Welcome to the fifth and sixth installments of Interview With a Shepherd. Our Wednesday rewinds for the month of December will feature a short story I wrote two years ago called Interview with a Shepherd. It retells the story of Jesus’ birth from the point of view of a reporter chasing down a story. All of what we know about Christmas comes from the accounts of Matthew and Luke. And its not always clear how those two accounts meshed. How things unfolded is a bit of a mystery that will not be solved this side of heaven. So, please take my combination of the stories with a grain of salt. The important thing to understand is not when the birth of Jesus happened but that it happened. Nor does it greatly matter exactly when the Wise Men arrived, but that they sought for and worshiped Jesus. And lastly that for some reason God choose to reveal and celebrate Christ’s birth to a bunch of ordinary folks like you and me who were just doing their job. I hope that you have a joyful Christmas season and enjoy this little story.
Now what do I do? Levi’s half-way through his story about the magi and the donkey’s ready for my shepherd search. “The donkey can wait,” suggested Levi. I thought for a second and remembered my editor’s advice, “never interrupt a man that’s talking.”
“Alright, lets finish the story,” I agreed.
“Each of the Magi carried a small chest as they walked in,” Levi began without noticing that Dan had joined us at the table. “For a few moments they stood and admired the baby cradled in Mary’s arms. Then one of them, the oldest one I think, began to explain their presence.”
‘We have come from a far off place in search of the newborn king of Judea. The heavens foretold his coming and a star led us to this very house.’
‘We are told,’ began another, ‘that your scriptures prophecy concerning his birth, and that the baby is more than a king – He is the Messiah of God.’
‘Therefore, we have sought the child in order to worship the newly born king and Messiah.’ explained the third magi. “At this point each knelt before the family,” continued Levi. “It was a strange and awesome sight. The magi in fine silks, bright sashes, and tall turbans kneeling before a poor family from Nazareth dressed in dull homespun.”
“Tell him about the chests,” Dan encouraged.
“I’m getting to that,” Levi replied momentarily distracted by Dan’s presence. “The older one spoke next. ‘We bring gifts for the child from our homeland to honor and bless him, gold.’ The older magi opened a small chest filled with gold coins. ‘Frankincense,’ the middle magi announced. The sweet aroma of frankincense spilling from his open chest. ‘And Myrrh,’ intoned the final magi.
“I understand gold and frankincense, but why myrrh?” I asked.
“It is a bit odd to give a spice used to anoint a body for burial. I asked the older magi about it later, ‘we brought what we were impressed to bring,’ was all I got out of him. Anyway,” Levi said wanting to continue the story, “after the gifts were presented the magi bowed in worship.
‘We are blessed by your gifts,’ Joseph replied.
‘We will treasure this moment and tell the child about it always,’ added Mary.
‘What have you named the child?’ the older magi asked.
‘Jesus,’ the mother softly replied.
The magi conferred briefly and then the old one spoke, ‘I understand that, in your tongue, Jesus means God saves, it seems to fit the child.’ With that the magi rose, bowed once more, and proceeded from the room. The next morning they, the magi, and the young family were mysteriously all gone.”
“Where did they go? I asked. “Did they leave a note or anything?”
“Both left a gold coin, well beyond what was owed. But I have no idea where they went.” Levi answered.
“I know where,” injected Dan. We both stared at him for a second.
“Go on boy, you won’t get in any trouble,” assured Levi.
“Joseph came to the stable early the next morning to get his donkey ready. He asked me to help him pack and that I was not to tell anyone. I asked him why they were leaving so suddenly. ‘Do you believe in angels?’ he asked. I nodded. ‘One came to me in a dream and warned us to leave for Egypt because King Herod is going to try and kill Jesus. The angel also told me that the magi have also been warned in a dream not to return to Herod.’”
“Did Joseph say anything else?” I asked.
Dan thought for a moment, “Oh, yeah, I’m supposed to tell Levi something. ‘Thank you for your hospitality and the gold coin should cover our expenses. May God’s blessings be with you.’”
