Eliezer the Unreliable

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. (Luke 2:8 ESV)

Luke 2:1-20

Written originally for kids. For some reason, my (now adult) children love this Christmas shtick that I’ve been doing for years.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak with you and explain what happened. My name is Eliezer. You’ve heard that they call me “Eliezer the Unreliable”, but that wasn’t always true. That’s what I need to tell you about.I’m a shepherd. I take care of sheep. I’ve been taking care of my uncle’s flock for a couple of years now.

Do you know what the number one rule for a shepherd is? “Never, ever leave the sheep alone.” That’s what my uncle told me over and over. “Never leave the sheep alone.”

Sheep are stupid. They’ll walk into a thicket and get caught. They’ll walk in a river and drown. Sometimes they’ll even follow another sheep of a cliff. If they get in trouble, they’ll just stand there until they die. That’s one reason you can’t leave them alone.

Also, there are a lot of wild animals out there that would love a sheep or a goat for dinner. I haven’t been doing this too long and I’ve already had to fight off a couple of wolves and mountain lions – once with my bare hands! You have to watch out for them all the time.

And, of course, sheep are also very valuable. My uncle is a rich man because he has a large flock.

So that’s why the number one rule is: “never, ever leave the sheep alone.”

Being a shepherd is also hard work that leaves you tired and sore. Have you ever had to pick up a sheep or wrestle them to the ground? They’re heavier than they look.

If you see one in danger, you have to run as fast as you can to where they are. You can’t be slow or lazy and be a shepherd.

We care for the sick and injured. We sheer the wool in season. We take milk from the flock. We watch after the babies. And we keep them all safe. There’s always work to do.

When the pasture runs out of grass or the streams run dry, we have to lead the flock to find food and water somewhere else, so we have to be away from home a lot.

Sometimes it’s dangerous, and sometimes it’s lonely. It’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer and it’s always dirty.

Now, I don’t know how it works where you live, but in my line of work – the lowest person on the totem pole gets the crummiest jobs.

Believe me, there are a lot of smelly, dirty, disgusting, crummy jobs in taking care of sheep. One of crummiest is working at night, and boy do I get the nightshift a lot.

We try to pen the sheep up at night. Building those sheep pens out of rock, now that’s back breaking work, but it’s necessary. We can’t keep an eye on them in the dark if they’re wandering all around the place. But it’s not like we just put them inside a fence and forget about them. Even after we get them penned up for the night, we have to have a small crew stay out and guard them – to keep them from getting out of the pen, and to keep wild animals and thieving poachers from getting in.

Now this is what I need to tell you about. The strangest thing happened the other night. I was out in the hills near Bethlehem, taking care of the flock. I was on guard duty with a couple of other of the new guys. We were just standing there talking, about the weather or something, when all of a sudden, we saw – you’re not going to believe this – an angel.

I didn’t know it was an angel at the time. I didn’t know what it was. At first, it just seemed like a bright light off in the distance. We all commented on it and watched it for a few minutes before we realized something: whatever it was, it was getting closer and moving toward us.

As it came closer, the shape of a man began to appear. “It’s a ghost,” one of my buddies shouted. He was terrified – and so was I.

“Holy cow,” I said (or something like that). I started to retreat and my buddies did too. Even as I backed away, though, I couldn’t take my eyes off this thing. It was just a few seconds later that my buddies turned to run and we all started to scream. Before we could take even a few steps, though, we heard a voice.

“Don’t be afraid,” the angel said. It was a loud voice, but it was also somehow reassuring. In an instant, our fear went away. We stopped running and we stopped screaming and then the angel – that’s what I think it was – spoke to us.

“I’ve come to bring you some news that will make everyone happy. See that town of Bethlehem down there – King David’s home town. Your new savior and king was born down there tonight. God sent him, and I’ve come to bring the message of his birth to you. Go on down there. You’ll find him in a stable. He’ll be wrapped up in some blankets and lying in a donkey’s food trough.”

And then the angel was silent. I wanted to say something, but my mind was completely frozen. So we stared at each other – for how long I can’t say.

Then, suddenly, the sky was filled with them: angels, thousands of them, and they all start singing praises to God. Their voices echoed from the hills. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen or heard.

Their song went like this: “Glory to God, glory to God in the highest heavens. And on earth, God’s peace and God’s favor.”

Peace? We could use a bit of that, couldn’t we? Our poor little country just can’t seem to catch a break. I’ve heard that the prophets said God would bring peace someday, but I haven’t seen it.

And this fellow Herod who rules around here now, well he’s a piece of work, isn’t he. He’s killed thousands. I heard he’s even killed some members of his own family. He isn’t a proper king, not a descendant of David, anyway. Of course, it’s the Romans that back him up, isn’t it? Herod’s building a pagan town over on the coast and he’s named it after Caesar Augustus of all people. He seems to care more about the emperor in Rome than he does about us. I probably shouldn’t have said that. You’re not going to say anything to anyone, are you?

Anyway, I was talking about angels. When I saw them, I dropped to my knees and start shaking a little bit – not in fear this time, but in awe. I’m not ashamed to say it. We shepherds are pretty tough guys, but I was so moved that I had tears in my eyes and had trouble catching my breath.

