picture Joseph in his nightly prayers. He is asking God, “Did you really have to go telling those guys?” We shepherds get no love.
But maybe those shepherds were not as poor as we are considered today. I personally do not consider myself poor. I just choose to live a simpler lifestyle. What about them? My first instinct would be to say that they were well below the average Judean income of the time, but then I remember some other shepherds in the Bible. Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, David… these guys were all shepherds for at least part of their lives. Not one of them is considered impoverished. In fact, some of them are said to be quite wealthy, even in their shepherding days. Abraham had hundreds of servants, didn’t he?
With those names and plenty of others on the list of Biblical shepherds, you would think shepherds would get a bit more love. You would think that shepherding would be considered one of the noblest of professions. I mean, even priests, prophets, and kings wouldn’t be able to boast a better representation in a top list of Bible heroes. Shepherding was the greatest and most honorable profession in all of Israel… you would think. I guess the noble ideal of shepherding could not overcome the day to day stink.
I wonder if the shepherds out in those hills enjoyed their job? Of my three kids, only one has any intention of following in my footsteps. The other two can’t wait to put this life in their rearview mirror. Do I blame them? Shepherding certainly isn’t someone lolling about the countryside, playing the flute, and writing poetry. I have never spent a winter night with a few other shepherds swapping stories by the fire. Maybe they could do that in Israel. Anyone familiar with a Cumbrian winter would simply laugh at the idea. It is a great life, but shepherding here is a hard life that isn’t for everybody.
So what would it have been like out there in the Judean hills that night? There was probably nothing unusual about that night for those shepherds. There was no way they could have known that this evening was going to be any different from the night before. They were out there, faithfully doing their duties when the world changed. Maybe they loved their jobs. Maybe they hated it and dreamed of doing something, anything else. And then…
O Holy Night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Fall on your knees
Oh hear the angel voices
Oh night divine
Oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine
Oh night divine
Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming
Here come the wise men from Orient land
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger
In all our trials born to be our friend
Fall on your knees…
Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name
Fall on your knees…