Christmas Eve, 2008
The more I think about that first Christmas, the more I think that we cannot begin to know what it was like for those people. Again, we’re on the Christmas side of this story. We know what happened. We know what it means. We know the wonder, the glory, and the joy of the fact that the God who created all things came down to this earth and became a man like one of us.
But, we can’t imagine what it was like for these people! I keep thinking that this year, and it’s more amazing to me all the time. Sometimes we think this all happened and the people to whom it happened were happy about it, and they were glad they were a part of it, and they looked around at each other with joy and wonderment! But I don’t think so.
The shepherds were out in the fields “keeping watch over their flocks by night.” It’s safe to say they weren’t sitting up knowing that angels were about to come and make this great announcement. They were just spending another night watching in the darkness, probably taking turns staying awake to watch for predators. They did that every night. And then, that one silent night, it wasn’t so silent any more!
Think about it. Maybe they were talking together, maybe they were laughing, maybe they were telling jokes or sharing stories. And then, all of a sudden, this thing happened. “An angel of the Lord appeared to them.” Which as I’ve said before, was a frightening thing. I wonder if it could have been Gabriel again? He had a big hand in this story so far. (And, did he bring his horn?) In this case, the angel didn’t give a name. And in artists renditions of this event, and probably in our mental images, we’ve seen this angel as female. But that hasn’t been the case so far in the Christmas story. (Again, that’s one of those “misconceptions” about angels we’ve talked about before.)
It is fun to try to imagine what the shepherds were doing that one silent night, just before this event took place. But whatever that was, what happened was shocking to them, to say the very least. It was terrifying! But, whatever it was. It compelled them to do something. “Let us go to Bethlehem,” they said, “and let us see this thing which the Lord has told us about.” Whatever their “shock and awe” they had the presence of mind and the desire to go. And I have to wonder, did they just go – right then,? Did they just up and leave their sheep? Or did they wait until they had help with the sheep before they were free to go? Did they choose someone to stay behind while the others went? It’s hard to say from Luke’s account. But they went.
And when God calls us, what do we do? Do we find it hard to separate ourselves from those “social conventions” – those obligations – that so strongly guide us throughout our lives? Are we able to leave our flocks, or our nets – like the apostles – and seek and follow? That has always been very hard for people who are called by God, and we are no different.
The other thing we must say about these shepherds is that they were not very socially prominent people. They were pretty far down on that “social ladder.” Throughout their lifetime they were probably reminded by others of their low status. When people talked about them, they probably referred to them as being “only shepherds.” And they knew it. As far as they were concerned, nothing important or momentous was ever likely to happen in their lives. So they weren’t expecting anything. Even if they gave thought to the coming of the Messiah, they assumed that would be something that would happen in important religious circles or through governments, or at least through revolutionaries who were eager for independence. They didn’t expect to be part in anything like that, so they weren’t expecting anything like that to happen.
I wonder how many of us feel like they did. Are we constantly reminded that we are just ordinary people? Are we told by our world that we have no real status, no real power, no real impact on the world? Yes, some of us break out of that. Some of us become more or less famous. But most of us are just “regular people.” Yet on that one silent night, God told the world that there are no “ordinary people.” Everyone is special in his eyes! All of a sudden these shepherds became people whose story is told every year by all Christians, all around the world!
Yes, on one hand, we cannot begin to imagine what this was like for them, because we know this story already. There’s was a world before the Messiah – until that one silent night. On the other hand, their story is our story. As I said the other day when we were talking about Mary, God often chooses the least likely of people. That has been true throughout this story, and throughout all of history. The Apostle Paul challenged the Corinthian Church to see that about themselves. “Consider your call, my friends,” he wrote, “Not many of you were wise by worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many of you were of noble birth.” “But God chose what is foolish… and weak… and low and despised in this world…” God chose shepherds, fishermen, and tax collectors. And God chose even us.
The world changed, one silent night. Long ago, some shepherds were out in their fields doing what they always did. And we still tell their story today. We can’t imagine what this was like for them when it happened. But at the same time, their story is our story. And we are part of what happened, that one silent night.
Eternal God, help us to know how you came into our lives when you came into the world on that night so long ago. Help us to know how you are calling us to come to the Christ Child, and to worship at his stable, and to follow where he leads us. That’s not always easy, or comfortable, or convenient. But we ask for the strength to do so, not just this Christmas season, but throughout our lives. For we pray in the name of that child in Bethlehem, who came to change the world, and us, Amen.