I sat back to ponder Dan and Levi’s story. Levi’s right, I can’t publish this until Herod is dead, it would be too dangerous. But, could this baby, this Jesus, be God’s Messiah? That would be the scoop of the millennium. I made a mental note to ask a rabbi friend about the prophecies concerning the messiah when I returned home. Well, that leaves my angel sighting shepherd. “Dan, show me the donkey. I need to find a shepherd.”
For two days I bounced on the back of a donkey searching the Judean hill country for a specific shepherd named Samuel. I encountered several flocks along the way. All of them knew Judah’s flock and Samuel, but none knew their location. I must have recrossed my path five or six times chasing down their suggestions. Near sunset I crested a small hill. The lowering sun painted the clouds orange and purple in celebration of the waning day. In the darkening valley I spotted another flock. With faltering hope of finding Samuel, I rode down to the nearest shepherd.
“Is this Judah’s flock,” I yelled when I got into range. The shepherd turned looking annoyed, but waved me to come nearer.
“Don’t yell like that,” he hissed when I was close enough to hear, “we are getting the sheep settled for the night.”
“Sorry is this Judah’s flock or do you know where they may be?” I hissed back.
“This is Judah’s flock. Is something wrong?” A worried look creasing the shepherd’s eyes.
“No, nothing’s wrong I’m looking for Samuel.”
“Do you see the man standing on the rock? That’s Samuel.” the shepherd said pointing across the valley.
I could just make him out. “Thanks,” I said starting towards Samuel.
“Hey,” the shepherd hissed again, “Don’t go through the flock, go around.” Changing direction I again thanked the shepherd and rode on.
Darkness was complete long before I arrived at the rock. However, the shepherds had built a small cooking fire which helped to guide me in. Looking up, I marveled at the night sky. The brilliant stars reminded me of the magi, and I wondered what they saw that led them to Jesus. As I approached the fire the one I took to be Samuel greeted me. “Good evening traveler, will you sup with us?” he asked, pointing at a spit of meat above the fire.
“Perhaps, I’m looking for Samuel.”
“I am Samuel, do I know you?” the shepherd quizzed.
“Lets just say that we have a mutual friend. Do you remember the trader you ran into a week or so ago by a tent outside of Bethlehem.”
The old shepherd thought for a moment, “you mean the night the child was born, the night the angels sang.”
Bingo I thought to myself, “yes, I’d like the hear your story, maybe do an article about it for the Jerusalem Journal.”
“Sit traveler, I will never tire of telling about that night.” Samuel looked at the other shepherds sitting around the fire. “We were all there, we all saw it.” Samuel studied the stars for a moment. “It was just about this time. We had camped near Bethlehem to replenish our supplies.” Samuel again stared into the night sky. “The stars were brilliant, just like tonight. Whenever they light the sky like this I am reminded of God’s promise to Abraham; that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars. I was pondering that promise when I saw one star seem to come closer and closer, growing in the night sky. Before I knew it, an angel was standing right in front of us. I fell to my knees, we all did.”
“What did the angel look like?” I asked.
“He was taller than most men, bright, almost like looking into the sun. But it wasn’t what I saw that frightened me, but what I felt. It was like being warmed by the sun but knowing that your heart was exposed before him. The angel must have sensed our fear because the first thing he said was, ‘Do not be afraid!’ That voice, deep and powerful, for a moment I feared that it would cause the sheep to run but they seemed unconcerned and calm. Then the angel said, ‘I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David!’ The Savior? The Messiah? In Bethlehem? What wonder is this I thought. ‘How shall we find the child?’ I stammered. The angel explained, ‘you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.’ All of a sudden the sky was filled with angels as if all the stars of heaven had come down to where we were at. With one voice they sang, ‘Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased!’ They retreated back into the sky as their last note faded. We were all speechless. Finally Joseph here exclaimed, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem!’ I agreed, ‘let’s see this thing that has happened which the Lord has told us about.’ Without further discussion we all ran to Bethlehem to search for the child.
At that moment, the fire crackled throwing sparks into the air. I watched the sparks rise to join the stars and wondered what my reaction would have been. How marvelous and frightening to encounter those beings we call angels.
(Scripture quotation taken from Luke 2 New Living Translation)