What brought you here tonight?
As a pastor, it’s a question I wonder about on Christmas Eve: for whereas I am definitely warmed by your presence here this evening, I also have to say I’m kind of amazed! And that’s only because however busy it gets for us during this holiday season (and on this night in particular), no matter the weather outside, or whatever happens to be going on in the world around us, nonetheless each and every year come Christmas Eve, we always seem to return to this place with candles glowing, faces smiling and voices singing; sharing in a tradition nearly 2,000 years old that is unfolding yet again tonight. I just marvel at the fact that we’re all a part of it!
That having been said, though, I ask again: what was it that moved you to be here tonight? Was it tradition? A family thing? Maybe you’ve come to revel in the sheer beauty of it all – the songs, the candlelight and the greenery – or perhaps there’s something nostalgic for you in our gathering; a yearning to recapture a memory from long ago, or as a way of answering a longing within you that you might not be able to define. Or maybe it’s just the thing you do on Christmas Eve (!); who knows?
Actually, I suspect that there’s more to it than that; that perhaps without our even realizing it, it’s something holy and heavenly that has led us out on a cold winter’s night to come here, and that there’s something inside of us that’s seeking a sign, something intent on rediscovering a hope that slumbers deep within our hearts. Truth be told, come Christmas Eve we’re all shepherds at heart; each of us running with haste from the fields of our lives to find a stable, looking hard to see the long expected child who makes everything new.
Yes, friends, we’re all shepherds tonight.
Of course, even as I say it, I realize that this doesn’t paint the prettiest picture in the world. After all, let’s be honest: shepherds, especially in biblical times, were loners by nature; often far removed from the circle of privileged and polite society. Garrison Keillor describes them very well: Shepherds, he says, were a “rather motley bunch” with a look (and smell!) to match. In those days, shepherds were not looked upon with esteem by other people. They were not considered to be high-class citizens, Keillor writes, because sheep are not high-class animals!
It was, however, the shepherds who were the ones to whom the angels proclaimed the joyous good news of Christ’s coming. And it was the shepherds who left everything behind so to run to Bethlehem and find this child of whom the angels sang.
Which in and of itself was pretty monumental; I mean, they could have missed the whole event, preferring to remain there with the flock gazing at the incredible star that shined in the heavens as they pondered on what had just happened to them; they were shepherds, after all, charged with keeping watch over their flocks by night, and not about to go running off. But they did go running off, because something came to them and said, “Go… find your hope. Go and find your dream. Put away your fear and go and find your joy, for the one for whom you have waited has come.”
The shepherds experienced something holy and heavenly that night, so what else could they do but go and look for the sign of which they’d been told! And no; they weren’t sure of what to expect, nor could they even begin to grasp the idea that God would choose to bring forth a Messiah in, of all places, in a manger filled with hay and mud! All they knew is that they had to go and look and to see for themselves. And when they found him there, just as the angels had told them; when they gazed upon this tiny, helpless child wrapped in rags amidst farm animals in a stable, the shepherds were changed forever.
Suddenly it all made sense to them, and somehow they just knew that what the angels had told them was all true; that here was a king born amidst the trouble and tears of human life; a ruler borne not out of power or glory, but because of a people’s great need and hunger; a Messiah who was a gift of God unto his creation, a gift pure and full; the very incarnation of love itself.
But then, such has always been the way that God brings the world his hope and peace; for wherever we are in the midst of life and living, there Christ Jesus is born! Into the places of our grief and loss, into our anger and regret, amidst our searching and sense of wanderlust will always come the fulfillment of God’s promised coming. Good news of a great joy is ours, and it is proclaimed from precisely the places where we dwell: for to us is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
Well, friends, tonight we’re the shepherds in search of a stable, each and all looking for signs of the Savior’s coming, perchance to glimpse “joy to the world” as God has given it. And make no mistake the signs are there for us to see; but in all the lights and glitter and snowy dreams of the season, we must be careful not to miss them, and thus miss the Christ. For the true sign of God’s joy ultimately is not to be seen in the world’s celebration, but always and ever found in that place deep inside of ourselves; in the grace and mercy that comes in the midst of our struggle to bring meaning to our lives; in the promise that now and eternally, no matter what happens around us and to us, we are never alone, for GOD IS WITH US.
That’s the sign: when the holy child, God in the flesh, is born within our hearts; when he lives inside of us as surely as he was born in the Bethlehem stable, then like the first shepherds, our lives also cannot help but change forever.
Like them, eventually this night will be over, Christmas will be past and we’ll have to go back to the fields and return to business as usual. But tonight, just maybe, we’ll have gotten a glimpse of unearthly joy and thus be moved to go forth and glorify God as we go about that business!
Beloved, whatever it was that brought you out in the cold to come to church on this Christmas Eve, my hope and prayer is that you find it, and more: and that it’s something good, something holy, something of meaning and purpose. I hope you find it in these moments of worship and celebration, yes, but I especially pray you’ll know it in your heart. Indeed, may you find the peace and comfort of Christ’s birth on this silent holy night, and… may it be said of each one of us shepherds that when we got back to the business of tending our sheep, we were found to be singing the angel’s song in word and deed: Gloria in excelsis Deo! Gloria in excelsis Deo! Christ is born!
Merry Christmas, dear friends.
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry