As I write this, a seventy-pound golden retriever sits at my feet. More accurately, he sits on my feet and is pressing the full weight of his body against my legs. And the only reason he’s sitting on my feet is because he’s grown too big to sit on my lap. Every morning Ben greets us as if we’ve been away for weeks. If my son does not wake up early enough for his liking, he sits outside his room and whines. When I close my office door to work, he lies beside it until I’m done. And in the evening when we sit down to watch television, he always finds a way to squeeze onto the couch, making room for himself where none exists.
In all fairness to Ben, dogs are naturally social creatures that live and hunt in packs. And if anything, we human beings are responsible for cultivating this instinct when we invited them into our lives as companions and workmates thousands of years ago. Ben himself comes from 150 years of breeding that selected traits of intelligence, gentleness, and affection. So despite being intended as gundogs, golden retrievers more often end up as family pets, as our Ben has.
Living in such close relationship with human beings means that domestic animals have become dependent on us and, as a result, vulnerable. We feed and care for them, and they depend on us. Our Ben looks to us for affection, attention, and even instruction. In a word, he is tamed.
If the relationship between animals and humans helps us understand why Jesus was laid in a manger, it also gives us insight to the presence of the shepherds in the story. Remember that authors actively choose plot, characters, and settings. They select specific details to communicate specific realities. The same is true of the Christmas story. As its author, God set up the plot, pacing, and actors of the drama. So when I read that he sends his angels to shepherds and not to farmers, fishermen, or Pharisees, I can’t help but wonder, Why? Why shepherds?
One possible answer lies in the message that comes to the shepherds. In the middle of the night as they are keeping watch, the angel of the Lord appears before them in a blaze of glory. “Don’t be afraid,” he comforts these terrified guardians, “for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today in the city of David a Savior was born for you, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
“The city of David” is none other than Bethlehem, a town in the “same region” where a newly born baby lay sleeping in swaddling bands. While Bethlehem is the setting of the story of Ruth and Boaz, its primary significance was as the birthplace of their great-grandson, David – the shepherd of flocks who became the shepherd of God’s people. So tied is Bethlehem to Israel’s royal line that Micah prophesies that the Promised Son will also be born in Bethlehem. But Micah also adds another interesting detail. Speaking of the Promised Son, he writes:
His origin is from antiquity, from ancient times. Therefore, Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor has given birth… He will stand and shepherd them in the strength of the LORD, in the majestic name of the LORD his God. They will live securely, for then his greatness will extend to the ends of the earth.
Supreme artist that he is, God is not about to miss an opportunity for symbolism. So when his Shepherd is finally born, he sends the news to…shepherds. Who better to proclaim that David’s heir has arrived than those who keep watch in the fields as he once did? Who better to understand the significance of a leader who will protect and care for his people than those who are doing the same for their flock?
Later during his earthly ministry, Jesus declares himself to the be the Good Shepherd that Micah prophesied about:
I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me, and I know the Father. I lay down my life for the sheep. But I have other sheep that are not from this sheep pen; I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. Then there will be on flock, one shepherd.
And suddenly the angels’ words become clear: these are tidings of great joy which will be for all people. Jesus will shepherd a flock greater than David ever did. His care will extend far beyond Bethlehem to the ends of the earth. And indeed, every day he is adding to this flock, bringing people from every tribe, tongue, and nation together under his protection.
But the Promised Son is more than a strong shepherd with a large flock. He is also a Good Shepherd, the kind of shepherd who stands between his flock and destruction and offers himself as a sacrifice. And not only does this Good Shepherd protect his sheep, he also does not harm them. He does not abuse them. He does not take advantage of their dependence on him.
Lest you think I’m stating the obvious, consider the risks that come with being domesticated. When an animal is tamed – when it learns to listen to its master’s voice – it lets down its guard. It begins to trust. It becomes vulnerable. Under a good master, this openness is beautiful because it allows the master to come close enough to care for an animal. This is especially important when an animal is hurt, afraid, or malnourished. But in submitting to a master, the animal also opens itself to the possibility of harm.
In this moment of vulnerability, cruel and selfish owners can take advantage of animal’s lack of natural guardedness; and far too often, domesticated animals suffer precisely because they’ve been domesticated. Whether it manifests in neglect or blood sport, such cruelty is especially perverse because it takes advantage of the trust an animal places in us.
So too, when earthly leaders abuse their role in our lives, they take advantage of our vulnerability. They take advantage of the fact that we’ve let down our guard and allowed them to come close. Good leaders understand and honor this trust, humbly using it to better care for us. But immature and evil leaders misuse it for their own ends. And ultimately, their cruelty is expressed in falsehood, manipulation, and predatory behaviors – behaviors which will be magnified a hundred times across the breadth of churches, workplaces, and nations. This is why Proverbs says that “when the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; But when a wicked man rules, the people groan.” It’s also why God promises to hold such leaders to account himself.
In Jeremiah 23, the Lord declares: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! … You have scattered my flock, banished them, and have not attended to them. I am about to attend to you because of your evil acts.”
But because justice alone is not enough, God also promises to heal us when we have been abused. He promises to regather his flock and return us to places of safety and flourishing. He promises that we “will no longer be afraid or discouraged, nor will any be missing.” And to prove it, he promises us the Good Shepherd:
“Look, the days are coming” – this is the LORD’s declaration – “when I will raise up a Righteous Branch for David. He will reign wisely as king and administer justice and righteousness in the land.” In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely.”
Yes, the Good Shepherd lays his life down for his flock, but he also cares for us when we have been harmed, when our trust is broken and our vulnerability exploited. And just as he himself was raised to new life, he promises to raise up as well.
Hear this truth: the Lord is your Good Shepherd. He calls you to himself. And as you follow his voice, he will lead you beside still waters. He will restore your soul. When you walk through the darkest valleys and your fears come pressing in, when the pain and memories surface, he will be with you protecting, defending, and comforting you. He will supply all you need and guard you when those who hate you come near. He will fill your days with goodness and mercy until he brings you safely home to dwell in his house forever.