It’s probably not who you’d think.
Remember how God marked His getting involved in the Israelites’ lives? He pitched up and spoke to a shepherd—to Moses. Well, the same thing happened at Christmas—God spoke to a group of shepherds to make the most world-changing announcement this world has seen.
Now, everyone knows that shepherds are a key part of the Christmas story. Many of us have memories of dressing up as kids in a sheet and towel (because that’s exactly what first-century Middle-Eastern shepherds wore). So, when I tell you God sent an angel to appear to the shepherds, you just go, “Yes, I know.” It’s no surprise.
But it was at the time.
The Least Likely People
Shepherds were, in fact, the least likely people God would choose to include in what He was doing in His world.
In first-century Judea, shepherds were considered outsiders, on the edges of normal society. They were so mistrusted that their testimony was inadmissible evidence in a court of law. First-century Jews believed that God didn’t like shepherds—and they didn’t like them, either. The most pious of Jews would not buy milk, lambs or wool from shepherds; they assumed it was stolen. The religious elite of that day saw them as unclean, filthy, unwanted and outside of God’s favor. A philosopher in Alexandria, one of the centers of the intellectual world at the time, went so far as to say, “There is no more disreputable an occupation than that of a shepherd.”
Yet when “the time came for [Mary] to give birth [and] she gave birth to her firstborn son” in Bethlehem, “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” (Luke 2:6–9). And then those shepherds get a whole multitude of angelic visitors praising God in their field.
The time has come to announce the news that God’s Son himself has been born as a baby—that God Himself is visiting His world, that God’s getting involved. Yet God does not choose to go to the moral, the upright or the elite. He goes to the excluded, to the outsiders.
At one of the turning points of history, it’s as if God calls an angel over and says, Tell them.
The angel is like, Them?!
Yeah, the shepherds.
Do you know what they’re like? Don’t you mean go tell the religious guys?
Yeah, I know what the shepherds are like, because I’m God. Go. Tell the shepherds.
Go. Tell. The. Shepherds.
And then a whole choir’s worth of other angels come up...
Hey, can we go?
No, I’m giving this job to him.
Yeah, but we really want to be a part of this.
All right, fine. Go, but give him his moment first. You can show up late.
If I asked anyone in the first century to come up with a list of those God would announce the good news to first, not one person would put the shepherds on a top-100 list. But the angel was sent to the least likely people because God came for the least likely people. This event set a pattern for Jesus reaching out to surprising people all through His life: a pattern of Him living on the margins, of Him welcoming in those whom other people had written off. Again and again, Jesus got into trouble with the influencers and the self-proclaimed good people because He hung out with those who had been rejected, those who had messed up:
And as [Jesus] reclined at table in [a follower’s] house, many tax collectors [hated because they were traitors] and sinners [those who didn’t follow the accepted norms of the day] were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees [the religious leaders], when they saw that He was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does He eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
And when Jesus heard it, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:15–17)
People who think they’re good can’t understand Jesus, just as someone who thinks they’re completely healthy wouldn’t understand why a doctor had decided to come visit them. People who know they’re not good are ready to understand Jesus, just as someone who knows they’re sick is ready to listen to a doctor. The message of Christmas is not: “Get your house tidy, get the food right, pretend that your family is like the Waltons. Then God will bless you.” The message of Christmas is: “God knows you, He knows you need help, He knows you’ve wandered away, and He’s come to you anyway.”
Jesus came to save the “sick.” You are never too bad for God. And you are never good enough for God. Jesus didn’t come for those who think they’re fine. Knowing this frees you to be honest about yourself without needing to crush yourself. There’s great joy in living with both honesty and hope.
That’s why the first people to hear that “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” were outsiders—not the elite. That’s why the angel was sent to the shepherds. That’s why it was they who received this privilege.
But privileged as their experience was, it was not an enjoyable one at first: “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.” (Luke 2:9)
The best way to translate that word “glory” is weight. In that field, the weight of God showed up. It’s a kind of weight that is heavier than anything else. When the glory of God shows up, it reshapes and reorders. It pushes out and breaks free. There is nothing as weighty as this in the universe. When the glory of God shows up, it changes everything. When you get a glimpse of the God of Christmas, things happen.