Tuesday, December 19, 2006

While Shepherds Watched Their Flock

Matthias sat down by the entrance to the cave. Rubbing his freezing, blistered hands together—specs of mud mixed with manure flecked onto the ground. The day had been long; the cold night would be longer. The warmth of the fire nearby gradually gave some relief to the bitter night.

His joints and bones ached and had ached for so long, it seemed normal. Years of nomadic life in summer and winter, rain and snow, blistering heat and freezing cold—aged his body. The once playful youth, who could rebound from every fall, now struggled sometimes to simply rise and sit. The lines carved into his face, the distant gaze in his eyes, and the creaking limbs betrayed his thirty-five years, suggesting an older, weaker man.

On this cool dark night he watched. He guarded the sheep asleep in the cave and watched for anything that might hurt the sheep or his fellow shepherds. While Bethlehem nights were usually quiet and peaceful, he could take no chances. Someone must watch in case of bandits, wolves, other creatures or other problems.

Matthias struggled to stay awake. Last night was his turn to rest, but a commotion among the dogs of the flock kept him awake most of the night. And now his mind and body fought hard to recover that sleep.

Puling out a little pipe from his leather pouch, Matthias began to play a tune. In a life of constant struggle for survival, this little pipe was one of his few joys. When he played, he dreamed. He traveled back to boyhood. To sitting by the fire as his grandfather told stories about days long gone.

According to pappa, shepherds were beloved of God and were the reason God chose Israel as his people. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were shepherds. Moses was a shepherd. David was a shepherd.

Yes God loved shepherds and would one day restore their glory. They wouldn’t always be outsiders. Stories weaved through the cities accusing shepherds of everything from stealing, tricking and killing townspeople to even mating with their flocks.

Not every rumor was false. Their lives were hard, and sometimes survival meant doing things that made you less than proud. Poverty so gripped and controlled their lives, they no longer even owned the sheep they herded. Instead, wealthy landowners bought the sheep from the shepherds and then lorded over them like slaves.

This humiliation, this constant struggle, this life of virtual slavery drove shepherds to play a role that sometimes included the very worst of the rumors. A shadow of regret and guilt darkened many of their lives.

Living on the margin of the world, they felt forgotten, abandoned and even hated by God. They were dirty, smelly, poor and knew nothing but shepherding. Yet in spite of this, Matthias still dreamed on his pipe. Pappa made the life of shepherding seem wondrous, magical. Pappa’s words kept him alive on the inside even when the outside seemed to be crumbling.

In the desolate hours, Matthias felt the desolation of his life stir a yearning deep within for something. A longing burned and burned and he expressed the longing in slow lamentation on the pipe. He played on and on through the monotonous minutes and hours of the cold winter eve.

Suddenly a light jolted through him and the pipe flew from his hands. Instantly Matthias fell to the ground screaming. The other shepherds followed suit. God had finally come and the end was at hand. They would be judged…and found wanting.

But then two words, two words which promised hope and love and…possibility. “Fear not!”

As the words washed over him in a flood a peace, Matthias looked up at the cause of his travail. A light figure stood or floated before him. He could see no features for the intense brilliance almost blinded him.

Then the voice of a thousand bells spoke again, “For behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger."

“Unto me? A baby born to me? A savior born for me?” The questions raced through his head, but in a moment, laughter erupted from Matthias’s belly like a sudden flood. The other shepherds laughed as well. Soon they were dancing and singing. The joy that burned within them was brighter and more furiously playful than anything they had ever known.

Shearing days could not compare to this spontaneous festival of laughter and dancing and frolicking that broke out in their midst. As though one angel was not enough to witness this joy, the sky suddenly flamed with thousands upon thousands of angel singing, ringing, shouting proclaiming

"Glory to God in the highest,

and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!"

As they danced, Matthias heard Pappa’s words ringing in his ears. “God really does love shepherds.” Then he out of the blue remembered something else Pappa would say, something he had forgotten all these years, “God loves shepherds because he is a shepherd and we’re his sheep.”

For the first time since childhood, Matthias beamed with a heaven-sent pride. He was called of God, chosen to shepherd the sheep. Chosen to reveal the wisdom and kindness of God upon the earth. And now, unexpectedly chosen to share in the joy of God’s redeeming Israel by sending the baby shepherd king who would restore his flock and lead them home.

His dreams stopped short when the sky turned black. As suddenly as they came, the angels departed, and Matthias turned to his fellow herders, “Come my friends, we must go at once. Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us."

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