For a week in November I traveled throughout the “mountain kingdom” of Lesotho. I visited with a missionary family living in a quaint village tucked within a breathtaking valley on the eastern side of the small country. Over the course of several days, John introduced us to a ministry among the shepherd community of Lesotho. In reality, John was just beginning to understand the shepherd culture himself. Lesotho is unique for its relatively homogeneous ethnic demographic. There are no “tribal” divisions, and the country is a little more stable and peaceful as a result. But alongside the Basotho culture, which covers every niche, there are these shepherds. They are boys and men relegated to a life of hardship, outcast in many ways, tending animals belonging to wealthy stock owners; living on the fringe and on the edge.
From age six to sixty. They are easily identified by their tell-tale garb: Gum boots, and a filthy wool blanket wrapped from shoulders to toes. Beneath a knitted cap, dark and distant eyes peer beyond a tattered slit into seemingly nothing. The shepherds are ubiquitous. They are visible near and far; on every distant hill or valley or field. Animals punctuate the landscape around them — scattered like stars in the sky — and it is a mystery how they ever gather them up at the end of a day. But these men have uncanny skills. At one point I watched a shepherd count his goats with a wave of his hand and a methodology which escaped me. Over a hundred animals moving about in a rocky corral, in the fading light of the day no less. What took him thirty seconds, I never accomplished.
But they are considered to be ignorant. They smell like the animals and look like trouble. In a country that boasts Africa’s highest literacy rate, they are illiterate. They smoke pot and possess neither the manners nor the attire required to be welcome in a church. My dad would have loved these guys. Jesus would have loved these guys. Still does.
John’s heart to reach this community is perhaps one of the most pure I have ever seen. Because even a child knows that God has a special place in his heart for shepherds. From the earliest of human history until now, they represent a lower class of person. In man’s eyes they are foolish and weak and most certainly “last”. Yet God relates to such as these. Sends his Son and calls him the “Good Shepherd.” And then tells us that the “last” will be first. Imagine what the shepherds of Lesotho will think when they learn the King of Kings is one of them? Imagine how the shepherds felt that night long ago when angels shattered the silence and announced to them, of all people, the arrival of the infant King?
One night I sat with a couple of the shepherds there at their encampment and thought about this. It was deathly cold and rained ice that night. We were engulfed in a fog as the sun set, blanketing the land in misery. John spoke to them a little about God’s love and it sounded small in such a vast and empty place. As a promise of something unbelievable, a tiny coal of warmth that could only be felt if you were very, very close to it. And I could see in the longing eyes of the shepherd sitting beside him, a desire to move closer. As if no one in all of history had ever been more prepared to do so. Except that it couldn’t be possible. Could it?
Christmas is for shepherds. I’ve long thought so, but now I know for certain. Christmas is for the unsuspecting, the open-hearted, the downcast and outcast dressed in rags. Because no one at the feet of Jesus was ever more appropriately dressed than the shepherds were. We are all like filthy rags at His feet. It is only that the shepherds know it.