The shepherds returned, glorifying God for all they had seen and heard…That is how the Story of Jesus birth ends in Luke’s gospel; but what had they seen?
First, the angel of the Lord had appeared, out of nowhere, and scared the heart out of them. Angelic choruses, bright lights – visions that suggested an ancient prophecy had finally been set in motion. Did they rush to town out of a desire to “See this thing that has taken place…?” – that’s how Luke descries the sudden rush to Bethlehem – still a little scared, I imagine; shaken to their boots and eager for something to break the spell of their heavenly encounter. Seeking people and noise and the comfort of the familiar, they stumble into town together, and find family, one of many gathered for the census, except for one important difference. A new born baby – roughly wrapped, gently cradled – mother and baby doing fine…but there is something about this scene that brings the shepherds to a reverent rest.
What did they expect to see? Familiar with the prophets’ promise, that peace would be revealed with the birth of a child – that God would deliver the faithful by a daring act of solidarity – what they expected was some show of power, certainly not a makeshift delivery room in the animal annex to the village inn. And yet, their response was joy: praise and prayers of thanksgiving – songs of relief and a sense that, finally, all would be well. Their reaction doesn’t match the evidence before them; yet their hopes – ancient hopes – have been confirmed. The faith of these shepherds – men often dismissed as unworthy, outcasts and outsiders – their faith is the starting point for our Christmas celebrations every year.
Our celebrations have moved a fair distance from the simple, sincere surprise of those shepherds. The traditions that we treasure are built on expectations that have nothing to do with the surprise and delight of finding an ancient promise sprung to life. Our Christmas habits are lovely for the most part, but they represent promises that we make to ourselves. The holy promise that meets is in the infant Jesus is about more than just our momentary comfort – certainly more than our material happiness. The promise of peace, and light for those in darkness spoke to the urgent need of those few shepherds, shivering in the dark. That promise was real enough to them that they left their flocks (their livelihood) in hope that what they had seen and heard was no hallucination. and they saw enough in that small, sweet family scene to recognize God at work, right in front of them
What did you expect, when you come to this place on Christmas Eve? At Christmas, hopes and expectations are unusually high. We know the “true meaning of the season”, or so we claim, yet most people come expecting pomp and circumstance; a celebration of the gift of love that prompts us to give to one another. But what if we came to our celebrations – to our tables and trees and family gatherings – expecting to see God at work in our midst? Would we recognize such a sight? would we be moved to song? Would we run and tell the neighbourhood that God was great, and was doing something wonderful? For that is what tonight is about, whatever else you might expect. There is good news to be shared – news that requires us to see the whole world differently.
Our two great festivals of faith – Christmas and Easter – are more than just calendar landmarks, they are events that change our perspective, that alter our attitudes toward friend and enemy alike. This is the day that we recognize the God-likeness of all people, for this is the day that God took flesh and dwelt among us. Let the joy and hope of those first messengers fill you to overflowing this Christmas season, and may our lives reflect the image of God that is in us and among us in all we do. Merry Christmas. Amen.