Isaiah 9:2-7 Titus 2:11-14 Psalm 96 Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
“Father, Father, look!” I opened my mouth to cry out as loud as I could, but only a whisper left my mouth. I couldn’t make a sound. The sky was filling with shapes of light never seen before. There was a constant movement above us, light flashing in and out, like a dance of the stars. Everything lit up, yet the light was moving across the sky, like thousands of stars falling and rising, falling and rising. We were dumbfounded.
“This is the end of the world,” I said, again in a whisper, or “the beginning of a new world.” The sheep had fallen silent – that’s the strange thing I remember. Usually, when a storm approaches, the sheep start a restless movement, not knowing where to turn, they are not the smartest animals, calling to each other for reassurance, Bah, Bah. Instead of following a leader, they turn here and there, here and there, making such a racket.
But on this night, so strange, they stood still, looking up at the skies. I wanted to laugh. Sheep looking up to the sky? I hadn’t seen that before. I was on the highest point of the pasture, and for a moment I looked down at the sheep, at my father, and all the other shepherds in distant meadows and hills. Wow, we all were looking to the sky.
And it was then that the music took shape and sounded like a song. Did I hear Hallelujahs? Did I hear Hosannas? Who knows? I will never be sure. But the sound was praise. This is what I can be sure of…praise. The “glory” took form and became something obvious. Not sadness, not laments, but joy and laughter, “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
We fell on our knees. All of us. The sheep were still without voice, looking up at the moving lights. And we wept and trembled: was there ever a vision like this before? Was there ever anything to prepare us for such glory? And despite the beauty and the glory, I suddenly knew that I was in awe - filled with unspeakable awe. “The end has come,” I said to myself, and then I wondered, “or is it a beginning?”
Later, when I found my voice, my father and I talked about what we had heard and we agreed on this: Through the songs and through the music and the motions of the stars we heard a voice. It sounded like my shepherd’s flute, sweet, but also deep, like an echo across valleys and hills, deep and resonant, something that came from a flute but echoed through an endless flute. It was a sound I will never hear again but one I will never forget even if I live an eternity.
The voice said, “Do not be afraid.” We agreed on this, Father and I. But what were the words? Did we hear words? We couldn’t decide. We only knew that we had been told not to be afraid. And immediately our trembling ceased. I finally found the courage to run to my father and he enfolded me in his cape. “Father,” I cried, but he said, “I know son, I know.” He was weeping. “Listen,” he said, “the voice is speaking again.”
“They are directing us somewhere,” I said, and now I was laughing uncontrollably. “Father, let’s go. I know where they are sending us.”
Father grabbed a lamb and I picked up another. We started running and the other shepherds joined us. We were all holding lambs, as if we were planning to offer gifts to someone, like they do at the Temple, and we all were running. We came to a cave I knew well, next to the inn. My friends and I had found shelter here many times. The village of Bethlehem was tiny but there were huts and all kinds of caves in the dry hills. I don’t know why I was sure of the place, but I seemed to be directed there, and the lights of that night seemed to be brighter near this, my favorite cave.
A surprise was awaiting us. We entered carefully, the way people do when they step on holy ground. Father whispered, “You go on first son, since you know the way.” I tiptoed in, cradling my little lamb, which at that moment gave out a joyful bah! as if it had seen its mother. He danced in my arms. I put the lamb down and it pranced on uncertain legs to the interior of the cave. I followed. The unmistakable sound of an infant startled me, and I stopped. But then I heard a man’s voice say, “Whoever you are, know that you are welcome.”
I motioned to the others to follow me, and we came to an opening where a young woman was sitting, holding a tiny baby, and a man, his face exhausted but joyous, was rushing toward us in welcome. We couldn’t speak. Finally, Father said, “A son, a savior, a promise,” and he fell on his knees, sobbing now. The mother simply smiled at us and, still cradling the baby, made a movement with her arms as if offering him to us to see.
All the other shepherds fell on their knees, but my lamb was already there, licking the infant’s tiny hands. I said to the mother, “Have you selected a name?”
“Jesus,” she whispered, “Savior.”
“Do you know what is happening outside?” I asked her. “The heavens have opened.”
“How?” she asked, and Joseph ran to the mouth of the cave and then he came back to her and he was weeping openly. “Mary,” he said “the angels of the Lord…” But he could not finish.
“Yes,” I said, “yes, yes, they told us to come.”
And then I heard the echo that had filled the sky and was entering this place, infusing and surrounding us: Glory to God in the highest heaven! We all knelt and repeated the words. The baby looked at us as if he understood.
The lights swirled in my head, the voices sung in my heart. When I found my voice again, I said, “Father, Father, what does it all mean?”
It was over two thousand years ago and thousands of miles away, but it is a visit that for all our indifference and despair we will never quite forget. The oxen, the smell of hay, the shepherds standing around. That child and that place are somehow the closest of all close encounters, the one we are closest to, the one that brings us closest to something that cannot be told in any other way. This story told in the fairytale language of faith is not just that God is, which is a lot to swallow in itself much of the time, but that God comes. Comes here. “In great humility.” There is nothing much humbler than being born: naked, totally helpless, not much bigger than a loaf of bread. But with righteousness and faithfulness. And to come to us. To come for us.
When we are standing up to our necks in darkness, how do we say yes to God? We say yes, I suppose, the only way faith can ever say it if it is honest with ourselves. We say yes with our fingers crossed. We say yes with our hearts in your mouths. Maybe that is the only way we can say yes. Christ visited us.
The world would never quite be the same. It is still a very dark world, in some ways darker than ever before, but the darkness is different because Christ keeps getting born into it – being born into us. The threat of terrorism - the threat of poisoning the earth and sea and air - the threat of our own deaths - the threat of loss, broken marriages -a child in pain - the lost opportunities. Anyone who has ever known Jesus has known him better in those dark places than anywhere else, because it is in the dark where he seems to visit most often. It is in the dark that we need his light more and more.
Christ continues to be born each year in our hearts. There is a newness to love every time we experience it. No matter how long we live, love never grows old. We experience this love again and again with the coming of the Christ-child. We never tire of his coming. Feel the warmth of that love again, made new in Christ’s coming, new in every experience of God’s nearness.
The heavens opened, a baby, God manifest in the flesh, Jesus is born. The stable, the manger, the straw; poverty, cold, darkness – such a humble setting for this Divine Gift. In this Child, God gives his supreme message to our souls – spirit to spirit. Yet, this is the day, above all, when God gives joy to the world. What was it that the shepherds understood but eludes us today? What are we missing?
We, who try so very hard and with genuine goodwill to make Christmas a special day that we all too often miss out on the joy it is supposed to bring. The shepherds weren’t trying at all. For them it was just another night on the hillside, getting on with their routine work. Where will we find God in Christmas? We will find God in the surprises – a surprise visit from an old friend, unexpected hospitality shown to us, the sights and sounds, the cookies, the candies, the smiles, the songs, the hugs. It is as if God is saying, “Come and look for me where you least expect to find me and then, be prepared to take me as you find me!”
Come, Holy One, come, our Redeemer, come, Lord Jesus and be born in us, live in us, grow in us, until our lives are transformed by your life and we seek only to know your love and make your love known to others. Amen.