I’m a shepherd, for heaven’s sake. I don’t have the time or the opportunity to be religious. Some of these sheep we raise go to the temple to be sacrificed, but I don’t get there much myself. They wouldn’t let me in anyway. A lot of what I do makes me … what’s the word they use, “unclean.” Up north in Galilee, they have these places called a “synagogues” where people read the scriptures and pray. If they had one of those here, it wouldn’t do me much good, either, I suspect. I have to work on the Sabbath. And like I said, sometimes we shepherds can be pretty rough folks. Most respectable people say I’m a sinner and look down on me. I mean we’re pretty famous for hard living and coarse talk. Here I am, listening to an angel choir and hearing the words of God. Who would have thought?

Then they were gone. The sky was dark and silent. We stood there for a moment, nobody saying a word but all of us wondering what this meant and what to do now. I’ll admit it – I said it first. I took a deep breath, sighed and said, “Let’s go down to Bethlehem to see this for ourselves.”

I don’t know what I thought I’d see. If angels appeared to a bunch of shepherds in the field, there must really be something spectacular going on down where the child was. I don’t know what I thought: more angels, more lights, more songs – a real sound and light show. But that’s not what we found.

Let me tell you, Bethlehem is a tiny village with tiny houses and not much else. It’s not much to look at, especially in the dark. I know King David’s family lived here a thousand years ago, but I don’t think that it’s grown much since he left.

When we got to Bethlehem, it was late and all the doors were shut tight. The village was completely dark, except for the faint glow that could be seen through some tiny windows in the tiny houses. We walked around for a little while, wondering what to do and where to go. We couldn’t just start knocking on doors, now could we? Boy, would that make people mad.

Eventually we saw the outline of one dark figure moving down the street and we ran toward him. He must have thought that we were up to no good because he started to run in the opposite direction. “Wait, we’re not going to hurt you. We just arrived in the village,” I called out. The stranger slowed, as if he were thinking, “What do I do next?” After a moment, he stopped and turned toward us.

“I’m sorry. I don’t have any room for you at my house,” he said. “I’ve just got one room, and I’ve already taken in a family for the census. Why don’t you try my cousin Levi’s house. He’s got the biggest place in town. He even has a guest room for visitors, but I think it’s pretty full now.” I imagine that almost everyone in Bethlehem was a cousin of some sort. That’s how it was in most small villages.

“We’re not looking for lodging,” I explained. “We’re actually looking for a baby that was born tonight.” I decided to skip the part about seeing angels.

“A baby. Are you part of Joseph ben Jacob’s family? His wife Mary had her baby tonight. They’re part of the crowd up at Levi’s I think.”

The stranger gave us directions to Levi’s house and we sprinted the short distance to his door. We knocked, waited, and knocked again. Eventually a very disturbed voice could be heard through the door.

“Who is it?,” the voice demanded.

We introduced ourselves and explained what we wanted as best we could – trying not to sound too crazy – and then waited some more. The person behind the voice finally unbarred the door and opened it just wide enough to look us over. We did our best to look respectable, but I think I’m glad it was dark.

“They’re down at the end of the courtyard,” he said, “but be quiet and try not to wake anyone else. There’s a lot of people asleep here.” We tiptoed through the sleeping men, women and children and slipped into the inner courtyard.

At the opposite end of the courtyard, we found the baby and his parents sleeping in a small room with a dirt floor. There was a donkey in there, too, a goat and a couple of sheep – along with a large dog to watch over the family and its possessions. Most of the animals barely noticed us, but the dog growled briefly to let us know who was in charge. And when the dog growled, mom and dad woke up.

The baby was all wrapped up in a blanket and lying in the donkey’s food trough – just like the angel said. With a little hay, a stone food trough makes a pretty good bed for a baby. His mom was a young girl who couldn’t have been married very long. His dad was just an ordinary looking guy, too. I think he said he was a carpenter. They lived up north in Galilee, but they had been sleeping in that stable for a couple of weeks now because of some tax law that the Romans had enacted. I guess that’s another law I’m ignoring.

We told his mom and dad what we had seen, and they told us about how they had seen angels, too – several months ago, but not since, and not tonight. They were glad we came by. It made them feel better to know that they weren’t the only ones that God told about their son. It made us feel better, too. Maybe we weren’t crazy for thinking that we saw angels.

Even though the angel had told us that we’d find the baby in an animal’s food trough, this is certainly not what I expected. I thought kings were born in palaces, not in barns. How could this child be the cause of all that angel singing? This is the child that is going make everything right in the world?

He was just a kid – an ordinary kid. His folks named him Joshua. If he ever does become the messiah, I guess those Greek-speaking pagans will call him Jesus. They just can’t get our language right. Maybe he’ll grow up to become a great warrior just like Joshua, defeat our enemies and rule over all the world in peace. It’s hard to believe, but who knows? I never thought I’d see angels, either.

We stayed a while, and then we went back to the hills outside of town. I never did see another angel or anything remotely spectacular.

When we got back to the flock, there was my uncle and immediately I heard oft-repeated words of in my head: “Never leave the flock alone.”

“Oh no,” I said, “Shoot. Shoot. Shoot.”  (or something like that). Boy, did I get chewed out that day. I lost my job, and gained a new nickname: Eliezer the Unreliable. But I have to say, if I had it to do all over again, I would. You can’t ignore something like that, can you?

I don’t know what that baby will do in the future. Savior? King? That’s what the angels said. I’m not making this up!

I have to tell you, though, this baby already did something I never expected. He made me realize that I am important to God. I didn’t think that God ever thought much about us regular folks. I imagined that he thought most about kings and priests and the religious teachers. It turns out that he does think about me and people like me. I don’t think that I can ever doubt that, now.

Now, I just have to find a new job. So, do you know anybody who’s looking to hire a shepherd?