Growing up in Colorado, I remember occasionally seeing shepherds with their flocks of sheep when we traveled in the mountains. I thought that being a shepherd looked like fun. You got to spend your time outdoors in the beautiful Colorado mountains. Their small little trailers looked so homey and quaint.
When I got older and became an avid newspaper reader, I read some stories that showed the darker side of being a shepherd in Colorado. Most of the shepherds are foreigners who are seldom able to talk to family back home. They live without any human company for months at a time. The shepherds have no water, no toilet, no shower, no place to wash clothes. Most live in small, 6x10-foot trailers with just enough room to stretch out to sleep, a small wood-burning stove and little else. Some have an outhouse nearby. Many don’t.
Before World War II, most of Colorado’s shepherds were Americans, but by the early 1950’s, the industry couldn’t find enough American citizens to do the tedious and difficult work for very low wages. In 1952, Congress enacted a program to help farmers and ranchers secure a reliable supply of foreign workers. But shepherds were exempted from many of the protections granted by law to other foreign agricultural workers, such as an hourly wage and access to running water and a toilet.
Currently, more than 1,600 shepherds working in nine Western states participate in the program. They live in primitive tents or trailers, watching over thousands of animals on vast areas of public land. For decades, federal regulations have set their wages at $750 a month. Most shepherds work seven days a week for ten to twelve hours a day. Last year, the Department of Labor released a new rule increasing shepherd pay to $1,200 per month.
When you read or hear about shepherds, it is often a metaphor for a caregiver tending to his people, such as a leader or a pastor. But the actual shepherds, the ones who travel for miles and miles every day, tending to a large flock of sheep, lead a lonely and rugged life far away from civilization.
I want to be a shepherd. No, I don’t want to live alone with a herd of sheep in a small trailer with no bathroom or running water and work seven days a week for ten to twelve hours a day. But I have always coveted the experience of the shepherds on that first Christmas night.
God could have chosen to reveal this important announcement to anyone on earth. But instead of assigning the angels to visit some of the most important people on earth, God sent the angels to speak to humble shepherds, who most people didn't consider important. The shepherds would have been watching over their flocks while the sheep and lambs rested or grazed on grass from the hillsides. Although the shepherds were prepared to deal with any danger that threatened their animals, they were frightened by the angels' appearance. That is why the angels told them, “don’t be afraid.”
The angels reassured the terrified shepherds that they had good news for them. Since the shepherds raised the lambs that were sacrificed to atone for people's sins each spring on Passover, the shepherds would have well understood the importance of the Messiah's arrival to save the world from sin. In John 1:29 (NKJV), the Bible refers to Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
The fields around Bethlehem would have been very dark. Suddenly a bright light broke into the black night, as the sky above Bethlehem filled with a multitude of angels. The announcement of the birth of Jesus was marked by the light of many angels appearing in all of their heavenly glory. As amazing as the experience must have been, seeing angels appearing in the night sky isn’t the part of the experience that intrigues me the most. It is what happened next.
The Bible tells the story in Luke 2:15-18 (NKJV). "So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds.”
Imagine what it must have been like to be one of the first people to see the baby Jesus! I can feel the excitement these humble shepherds felt. They had to tell people of their experiences. Can you imagine being a part of those conversations? Even in the days before media such as television and the internet, word traveled fast that something amazing was happening.
Gentle Reader, even though I will never be a shepherd or experience the things that the humble shepherds of Bethlehem experienced on that first Christmas, I can follow their example. I can spread the word about the baby Jesus. I can be excited about Jesus and what he means to this world. That is what Christmas is all about. Let’s all be shepherds!