That Great Shepherd - Advent Meditation

(This is part of a set of daily Advent meditations I'll be posting. They're going up a day early so that you can use them, if you wish, for private reflection in this season of anticipation and preparation.)

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear...
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
-Luke 2:8-9, 15-20

The usual place to start with the shepherds is their lowliness. Make no mistake, they were lowly – in a job that usually mean poverty, sleeping in cold hills among stinking animals rather than at home with their families. They were people of ill reputation; it is often noted that shepherds in the ancient world weren't allowed to testify in court. Like many poor nomadic groups, people tended to blame them for every unsolved crime and mysterious happening. God coming to the shepherds does fit the upside-down pattern of advent.

I do not, however, think it is why they make an appearance. There are many lowly people in Israel; by appearing to shepherds, God is also sounding a specific theme of promise.

Throughout the Old Testament, God is pictured as a shepherd. “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want,” begins one of the most famous passages of Scripture. (Psalm 23:1) Or the prophet Isaiah, “Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, in His arm He will gather the lambs and carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes.” (Isaiah 40:11) By proclaiming the good news to shepherds in particular, God was saying something about what He had come to do.

The job of a shepherd was threefold in the ancient world. In part, it was a job of nourishing. Leading flocks to good grazing land and sources of water. It was also a job of caregiving, of tending to injured and sick animals. And it was a job of protecting. In a world of bandits and wild animals, it was the shepherd's crook that stood between his sheep and death or theft.

If you spend some time with the ways Scripture pictures God's shepherding care, all three of these themes are present there as well. God provides for His flock, God shows mercy and care, and God defends against those who would harm His little lambs. Shepherding to God is no lowly occupation; it is one He sees as peculiarly His.

Somehow, in this God-child born in Bethlehem, all of that was coming true. In Jesus, the Shepherd of Israel was drawing near His sheep in a new and particular way.

In the New Testament, this shepherding theme is picked up and applied to Christ. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11) Peter speaks of pastors in the early church as if they are shepherds, but only as under-shepherds. He exhorts them with this reminder: “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” (1 Peter 5:4) Or as the author of Hebrews names Him in his final blessing, “our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep.” (Hebrews 13:20b)

Jesus is God-the-Shepherd made flesh. He leads His people to true nourishment – to “streams of living water,” and ultimately to bread that is His own body. He carries them through suffering and grief, drawing near to them in their distress. And He protects them, standing before Satan and the world and fighting on their behalf.

These shepherds gathered around the manger, I don't think they wondered only at visions of angels and Messianic triumphs. I suspect that part of what stirred their hearts to praises was that they saw something familiar in the Christ child. That as they curled up to sleep once more among their sheep, so too the King of Creation was curled in a manger, sleeping in the midst of His.

Hark, the glad sound! the Saviour comes,
The Saviour promised long:
Let every heart prepare a throne,
And every voice a song.

On him the spirit, largely poured,
Exerts his sacred fire;
Wisdom and might, and zeal and love,
His holy breast inspire.

He comes, the pris'ners to release,
In Satan's bondage held;
The gates of brass before him burst,
The iron fetters yield.

He comes, the broken heart to bind,
The bleeding soul to cure;
And with the treasures of his grace
To enrich the humble poor.

Our glad hosannas, Prince of Peace,
Thy welcome shall proclaim;
And heav'n's eternal arches ring
With thy beloved Name.
-Philip Doddridge, Hark, the Glad Sound!