Shepherding, both then and now, is not a prestigious job. My brothers and I were elk hunting in Colorado a couple years ago and found ourselves sharing the high country with (I'm not exaggerating) a million sheep and three shepherds. The shepherds lived either in little shacks on wheels (Minnesotans might think of a fish house) or under the open sky. They walked miles with the sheep, or some of them rode horses. They were paid a few dollars a day by the owner of the sheep, who deducted most of their wages for "room and board." They lived quiet lives with very little human contact, and very little hope of advancement.
The shepherds in Jesus' time also lived apart from the rhythms of human life. Their lives were governed by the sheep and their needs. In Jewish culture where the requirements of the Torah define who is "good" and who is not, shepherds didn't stand a chance. They couldn't very well leave the sheep alone to go observe the sabbath or make sacrifices. They couldn't follow the rules of ritual washings and changes of clothing in order to maintain purity. Shepherds were in every sense of the word "unclean."
Leave the shepherds on the hillside for a moment.
Knowing what is going to happen next, let's take a look at angels. Angels enter in, as Gabriel reminded Zechariah (see Luke 1:19), to the very presence of God. In Isaiah 6, Isaiah sees a powerful vision of God's throne room, with six-winged angels flying back and forth before God, singing praises to God, and purifying Isaiah's own sinfulness with a burning coal from the altar of the temple. The Bible doesn't give us a ton of information about angels, but we definitely get the sense that they are holy, powerful, and awe-inspiring. In Revelation 22:8-9, the apostle John is so awestruck by the angel God sends to him that he attempts to worship the angel.
Shepherds are dirty and outcast. Angels seem in every way to be the opposite. Shepherds sit lonely on the hillsides, mumbling with sheep and other shepherds. Angels sing in mighty chorus in the very throneroom of God. Shepherds are lucky to do laundry a couple times a year. The Bible describes angels as robed in dazzling white.
Yet this paradox of the mighty and the mumbling together outside Bethlehem feels right. One reason for this is that throughout the Old Testament God has been dealing with shepherds. Abraham had his flocks and herds. Jacob was in charge of his uncle Laban's livestock. Moses was tending sheep when he saw the burning bush. Gideon had a fleece handy to test God. David, of course, was nothing but a sheep-tender when God got a hold of him. God has chosen shepherds over and over again.
Maybe we have mistaken what holiness means. Maybe God is not high and lofty in the sense we think of high and lofty. Is it possible that God likes shepherds? That the smell of sheep, the lack of refined manners, the shepherd's wardrobe doesn't bother him? If this was true, the fact that God is high and lofty would come to mean something else. Maybe God's exaltation comes in the fact that he hobnobs with the lowly. Maybe God is great precisely because his love will know no exclusion. It is common in evangelical circles to say that sin cannot enter the presence of God -- this is almost a stipulation to define why Jesus had to die, the vicarious atonement, and all that. But Jesus himself seemed to enter the presence of sinners all the time. In fact he made friends of sinners and partied with them. Maybe God's mightiness is shown in the fact that he is near to sinners without being tainted by them. He enters into the world at every level, and he seems closest to those who are most broken by their sin.
These shepherds, some commentators say, were not tending just any sheep. Some say that the herds around Bethlehem were special, that these sheep were raised specifically to provide the lambs for the Passover sacrifice. If this is true, Jesus was born at the same time these sacrificial lambs were being born. The birth of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the perfect sacrifice, was announced to shepherds. The Good Shepherd who would lay down his life was born among the sheep. He himself would take the sin of these shepherds, and the rest of humanity, onto himself, giving his life, shedding his blood, that we might be pure and holy.
Thank you, Jesus.