Malachi, the young shepherd…A Christmas Story
Based loosely on Luke 2:8-20
On this night, as they all returned to the fold, Malachi’s father Yaron and his uncle Ephraim reminded the young Malachi and his cousin Elam to count the sheep carefully as they put them in for the night. It was early spring and many of the ewes had recently had their lambs. Occasionally one of the newborn lambs would get separated from its mother and not make it back to the fold at night with the rest of the flock. Shepherding was a hard and difficult vocation and each new lamb was seen as a valuable part of the flock worth protecting and caring for.
After giving the boys their instructions the two men set off down the hill below the fold to turn in for the night. They had done this all their life and were thankful that the next generation was finally capable of taking over the evening tasks of counting and putting the sheep in the fold and keeping watch through the long night hours.
“You go on into the fold” the older Elam said to Malachi, “They all listen to your voice better anyway.” Malachi did as he was told and began to call the sheep to come into the large enclosure made of crossed sticks woven together. The flock immediately responded to his familiar gentle call and began to file in through the narrow opening, passing under the rod whereupon Elam counted off out loud so both boys could keep a close count. Just as they were finishing the count both boys noticed that one lone ewe seemed hesitant to come in, appearing to be very upset. “That’s the ewe that gave birth the other day to the little black lamb”, Malachi said. “It looks like the poor little one didn’t make it back down with the flock”, he said worriedly. “Well, you had better go and find it then”, Elam said, “I will stay here and keep watch until you get back.”
And so after coaxing the distraught ewe into the fold, Malachi set off back up into the hills where they had just spent the day pasturing their flock. As the day was fast drawing to a close and darkness was setting in, Malachi decided he had better run rather than walk. Finding a little black lamb would be hard enough in the failing light and next to impossible in the dark.
Although he was slight of build, Malachi was devoted to the sheep. He treated every one of them as if they were the most important sheep in the world. And though he was nowhere near as strong as his other cousins, he could run like the wind, and was by far the bravest of all of those of his generation who took turns helping with the sheep. The young shepherd took great pride in caring for his father’s sheep, always finding the freshest and coolest water, and taking pains to keep them clean and free of burrs…and making sure all were accounted for at nightfall…more than once running through the hills for hours in search of a lost ewe or lamb.
And so on this night Malachi set off once again, running back up the hill in search of the little black lamb that had somehow become separated from its mother. After a few minutes of hard running Malachi had made it all the way back up to the upper pasture and began calling out for the little lamb, searching closely around the edges of the fields where there often were briars and thorn bushes which could get caught up in the wool of the sheep causing them to panic and get even more entangled. Even at the tender age of nine years old, Malachi already had scars on his arms and hands caused by freeing sheep that had become caught fast in the thorny thickets.
And as he searched and called out for the little lamb he was suddenly caught up short by a low growl off to his left. Peering in closely he saw a wolf crouching next to a large thicket of briars, in the very middle of which was the little black lamb…caught and unable to free itself. Unafraid, Malachi drew out his sling and a small stone. Winding it around over his head several times, he let the stone fly and struck the wolf full in the side sending it off running with a yelp of pain. Then Malachi worked his way into the briars and caught hold of the little lamb, carefully lifting it out of the thorns. Once freed he tucked the shivering and scared little lamb into the folds of his shawl and began the journey back down to the rest of the flock.
As he drew near he called out to his cousin, “Elam…Elam, I found her, she was up in the thicket caught fast…but she seems alright”. Startled; the other boy who had since dozed off replied, “That’s good, bring her over here and put her back in with her mother”. Malachi carefully placed the newborn lamb into the fold where the lamb’s mother immediately came over to it and began to tend to it as the little one began to nurse. “That’s good Malachi”, said Elam, “Oh, and by the way, it is your turn tonight to stand guard, I am going back down to the hut to get some sleep with the others”.
Malachi smiled to himself for it was not really his turn to watch. Elam was not as committed to shepherding and often left his younger cousin in charge of the night watch. Malachi did not mind for he loved the sheep and had no problem keeping watch, playing softly on his little wooden flute as the stars turned above him and the air grew cool and still. “Okay”, Malachi said to his cousin, “You go on ahead; I will see you at first light”. Elam muttered something under his breath that Malachi could not make out, but he knew his cousin would be back early in the morning…his father and his uncle would definitely see to that.
Left all alone Malachi secured the entrance to the fold and sat down with his back up against a large rock. Drawing his shawl closely around him he settled in…it would be a long night…and hopefully a quiet one save for the occasional soft call of one ewe to another, or from a mother to her young offspring.
