We have come to the fourth Sunday of Advent, the time of year in which we anticipate celebrating Jesus’ birth. The birth of Jesus was a dramatic end God’s silence lasting some four hundred years. God had been silent for 400 years, having last spoken through the prophet Malachi. Through Malachi God said that when He next spoke, it would mark the coming of the Lord. God would bring forth a prophetic messenger having the power of Elijah to announce the Lord’s arrival. And so, God spoke through an angel to Zechariah, that Zechariah, son, John, would be that messenger. God spoke through an angel to Mary that she would bear the Son of God. God spoke to Joseph reassuring Joseph that Mary’s child was of the Holy Spirit and Joseph must care for Mary and the baby. Moreover, God shared with Joseph that Joseph was to give Mary’s child the name Jesus and that Jesus would save the people from their sins. Finally, God spoke through a multitude of angels to tell a group of shepherds that Jesus had been born. God was true to his word. The Lord had come.
Jesus’ arrival here on earth was an odd mixture events of the world, of private matters, and of matters that were quite frankly out of this world. The worldly event surrounding Jesus’ birth came about by a man named Caesar Augustus. Augustus was unarguably then the most power man on the face of the earth. Augustus had called for a census, a counting of his subjects. Within Israel, Caesar’s order caused the movement of people to the lands of their ancestorial tribe. Mary and Joseph were both of the bloodline of David who was of the tribe of Judah. Mary and Joseph were living in Nazareth in the lands of tribe of Manasseh. And so, Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to their ancestorial home of Bethlehem, of Judah, to be counted. An inscription from a Roman Temple in Turkey reports that this census determined there were 4.2 million Roman citizens under Caesar Augustus. The census was the worldly event.
Amid the chaos of the counting of Augustus’ subjects, a very private event took place. Luke wrote, “6 While they [Mary and Joseph] were there [in Bethlehem], the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She [Mary] wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them” (Luke 2:6-7). The birth of a child is a private event that combines an odd mixture of personal pain for the mother with corporate joy for many over the promise in each child’s born. The birth of Mary’s son occurred in just that way. Privately, painfully, and yet joyfully Mary gave birth. But our Gospel writer, Luke, a physician by trade, reported an odd thing about this birth. When born, the child was placed in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. Luke said the manger was used because Mary and Joseph could not find a guest room to accommodate them. There were no vacant rooms for the couple and those who already occupied rooms were unwilling to give them up for Mary and her baby who was ready to be born. Mary and Joseph were left to find shelter from the elements in a stable. Casting Crowns, a Christian music group, in the song, While You Were Sleeping, described this private moment this way, “O Bethlehem, you will go down in history, as a city with no room for its king.” The baby was born and laid in a trough. It seems likely that Mary and Joseph would have assumed that with the baby now born, they would soon leave Bethlehem as unnoticed as when they entered.
Except we know Mary and Joseph’s son was no ordinary baby. The birth of this baby was an out of this world event. Mary and Joseph each had been told that this child was of the Holy Spirit and that this child was the Son of God, a savior of the people. To be born a savior among the people, meant that this baby was born an enemy of those who hold power over the people. This baby was the Son of God, the one true God in heaven born into the lands of Caesar Augustus who had been proclaimed by the Roman Senate as the Son of God and savior of the world. Caesar, the man, counted people as though he owned them. For Mary’s baby to be the savior of the world meant Caesar’s similar title was that of an imposter.
This baby of Mary was the Son of God, the one true God in heaven born into the world of Satan, the ruler of this world. Satan, the fallen angel, who sought to corrupt and poison the spirit and mind of anyone who desired God. Here in the little town of Bethlehem, a baby lay in the manger, born into enemy territory with one mission, to save the people from Satan. The birth of Mary’s baby happened in the middle of a worldly, yet private event, and was also an out of this world event. The birth of Jesus has no parallel in human history.
Luke then moved us from the baby in the manger within the city of Bethlehem to the night darkness in the hills surrounding Bethlehem. There among the hills, Luke introduced us to shepherds, themselves living out in the elements, quietly keeping watch over their sheep. Luke said, “9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them [the shepherds], and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they [the shepherds] were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them [the shepherds], ‘Do not be afraid’” (Luke 2:9-10). Luke confronted his readers with a startling scene. Shepherds were quietly settled in for the evening making sure their sheep were protected from predators and thieves. Then without warning, the small patch of ground around the shepherds lit up as if the noontime sun had suddenly appeared. The shepherds squinted their eyes and they raised their hands to help peer into the light. The light terrified the shepherds. And then in their terror, a voice came from the light piercing the silence of the night. And the voice said, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 2:10a). I am not sure the encouragement of the voice helped with the shepherds’ fear. The shepherds were having an out of this world experience. An angel, God’s messenger, had appeared to again break God’s silence.
The angel said, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10b-11). The words the people of Israel had longed to hear had been spoken to this group of shepherds. God’s Messiah had been born, today, in the city just below them. Messiah was Israel’s dream of restored glory under God. Israel would vanquish its enemies through the Messiah. Jews would be free from the pagans and the profane of this world. Conquest would soon be theirs. The leader of the rebellion had been born in Bethlehem, the perfect spot. Hallelujah!
But. There is always a but. But then the angel said something odd and disturbing. The angel said, “12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). What? God’s anointed Messiah, the future warrior king, restorer of Israel’s sacred honor, would be found in an animal’s feeding trough. That is humiliating. The Messiah should be exalted not humbled. The shepherds experience teaches us again that we cannot expect God to act in ways that fit our convention, our way of thinking. Job expressed to God, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3). God makes himself known, but there still is much mystery to God and we cannot judge how, when, and where God will speak to us.
