In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus surprisingly preached:
- “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:3-5)
This message is perplexing. Instead, we would suppose, “Blessed are the rich in spirit, the non-mourners, and the proud.” How instead can it be that the humble mourners will be blessed?
Humble shepherds had been selected to be blessed by a glorious announcement:
- And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in [swaddling] cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8:12)
What a strange and surprising message. The promised Messiah – the hope of Israel – would be born in a filthy, smelly, fly-infested animal stall. No humbler circumstances could be envisioned! But there was another feature of this announcement that would have been even more startling. He would be “wrapped in swaddling cloths” as a “sign” to them. How would this constitute a sign? Babies have to be clothed in something, don’t they? Why not swaddling cloths? This would constitute a powerful and unimaginable sign that he was born to die:
- The swaddling clothes were typically used on new-born lambs that were bred for sacrifice. The shepherd would swaddle the lamb and place it in a manger until it settled down from the birth. This would protect it from possible injury that would disqualify it as a sacrificial lamb.
The sacrificial lamb had to be perfect, without blemish. The swaddling cloths were used to protect the lamb against possible injury or blemish. No one but the utterly destitute would ever conceive of wrapping their newborn in cloths kept in the manger for the sacrificial lambs. To cloth your baby this way would represent a foreboding of his imminent death, a sign` that parents would utterly reject.
These were also special shepherds preparing special lambs for the Temple sacrifice. Therefore, it would have been these shepherds, above any others, who would have been particularly struck by the sight of a child, especially the Savior of Israel, wrapped in the garments of sacrifice.
While the angel disclosed the divine identity of this Newborn, he did not disclose where to find Him, other than in “the town of David” – Bethlehem. No address was given, but perhaps none was needed. The renowned Jewish Christian theologian, Alfred Edersheim suggests that they would have known the address:
- That the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, was a settled conviction [among the Jews – see Micah 5:2]. Equally so was the belief, that He was to be revealed from Migdal Eder, the “tower of the flock.” [Targum Pseudo-Jon. On Gen. xxxv. 21 – see also the prophecy of Micah 4:8] This Migdal Eder was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheepground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem [perhaps four miles away]. A passage in the Mishnah [Shek. vii. 4] leads to the conclusion, that the flocks, which pastured there, were destined for Temple-sacrifices, and, accordingly, that the shepherds, who watched over them, were not ordinary shepherds.
It has been said that this lookout “tower of the flock” also housed the shepherds’ sheepfold for the sacrificial lambs in the bottom floor. Because these lambs were so valued, the sheepfold was kept especially clean. Perhaps because of this, the uninvited couple from Nazareth sought refuge in this stable, knowing that, meanwhile, the shepherds were residing in the “field” with their flocks.
In any event, the shepherds didn’t ask the angel for traveling instructions. They knew the prophecy from Micah 4:8 ["And you, O tower of the flock, hill of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come, the former dominion shall come, kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem."] and exactly where to go and “hurried off” to the sheepfold (Luke 2:16). Afterwards, they spread the Good News abroad:
- When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child. (Luke 2:17).
What was so special about this “word” and the confirmation they found in this Newborn? The heavenly host of angels had proclaimed that the advent of this Child meant the long-awaited peace and reconciliation between God and humanity:
- “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14)
Those shepherds who really understood the Law knew that there had been no real and enduring peace between Israel and her God. The Temple signified the fact that Israel could not enter the presence of God; nor did they have the courage or desire to do so. The endless sacrifices signified that they were never truly freed from their sins (Hebrews 9 -10). If they were truly God-fearers, they were humbled and grieved by their sins. Mourning clung to them as a ball and chain, relieved by one thought only – the promised advent of a Messiah who would utterly take away their sins and grant them peace!
It is the fulfillment of this incredible promise – the Messiah died for my sins – that sustains me. It is only this that gives me the courage to face my ugly sins and to laugh in their face.
The more I have come to know my Messiah and my own unworthiness, the more I adore and esteem Him. Oddly, the more my own self-esteem dies, the more my esteem of this Child who came to die, lives. In my poorness of spirit, I have been blessed, and in my mourning, I have found His liberation.