Shepherding was all Malachi had ever known. In spite of the fact that he was so young he was already well-seasoned and knew how important his task was and how vital it was to his family that he do his work well and responsibly. Unlike some others who hired workers to tend to their sheep, Malachi’s father and his father’s brother Ephraim owned the sheep and depended solely upon the family to care for them. In fact it had been the family flock for generations, and both men could remember their grandparents telling stories of when tending sheep was one of the most honorable professions. In truth, the Hebrew people were nomadic shepherds from the very beginning. Abraham, Moses and other fathers of the faith were sheep herders when they were first were called by the Lord to come and follow him to the Promised Land. It was their heritage, it was in their blood, it was who they were.
But it was not so any longer. In fact, as far back as their captivity in Egypt, many Hebrews had developed a taste for the settled life, enjoying the convenience of life in small villages and towns; forgoing the nomadic ways of their sheep herder ancestors. Nowadays, those who stayed with the shepherd’s life lived off by themselves, moving throughout the hills in search of fresh pasture and clean water for their sheep. If they had a home at all, it was nearer to town. However the men stayed out in makeshift huts most of the time, returning home only occasionally where their wives and daughters tended to the rest of the family affairs.
Shepherding was no longer the primary means of making a living but rather just one of many ways young Hebrews could choose. Many people still owned sheep, but no longer wanted to care for them as much themselves. As a result there were many who took jobs caring for other people’s flocks; however they did not have the same commitment or caring attitude towards the sheep as did Malachi and his family. And as a result of all this, the reputation of shepherds in general had fallen on hard times, suffering greatly due to the poor behavior of these hirelings who were disenchanted with the shepherding life but were forced to do it for various reasons. Many of these hired hands did not do their tasks well at all and often lost their jobs fairly quickly. However, due to the high turnover rate there were always others looking to hire them back.
The damage to their reputations had been done however, as shepherds in general had become widely known as trouble makers and were considered untrustworthy. They were seen as ‘low-life’s, or worse, as thieves who were willing to steal from anyone who was unfortunate enough to cross their path at night…even on occasion stealing someone else’s sheep if they were left untended in the fold at night. In fact, many hired hands simply locked their flocks in the fold at night and then went off into nearby towns to carouse and drink all night, returning just in time to let them back out into pasture the next morning.
And even though Malachi’s family was nothing like this, even though they were thoroughly devoted to their flock and spared nothing to care for them properly, the general view of shepherds still caused them grief from time to time. Often times when Malachi traveled into town with his father to get supplies or to take some of the lambs to the market he would hear the taunts and insults of those who thought poorly of them simply because they were herders. In these times Malachi looked to his father who never responded with anything other than a kind word, not letting the words of others disturb him or his young son. “It’s okay Angel”, he would say, “They don’t mean any harm. They just do not know us and have heard bad things about others. Don’t let it bother you. Be proud of the fact that we own our flock and have some of the finest wool in the whole world!” With that Malachi would hold on even tighter to his father’s hand and smile just as he had seen his father do.
Shifting a bit, as the rock against which he was leaning was uncomfortable, Malachi reflected on the name his father had always used for him. In fact he was given the name Malachi which meant ‘My Angel’, at birth, rather than, as was the usual custom, eight days later. It seems that his mother, who had struggled mightily with her delivery labor, had stopped breathing and appeared lifeless after the little boy was born. Malachi’s father tried everything he could do to revive his wife who had no pulse and lay cold and still on the bed. Sobbing, Malachi’s father had picked up his newborn infant and held it close to his mother’s lifeless cheek, wanting to at least give the newborn boy a chance to be near to his mother before saying a final goodbye.
And as he held the little boy close to his wife’s face, suddenly a strange light had shone all about them and his wife had somehow miraculously revived. Overjoyed, Yoran had hugged his wife Shira as they wept together and shared the joy their little miracle child had brought into their life. Giving thanks to God, Yoran had lifted the infant heavenward and vowed, “Lord, I dedicate this child to you, use him as you will. I name him Malachi, for he truly is ‘my little angel’”. And from that moment onward, Malachi’s father had always called him ‘Angel’…ever mindful of the grace of God that had saved his wife by sending him his own little miracle ‘angel’.
