Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2:1-20
May I speak on this most Holy Night in the name of God the Father, creator of heaven and earth, God the Son, born amongst us as one of us, and God the Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth. Amen.
I want us to go on a journey of the imagination this evening.
Imagine that you are a 45 year old man. Perhaps easier for some than for others, but bear with me. You were born into a farming family on the outskirts of Bethlehem, a small village a few miles from Jerusalem.
You work as a shepherd looking after your family’s flock and you have done since you were a child. Your dad was a shepherd as was his dad before him. Looking after sheep is what you know.
You are vaguely aware that the King in Jerusalem is called Herod and that the Romans also have soldiers around the place but you aren’t much interested in politics. You aren’t much interested in religion either, as the Temple is also in Jerusalem and you can’t afford to leave your flocks to go up there and worship. Leave that sort of thing to people who don’t have to work for a living. As long as you pay your taxes at market, no one much bothers with you, or your fellow shepherds, and you don’t bother much with them.
Why don’t they much bother with you? Because being a shepherd means you are neither rich nor powerful. It means that you spend most of the year living out on the hills looking after sheep who are not fluffy, white and cute but are usually quite smelly and fly-blown. You just need to make sure they have enough to graze on and occasionally have to pull one of the silly creatures out of a ravine when it falls down. ‘Stupid sheep’ you might mutter under your breath when this happens.
Being a shepherd is a bit boring. The highlight of most days is when evening falls and you get to sit around a camp fire with one or two mates, spinning some yarns. The problem is that you have all heard each other’s stories a thousand times. There is no television to either watch or talk about and you can’t even surf the internet. Even if you knew what it was the signal outside of town is rubbish. So life is dull, you are poor and unimportant, you smell of sheep most of the time and tonight, like the last ten thousand nights (that’s 27 years if you were about the do the maths) you find yourself chatting to the same people, trying to think of something new to say about lost sheep.
A massive, blazing, creature appears and the dark hillside is suddenly ablaze with the light streaming from this magnificent being. You and your mates are absolutely terrified, not to mention the poor old sheep.
Although you are terrified this white, shining thing, which you can hardly see because you are so blinded by its light, appears to mean you no harm. In fact the very first words from its mouth are:
“Do not be afraid.”
This helps a bit, although not completely.
Then this strangely beautiful creature, which doesn’t look as though it belongs in this world at all, continues:
“I bring you good news of great joy.”
This sounds promising – you could do with some good news, not to mention some joy.
“Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be the sign: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
A saviour, born to me, a poor shepherd? Although not religious you’ve heard of the promised messiah, and has he now come as a baby? But what is that about laying in a manger? Who on earth puts their baby in a feeding trough meant for animals?
But before you can think too much about any of this something even more amazing happens. Having just got used to one heavenly being suddenly there is a great host of them in the skies. How many is a host? A blinkin’ lot, I can tell you. And when they start singing it is the most beautiful sound you have ever heard:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
Front row seats to hear a choir of angels singing that. Not bad for a bunch of country boys living out on the hills.
And then, as quickly as they arrived, all the angels, that’s the word you were searching for, are gone, and the hillside is plunged back into darkness. But the darkness is gone from your heart. You find yourself filled with something new and unexpected – joy. God has noticed you on this hill and sent a choir of angels to tell you the good news that the messiah is here, and he is a baby, and you are going to find him.
Normally you amble about the hills, going no faster than the speed of your slowest sheep. But now you and your friends hurry down to Bethlehem to find this baby that the angel spoke of. But where to start looking? Well, if the baby is laying in a manger, poor little mite, then it probably won’t be in a house. Best to start looking in the places where the animals are normally fed.
It may take a little bit of searching, there is no star overhead to guide the way here, but you are used to searching for lost lambs in the middle of the night and, eventually, you and your friends find an animal shelter which has some unusual occupants – a man called Joseph, a girl called Mary and, sure enough, wrapped in cloths and laying in a manger is a baby they tell you is called Jesus. This poor couple have had a long journey down from the North, around Galilee way, you’ve certainly never been as far in your life. They have funny Northern accents but it seems that Joseph’s family came from around these parts and they’ve come back for the Roman census, but couldn’t find anywhere else to stay before this beautiful baby was born.
Perhaps you tell Mary and Joseph about the angels who sent you here, and what they said. Perhaps Mary and Joseph tell you about the angels who appeared to them and what they said about who this Jesus is and what his birth means for the world. No wise men appear bringing gifts. Different gospel, different night. It is just you, rough shepherd types, in this stable with Joseph, a carpenter, his fiancée and this baby in a manger. Seen through the eyes of humans a poor and humble scene, but seen with the eyes of heaven, a holy moment and the beginning of a new era on earth.
You and your friends don’t linger for too long. That poor girl Mary looks like she could do with a rest. But the joy in your heart cannot be contained and you have to tell everyone about this amazing thing which has happened – you have seen an angel, you have seen a choir of angels, and you have seen the promised messiah. You don’t care if anyone sees you excited, you have no middle-class hang ups about evangelism, you want everyone to see your joy, to hear the good news that the savior of the world, the messiah has been born, right here in Bethlehem and you have seen him. Everyone you encounter is amazed, perhaps some believing you, perhaps some thinking you were drunk, you hardly care you just have to tell everyone you see. Eventually you have to get back to your flock, because they will need you to protect them from danger and to lead them to fresh pasture in the morning. But you do not return the same person. Although never a religious type you go back to the hillside praising God and giving glory for everything that has happened.
This night a hillside was transformed from darkness to light. A life, your life, has been transformed from darkness into light and the world has been transformed from darkness into light.
Why did God choose the shepherds that night? Perhaps because they were the only ones looking up to the stars. Perhaps because the lamb of God and that great shepherd of the sheep wanted to start with his own.
Why shepherds, why Joseph the carpenter, why Mary, why you and why me? Because this night we remember that the savior of the whole world has been born, that the whole world includes the lost, the lonely, those who smell strange and act strange and don’t fit into polite society, those who work on farms or building things with their hands, those that don’t go to the Temple regularly and those who may never experience anything good in their lives until one day God calls them to look for Jesus. And those who look will find.
That night. This night. The world is changed forever. Unto us a savior has been born, he is the messiah, the Lord, and his name is Jesus.