On the countryside overlooking the small village of Bethlehem, a herd of sheep settles into the grass for a good night’s rest. Their shepherds keeping watch lean against their staffs, nodding in and out of sleep.
It is an ordinary night, but these everyday men are about to become the most famous search party in all of history. The story of this night will be told and retold for thousands of years.
Suddenly, flashes of bright light break through the darkness. The men rub their eyes. Is this a dream? There, in the midst of them, stands an angel. Glory blazes all around. A thousand different colors swirl like liquid light flowing from the sky above to the ground beneath their feet.
Terrified, these burly men hit the dirt. Some of them scream. Others run and hide.
“Don’t be afraid,” says the angel. His voice sounds like a pleasant melody. He delivers a message: “The Savior of the whole world, the one foretold for centuries, has been born on this night in the town below. You will find him, a baby wrapped in a blanket, lying in a barn’s feeding trough.”
A choir of angels appears in the night’s sky. Great beautiful heavenly beings, they sing about God’s glory and His good will toward mankind. It is music so lovely – the likes of Bach and Beethoven will search for only a few measures of it.
“Peace on earth!” they sing as their great finale.
And then they are gone. The music stops. There is again only the dark night.
The shepherds are seeing spots.
Flabbergasted, they turn to one another. “How are we to find this baby in a barn?” they wonder. “At this hour of the night, who will help us? Who will stay with the sheep?” Somehow they figure out a plan, and then hurry down the hill toward the town.
They start knocking on doors.
“Ahem, sorry to wake you. Is there a baby in your barn? Uh…you see these angels told us…”
“No, no babies here,” says the tired man at the door. “Now kindly let us go back to sleep.”
On to the next house, again they knock.
“Do you have a baby in the barn here?” they ask. The angry, half-asleep innkeeper sends them away.
Still they knock, one house to the next.
A few times, there is no answer at the door.
Twice they think they have found the baby. “Ah, yes, we’ve had a baby born here tonight,” says the guesthouse manager. They rejoice! …only to find it a false hope. The baby is in a cradle in a guest room, not a manger in a barn as the angel said.
Still they keep going. Finally, someone has heard the cries of a woman giving birth in one of the stables.
Joseph meets them at the door. Mary, exhausted from travel and childbirth, is resting in the straw next to her newborn baby boy. He is wrapped in a blanket, lying in the manger. It is just as the angels said it would be. This baby must be the Son of God, the Hope of the World, the long-awaited Good King of All.
They fall down on their knees. They jump for joy. They stand in awe. They tell Joseph and Mary of the angels, the message, the glory and the music. Then they go throughout the town, spreading the word of their extraordinary experience.
This is an age-old tale, one I have heard many times in Christmas Pageants and TV repeats of Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Only recently have I found this secret hidden in the story.
These shepherds were given a message, a clue to an ancient mystery: “You will find the baby wrapped in a blanket, lying in a feeding trough in a barn.” But they didn’t know which barn, or which baby. They had to go and look. There was a crazy late-night search between the going and the finding that we read about in Luke 2.
What if one night I went running through all the barns in my hometown, looking for a baby in one of the feed troughs? Surely people would think me crazy. Did these men ever think themselves silly, or consider giving up? Did they get tired of knocking on doors?
This holiday season, if we feel that God is again working His mysterious ways, if we are wondering where He is, if we are looking for Him – knocking on doors – let us remember that we are in good company. These shepherds – the very first ones to hear the news about Jesus’ birth – they were seekers, too.
The story of these shepherds is the story of us all.
God sends us a beautiful message, telling us to go out and search; and if we don’t give up looking, He promises that we will find what we are looking for. Sure, we may knock on a few doors that give no answer. We may try and come up empty. But we will find Jesus. It’s a promise. Perhaps he will once again turn up in a place we least expect, in a barn among the cattle and donkeys, there in the mess, among us.
Published in the Powhatan Today, December 12, 2012 ~ Powhatan, Virginia