Malachi smiled as he recalled the story, having heard it many times since he was born. All of his relatives looked upon Malachi with a certain awe as they felt for sure that God had great plans for him indeed. “There is such a brightness about you”, they would say. “It is as if God’s light has shone down upon you and decided to stay!” And indeed it did seem as if whenever he was around everything seemed brighter and more hopeful.
Looking all around him and down towards the valley below Malachi could just make out the outline of the town of Bethlehem in the light of the oil lamps still lit throughout the streets of the town. It was a small little town but a nice one as well. Lately however there were many visitors to the town as the Roman Emperor Augustus had ordered a census to be taken which required all Hebrews to return and register in the town of their ancestry. Overnight the little town had been transformed into a noisy, jumbled, confusion of people and carts along with horses and donkeys…everyone looking for a place to spend the night in advance of registering the next day. Malachi was glad that he could stay up in the hills and did not have to deal with all the confusion and tumult that had seized the town over the last few weeks.
And as he sat there, reflecting on all these things, suddenly there was a bright flash of light and what appeared to be an angel stood there before him. It was so sudden that Malachi had no chance to be afraid. Holding his finger to his mouth the angel motioned for Malachi to keep quiet. Then very softly and gently he began to address him. “Malachi”, he said, “I am Gabriel, the angel of the Lord, and I have something to tell you. But first I want you to know how very much God loves you. He has watched over you since the day you were born, blessing you with his light of grace.”
Entranced, and amazed that the angel not only knew his name but also knew the story of the strange light; Malachi leaned in to listen closely for he did not want to miss a single word. The angel continued, “I know your father named you Malachi for he felt that you were his little angel, and surely you were a vessel of God’s grace on the day you were born. But I come here tonight to share with you that the other meaning of your name is ‘my messenger’…and it is this to which God is calling you this night. For you see he has a message of greatest importance that he wants you to share, a message which shall be celebrated for all time and by all people. You are the one he has chosen to tell the world that on this very night a Savior has been born, a Messiah for God’s people Israel…one who will deliver them from all their oppressors and bring new life and goodness to all the world. This very night, in the town of Bethlehem, which is the city of David, a child has been born who is Christ the Lord. You are to go and to find him there. He will be wrapped in swaddling cloths and is lying in a manger.”
“But…but I am only a shepherd”, Malachi began. “Surely you know how people feel about shepherds. No longer are they respected or seen as honorable and good people. I am not sure anyone will believe me. Are you sure God wants me to tell his message?”
“My dearest”, began Gabriel, “God knows exactly what he is doing. I told you that he has had his eye on you for just this job from the moment you were born. You are the one who is called to be his little messenger. You are the one who is to run and share the message of God’s amazing love and grace”
“But what about our flock”, Malachi began, “How can I leave them with no one to care for them”? “Go, and call your father and your relatives”, Gabriel replied, “We can take care of that as well.” Turning to call out to his father in the hut on the hillside below, Malachi was startled to see them already climbing the hill towards him. Evidently the brightness of the angel had awakened his father who upon glancing out had quickly roused the others and together they all hurried up to see the strange sight of Malachi and an Angel apparently engaged in some deep conversation. As they drew near they were quiet, for they had never seen such a thing. Malachi however seemed completely comfortable with the angel and began to tell his father excitedly all that the angel had just shared with him. Looking somewhat unsure, Malachi’s father was even more unnerved when Gabriel interrupted his son and told him indeed that all he had just heard was true…God had chosen his family and Malachi in particular, to carry the message of salvation to all who would hear. He shared that God needed Yaron’s ‘little angel’, and God’s ‘little messenger’ to run and to share the Good News.
Still unsure of what to make of it all, and also concerned about the safety of his flock, Malachi’s father started to speak but was interrupted when an even brighter light lit up the whole night sky and they all looked up to see a whole choir of angels hovering just above them. And as they watched in awe a most beautiful chorus sounded all around them. Everything was brilliant light and beautiful music all at the same time as the angel choir sang out, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom he is pleased!”
And then, just as quickly as they had appeared they seemed to vanish, leaving Malachi and his family there alone again with Gabriel. “Now do you believe me”? asked Gabriel. Still unsure of what to make of it, Malachi’s father said, “Yes Sir, I do believe all that you have said, but who will care for our sheep for the rest of the night?” “No problem”, Gabriel said with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “I think it is actually Elam’s turn to watch tonight, isn’t it Elam?” Ashamed at being found out, Elam looked down at the ground and said softly, “Yes Sir, I will stay and care for our sheep”. “Well that settles it”, said Gabriel, “Malachi, take your family and hurry down to Bethlehem, go and see what a wondrous thing our God is doing!”
