Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow

Dr. Ray Pritchard
Dr. Ray Pritchard
2015 14 Dec

Young Afghan shepherd, Kandahar province, Afghanistan

“They hurried off and found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby who was lying in the feeding trough” (Luke 2:16).

Not much is known about the origin of this song, except that it is called a “Christmas Plantation Song,” which means it was composed by slaves and sung in a back-and-forth responsive fashion. According to The New Oxford Book of Carols, most of the slave songs were collected during the Civil War, mostly from slaves on the offshore islands of Georgia and South Carolina. The tune is related to various British folk songs, including a Welsh carol. It could be called an American shepherd carol, with the principal singer giving out the line and the chorus repeating the refrain. You can get a sense of this “Christmas Plantation Song” by reading the lyrics.

There's a star in the East on Christmas morn
Rise up, shepherd, and follow.
It will lead to the place where Christ was born.
Rise up, shepherd, and follow.

Leave your sheep and leave your lambs.
Rise up, shepherd, and follow.
Leave your ewes and leave your rams.
Rise up, shepherd, and follow.

Follow, follow, rise up, shepherd, and follow.
Follow the star of Bethlehem
Rise up, shepherd, and follow.

If you take good heed to the angel's words,
Rise up, shepherd, and follow.
You'll forget your flocks, you'll forget your herds,
Rise up, shepherd, and follow

This simple song reminds us of the enduring power of music. Since most slaves wouldn’t have a printed Bible, they conveyed the Christmas story through their music. The leader would sing out, “There’s a star in the East on Christmas morn,” and the people would respond, “Rise up, shepherd, and follow.” The next line of the story would be sung, and the refrain repeated, “Rise up, shepherd, and follow.” The song would continue until the full story had been told. That’s how the gospel has always been passed along in oral cultures.

The message is simple and clear. When Jesus calls, we must “rise up and follow.” But as the song suggests, and as the disciples themselves would find out, it meant leaving everything else behind.

When Jesus enters, everything changes.
When Jesus calls, we must rise up and follow.
That’s still true 2000 years after Bethlehem.

Rise up, boys and girls!
Rise up, moms and dads!
Rise up, rich and poor!

There’s a baby in the manger. 
Jesus has arrived.

Rise up, everyone, and follow!

I found a lovely arrangement of this song by the King’s Singers.

Father, give us eyes to see Jesus in a new and fresh way this Christmas season. Help us to see him as he is–a king sleeping in a stable. May we rise up and follow when he calls. Amen.

You can reach the author at [email protected]. Click here to sign up for the free email sermon.