There have been shepherds since the beginning of things. Or at least since the second generation.
Abel was Adam’s son, according to Genesis 4. He was a “keeper of sheep”… until his brother killed him, at least. But the profession wouldn’t die with him; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all shared the role of tending sheep (remember Jacob’s foray into genetic manipulation in Genesis 30?). Even Moses, after he runs away from his life in the Egyptian palace, takes on the role when he marries into his father-in-law’s flock (Exodus 3).
There are plenty of shepherds in the Bible, but the most noteworthy is a youngest son. His first appearance – during Samuel’s search for a king – begins as an absence because he’s off tending his sheep (1 Samuel 16:11). And again, when the Israelites are at war with the Philistines (and the mighty Goliath), this little boy is only sometimes there because he’s running back and forth, helping his dad with the flock. After he throws his stones and takes his crown, he is given a new flock as King David: “It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over all Israel” (2 Samuel 5:2).
Because people, like sheep, need a shepherd.
Moses knew this. The Bible didn’t call him a shepherd of people, but he was. A shepherd keeps a flock together, protects them from danger, and moves them where they need to go. Moses did just that, for forty years, all through the wilderness. Looking out at the Promised Land – and knowing he couldn’t enter it – he asks God to give the people a new leader: “appoint someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd” (Numbers 27:17).
Sheep without a shepherd are in danger. They will scatter, they will get lost, they will get hurt. They will do themselves in without realizing they are doing themselves in.
And eventually this is what happens to Israel. Not immediately following Moses – Joshua steps up to be their next shepherd. But after King David, after King Solomon, after the tribes of Israel split into North and South – after all that – the prophet Micaiah has a vision of Israel and it’s not a good one: “sheep that have no shepherd” (1 Kings 22:17).
But there’s hope.
Hope that after the Israelites are defeated and kicked out, one day they will have “shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing” (Jeremiah 23:4). Hope for maybe one in particular who will “feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep” (Isaiah 40:11).
As long as there have been sheep, it seems, there have been shepherds. And as long as there have been people, we have been looking for a good shepherd.
Then comes a baby.
You know all about this baby because today is December 27th. You know about the birth we celebrated on Friday, a divinely-conceived but strangely humble birth surrounded by straw and animals…
Luke tells us that the shepherds are the first one to get the news that Jesus is born – not Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, not King Herod in his palace, not the Pharisees in the Temple, but some nearby shepherds. Much like King David, they don’t start out where the action is because they’re doing their jobs, out in the fields keeping an eye on their sheep.
The angel tells them the good news, and they believe it. They go rushing into town – “let’s go now to Bethlehem!” A group of shepherds go looking for a child lying in a manger “in haste,” rushing around the small town in the middle of the night. And then they find him, and there’s this moment.
My mind’s eye can easily see the new parents startled by their unexpected and rough guests (“How did they know?”). But the shepherds are so excited that Mary and Joseph can’t help but smile and invite them to come and look. And sure enough there’s the baby, Jesus the Christ, lying in a manger. And these shepherds gather around him, wide-eyed and amazed; even though they believed the angel, it’s amazing to see that it’s true – a baby in a manger! They lean over and look at him in that hands-off way of men who can appreciate the cuteness of a baby but have never held one themselves. They look at him, and maybe Jesus Christ is able to open his eyes for a moment to look back at them.
Shepherds looking at The Shepherd.
This baby is the one; not a shepherd but the shepherd. “I am the good shepherd,” he’d later say (John 10:11). I’m the one who doesn’t just keep you together and protect you and move you around from time to time. When the wolf comes, I don’t run; I’ll die for you.
“I am the good shepherd.”
There have been shepherds since the very beginning it seems. Sheep, by nature, need someone to keep them together and protect them and show them where to go.
People need a shepherd, too. Oh sure – we’re all tough and independent, we can do it by ourselves… until we’re scared, or lost, or in danger. Then we remember that we do need a shepherd – a good shepherd.
Today we celebrate the moment when that Shepherd took flesh and – for thirty or so years – walked around among us. Today we celebrate that Jesus Christ was born, and we remember his life lived and given to bring us together and protect us and show us how to live and where to go.
Today we also celebrate that our Good Shepherd is tending his sheep still. He isn’t a man walking among us today, but he has left us the Holy Spirit to bind us together and protect us and guide us. We are one flock, with one shepherd who loved us so much that he laid down his life for us.