Today marks the third Sunday of Advent, a time of Christian preparation to celebrate the birth of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ, the Messiah.
One way we have prepared to celebrate Jesus’ birth is to adorn and decorate the sanctuary of the church with many symbols of Christ’s birth. We have spoken in prior weeks about the Advent Wreath and its candles and about the nativity scenes of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. This week, I would like to highlight that we also prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth by bringing Christmas trees into the sanctuary.
Did you know that the use of evergreens and evergreen trees in the celebration of Christmas came originally from the Scandinavian countries? In those regions, people put evergreens on the outside of their houses and barns to keep the devil away. Who knew the devil did not like the scent of freshly cut pine?
People in Germany liked what the Scandinavians were doing and so they began bringing an evergreen tree into the house and placing it at entrance to the home. Again, the idea was the fresh cut tree would keep the devil out of the house. Did you know that people in medieval Germany began a tradition of using evergreen trees, fir trees to be precise, in theatrical plays to celebrate the coming of Christ? They referred to these trees as “Paradise Trees” and used them in plays about Adam and Eve. I could not locate a source that showed how the feast of Adam and Eve connected to Christ’s birth. But folks adorned the Paradise Trees with apples. They would later hang wafers on the trees as a reminder of the communion hosts used in Mass. Sometime later they removed the wafers and hung cookies instead. Those folks were probably early Baptists.
In addition to the Paradise Tree, people celebrated with a Christmas Pyramid of sorts. The pyramid was hung on the wall, in a triangular shape, consisting of evergreens, candles, and a star. Eventually the Christmas Pyramid and the Paradise Tree were incorporated into one which we know as the Christmas Tree.
Now that is probably more than you wanted to know about Christmas trees. But discovering what we do not know is part of our Christmas preparation. This year we began exploring Jesus’ birth with the question Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know that in consenting to God’s plan you risked everything people hold dear in this world and gained not just a son, but a Savior and Lord giving you and us eternal life? Last week, we explored Jesus’ birth by the question, Joseph, did you know? Joseph, did you know that Jesus would take the provision of bread and juice that you gave to him as his earthly father and change them into powerful symbols of his body and blood, signs of a love so strong that he would die to bring salvation to all who would follow him? This week we want to ask Shepherds, did you know? Shepherds did you know what had truly happened that night in Bethlehem?
There is only one source for shepherds’ first Christmas experience, and it is found in the Gospel of Luke. The Gospel of Luke was the last of the stories written about Jesus’ birth in which the writer relied upon people who were there at the time. It is widely believed among Biblical scholars that Mary was the source of Luke’s information for his gospel account of Jesus’ birth.
In the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Luke recorded that at the time of Jesus’ birth, “8 There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby [near Bethlehem where Jesus had been born], keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them [the shepherds], and the glory of the Lord shone around them [the shepherds], and they [the shepherds] were terrified” (Luke 2:8-9).
The appearance of the angel to the shepherds is the fourth and final appearance of an angel in the birth of Jesus. An angel appeared to Zechariah while Zechariah was alone in the Temple. The angel announced that Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth would have a child, John, who would go ahead of Jesus to prepare the people to hear Jesus’ message. An angel appeared to Mary to announce in private she had found favor with God and that God desired Mary to bear the son of God. An angel appeared to Joseph in the privacy of his dreams to let Joseph know that the child Mary was carrying was from the Holy Spirit. Now, in the Gospel of Luke, the angel comes to the shepherds to announce Jesus has been born.
How many shepherds received the announcement we are not sure. We only know the angel’s announcement to the shepherds came at night. Why at night? I believe it was to make the announcement privately.
This tells us something about God. God the creator of all that there is uses a small voice to speak to us. In the Old Testament, a man named Elijah sought out God to speak with him. Elijah was in a cave atop a mountain. “11 The Lord said Elijah, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it [the gentle whisper], he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice [God] said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” (1 Kings 9:11-13). God’s voice was but a private whisper to Elijah.
