YOU know it’s Christmas when you see the shepherds.

In first century Palestine, shepherds stood on the bottom rung of the social ladder sharing the same status as the collaborating tax collectors. Some interpreters cite the Mishnah, Judaism’s written record of the oral law, as evidence of the lowly status given to these rural dwellers. One passage describes them as “incompetent”; another says no one should ever feel obligated to rescue a shepherd who has fallen into a pit – an unfortunate contrast to the sheep they cared for.

But the choice of shepherds reflects how God has a soft spot for those whom the world considers to be unlikely bearers of good news.

Just look at the 12 disciples. As the Bishop of Burnley, Philip North, put it: in order to found a movement to transform the world, Jesus called not the wealthy, the articulate or the powerful but a ragtag, chaotic bunch of third rate fishermen, busted tax collectors and clapped out rebels. He chose the poor and the weak and the powerless. He chose those who knew their utter dependency on God because they quite literally had nothing else to depend on, and with these keystone cop disciples he blew apart the whole meaning of what it is to be human.

The message given to the shepherds was not to fear – “do not be afraid”.

They are words that we need to hear afresh both as individuals and as a nation as we come to celebrate Christmas this year.

In 1908, the poet Minnie Haskins published a collection of poetry called The Desert. One of the poems in that collection entitled God Knows was used by King George VI in his Christmas Day radio broadcast in 1939. The country was at war – a time when fear and doubt mixed with uncertainty and the knowledge of the human cost that war brought.

At the end of the nine-minute broadcast, the King ended his speech by quoting Minnie Haskin’s poem. He said: “I feel that we may all find a message of encouragement in the lines which, in my closing words, I would like to say to you: ‘I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, "Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown".

‘And he replied, "Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”’

As we prepare to embark together into the season of Christmas, may I wish you all a blessed and joyous time where the message of the angels to the shepherds is heard again: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”

May the birth of Jesus Christ be a great joy for each of you this year and may the Good News of his life, death and resurrection sustain and guide you over the coming year.

The Reverend Arun Arora is the vicar of St Nicholas’ Church in Durham