Before the shepherds could fully comprehend the angel’s words about the Messiah in the manger, the sky above the shepherds exploded with many angels praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). There it was again. The unexpected phrase appeared, “peace on earth.” The Messiah was to bring war and conquest, what is this talk about peace? God who had not spoken in nearly 400 years was sharing the essence of His new covenant. It would be a covenant of peace.
Luke shared that when the angels left the shepherds and returned to heaven, the shepherds hurried off to Bethlehem to begin their search of the city’s stables. It was not long after, the shepherds found Mary and Joseph, indeed laying in the manger with a newborn baby boy. The shepherds had gone from an out of the world experience and entered the very private experience of a couple with its newborn baby. What was Mary and Joseph to think? This group of shepherds barged their way into Mary and Joseph’s life looking for their newborn son. And when the shepherds found the child, Luke said, “17 The shepherds spread the word concerning what [the angel] had been told them [the shepherds] about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (Luke 2:17-18). Apparently, the shepherds’ enthusiasm at finding the child attracted the attention of others. The shepherds shared their out of this world experience to the amazement of those who heard the story.
Amazed here means to wonder about what had been said or happened. It is state of excited speculative chatter, sharing with others what could all this mean.
In contrast to the excitement of speculation of others, Luke said, “19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Mary, the baby’s mother, knew the shepherds’ testimony was true and she did not need to speculate about the meaning of the shepherds’ out of the world experience. Instead, Mary held onto what the shepherds said so that she could be encouraged by their testimony in the days, months, and years ahead. Mothers are particularly good at treasuring and holding within themselves memories and experiences with their children. It might be the first smile or giggle of their child, or a secret shared with their mother. Luke reminds us that as wonderful and exciting as it is for us to hear about the coming Messiah, there was still unfolding the very human story of a mother and her child.
It is not an accident that Luke included this contrasting detail between Mary and the others who heard the shepherds’ testimony. In doing so, Luke reminds us that every story, even the story of Jesus’ birth, has two dimensions to it. There is the human story of mortal birth, life, things treasured, words pondered, joy, pain, and grief. There is also the eternal story of sin, rebirth, salvation, pursuit of righteousness, heaven, hell, and destiny. Both stories are important. In living within worldly and private events, we must acknowledge and honor the human story. There is a great temptation for us to ignore the difficulties of the human story of another person and quickly redirect people’s attention toward the eternal story. We say things like, “Don’t cry, God will bring good out of this situation.” God did not treat Mary that way and we should not treat others that way. God used the shepherds to provision Mary with words of encouragement, words to treasure in her heart, words Mary did not know then how much she would need to get her through the pain she would experience in her mortal life as her child fulfilled his destiny upon the cross. So, when we minister to each other, let’s acknowledge each other’s human stories which are rich in joy and accented by pain. Let’s first share the human story together. Then, when the time is right, we can help each other remember the full truth of the eternal story that we also live.
Luke concluded that for their part, “20 The shepherds returned [to the hillsides] , glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told” (Luke 2:20). The shepherds returned to their silence, and we know no more about them.
What more can we learn from this tale of the shepherds? It is a tale that we have heard many times before and, perhaps, even acted out in a church play. Today, I would like us to see three things.
First, we with worldly events occurring all around us. Some of those events are exciting, others are disturbing. That was certainly the case in our reading today as Caesar Augustus caused a census to be taken moving Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. There are many Caesars in the world today, each believing they are the power. Today’s story reminds us that world events may not always be as they seem because God uses worldly events to further His interests. God used Caesar’s census to bring about His Messiah. Caesar’s census may have recorded 4.2 million people, but it did not record that God had invaded Caesar’s kingdom with just one person, a Savior, Jesus Christ. That Savior, Jesus, would overturn the kingdom of Caesar and will overturn all other kingdoms of this earth. We need to keep that in mind whenever we are disturbed by worldly events.
Second, we live out our life primarily through private events. We are born, we learn to walk, we go to school, we get married, we have children, we attend funerals, and we die. Except for the Caesar’s of the world, these events are private events. Mary and Joseph had a private life into which we have been given a window. Mary and Joseph become engaged, became married, gave birth to Jesus, watched Jesus grow, and had other children. Mary and Joseph had no idea of the significance their private lives would have on the world and neither do we concerning our own lives. We should never diminish anyone’s importance to the work of God’s kingdom, including the work that you and I do. We are people of a small church living out private lives with each other and yet we do not know how our lives will ultimately impact the kingdom of God. And so we must be faithful to live that life, in its private moments, as though it matters to God because it does. That is what Mary and Joseph did and so must we.
Finally, meeting God in the Scriptures, in the baptismal pool, walking along the beach, seated in the park, worshiping in church, or in our dreams is an out of the world experience that is available to us all. The shepherds experienced God in a place, time, and manner that they never predicted. The same is true for us. We need to remain open to how and when God will speak to us. He does not often speak as He did to the shepherds with this searing light at night. More often, God will speak to us through that still small voice. And so, we need to listen for God’s voice and not be afraid of it. I have experienced God breaking the silence and infusing me with hope. I know he will do the same for you. I know this because God infused the shepherds with hope and announced His intention to bring us each peace to all who would seek him.
These are the things we can learn from this story of the shepherds. So, let us then find peace within the worldly events, the private moments we share, and may we find peace with an out of the world experience with God, His Son, Jesus Christ, and His Holy Spirit. Amen and Amen.