And there were shepherds living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks at night. (Luke 2:8)
After centuries of expectation, the long-promised Messiah is born – and high in the night skies, an angel appears and ‘the glory of the Lord’ shines out. It must have been an awesomely. Then something occurs that is without precedent in Scripture: ‘the heavenly host’ appears – an entire army of angels. In my german version of the Bible, it says an uncountable number of angels. It is God’s way of making the point that, for all the obscurity and apparent insignificance of the baby in the stable, what has happened is extraordinarily significant.
Shepherds were pretty close to the bottom of the Jewish social pyramid. Yet it is to them that the angel speaks. The heavens reveal their dazzling glory not to the High Priest, not to Herod, but to shepherds, whose job meant that they rarely made it to the synagogue. These were working men at work, ‘keeping watch over their flocks’.
‘You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ It is a sign not of glory but of poverty, a sign of the sort of Messiah this is. The obvious place for angels to appear is five miles away, in the magnificent Jerusalem Temple, the very centre of the world for Jews. There, in the holy of holies, was the divinely approved meeting place between man and God. Yet on this night, the glory of God appears out in a farmer’s fields.
God is again lifting up the humble. The Gospels of both Matthew and Luke point out that outcasts and outsiders were involved. Matthew highlights the religious outsiders – the Gentiles – who honour Jesus and are honoured by God; Luke highlights the social outsiders – the poor and downtrodden. Those who were previously excluded from salvation can now rejoice: social outcasts are included.