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.”
Luke 2:15-16 +INPFSS+
On this very night, over twenty centuries ago – what happened?
Do you know? Have you heard? Do you believe?
I'll tell you what happened. Because it was unforgettable. Those who were there told it all around, and the recollection of it was recorded in the Holy Gospels, which the Church has faithfully preserved and handed down for these now two millenia.
What happened, is the chasm that lies between the dimensions of heaven and earth was bridged.
The Son of God, God himself, the creator of the heavens as well as the earth, came down from his place in the heavens, was conceived in the womb of a young woman named Mary, and on this night, he was born.
A child is born!
The God who made man, had now become man.
He who knits together every baby in every womb, was now himself, born of a human mother.
And the magnitude of this event – manifest on this night - shook the cosmos.
The highest power, the power beyond all power, the giver of all earthly power, descended from on high, giving up the glory of that power, and becoming its opposite: weak. Lowly. Dependent.
Dependent! God, dependent on the nurturing care of his holy mother, The virgin Mary.
And like a cannon-bomb into a pool, the very fabric of the world doesn't know what to do with itself.
God has descended, and in his wake, the Angels have followed, and are now being sent to proclaim things on earth. And the whole host of them is looking on.
Angels – those unseen beings who accomplish the ordering of God's will on earth, who effect the holding together of all things, they seem to be frankly astonished.
I think their chorus which we know so well from our Christmas hymns – you know Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased! wasn't a “ah yes, all is well, just as it should be” it was a “Oh my gosh?! WHAT??!! God has descended and become a man??? His ways are higher than our ways! GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST! Even if he is now in the lowest place! GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST! And why has he done this? Oh my gosh! To save the whole human race from death and sin??! What??! What a plan! Lucky humans!!! God must love them so much! He must be so pleased with who they can be if they are restored! And If they are rescued, then there will be peace on the earth at last! on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
At least, I think it probably sounded something like that, amid the hustle and bustle of the Angelic host on this night.
What happened on this night was no ordinary sequence of events. It was a cataclysm. A violent insurgence. Heaven and earth now intersected. Both realms now united in one single being: The God-man, the baby Jesus.
And where does this take place? We know a little of what happened, but where did it happen?
Here we have also something unexpected.
Let me ask you:
If the Queen of England comes to pay a visit to the United States, does she go to Washington DC, or Opelika?
When they wanted to build a national memorial to the victims of September 11th, did they do it on the site of the old towers, or in rural kansas?
Right. For the Jews, you'll recall, all their dealings with God were focused on the one temple in Jerusalem. The Holy City. That was where they worshipped the true God, and that was the seat of David's kingdom. So when the long awaited heir of King David came to earth, where do you think it would have “made sense” for him to come? Jerusalem! But Jesus wasn't born there. He was born in Bethlehem, the Opelika of Israel, if you will. A sizable city, to be sure, but hardly a place of central importance to the nation and to the people.
And who is there to see it? Who gets invited to witness the birth of the greatest human being, the eternal king of kings?
Dignitaries? The High Priests of the Temple? Regional leaders? Caesar?
Nope, none of these, right?
Who gets invited? The Shepherds. Shepherds on the night watch. Now, we think of the shepherds as friendly, hallmark-card sort of folk, but they were the minimum-wage workers of the 1st century. They were rough and grubby, and if you were to make a list of important people in Israel at the beginning of the first century, they would be just about at the very bottom of the list.
But that's who God invited, to be the first, honored guests to witness this tremendous day.??!!
But if you think about it, it's in keeping, really, with how topsy-turvy, how upside down everything about the first Christmas was to begin with. God...come to earth. The least “valuable” people in society being given the greatest honor of all. Angels speaking to men, about the good news that's here, that our lowly human nature had been taken into the Godhead, and therefore elevated above their own angelic nature.
It's all ups and downs and the downs are up and the Up is down.
It's the marvelous mystery of the Incarnation. The mystery that we remember, and celebrate this evening.
And look what these happenings mean for us.
The God who invited lowly shepherds to be in attendance on Christmas day invites us also. You didn't see Angels in the heavens announcing this feast to you, but somehow you decided to be here. How is that? Why do you think you've come to a little Church on a Saturday night? You may have thought it was your good idea, but it was the Spirit of God that led you here, and who knows, perhaps with a little help from the Angels, just as on that first Christmas.
But having been invited to behold the great mystery of Christmas, we must not respond with indolence.
No we must, like the shepherds, make haste to come and see him. That is, seeking to find the living God earnestly, with fear, and with humility, seeking to know him, and to be saved by him. No one ever found God by just spiritually lounging around.
But where can we find him? The baby Jesus, when he was fully grown was killed for our sakes, and was raised from the dead by the power of God, and now reigns eternally and invisibly with the Father. So, where do we go? What manger can we see him laying in, as the shepherd did so long ago?
Here. The feeding trough of Bethlehem has been transformed into the Holy Tables in Churches around the world. Where we still come to see him, sacramentally veiled under the forms of Bread and Wine. And Here, in the Bible, in the written word that shows us the living Word, who is now in heaven. This is also is a feeding trough, where hungry souls can be nourished, and where pilgrims keeping watch in the dark night that is the 21st century can come and behold him, born the King of Angels.
Of course, in both of these things, in Word and Sacrament, we see the Lord by faith and not with the eyes in our head, but how blessed are we for that! As our Lord himself said, John 20:29 – blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.
For ours is a deeper, richer, more satisfying reality, who do not have to rely on vision to know that our savior is in fact very near. In amongst us, as we pray. Present with us, in word and sacrament.
But what we now behold by faith only, we will one day behold with our eyes. For as I have preached now many times already from this pulpit during this Advent season, the Lord JESUS IS coming back to earth a second and final time, and we will see him with our eyes. Or if we die before that day, we will see him then instead. But either way, our faith WILL be made sight.
But let us not tarry now. Let us not think that we can be lackadaisical in our seeking Jesus now, but will all of a sudden be interested in his salvation when we come closer to our final breath.
No, let us make haste to see him now. Let us be hungry for a deeper relationship with Jesus, himself the living Bread from heaven, sent, for us to be nourished by.
And when we find him. When we know him in prayer, in the Word, or in the most holy sacrament of the altar, then let us respond as the shepherds did 2000 years ago:
Luke 2:20: the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.
That's the only response we should have to the wonder of the Incarnation: GLORIFYING and REJOICING. If we hear of this singular work of God tonight, and don't respond with praise and thanksgiving, it is a catastrophe.
The God who invited lowly shepherds to come worship at Christmas is inviting us also, right now, to do the same. You are here in body, which means you have come half way, but the invitation isn't fully accepted until we come to worship the Lord Jesus, in Spirit and in Truth.
That is – as we are about to continue this holy liturgy, for God's sake, if not for your own, don't just say the words you're supposed to say, because you're supposed to say them. Don't say them at all. Pray them. Make them yours. Whether you've heard these words a thousand times, or whether this is your first time praying the ancient liturgy: In your heart, through these words, cry out the the Living God, spirit to spirit, that you need him, and his mercy, and that you're thankful, that you have been spared a lifetime in spiritual blindness and an eternity in death, because of the work he began to do on this very night,
when he took on our human nature,
as one us.