Question: If you were a shepherd 2,000 years ago and were outside watching the sheep one night when an angel showed up with a message from God, well...what would you do? Answer: Panic!
Shepherds were not highly regarded in those times. It wasn't considered a very noble profession. You practically lived outside with animals (stupid animals, at that). You were constantly coming into contact with...animal stuff.
"Unclean" was not merely a description -- it was a condition. Shepherds were unclean hygienically and ceremonially. They weren't allowed to testify in court. They weren't allowed in the synagogues or the Temple. Ironically, the lambs they helped come into the world -- the very animals that would be sacrificed for Passover -- rendered them unfit to make sacrifices in the Temple.
So what must they have thought when they saw the angel? They probably thought, Oh, no! What did we do now?
They had been told that God didn't like unclean people, so they might have assumed the angel was there to tell them God was mad at them -- or worse. Maybe God had finally reached his limit with all the uncleanness in the world and was ready to do something about it -- starting with them!
But instead the angel began with these words: "Fear not." It's a familiar refrain if you've read much about angels, who were always having to preface their conversations with people this way.
"God's not angry," the angel continued. "In fact, I've got Good News for everybody -- even dirty shepherds like you. You know all the stuff that's wrong with the world, all that stuff you wish could get fixed but looks hopeless? Well, God's going to do something about it. He's sending Someone to save the day. This Savior is also going to be the King. You can go see him now if you want. Here's how you'll know him when you see him...."
Okay, wait. Don't hurry on here.
If you're that shepherd, how do you think that sentence should end? Think about it: This is the one sent from Almighty God to turn everything that is upside-down right-side-up. This guy is supposed to deliver. He's going to be the greatest King you've ever seen. How will you know him when you find him?
"He'll be wrapped in satin and lying in a hand-carved ivory creche. In his hand will be a golden rattle, and in his mouth will be a silver spoon." Right?
"He'll be wrapped in rags, lying in a feed trough, surrounded by stinky animals -- kind of like one of your shepherd kids would be." In other words, here's how you'll know the Messiah when you see him: You'll find him in the middle of a big mess.
The whole reason this is Good News -- to the shepherds that night and to us right now -- is that we're all messy people. Every night, people appear on television (under the label "News") and tell us how the world got a little messier today. We manage to mess up every single area of life: relationships, finances, work, family, the environment, the Church (especially there), our conscience, our habits. There's not a single place we haven't managed to mess up. And we can't seem to fix any of it. Try as we may, we cannot put Humpty together again.
So the angel says, "Here's the Good News: God is not afraid of your mess."
Our God doesn't care how messy your life is. It couldn't be any messier than his was. He was born in a mess -- wrapped in rags, laid in a manger -- and he died in a mess -- stripped of his rags, hung on a cross.
And in between his first day and his last day, he mostly hung out with messy people.
We make Christmas really pretty, with red velvet bows and evergreen branches and all that. But the real story of Christmas proves that you don't have to clean up for him. Cleanliness, it turns out, is far from godliness. If anything, it's in the middle of our messiness that he shows up.
This is an excerpt from my latest book, The 52 Greatest Stories of the Bible.