8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ (Luke 2:8-12)
A priest, a barren woman, a virgin, and a descendant of David have been the eclectic cast in this account so far. Yet, the surprises aren’t over yet; they are now joined by a group of shepherds. These shepherds would have led a humble, repetitious existence. We meet them in their usual place, “keeping watch over their flocks by night” (v.8). The Greek idiom for “keep watch” (more literally, “watching over the watches”) captures their ordinary, even boring lives. When we cannot sleep, we might try to count sheep; but these shepherds are probably counting their sheep to stay awake. Tonight, however, is different: an angel visits them. There is no mistaking it: the glory of God shines. Understandably, they are terrified (v.9) – this is a bolt out of the blue.
As when Zechariah and Mary were terrified, the angel reassures these shepherds: “do not be afraid” (v.10). The angel is bringing good news about the birth of the figure who will be Good News for the whole world. For the first time, the baby’s titles are multiplied: he is all of Saviour, Messiah, Lord; and the angel tells the shepherds that he is all these things “to/for you” (v.11).
It is curious (and convenient!) that the Greek words for “today” (semeron) and “sign” (semeion) are close. The shepherds would have wanted a sign there and then. The angel graciously gives them one: “you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (v.12). Sometimes when seeking guidance, we might ask God for a sign during the day – perhaps a timely verse from the Bible, perhaps an encounter with someone. This is good, and God often reveals something; but sometimes he doesn’t, or it isn’t obvious, or we need to wait. Yet, sign or no sign, we can always ask ourselves whether we are truly seeking greater proximity to the figure in the manger, Christ, when discerning a way ahead. If we are: great! If we aren’t, we probably need to rethink.