LIGHTING THE CANDLE
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find the child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
Wow! It’s Christmas! Is there anything harder for a child to wait for than Christmas? There are children all over the world, and a lot of adults too, thrilled that Christmas is finally here. Even through some difficult times we have counted down the days of Advent looking forward to this day.
Centuries ago people also waited eagerly for Christmas, the first one. They waited four hundred years from when the last prophet foretold Messiah’s coming: “the sun of righteousness shall rise” (Malachi 4:2). They waited out the long night of darkness until God’s Sun rose on God’s new day.
Today’s scripture tells of when lowly shepherds worked the night shift, keeping watch over their sheep. Literally, the Greek text says they were “keeping the watches of the night.” Those words imply there were several shepherds who, by turn, watched their sheep through the night. Some shepherds guarded the sheep for one watch, and some another, while others slept. They likely camped in tents or in a structure built long ago for shepherds near Bethlehem. That structure was called “Tower of the Flock”, or, Migdal Eder (Genesis 35:19-21; Micah 4:8), built near the birthplace of Messiah (Micah 5:2).
God’s faithful had long believed Messiah would come in the middle of the night, just as God’s Passover redemption from Egypt came in the middle of the night (Exodus 12:12). Just as the Jewish day began at sunset, so believers learned to look for God to act in the darkness of night. It was at night, through His Shekinah Glory, God delivered the Israelites through the Red Sea as if “on dry ground” (Exodus 14:16). God used Gideon to defeat the Midianites in the middle of the night (Judges 7:19-24). Peter walked on water in the middle of the night (Matthew 14:25-26). Jesus rose from the dead in the middle of the night (Matthew 28:1). He is the Bridegroom who will come for His Bride in the middle of the night (Matthew 25:1-13). God does some awesome things in the middle of the night!
It is in the middle of the night that God often calls and commands His people (1 Samuel 3:1-10; 1 Kings 3:5-9; Acts 16:9). The middle of the night was regarded as favorable for meditation and prayer (Psalm 63:6; 119:62; Acts 16:25). Perhaps during those nights when we cannot sleep, God is waking us and wanting to talk.
We are not surprised that it was at night that the angel of the Lord stood before the shepherds, “and the glory of the Lord shone around them.” This is the same glorious manifestation of God’s presence that filled the Tabernacle and Temple (Exodus 40:34; 1 Kings 8:10-11; Isaiah 6:1-2), then departed the Temple, thus foretelling its destruction. For the first time in six hundred years, it is that glory of God now revealed to lowly shepherds. God’s glory is not revealed to priests ministering in Jerusalem’s Temple, or to King Herod, or even to the Emperor, but to men poor in life station and spirit.
The angel gives to the startled shepherds a sign necessary for recognizing the newborn Messiah: “you will find the child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” No one could have imagined the Mighty God and Prince of Peace lying in a feeding trough for cattle. The angel is preparing the shepherds for seeing the Savior of the world in breathtaking humility and selfless love.
Middle Eastern scholar Kenneth Bailey helps us to understand how the shepherds would have experienced that first Christmas:
From their point of view, if the child was truly the Messiah, the parents would reject the shepherds if they tried to visit him! How could shepherds be convinced to expect a welcome? The angels anticipated this anxiety and told the shepherds they would find the baby wrapped (which was what peasants, like shepherds, did with their newly born children). Furthermore, they were told he was lying in a manger. That is, they would find the Christ child in an ordinary peasant home such as theirs. He was not in a governor’s mansion or a wealthy merchant’s guest room but in a simple two-room home like theirs. This was really good news. Perhaps they would not be told, “Unclean shepherds – be gone!” This was their sign, a sign for lowly shepherds.”Kenneth Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes
This is the wondrous good news of Christmas Day! The Child born for the likes of lowly shepherds is born for you and me. He is the Sun of Righteousness bringing light to the darkness. He is God’s one true Light shining on us today! This is the day! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!
PALMS DOWN/PALMS UP
Oh Lord, we do rejoice in this day! We celebrate family, friends, neighbors, and our fellow citizens. We give thanks that life is good and always worth celebrating. We so delight in the memories and traditions passed down to us. We remember before you our soldiers, police, first responders, and health care workers who labor this day while we rest. Most of all we thank you for so loving us that you gave your only Son. Brighten our lives today with the bright light of Jesus. May others see Him shining through us until that Day dawns and the Morning Star rises. Amen.