We're going to end this evening by singing 'While shepherds watched'. What a familiar carol that is! How many times have you sung that, would you say? 'Familiarity breeds contempt', they say. Well, perhaps not contempt in this case. Anyone who's ready to come out on the Sunday evening after Christmas is very far from regarding the events of that first Christmas night with contempt. 'Familiarity breeds the taking of familiar things for granted'. That's less pithy, but just as true. When you came in here earlier, did it occur to you to marvel at the electric lights? What a danger there is that we take blessings for granted until we lose them.
I was in Kenya for a few days last month with Ben Cadoux-Hudson. We were leading a teaching workshop for the clergy of Kirinyaga Diocese. We've been linked with them for over thirty years. Because it's close to the equator, sunset is at 6.30 every evening all year round. So the evening's are dark. And one evening we really did spend mostly in darkness. The only light we had was from the candles and torches that we managed to rustle up between us. There was an unexpected blackout. When the lights eventually came back on, I had a renewed sense of wonder and gratitude when I flicked the switch and the room was flooded with light.
We need continually to renew our sense of wonder at what happened on that first Christmas night. We mustn't let familiarity breed the taking of those events for granted. Would you please turn in the bibles in the pews to Luke 2:8-20 – the familiar account of the shepherds and the angels. Five things happen that I would like us to see and react to this evening. They're summed up on the outline that's on the back page of the service sheet. The first thing that happens is this:
1. God's Glory is Revealed (verses 8-14)
The girl Mary has just given birth to a baby boy. Whether Joseph waited outside the barn door or dabbed Mary's forehead with a soothing damp flannel isn't recorded. No doubt as far as possible they cleaned the baby up and cleared up the inevitable mess. Then Mary wrapped up the boy and laid him in the hay that was intended as fodder for the animals, not as a cot for a king. Then the scene changes, and we are taken to the dark, outlying country. Verse 8:
"And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night."
The striking thing about that is just how ordinary it is. It's the same for us. The good news of great joy comes to us in the course of our ordinary lives. We'll be going back later this evening to our ordinary homes and getting on with our ordinary lives. They were plain shepherds. We are plain men and women. But because of Christmas our lives have been shot through with glory.
"And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear."
Angels exist. That's such an obvious deduction from this account. But we spend our days in a world that thinks that what-you-see-is-what-you-get. We need to be reminded that our vision at best is only three dimensional. There is more. Forget the Christmas card images. The shepherds were scared by what they saw. I think of the lesson that was taught to the servant of the prophet Elisha when they were under attack by an impressive and hostile military force. 2 Kings 6:15 takes up the story:
"When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all round the city. And the servant said, 'Alas, my master! What shall we do?' He said, 'Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.' Then Elisha prayed and said, 'O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.' So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all round Elisha."
I wonder what we would see in the course of an ordinary day if our eyes were opened to see all that goes on in all dimensions. This is not science fiction or fantasy. This is reality.
And the glory of God shone. When the prophet Ezekiel saw only "the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord", he fell on his face. It was Ezekiel who saw the glory of God leave from the Jerusalem temple – a departure that heralded terrible judgement. It was Ezekiel who was shown the future, when the glory of God would return amongst his people. And now the glory shines around the shepherds. No wonder they were scared.
It must have been a bit like waking from a very vivid nightmare. Has it happened to you that you wake and at first you think that the fearful things you've just lived in your dreams are true? The worst has happened. Despair. But then the truth dawns. All is well! Horror gives way to relief and joy.
The shepherds' terror gave way to joy as they heard the angel's message and the truth dawned that this aweful visitation was not a warning of impending dreadful judgement, but a heralding of salvation.
"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 Saviour, who is Christ the Lord."
What should our response be? That great army of angels makes it clear:
"Glory to God in the highest …"
Give glory to the God of glory. Give glory where glory is due. God's glory is revealed. That's the first thing that happens. What's next? Secondly:
2. God's Saviour is Seen (verses 15-16)
"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."
What a vivid picture of faith their response is. They believe God's word, which has come to them through God's messengers. They haven't seen the birth, but they know it's taken place. Why? Because God has told them! They have the assurance of living faith that God has acted according to his word. And they go to Jesus. And there he is. A tiny baby boy.
It's easy for us to think, 'If only that had been me! How much more faithful I would be in my discipleship if I had been able to see Christ with my own eyes as those privileged shepherds did.' But there's nothing in the account to suggest that he looked anything other than ordinary. It wasn't their eyes that told them this was the Messiah, the King of Kings who would reign for ever, the Saviour of the world. It was faith. They took God at his word.
And the fact is that as they looked at that ordinary little bundle, they were seeing God's glory in the face of a baby far more clearly than they had seen it earlier on the hillside in all the majesty of the angel army. This wasn't the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God that made Ezekiel fall flat. This baby was God himself.
Just as the shepherds were told, so we have been told. We see Jesus too – not by sight, but by faith. They saw him with their eyes. But they knew him by faith. We do not see him with our eyes. But we too know him by faith, just as surely as they did. Indeed in many respects we're far more privileged than they were on that first night. That night set an earth-shattering train of events in motion, and by faith in the word of God we have seen it all unfolded before us. They only had the preview. We've seen the outcome.