God uses a small voice, a private voice, when he speaks. He spoke that way to Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Samuel. God spoke through an angel using a private voice to Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds. We then should expect to use a small voice, a private voice when he speaks to you and me. Part of our Christmas preparation then should be to make place or find a place where we can hear God’s use of his small private voice with us. We need to hear what God is saying to us in our unique circumstances.
Think about God’s way of communicating with us this way. In the first Christmas story of the Bible, the Apostle Paul wrote, “ 4 But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. 6 Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child” (Galatians 4:4-7). Children, especially infants, can give us insight into how God communicates with us. Have you ever seen an infant react when they hear the voice of their mother? When an infant hears mom, that baby’s face lights up and their spirit soars with joy. This is how God wants us to react when he speaks to us, full of wonder, awe, and love. So, it is important that we do not allow other loud other voices to keep us from hearing what God wants to say to us in the quiet and private moments.
From our Bible passage today, we find that the angel came to the shepherds at night out in the fields. While others slept and the world was quiet, the angel came to the shepherds so that they could hear a message from God meant just for them. The angel said, “10 ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David [Bethlehem] a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger’” (Luke 2:10-12).
The angel’s words formed the most unique birth announcement. “Born in Bethlehem, today, a baby boy. He is Savior, the Messiah, and the Lord.”
Did the Shepherds know what the angel meant when told a Savior had been born? A savior is a person who rescues others from evil, danger, or destruction. To the Jews of Jesus’ time, God was considered their savior. “There is no other God besides Me, a just God and a Savior” (Isaiah 45:21).
Did the Shepherds know what the angel meant when told the Messiah had been born? The Messiah was the one anointed by God and empowered by God’s Holy Spirit to deliver God’s people and establish God’s kingdom. In Jewish thought, the Messiah would be the king of the Jews, a political leader who would defeat their enemies and bring in a golden era of peace and prosperity.
Did the Shepherds know what the angel meant when told the Lord had been born? The Lord was God. To the Jewish people, the name of the Lord was so sacred that they would not even say it aloud but used a substitute word, Adonai, when speaking of the Lord.
The Shepherds must have been overwhelmed. A baby had been born. A boy who was the God the Savior, the Messiah who embodied God’s spirit, and my Lord, Adonai. The angel standing before the shepherds was heaven on earth telling these shepherds that this baby boy was heaven on earth sent to save them.
Not only that but a sign as to the truth of this happening had been given to the shepherds. Was that sign of heaven on earth to be a great and powerful wind tearing apart and shattering rocks? No. Was it then to be an earthquake shaking everything at its foundation? No. Was it then to be found in a great fire of intense heat and light? No. The sign was more like a gentle whisper. The sign of heaven on earth was a baby. A baby wrapped in swaddling cloth, strips of cloth much like narrow bandages wrapped around the newborn baby to restrict movement. Swaddling cloths mark parental love and care and the dependence of the newborn child. This is not exactly the powerful sign of God that the shepherds might have expect but, again, God speaks quietly to people.
The shepherds must have thought, “What on heaven and earth is going on here? The all-powerful heavenly creator God savior, messiah, and lord, had been born and was wrapped so he could not move and placed in a manger, an animal feeding trough.”
The angel then revealed to the shepherds that he had not come alone. The angel allowed the shepherds to realize that this baby coming was truly an invasion of heaven onto earth. Luke wrote, “13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host [an army of angels] appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests’” (Luke 2:13-14). The invasion of heaven on earth with the angel, the army of angels behind him, and this baby meant the invasion was not war-like, it was an invasion of peace to roll back evil. But the angel said that such peace would be only for those who willingly sought God meaning some will seek God, which meant others will resist God. Some will find peace, and some will live in turmoil. Some will be saved, and some will be lost.
