Thursday, December 25, 2008

Luke.2.1-20; Festival of the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ; December 25, 2008

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:1-20, ESV)

… for unto you…

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Well, It’s finally Christmas time. The time has arrived; the packages and presents will soon be opened. It is a joyous season, a very joyous holiday. It’s nice to have family around, all the holiday hassle seems to be worth it as we see our families sitting with us around the dinner table. The hours of work, Christmas baking, shopping and wrapping are all behind us. It all seems, at that moment, to have been worth it. Next year is a different story… But, now it’s Christmas! It is almost an anti-climax. Our attention has been very focused on our gifts, our families, and wondering if it will really be a ‘white Christmas.’ It’s easy to get wrapped up in the holiday, the family gift exchange, and the Christmas tree. It is wonderful that so many people celebrate this day… the day that a baby was born in Bethlehem. It’s great that people, who don’t even believe, celebrate. It has truly become a part of our American culture.

All the lights, all the carols, all the glitter and decorations, the sense of community… peace on earth. There’s nothing wrong with any of it. It’s great to enjoy it, as a matter of fact we should! We should enjoy it; we should revel in it, even more than anyone else. Because for some this holiday is only a time for family… a time for gift exchanges… a time to wish peace on the world. But, for us it is different. As we listen to this very familiar story we should remember the most important words that are in it.

For unto you… for you…

It is these words that reach out across time and drag us back to the dark fields where shepherds stood and trembled. These words that make the rag wrapped baby shivering in the cold important. It is these words that tell us that something wonderful has truly happened. And that it has happened … for us.

But still the message of Christmas is wrapped up in the tinsel and paper of the season. Sometimes we find it hard to remember what the season really means… for us. Maybe if we were actually there, standing in that field with the Shepherds, we’d have a better appreciation of that message. Maybe if we understood what it meant for the shepherds maybe we’d better understand what it means for us.

The night was dark, not dark like here, where the lights of town fade out the blackness of the sky, but really dark, like black velvet. Each star in the sky can be seen clearly as a pinpoint of light. There is time to notice each one. Shepherds have one single luxury in their lives… time to think, and time to contemplate the universe. Especially their place in it. Because for a shepherd, the world isn’t a very welcome place. It isn’t just the smell of sheep that keeps people away. Their occupation is on the very bottom rung. Little boys didn’t grow up wanting to be a shepherd. People who were shepherds were outcasts. They weren’t welcome in town. They weren’t allowed at social gatherings.

To say that the appearance of an angel to shepherds was surprising is to not say it strong enough. It is nothing short of miraculous. It certainly surprised everyone who heard about it later, And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But maybe the most surprised were the shepherds themselves. They were certainly afraid. They knew their place in the society of the day; they also knew their place before God. Few people would have the perspective of shepherds in that respect. Certainly not people who were accepted.

Maybe this is where we have trouble with the story. Maybe we don’t see ourselves standing there trembling in the presence of God, like they were. Maybe we don’t identify with them. But maybe we should. What they understood, that maybe we don’t, is exactly what it means to be outcasts, to be separated. Most of us have been in the ‘presence of God’ our whole lives. Most of us were baptized as young children and have never felt ‘apart’ from God. But as surly as their social standing kept the shepherds out in the fields, sin pushes human beings away from God.

From that problem we ourselves are not immune. It’s easy to see the ‘shepherds’ around us. Undesirable people… the lazy and unemployed, who spend their money on lottery tickets and cheap beer. People who don’t care about their appearance. We don’t like to see it in ourselves. Our selfishness, our proud attitudes, our tempers… our sin. Sin is no respecter of social class. The sin that plagues ‘shepherds’ plagues you and me. When we stand in the presence of God, our sin deserves punishment. If we understood that clearly we too, would tremble there with the shepherds.

“Don’t be afraid!” the angels said. In spite of what you deserve, there is Good News for you!” It’s good news for shepherds, outcasts from Jewish society. Sinful people keenly aware of their status, keenly aware of their sin. “In fact this Good News is so Good that it is for everyone!” It’s for shepherds… it’s for me… it’s for you!

For you… today… Christmas day… a Savior has been born. God will not tolerate sin and its effects on people. He can not have his beloved people separated, and outcast from him. What makes Christmas day Good News is that Jesus Christ, God’s answer to sin, is born for you! The very same Jesus, found by the shepherds in the stable, is found there for you. The very same Jesus, who gave himself up to the cross for shepherds, has given himself up to the cross for you. Sin that troubles you has lost its power, because of Jesus born to Mary and announced to shepherds. Because of Jesus, whose first home on earth was a place for animals, and whose first visitors were outcast shepherds, you have a place with God, and your sin will not separate you from him.

Do you need more than that? There is more… it’s one thing to look back to a time so far removed from us, to a dark field flooded by the light of angels, and to try to see what that means for us. It is one thing to picture in our minds God made flesh, wiggling in a manger surrounded by shepherds, sheep, and cows. It is quite another thing altogether, to have him here present with us right now. But Jesus Christ is here with us now just as he promises. “I am your Savior, where two or three are gathered in my name I am with you. My very body which was laid in a manger, which was given for shepherds, is given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. Take it and eat it. Touch it and feel it.”

So what effect did this message have on the shepherds? What did it mean for them that God had sent a savior for them? They went around telling everyone what God had done. They shared it ‘abroad,’ everywhere! People everywhere where amazed. Maybe you can even imagine what they said. “The Savior of the world has come! He has come for us! He has come for you!” Notice how it doesn’t say that the shepherds shared their story with only other shepherds. They shared it with everyone, regardless of social class and status. They may have returned to their sheep, they may have returned to their regular jobs, but they were completely changed. The angels message that first filled them with fear now filled them with joy. That joy overflowed all around them. I can’t imagine the fields around Bethlehem being quite the same ever again.

Have we been changed like the shepherds were? Is our joy in Christmas wrapped up in the gift exchange, the lights and carols? Or do we shout out with joy that a Savior has been born for us. Will we return to our work places the same as we were before, or will we announce to everyone the Good News, like the shepherds did?

Joy to the world the Lord is come! Shout it out loud. Sing it to the rafters. Remember what it means that ‘God and sinners are reconciled.’ Glorify God for what you have seen and heard on this day. This Christmas day when God announces to shepherds and to you that Jesus is born… for you. Amen.

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