Our reaction? Keep our eyes on Jesus. That's what we should be doing. Keep taking God at his word. Keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. And what is the result of that kind of faith? Look at what happens next. Thirdly:
3. God's Word Is Spread (verses 17-18)
"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."
Faith in Christ overflows to others. It has to. The shepherds were no exception. What they knew to be the truth because they had believed the word that God had spoken to them, they had to tell others. Why? Why could they not hug this privileged secret to themselves and relish it in private?
Let me answer that by way of Charles Dickens. I'm a sucker for a good costume drama – especially Dickens at Christmas-time. Take Oliver Twist, for example. Mr Brownlow, Oliver's benefactor, has a pearl of wisdom which he brings out at critical moments. He says, "Some secrets should be kept. But some secrets should be given away."
The good news that a Saviour has been born to us is an open secret that has to be given away. It is a message "for all the people" the angel says. How could it be otherwise? And no conceivable priority could be higher than this priority of telling the world about Jesus.
What reaction did the shepherds get to what they had to say? "And all who heard it wondered …" A strong reaction is what they got. "Wondered" is an interesting word for Luke to use. Certainly it does indicate a strong reaction – they were full of wonder. But it leaves open the question of whether the reaction is one of faith or of unbelief. Jesus does evoke strong reactions. But they can either be of strong faith or of strong unbelief. Later in his Gospel, Luke speaks of the amazement that the teaching of Jesus generated. But that wonderment is often enough accompanied by rejection and a refusal by people to face up to the implications of what they've heard.
No doubt the shepherds got the same double response. Everyone was full of wonder. Some were believing. Some were locked fast in unbelief. It will always be so.
We are soon to enter another year. What is our collective priority for the life that lies ahead of us? There can only be one: to spread the word about Jesus.
Then the fourth thing that happens that night is this:
4. God's Plans are Pondered (verse 19)
It would be more accurate to say that this pondering began that night, because it certainly continued well beyond. Verse 19:
"But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart."
What are 'these things' that Mary treasured up? Of course it has to be all the things that had been said to her about this child that she bore. The words of Gabriel, God's messenger. The words of her cousin Elizabeth. The words of the shepherds. God's word was coming at her thick and fast. It was more than she could take in and digest in one go. What did it all mean? What were the implications of all this? The outgoing evangelism of excited shepherds is wonderfully balanced in Luke's account by the quiet contemplation of Mary.
She "treasures up" the word of God and her experience of encountering God. In other words she refuses to forget it. She refuses to push it aside and move on to other things, leaving the word of God to moulder in the dustbin of her life, discarded and unvalued. She actively remembers it. She deliberately keeps bringing it to mind. That enables her to keep thinking it all through. And it enables God by his Spirit to teach her, piece by piece and step by step, what it all means both for her and for the world.
It was to be a long hard road to understanding for Mary. Soon she would have another word to place in her jewellery box: the God-inspired word spoken by Simeon that as a result of all that was unfolding, a sword would pierce her soul. The gospel that Mary treasured up was good new of great joy. But it wasn't pain-free. It wasn't comfortable. She had to be ready for the suffering on the road to glory.
So it is for every Christian. The gospel makes heavy demands on us. In many ways it shatters the comfortable lives that we've got lined up for ourselves. The gospel is an earthquake in the heart. When we really take on board the implications of Christmas and all it leads to, all that we thought was fixed in our lives is shaken to the core. Our whole direction is changed. We are set on a course that is right against the flow of the world around us.
The pressures on Christians are great. They won't diminish in the years ahead of us. Glib evangelism and shallow professions of faith will not last the course. They will not withstand the refiner's fire.
Like Mary, we need to chew hard and long on the word of God. We need to meditate deeply on all that the birth of Jesus means for us and for the world around us. We need actively to keep bringing to mind all that God has said to us – soaking ourselves in the Scriptures; never taking for granted all that God has done; never growing careless about the gospel as if it were of little value to us any more, whatever it may have meant in the past.
"But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart."
Then finally, in Luke's account, one more thing happens:
5. God's Faithfulness is Praised (verse 20)
Look at verse 20:
"And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them."
That, of course, is the way it is with God. What he says he will do, he does. What he says he's done, he has done. His word is true. He keeps his promises. He is faithful. That's what the shepherds found. And their response was and is surely the right one. They glorified and praised God.
This evening, for the umpteenth time this Christmas season, let alone adding up all Christmases we've been through over the years, we're singing these familiar carols. Do we weary of it?
Whether we get tired of a tune is neither here nor there. But we should never tire of singing the praise of God. And we should be doing that not just with our voices but with the whole of our lives, rejoicing in God's faithfulness to us in Jesus. The whole of your life and mine should be one long Christ-centred, celebratory carol. Only then have we really understood what Christmas is all about.
So what happened on that wonderful night 2000 years ago? God revealed his glory in a baby boy. What is our reaction? Like the shepherds, we too should go to Jesus to see God's glory. Like the shepherds, we too should spread the word about Jesus. Like Mary, we should meditate deeply on all that the birth of Jesus means. And like the shepherds, we too should praise God for the faithful fulfilment of his promises.