This story came to me at church tonight. I couldn't help but wonder what happened to the shepherds. What did they expect? How did they respond to this news? What did it feel like to wait so long? It is my poor attempt to ponder these questions and align them with some of my own lessons from this past year.
He stood on the edge of the hill unsure if he should stay or go. They said the man was going to be here today, and he wanted to know if he was right. He wanted to see him up close. The wind was picking up and the skies were darkening, his bones hurt. A lifetime of watching sheep had left him with twisted and aching joints. Slowly he began the final leg of the climb. The crowd was large and raucous, screaming insults and making jokes. Beyond their heads, he could make out the bottom of the trees and the feet of those who hung on them.
Pausing to catch his breath, he noticed a small group gathered under one of the trees. Unlike the rest of the crowd, they were not participating in the morbid celebration. They were grieving. Tears streamed down their faces as they held one another and cried. A woman leaned against a man who looked to be her son, and though three decades had passed, he recognized her. If she was here, then what he had heard must be true. The man on the tree above her must be her son. He would stay and wait for tree to do it's gruesome job.
Shifting through the crowd, he was finally able to see the three men fully. Naked and bloody, they hung spread out on the tree. Nails had been driven into their hands and feet, but the one in the middle also wore a crown. A fellow bystander explained it was made of thorns and complemented the "King of the Jews" sign above his head. "Does he call himself that?" asked the man. The bystander shrugged unsure. "I saw him enter the city like a king," he said "and he certainly has been parading around as if he was." Nodding, the old man turned his gaze back to the dying man.
His face was swollen and bruised, clearly the guards had enjoyed beating him, and even if it wasn't there was no way he would recognize a man he had last seen as a baby. A gasping noise came from what must have been the dying man's mouth. He was speaking to the young man and woman below him. Then it must be. He must be the man, the baby who was born with such promise and was now dying on a tree like a common criminal.
Now that he knew, the old shepherd turned and began to make his way down the hill. He was foolish to have come, foolish to have held on to the old dream. Decades ago, he had been a shepherd. Twelve years old and sold to master to pay his families debt, he worked non stop living with the sheep and two other slaves. That night, they settled on a hill outside of Bethlehem. While one of them kept watch, he and another slept. Then there was a bright light rousing him, a chorus of angels singing to him and fearsome angel telling them to go and find the baby. They did. Leaving their flock they ran through the streets searching until they found him. He was in an old run down manager, surrounded by animals and cradled in his exhausted mother's arms. They worshiped the baby. Declared him the Messiah and sang praise and blessing on him and his family.
Then it was back to the sheep, but everything felt better, brighter, blessed. He had seen the Messiah, God in flesh. He, a lowly slave, a shepherd had been permitted to worship at the feet of God. For days, he waited for the change. He expected armies of angels to come and defeat the Romans. Perhaps it would be like Jericho and walls would fall, or an angel with a flaming sword would come and smite the Romans and return Israel to the Jews.
Other shepherds did not understand what the three of them had seen. They mocked them and soon he stopped talking about it. No walls fell, no angels with flaming swords came, nothing important happened at all. Years passed and he married. His wife gave birth to a son, but he was killed by Herod's men. Herod had heard that a baby who would grow up to be the king of the Jews had been born, and he wasn't taking any chances. The shepherd's wife never recovered. She sat wept day and night. There were no more children. No other miracles. She wasted away and died. It was then that he realized what a fool he had been.
A few years ago, rumors had begun. There was a man from Nazareth who was preaching strange things. People flocked to see him perform miracles and listen to him explain the kingdom of God. The shepherd wondered if perhaps the miracle was just delayed. The age would be right. Perhaps the end of this Roman rule was at hand.
He heard that they arrested the Nazarene and sentenced him to death. Though he was too old, he decided to go and see for himself. If he recognized the mother and the Romans killed her son, then he would know that the miracle wasn't coming. That the angel had lied and he had been foolish.
Half-way down the hill, the sky went black and the earth began to quake. Falling to the ground, the old man heard angels. They weren't singing, they were weeping. The baby, whose feet he had kissed, must have perished, the miracle he had hoped for was gone.
He lay there waiting for the light to return. Other people stumbled about and the crowd had gone silent. Another hand touched his and he turned his head. There stood the angel he had seen so long ago. "The miracle has come, do not lose hope." and with that the angel was gone. Tears came as the old shepherd struggled to understand. Rome was still in power, the baby was dead, how could the miracle have come? It was impossible to believe.
Rising from the ground he clutched his staff and stiffly continued his walk down the hill. Could he believe in this kind of miracle? He was not a wise man. He was an old shepherd. Everyone knew God would never speak to him. Wasn't that what they had said decades ago? "Why would angels come to lowly shepherd and not the high priest? You are less than then nothing, God would never choose you to worship at his feet." Over time, he had believed them, but now. Now the angel had come twice. It was the same one, he was sure. Was it possible that God would speak to him? He was now an old shepherd, too twisted and bent to stay with the sheep. He slept in a shack on the edge of town. He had no family, no friends. He would certainly die alone, Why would God speak to him?
What if God had spoken to him? What if an old lonely shepherd had garnered the attention of the Almighty? What if he was aware of something others weren't? What if the miracle was something he didn't understand? "God", he cried out, "I am an old shepherd who is worth nothing, but twice you have sent and angel to speak to me. I waited for you to save me. I waited for a miracle and nothing came. My son was murdered and my wife died. I have nothing. I am nothing. No one will believe me. I have fought to not believe this for a long time, but I have no energy left. I don't know why you sent the angel to me, and I don't understand this miracle, but I will choose to believe and, like the day I ran through the streets of Bethlehem, I will choose to follow. "
Arriving home, the old man went about his life. He foraged for food, cared for lambs to ill to move and continued to pray "I don't understand, but I will choose to follow."