When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
The angels left the shepherds in the field. That, in itself, was rather astounding.
Ever since the Israelites left Egypt, God interacted with them in prescribed ways. The Tent of Meeting was built according to God’s intensely detailed instructions, the worship leaders were chosen only from one tribe of the twelve, and only the descendants of one particular man were allowed to be priests. To enter the Tent of Meeting, and later the Temple, each person had to follow strict rules or go through time-consuming rituals to become ceremonially clean. Even then, the most sacred space – The Holy of Holies – was off limits to all but one person in the whole nation. Encounters with God were not for ordinary people.
If the average Israelite didn’t expect to meet God, it was even less likely for shepherds. Shepherds were by the nature of their jobs unclean. Daily, they touched blood and dead animals. They didn’t have the freedom to take a week off to follow through on purification rituals for there was no one else to take care of the sheep. God lived in the Temple; shepherds weren’t allowed in. Encounters with God were not for shepherds.
There were certainly exceptions. A prophet could come from anywhere, and any walk of life. David, once a shepherd like themselves, ended up King of Israel. These people were called under extraordinary or even miraculous circumstances. And then, they were called away from their ordinary lives into exceptional service. Encounters with God were not for people who stayed in the field.
This time, however, the angels brought a message from God and then left them in the field.
The shepherds hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby in the manger. They saw Emmanuel – God with Us – and ran off to spread the word. “God is with us, all of us, out here, even in the dirty animal stall, away from the glitter and glory of the holy places. God is here, with us.”
Then the shepherds returned to their daily lives, tending the same sheep in the same fields. But they returned rejoicing, glorifying and praising God-With-Us, who could now be encountered – even out here in the field.