And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone all around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on
whom his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
Imagine that you are one of the shepherds in this passage. You are on the fringes of Jewish society, excluded from temple worship because the nature of your profession has placed you in a permanent state of ceremonial uncleanness. You live a hard life, outdoors almost all of the time. The nights can get pretty cold out in the desert. Sheep aren’t exactly the brightest creatures, and they can get themselves into some crazy situations, from which you must rescue them. They wander off frequently, and you must go and find them. And then there are the wild animals who must constantly be fended off.
Your nation, Israel, is living in the Promised Land. But what an existence. You haven’t had a king of your own for centuries. Long ago the Babylonians came in, destroyed Jerusalem, ransacked your kingdom, and led your entire nation (what was left of it after the Assyrians plundered it a couple of centuries before) into exile. And though you aren’t in exile now, you might as well be. Ever since the Babylonians, your land has been ruled by foreign empires one after another, each more powerful and oppressive than the last. And your people have waited and hoped for centuries that God would remember his promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, judge the foreign powers that oppress his people, and bring his kingdom to earth, that the promises in the prophets, especially Isaiah, that God’s kingdom would be established in Jerusalem and all the rulers of the world would submit and all the peoples of the world would flock to Jerusalem to learn of God and of his ways, would be fulfilled. Your people have longed for a savior, a deliverer who would rise up, defeat all of Israel’s enemies, and usher in the kingdom of God as described by Isaiah and the prophets.
Hasn’t happened yet. There have been several false starts over the centuries, several times when it seemed like the promised one was rising up to inaugurate God’s kingdom, only to have it all come to nothing. By this point the conditions prophesied in Isaiah and other places are most emphatically NOT in place. The people of the world are NOT streaming to Jerusalem to learn of the Lord and his ways. The nations are NOT submitting themselves to the law of the Lord. Injustice and oppression live on with a vengeance throughout the world. Conflict and war rage on throughout the world, with no end in sight.
Your hopes reached an especially low point about sixty years ago. You probably weren’t around for this, but your father or his father was, and you have heard all the horror stories. A Roman general named Pompey came to Jerusalem and wanted to see the Temple. He showed up on his horse and rode right into the Temple. Despite the priests’ insistence that he do no such thing, he went straight into the Holy of Holies, the innermost part of the Temple where the presence of God was believed to dwell and where no one was allowed to enter except the high priest, and that only once a year, with rope tied around his ankle so that in the event he was struck dead by the Lord his body could be dragged out without anyone else having to go in there to retrieve it. The final indignity came just a few minutes later when Pompey emerged from the Holy of Holies, alive, unharmed, and unimpressed.
This was a very sad day for devout Jews. The meaning of the day’s events could not have been any clearer: God had allowed this pagan general to enter into the holiest part of His temple, the place where His Name dwelt, and leave with no adverse consequence whatsoever. Clearly this general, and the pagan gods he represented, were superior to Yahweh. Clearly God had rejected His people and would have nothing more to do with them.
Now here you are one night, out in the middle of a field, and all of a sudden the sky lights up and a whole host of angels show up, giving you direction to go to Bethlehem and see a certain baby who represents the fulfillment of everything God has promised to his people Israel. You go and see, and everything is exactly as you are told. You go away in great joy and spread the news to anyone who will listen.
You go back to your fields and your shepherd’s existence. You wait another thirty years (maybe you don’t make it that long–life was hard in first century Israel and shepherd’s lives were especially hard), and then stories begin to trickle back to you about this traveling rabbi doing crazy things. Maybe you have the opportunity to leave your fields and join his following, and hear the teaching and see the miracles up close and personal with your own eyes. Or maybe you have to stay in the fields and wait for the reports to trickle back to you. Okay. But in light of what the angel said, surely you were expecting a son of David to ascend the throne in Jerusalem and defeat all Israel’s enemies and usher in the long-promised kingdom of God. But this isn’t exactly happening yet. What do you take away from this? Especially when this guy goes off and gets himself crucified?
Let this be a cautionary tale to all of us, that the things we think are so clear and certain and beyond even the possibility of doubt, aren’t necessarily so to those outside the Christian faith. The most central piece of our faith, the Resurrection, was discovered entirely by accident one morning. The resurrected Jesus only appeared to people who were or would become part of the Jesus movement. It is their word we have to trust. For my part I believe it; I believe these people are trustworthy and would not have had any reason to make any of this up, but I can see where people would doubt.
For this reason I am not very impressed with claims that we can know what we believe with certainty. I believe that the quest for certainty, as it is talked about in many Christian and especially evangelical circles, is largely a fool’s errand. I am no fan of the idea of an inerrant Bible; it may make us feel comfortable to have a sure and certain foundation, beyond any possible shadow of doubt, but in reality it just creates another proposition for us to defend. And after seeing all the philosophical and theological gymnastics which must be performed in order to defend the idea of an inerrant Bible–is it really worth it?
If anyone had a sure and certain foundation for their faith, it had to be the shepherds. They heard the angel’s announcement of the Gospel message. They saw the baby Jesus in the flesh, with their own eyes. But even with that, they had plenty of reason and opportunity to doubt, as we have seen above.
Faith is not about certainty. Faith is about trust. Trusting when you have good reason to trust but also good reasons not to trust. The shepherds who heard the angel and saw Jesus with their own two eyes still had to trust what they saw and heard when the things they saw and heard afterward probably did not line up with what the angel’s announcement had led them to expect. We have to trust the words of those who witnessed Jesus’ resurrection, as recorded for us in Scripture, even when we can see why others might doubt and even when we might have our doubts as well.
So we wait. We wait to celebrate the birth of Jesus in just a few days. We trust that this Jesus rose from the dead and that everything God has promised to us by virtue of this is true. And we wait for Jesus to return at the end of the age, trusting that he will, just as he promised.