Most people will say that they remember exactly where they were and whom they were with at the time of an epic historical event, such as a tragedy or something shocking and unbelievable. Usually it is when the life of the world is altered in a split second, leaving no one unchanged. My mother would tell the story of how, as a young teenager, she was at Junior All-County Band clinic when she and the other students found out that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. In my own lifetime, the Challenger disaster and of course 9/11 are etched in my mind in vivid detail. Not only was 9/11 shocking, but it invoked a great deal of fear that shook the world. No one was the same after that day and we all recalled our stories to each other as we tried to process our emotions and begin the very long journey to healing.
I imagine that this is probably the experience of the shepherds in our gospel lesson from Luke this morning. This particular evening was just another speck in the sea of time, poised to be like all the others, keeping watch over the sheep in their care. These men were country dwellers who lived on the margins of society. To the temple leaders and social elite, they were among the dregs of society, unclean due to the nature of their profession. Because their jobs allowed them little time away, they were unable to make the appropriate temple sacrifices with any kind of regularity. They were literal outcasts because they tended the flocks in the rural regions on the perimeter of town. Yet, it was their job to see to the well-being of sheep that were most likely to be presented in the temple for sacrifice by people who could afford it.
Suddenly, in the midst of their very ordinary night, something extraordinary occurs. Luke says that an angel of the Lord appears and stands before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. I often speculate about this glory of God which shone around them. What was that like? I imagine it to be intense, bright, and even hot, perhaps like the desert sun at midday. I love that line from Psalm 139 that reads: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will cover me, and the light around me turn to night,’ darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day; darkness and light to you are both alike.” It is likely that the appearance of this heavenly being and the immensity of God’s glory illumining the dark desert night was as first traumatic for the shepherds in such a way that this experience would be etched in their memories. Luke says they were terrified! Their lives would forever be changed in this split second in the wrinkle of time.
Yet, the angelic messenger assures them that they have no need to fear. The angel say to them: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” This is amazing news but, I imagine them trying to process what they were hearing and seeing. How is it that these men, who were probably not allowed in the temple, were the first to hear this news of the arrival the Messiah? Yet it was totally appropriate that an angel of the Lord came down into their midst to announce the holy birth of Jesus, whose own cousin John would later identify as the ‘Lamb of God.’ This Jesus would be offered as the ultimate atoning sacrifice for the sins of world forever bridging the divide that had separated creation from their Creator and begin the work of building God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. The angel then invited these shepherds to go find this holy child so they could worship and praise God, an act that had often been denied them.
And where would they find this holy baby? Not in the temple in Jerusalem nor in a palace. Rather they would find the Messiah lying in a feeding trough in a cave on the outskirts of Bethlehem, the city of David the great king whose own humble beginning was as a shepherd. Again, it seems natural that God would choose to bring this news first to the shepherds who, while not related by blood to this royal baby, were related by caste. This announcement by the angel was an act of holy hospitality, the unprecedented beginning of God drawing all people to himself, beginning with those counted as the least, the last, and the lost.
Perhaps it all seemed like a dream, too good to be true! How is it that they would be the first to know of the arrival of the Messiah? When people are repeatedly told that they are unworthy of God’s love, this lie begins to be believed. But in Luke’s gospel, the angel’s announcement to the shepherds is then punctuated by the song of a heavenly choir filling the sky, and they witness a foretaste of the worship of heaven leaving no doubt that they were all experiencing the reality of God’s wide, loving embrace. The angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” In 2016, four of us brothers led a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and among all the places we visited was a large expanse of land near the town Beit Sahour (which is just east of Bethlehem) known as the Shepherd’s Field. On a hill overlooking a large expanse of land is a small cave, like many others dotting the landscape, where shepherds would have sought shelter for themselves and their animals. It is an awesome experience to stand on tate hill and look out over that vast expanse and imagine a sky filled with angels singing and witnessing to the glory of God made manifest in a baby born in a cave very close-by to these shepherds.
Luke says that when the angels had left them, they went and found the place where Jesus was and they knew right away that what they had witnessed was not a dream. “So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
So here are some question for you to ponder as you pray through this Christmastide. How do you relate to this account from the gospel of Luke? Who are you in this story? Do you remember exactly where you were and who you were with when you first encountered the glory of God in your life? Where is your Shepherd’s Field? How have you experienced God’s holy invitation and who have been the angels in your life, inviting you into the presence of God? How have you then been a messenger of this gospel message; that is the ‘good news’ of Jesus love? In other words, how have you been an evangelist? You may know that the word ‘evangelist’ comes from the Greek euangelion, which means “bearer of good news,” and it is from this that we get the word ‘angel.’
Perhaps you haven’t thought of these questions since you were a child, imagining a sky full of angels singing ‘Gloria in excelsis!’ It could be that in the pilgrimage of life that you have never stopped among the sheep and sat on the ground to ruminate on your experience of God’s presence in your midst. Psalm 26 says: “Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides.” This place of glory is not in the Temple of Jerusalem or in a grand palace, but rather, in the words of the desert fathers, heaven is within you! You are the abiding place of God’s glory with the ability of angels to show forth that glory to all whom you encounter. Stop, sit for a while in your Shepherd’s Field and enjoy the heavenly music. Then get up and go to meet Jesus, He is expecting you.
All glory be to God on high and on the earth be peace; good will henceforth from heaven to men begin and never cease. Amen.
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