And with that Gabriel himself seemed to float back up into the heavens, leaving them all to stare up into the night sky, wondering why they were so blessed to have been chosen to carry such a wondrous message. “Let’s go”, exclaimed Malachi, “We don’t have a moment to waste. Gabriel told me we had to hurry”! Looking around at the others Malachi’s father replied, “Yes, let us go, for God has greatly blessed us this night…and my little angel will lead the way!” And so off they went, leaving Elam to care for the sheep, which he now felt very differently towards. Surely they would be safe tonight under his watch.
And as the young shepherd and his family traveled down the hills towards Bethlehem it seemed as though Malachi was really pushing the pace, as if he just could not wait to find the child he was told to go searching for. Finally, Malachi’s father was winded and he asked them all to stop for a moment and to take a break. Then turning to his young son, Yaron said, “Malachi, why don’t you run on ahead, and if you find the boy then come and find us. We need to go just a bit slower than your young legs can carry you. We will be along shortly I promise.”
And that was all Malachi needed to hear as he set off running like the wind, his heart beating wildly with excitement and anticipation. Drawing near to Bethlehem however, Malachi began to despair. He had forgotten for a moment that the town was not the sleepy little hamlet he occasionally walked through with his father and was instead a jumble of people and animals all looking for a place to rest, and all milling noisily around.
Walking slowly through the town, Malachi did not know where to turn…until he saw a small light that seemed to be glowing around in back of the local inn…down behind where the animals were kept. Drawing nearer he heard the soft cry of a baby coming from the stable. Looking in through the open window he saw a baby who also seemed to be bathed in a soft glowing light, and felt that surely this must be the one he was looking for. As he watched he saw that the young mother was trying to comfort her newborn baby. The baby’s father was there as well and the both of them seemed quite unsure of what to make of it all…a baby…a stable…and only an old feed trough for the baby’s first bed.
Knocking softly Malachi looked in the doorway. The baby’s mother looked up and asked him, “Yes, what can we do for you?” “My name is Malachi” the young shepherd boy responded. And as soon as he said his name the baby stopped crying. And you know…I am not sure, but it has been said that the little baby even turned his head to look at the sound of the young shepherd’s voice.
For their part Mary and Joseph knew that the young Malachi should come in. “Come here”, Joseph called him. “Who sent you to us? How did you find us here”? Starting to reply, Malachi was interrupted by his father’s voice behind him as he said, “This is my son, my own little angel, who was called on this night to come and find you by the Lord’s angel Gabriel. We were all told to come and see you, for the angel claimed that you have given birth to a Savior who is Christ the Lord. We are so overjoyed to have found you and so humbled by God’s grace in allowing us to be a part of this great joy.”
Joseph turned to Malachi, “Is this true Malachi”? He asked him. “Yes my lord, it is just as my father has told you. Gabriel told me that on this night a Savior had been born right here in Bethlehem…he told me to come and to find you and then to go and tell everyone of this Good News! He also told me that my name means, ‘My little messenger’ and that I was to be God’s little messenger starting this very night!”
Looking at him lovingly and tenderly Mary spoke softly saying, “Oh thank you Malachi. I knew you were special the moment you mentioned your name and my little baby stopped crying. It is almost as if you have the same strange light that glows all about you as does my little Jesus. Surely it is true that you have been sent by our Lord, for all that you have told us are things we ourselves have heard as well but were afraid to believe. Indeed you are a very special blessing to us and to our family and we cannot tell you how important your visit to us has been on this night.”
Somewhat embarrassed by Mary’s sweet words, Malachi looked down at the stable floor all strewn with dust and bits of hay. “I am just glad I was able to find you”, he said softly. “Come here”, Mary said to him. And as he drew near to her she reached up and held his face tenderly in both her hands. “Do you see this little baby”, she asked him? Looking down at the newborn child Malachi whispered, “Yes”. “Well, our God has called you to tell everyone about him. Do you think you can do that for me”? She asked. “Yes I am sure I can”, Malachi said softly.
“Well then”, Mary continued, “Go…go and run and tell everyone of the wonderful thing you have seen here tonight. Run and tell them all what the Angel Gabriel told you to share…run and share this very best of news!
And you know…that little shepherd boy…the one who always seemed to glow…the one who could run like the wind…
…well that’s just what he did!
…and even unto today, we still tell his story over again every Christmas!
Merry Christmas to you all! …amen dlf December 20, 2015