And it came about when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds began saying to one another, "Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us." And they came in haste and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. And when they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.
And the shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
What a wonderful day! What a wonderful holiday. We celebrate the birth of our Savior. "He shall be called Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins." Our text is just the tail end of that famous and oh so familiar Christmas story. We hear it and we see all of things we have grown up expecting to see. We have images of tidy shepherds gathered in humble worship around the manger with a halo so bright it seems that Jesus used an incandescent bulb for a pillow.
But I doubt if that is how it seemed to the Shepherds. I often wonder what it looked like to them. I wonder how they might have responded. I wonder how it might have felt to those shepherds who first heard the angelic announcement, and saw the glory of God shining around them in the sky, and heard that angel chorus. Our aim, this morning is to marvel at the gift of God and the wonder of Christmas as we try to imagine the answer to the question our sermon theme poses, "What did they see?"
We must remember what their life and religion was like, before we can imagine what they might have seen. Oh, yes, the Bible tells us what they saw, but we read those words with 1990's eyes, perched on the edge of yet another millennium. Our worlds are so different that I doubt that we would understand one another if we all spoke the same language. They lived in an entirely different place.
These shepherds lived out in the hills with their sheep. They were unbelievably filthy, by modern standards. They slept out of doors, on the ground, everyday, not just on camping trips. They probably didn't have a bedroll they wore their bedding as clothing and coats. They didn't know about sanitation and didn't believe in bathing too often. They smelled like their sheep. They were unshaven and rough and tumble, and by our delicate standards, were pretty rude.
Their religion was a religion of Law. They had rules about how far they could walk on the Sabbath, and rules about what they could eat. They had rules about how they could pray and what church festivals they would attend. They had commandments and laws and rules covering just about everything. Everyone in their society did. They had a lot of guilt and very little forgiveness. And their lives were unbelievably hard, by modern standards, and dull there wasn't much entertainment, and most of that was singing among themselves and story telling. Their lives were often short shortened by disease and made difficult by lack of medications and such to manage pain and fever and swellings and so forth. On top of all of that they were living in a country under foreign domination, and with grinding poverty and high taxes, life was just plain difficult.
When the angel appeared to them, they had no way of being prepared, mentally, for such a sight. We have lights and movies and special effects. They simply did not. So this light and the angel were utterly alien and terrifying. They tended to be a very superstitious lot, so it is not hard to imagine the thoughts of disaster and ill fortune that ran through their minds when such and unearthly light began to shine among them. Because these were holy angels, their sinfulness probably stood out foremost in their thoughts and fears. And the angel said, "Fear not."
Then they heard the message of the good news which would mean great joy for all people. They were suddenly calm and without fear, at the command of the angel. They heard what had undoubtedly been whispered to them all of their lives, from the cradle "Unto you is born this day in the city of David ad Savor, who is Christ the Lord!" Their fondest dream was unfolding before them! The Messiah! Then suddenly their was an army of those glowing beings singing the most beautiful music the praise of heaven for the wonders of God Glory to God in the highest, and peace among people with whom He is pleased. For one moment, I imagine, they felt as if they were transported into heaven itself.
Then the light was withdrawn. Just as suddenly as it had come, they were back in the darkness, left to wonder if it was all true. And the shepherds began saying to one another, "let us go right now to Bethlehem, and let us see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." We gotta go and see! And so they trudged, to Bethlehem probably a mile or so away. They stumbled excitedly through the familiar streets looking into every stable they passed, looking for that manger, the one the angels spoke about.
And when they arrived, they found a young girl and her somewhat older husband seated in the straw in front of a hayrack. They were probably looking down into it at the bundle of rags that is what swaddling clothes were, rags that held their infant son. He didn't look any different from any other baby they had seen. There were no priests there to greet the new born Messiah. There were no trappings of power or glory. His parents were not particularly remarkable looking, and they were obviously not expecting company, so far from home, in a city so crowded for the census taking.
You might imagine that Mary and Joseph were just a little surprised and a little curious that these shepherds were coming to see them. How did they know? What did they come expecting to find. And the shepherds shared their midnight vision and the song of the angels and the fear and the wonder of it all. I can guess that they probably though that this didn't look like much, but they believed the angels, and they were warmed by the simple thought that even if they would not live to see Him accomplish His great work, they were there at the beginning, and the salvation for which Israel had waited so very long was born and about to be revealed! Somehow, they had to reconcile this humble baby, born in a barn so to speak with the words of the angel. This little One was the Messiah, the Covenant God of Israel come in the flesh.
Oh yes, they knew that! "Christ" meant "Messiah," and "Lord" was the unspeakable name of God, given to Moses at Sinai. "Lord" meant God to them. They were faced with the reality of the incarnation, without even a word to describe it. Yet they believed. And when they saw it they could not help but tell everyone what they had seen and heard, and how angels had told them!
And everyone who heard them wondered. Some undoubtedly thought they were crazy. Some may have thought they were drunk. But every single one of them had to ask themselves, deep in their own hearts, "Could it possibly be true? Could the Messiah really be among us? Is our long wait about to end?" And Mary sat there marveling at the things that God was doing the angelic announcement to her, the son given to her cousin, Elizabeth, the way God forced her to travel to Bethlehem to do what had been prophesied so long ago, and now the shepherds, and the angels. It was all so strange and wonderful.
What did they see? A stable, a young ish couple, obviously traveling, an ordinary baby, and proof positive that God was real and that the promises of old were true and that God was about to do something wonderful! t was a cause for praising God and risking looking foolish to others to speak of the wonders of His love.
What do you see? Do you see the classic nativity tableau? It didn't look like that. Do you see a sweet and heart warming image of Madonna and Child? It didn't look like that. To see Christmas correctly and clearly you have to close the eyes of your body and open the eyes of your mind by faith. Here in this rude manger God took on our flesh and blood and all of the burdens and pains and troubles of our lives, in order to work the work of our salvation. He came to keep the Law which we have not - and indeed could not! He came to sow us what the love of God is, and how far it will go to bless us and save us. God became a man, by first becoming a baby - just like each one of us did - so that He could trade places with us in death and under the wrath of God for our sins.
It's an amazing thing! God's love and His determination to save us. It is a wonderful gift. We cannot imagine the Laws which were as common and pervasive to those shepherds as the air that they breathed.. We cannot fathom the fear and the superstition. We cannot put ourselves in their place because the world has been so transformed by the little Child of Bethlehem. We don't quake in fear of God, because we know His love, it was acted out on a cross. We don't have to wonder about our future state, because Jesus showed us what it was going to be like - He rose to give us that understanding and our present hope. Christmas made us the children of God, just as surely as it made Him the Son of Man.
Have a merry Christmas! Your sins are forgiven, and your death is made only a doorway to life everlasting for all those who believe. Rejoice. Sing your favorite carols. Imitate the shepherds by glorifying and praising God - and make sure everyone knows the good news of great joy for all people. It is not that Santa Claus is coming, or has come, but Jesus Christ was born on the day we celebrate today, and all our hopes and happiness were born with Him!
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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