Background Passage: Luke 2:1-20
Surely the black of night darkened the shadows as much that night as any night. To the shepherds who lived in the hills outside of Bethlehem, the night began as every night began. Ordinary piled upon ordinary. Armed only with a short sword, a sling and a shepherd’s staff, the men guarded their sheep against man and beast, predators which threatened their flock. They herded the sheep they tended into a rocky enclosure and sat at the entrance, ensuring that the sheep within their care did not get lost in the night. Careful to let nothing in; nothing out.
These were unlearned, solitary men, spending days and weeks alone in the countryside tending their sheep. They worked under the temple authority, contracted to supply the temple with sacrificial lambs for important feasts and ceremonies. Their chosen profession among the animals and far removed from the temple rendered them unclean under Jewish doctrine and seldom granted the time needed to seek repentance and atonement through the sacrifice of the very animals they raised. By virtue of their lifestyle, faith became far more practical and personal than priestly.
Can you imagine their feelings when the night to which they were accustomed, yielded its darkness to the power and glory of God in the form of an angel clothed in radiance, reflecting the majesty of the Father.
These men, who willingly faced lions, bears and thieves to protect their sheep, cowered in fright. Hid their faces in the folds of their robes, trembling at the feet of God’s messenger. The chill of the evening heightened by their anxious hearts, left them shivering as they backed slowly away.
Imagine the calm command of the messenger’s voice, whose words tempered even the startling light that surrounded them, slowing the furious pounding within their chests and quieting their troubled minds.
“Do not be afraid,” he said. With those simple words, their hearts, which had grown faint, found a breath of serenity. They stopped retreating, bent a knee, and listened to the one who carried the greatest news God ever passed down to his creation.
“I bring you good news for all the people. For this night in the City of David, a Savior is born to you. Let this be a sign for you. You will find a baby, wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger.”
Imagine the wonder that filled their eyes as suddenly legions of angels appeared above them singing praises to God and shouting, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Imagine their eyes overflowing with tears as joy overwhelmed them. They were caught up in a moment in time like no other…and it ended, as quickly as it began. The light shining around them faded in an instant, leaving them alone again in the dark of night.
Their mouths once open in amazement slowly closed. They waited, hoping that the angels would return and that they could again experience the rapture of the moment. As they waited, the shepherds sat in the darkness and the silence pondering all they had seen and heard.
Then one shepherd whispered in a voice so timid it seemed to hover on the cool night air, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
One by one they rose to their feet and hurried off, searching the tiny village until they found Mary and Joseph and the baby.
Imagine that night…not as a pristine performance where cherubic children act out the biblical story with stilted lines and short songs sung cutely off key. Instead, imagine that night…as the turning point it was for a world lost in its own selfishness. Imagine that night…as the greatest gift ever offered to humankind.
Imagine that night…and sit among the shepherds. For, despite living centuries ago, they are not that much different than you and I. Their need for a Savior was no more and no less than our own. They could do nothing to earn salvation, no matter how hard they tried. They lived as much in need of the gift God offered as we do today.
Imagine that night…realize it was part of God’s plan for the world since the dawn of time. Unchanged since creation. It marked the fulfillment of his desire to enter into a redemptive relationship with his creation; a way for him to reach out to each of us by sending a part of himself into a tumultuous world in desperate need of his touch.
The Bible passage shares what we need to know. “Do not be afraid.” The gift God offers is not a curse of narrowly defined parameters, rules and regulations that suck the joy out of life. Rather, it is freedom to live the life God lays before us regardless of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. That is true freedom. In a life lived for him, there is nothing we need fear.
The messenger also said, “I bring good news for all people.” The Savior born in Bethlehem is not the Savior of the few, but the Savior of all people. That is indeed good news. No one is left out. His gift is available to everyone. God’s gift has a global reach.
The messenger heralded the good news to all, but, he added, “A Savior is born to you.” Salvation is not universal by virtue of living in a “Christian nation.” It’s personal. He is born to you. We become a Christian nation only when enough of us, as individuals, make it personal.
Sit among the shepherds and sing praises to God above. For when we live a life without fear, reveling in the good news he shares with everyone and recognize that for us to experience all that God has planned for us since the beginning of time we alone must make that personal choice…only then will we experience the peace the angels promised.
We can never fully grasp the miracle of God’s grace, love and gift of his son Jesus Christ until we first go to Bethlehem. That’s the wonderful thing about Christmas. It is hopefully a time for those who have never placed their faith and trust in Christ to make the journey to Bethlehem where it all started.
Those of us who have committed life to Christ, need to use this time to remind us to live the life he called us to live. Christmas offers no better time or place to rededicate our lives to him and in genuine love and service to each other. So…why do we delay?
Let us go to Bethlehem.