These shepherds stunned by all that had been told them said to one another, “‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ 16 So they hurried off [to Bethlehem] and [searched until they] found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was [indeed] lying in the manger” (Luke 2:15b-16). The shepherds, how many of them we do not know, made the journey to Bethlehem. On the way, they moved quickly and quietly. The shepherds did not share what the angel told them with anyone along the way to Bethlehem. The shepherds simply moved as quickly as they could to find the sign that the angel’s words were true.
Luke said, “17 When they [the shepherds] had seen him [Jesus in the manger – the sign], they [the shepherds] spread the word concerning what had been told them [by the angel] about this child [Savior, The Messiah, and the LORD], 18 and all who heard it [what the shepherds heard from the angel] were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (Luke 2:17-18).
The shepherds message amazed those now in and around the baby, whoever those people were. Not only was what the shepherd said amazing, namely the baby boy was Savior, the Messiah, and the Lord but also that the Shepherds had received this word from God. In the society of that day, shepherds were not well respected. In fact, shepherds were disqualified from giving testimony in legal matters. Shepherds were very much a whisper of a voice in Jewish society. This part of the story teaches us that it is not the witness that brings power to the story of God, it is God who empowers the witness to speak the story. We must be attentive to those God empowers to speak a word of truth even if it someone who is not held in high regard.
Luke said that after the shepherds shared the word of God with those in Bethlehem, “20 The shepherds returned [to living in the fields], 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 call placed on the shepherds was not to be afraid but to receive the message from God in great joy. On the return trip, the shepherds were joyful and could not be kept quiet because they had received and shared the true word of God.
How do we sum up what we have learned from the shepherds? I think there are three things we can take with us today.
First, God spoke to the shepherds in the quiet of the night. Did you know that God is still speaks to us today? If we are quiet, we can hear God. We need to quiet our surroundings and our hearts enough to hear God because God most often speaks in a whisper. That whisper might be as just as you and I speak in a whisper. That whisper may be our own voices as we gently read aloud God’s Word from the Bible. That whisper may be small voice of a child, a friend, or a stranger who says to us in our moments of despair, “God loves you.” We need to be able to hear God speak.
Second, God spoke to the shepherd who were thought to be unqualified to testify in court. The shepherds did not let what others thought keep them from sharing what the angel had said of Jesus’ birth. In sharing the shepherds’ initial fear was transformed to an everlasting joy. Did you know that the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection from the grave were women who also were not qualified to testify in court? The women did not let what others thought keep them from sharing what the angel said of Jesus’ rebirth in the resurrection. In sharing the women’s initial fear was transformed to an everlasting joy. We need to not care so much about what others think of us as we live out our faith. We should share our faith with joy.
It is the joy of Jesus’ Christ that brings us to our third lesson learned from the shepherds. The shepherds were not qualified to give testimony that is true enough and that status did not change. But more importantly, because of sin, the shepherds were not qualified to be come into God presence and neither are we. Sin separated the shepherds from God just as sin separates us from God. This separation occurs even though God wants us in his presence. God wants us in his presence not for his benefit, but for our benefit. Outside of God’s presence there is evil, danger, and destruction of our souls.
To come into God’s presence, God needed to send a Savior, a rescuer. To live the life now in God’s presence, God needed to send a Messiah, to share with us God’s Holy Spirit. To live life forever with God, God needed to send the king of heaven and of earth, the Lord. We are not qualified to be in God’s presence without the Savior, the Messiah, and the Lord. This is why God sent Jesus to be Savior, Messiah, and Lord. It is Jesus who qualifies us to be in God’s presence.
Do you know Jesus as your Savior, as the Messiah, and as the Lord of your life? If you are afraid that you do not know the babe in the manger this way, listen carefully. God is speaking to you right now in a gentle whisper saying, “Follow my Son, and this will be a sign to you. He is the one who died for you on the cross for you. His name is Jesus, and he will transform your fear into overwhelming joy.” May we all be like the shepherds qualified by Jesus to be in God’s presence and able to share with joy the birth, life, death, resurrection, and eventual return of Jesus the Savior, Messiah, and Lord. Amen and Amen.