Dec. 12, 2011
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
One of the interesting facts of the Christmas story is that most people know the story to some level. Whether a person attends church on a regular basis or not, whether you grew up in a Christian family or not, you know some of the story’s basics.
What are those basics? Probably something like a man and woman named Joseph and Mary had to travel to this obscure little town calledBethlehem. For some reason, the little town is busy with lots of out-of-town visitors; so busy, Mary and Joseph can’t find a place to stay. It’s time for Mary to give birth and they haven’t found a place to stay. Some kind soul lets them into a stable (or a cave) and she has the baby there. With no cradle, she lays the baby in a feed trough. Angels tell some nearby shepherds about the baby and they go and visit him.
That’s the story. Or so we think.
One of the problems with the story is because we live 2,000 years later, we often think of our culture and our situation and try to impose our culture and situations into the story rather than understanding the culture of the time when Jesus was born. I’ve shared a couple of these things already: how Mary could have been stoned to death for becoming pregnant as an unwed teen, that the stable was more likely a cave, etc. There are lots of innuendos in the story which I hope to explore the in days coming up to Christmas which might help us understand all that is really going on in the story.
While a basic reading and knowledge of the story is important, what the Christmas story beckons us to do is to try and place ourselves in the story and look at it from various vantage points. If you have a 12-15 year-old daughter or granddaughter (or had one or will have one or a niece), imagine this girl getting pregnant and how you’d react when she says, “The Holy Spirit did it.” How could a loyal, faithful Hebrew man who just wants to get married and have the traditional Hebrew family deal with a fiancé who isn’t making sense?
What about the shepherds? It was the middle of the night. It was probably cold. In those days, shepherds moved their sheep from location to location, looking for food and water. The hillsides aroundBethlehemaren’t green and lush. They are more like a dessert. Water isn’t abundant. Being a shepherd is a hard, thankless job. It certainly wasn’t very high paying. As the shepherds took shifts being with the sheep all night, at some point, an angel, a heavenly host appeared to them. Who wouldn’t have been afraid if the sky went from calm and dark to bright and scary? The angel gave them specific instructions: go into town and find the Messiah. He won’t be hard to find. He’s the baby lying in a feeding trough with a few strips of cloth wrapped around his tiny baby. That’s all his momma could find.
Off the shepherds go. Imagine poking around Bethlehem until they found the right cave. They didn’t have a star to guide them like the wise men would. But they found the babe, his Mom and Dad, all doing fine. When they left, they were so excited they couldn’t help but tell everyone!
Now, if you had just given birth to a baby, would you want as the baby’s first visitors some stinky, smelly shepherds from the neighboring hillsides? They may not have showered in a week, their clothes filled with dust and torn by briars. Unkempt beards and dirty fingers grazing over your new baby’s skin?
But this is who showed up, as planned by God. It’s hard for us to understand why God specifically chose shepherds. The symbolism is huge. Remember the first words of Psalm 23? “The Lord is my shepherd …” Jesus’ first assigned job will be to be our shepherd, represented by his first visitors. No job will be too great for Jesus. No challenge too difficult. Being a tough-as-nails shepherd will define his life over and over.
Last night wasMidland’s “Live Nativity.” We had a few challenges with the lighting. I forgot at rehearsal on Saturday when we ran through everything in the daylight that the house lights – the lights in the barn – need to be on a separate control from the lights in the back of the barn where the narrators read. All was fine until I turned down the lights in the barn and the readers lost their reading lights. We scrambled with flashlights. Matt, our innkeeper who also was a shepherd, kept unplugging and plugging in the right cords until we finally got it situated.
Mary and Joseph were in the front, on a raised platform. Baby Jesus had just been born. It was time for the shepherd scene. Three big shepherds (Dads) and four smaller shepherds with two cute little sheep started down the barn’s aisle. The pounding of their shepherd’s crooks echoed through the barn, as we heard about them watching over their sheep. Gabriel stepped out, they fell to the ground on cue. She announced the baby’s birth. And then seven little angels joined her. One of the Dad shepherds announces to the rest of his crew that they will go find the baby.
It didn’t take long for them to find the baby in our production. There’s only one possible place. So, the shepherds entered the “stable.” They touched baby Jesus and then stood behind them on the platform surrounded by hay bales. Sheep were in a pen on one side; goats on the other side. Being in the back and helping run the lights, I wasn’t sure what had happened when I heard a collective gasp come from the audience. By the time I saw what was happening, one of the Dad shepherds, Matt, was rescuing a little shepherd, Eddie, from the sheep pen. Apparently the hay bales had fallen backwards into the sheep pen and so had Eddie! Matt lifted Eddie back onto the platform, got himself back up and the show went on.
A few minutes later, Gabriel got her flock of little angels onto the platform. Eddie’s fall was momentarily forgotten when the barn lights were completely darkened, the little kids held tea lights and from the back of the barn, we heard a rendition of “This Little Light of Mine.” The tea lights danced in the dark as we heard the words. Christmas arrived in the barn last night; in the hearts of each of us who saw those lights dancing in the hands of little shepherds, sheep and angels. It’s a sight I hope to hold onto for a very long time.
After the production, I was talking with Gabriel about the flubs of the night. She and Mary were not quite sure what to do when our narrators were distracted while we were trying to get the light situation fixed. King Herod was upset with himself for forgetting a great line he’d added to the script. And of course, Eddie falling into the sheep won’t soon be forgotten. Eleanor, aka Gabriel, said to me, “Didn’t you just tell us a week ago, Dianne, that the first Christmas inBethlehemwasn’t perfect?”
It’s hard to hear your own words back sometimes. Generally, when someone does this, I get excited because that means a) someone was actually listening; and b) they are getting it. What made me think that our little production of the story would be perfect when it wasn’t perfect the first time around?
Every time we hear or read or see the Christmas story, it should be a little different. We should note a new detail or word or nuance we haven’t observed before. Maybe not having all the details in the Bible is OK because we can add our details which make it personal and meaningful for us. When the light of the world came into the world, it wasn’t perfect. Far be it for me to try and recreate something perfect either.
In case you’re wondering how Eddie is doing, he’s just fine. After the production, he rode the school bus back to the church with the rest of the folks from the barn. He burst into the church community room to tear off his costume before getting a hot dog and chili for supper. With his eyes dancing and excitement in his voice, he told Gloria, one of the women helping with the costumes, “Sign me up for next year!” I’m thinking it’s a rendition of the story he – and many others who were in attendance –won’t soon forget.
Let us pray: Be near us, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay, close by us forever, and love us I pray. Bless all your dear children and thy tender care. And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.