Advent: Shepherd Boys and Angel Choirs

Rachel Chimits

While we’re plowing through the everyday duties, we may not feel like we’re doing anything special, but we could be with the right perspective.

Philippians 4:4 could be considered the anthem of the third Sunday in Advent. “Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4 NLT).

Depending on which tradition you follow, this is the Sunday with the rose colored candle to represent believers’ joy at Christ’s coming. This is also when the angels’ appearance to the shepherds is remembered along with a heavenly song of celebration. “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased” (Luke 2:14).

Shepherds were a strange choice for angelic announcements, to be sure, but not for the reasons that have often been cited.

The Not-So-Poor Or Unclean Shepherds

Many Christmas stories have tried to argue that the shepherd’s job made him an outcast and unfit for temple duties. The angels approaching them was a sign of how Jesus had come for the “worst” of all society.

Frankly, there isn’t much evidence for shepherds being considered undesirable in ancient Israeli texts or the Bible. Scripture never mentions working with sheep as a lowly or unclean task, and many respected Jewish leaders worked as shepherds, like Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David, to name a few. If the popular conception of them had somehow changed by Jesus’ time, Matthew wouldn’t have favorably compared Christ to a shepherd.

Shepherds were almost always the youngest son in a family, usually with the fewest valuable skills. Older children helped with the farming or household duties. Think David in his youngest years and Jacob before he married.

That said, nothing about this job would even necessarily indicate that these boys and young men were from poor families. Moses’ in-laws were doing well for themselves, and Abraham wasn’t exactly pinching pennies. Certainly, some shepherds must’ve come from a family who couldn’t afford to train their child in any other profession, and others may have remained in this work their whole lives for lack of other options.

Nothing about the position, however, would’ve inherently yelled poverty or social undesirability. It was just one step for young people on their way to something better.

Inconsequential in almost every way.

These angels probably showed up to a bunch of kids working their first major job away from home, not the best of society but certainly not the worst. The angels basically burst out singing for the cashiers at Forever 21.

Serving God in the Mundane

We’re back to where we started in this conversation.

What about these shepherds nominated them for chorus of angels? They had no society clout, but they didn’t have any useful shock value either. When they ran into town with the news about heavenly choirs, no one was clutching their pearls.

Scholar and Messianic Jew, Alfred Edersheim offers an explanation in his book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah that these shepherds were probably serving a slightly different purpose than most.

“One regulation in the Mishnah ‘expressly forbids the keeping of flocks throughout the land of Israel, except in the wildernesses – and the only flocks otherwise kept, would be those for the Temple-services’ (Bab K. 7:7; 80a).

“Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and their surrounding fields were not in the wilderness where ordinary flocks of sheep were kept. Therefore, according to the Jewish regulations, the flocks under the care of the shepherds near Bethlehem must have been ‘for the Temple-services.’ These shepherds watched over sheep destined as sacrifices in the Temple at Jerusalem.”

Maybe these boys, then, were the few who decided to take a stepping stone job more seriously. Maybe they were the ones who saw a glimmer of the holy in what must’ve been pretty mundane, boring work.

They would’ve been told how these lambs were due to be sacrificed for the nation’s sins. If we know anything about boys, there were still pranks and inappropriate jokes, but now and then they probably paused to dwell on the unseen value of their work.

They knew the stories of when God called down judgment because there was no lamb to offer for propitiation.

None of them could’ve imagined, though, that they would be the first to announce the one who sits on the throne forever (Revelations 4:9-11), the Lamb of heaven (Revelations 5:1-14). Not one would’ve dreamed that they would be forever recorded as the first outsiders to know that the Messiah had finally come.

God hadn’t spoken to the country’s religious leaders or prophets for 400 years, and then his angels appeared to these kids with fantastic news.

Finding That Holy Glimmer

Feeling small is common. Worse yet, it’s easy to look at our daily grind and see exactly how little it’s noticed by others, how little it impacts the world. We’re not appreciated. Our work is dull and unfulfilling. We’re on a stepping stone to something bigger and brighter, hopefully.

In those moments, it can be so easy to stop paying attention to the job in front of us and drift off into whatever makes us feel more satisfied or happier.

What if we looked for the holy glimmer in otherwise dingy, temporary work?

God has come for us, certainly not the best but also not the worst, plugging along in the ordinary. The moment we open our eyes to his gifts, however, the average job or day or people around us become extraordinary.  

“This Christmas,” Gary Wilkerson mused in a newsletter sermon, “we once again celebrate the Father’s love as the greatest gift we’ve ever received.

“So, what is our response? Will we go through the motions? Or will his amazing grace to us—a good job, a loving family, children who are safe and happy—bring us to our knees to wash his feet, and wipe them with tears of gratitude?

“I ask you the same question I ask myself: ‘What will it look like for me to love him back? To initiate intimacy with the Savior and Lord who loves me so?’ I say to every ‘good and upright’ person like me: We’re called to spread the flame of God’s love.  But we can’t give away what we don’t have ourselves. I urge you, receive his love—and love him right back. That’s the deepest meaning of receiving and giving—and the beginning of a deeply fulfilled life. 

“May this season find you in the deepest communion you’ve ever known with your gracious, loving Lord and Savior. Amen!”