“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.”
In a dazzling moment on a dark field outside of Bethlehem, the announcement first came to a group of shepherds: the news that the world had irrevocably changed. Before this moment became known as “Before Christ”, or B.C. After this moment became known as the Year of Our Lord, in Latin Anno Domini, or A.D. History was forever split into two: the moment before God had a face that we could look into, and after.
Tonight we stand witness to something amazing. Tonight we are invited back into one of the most amazing and beautiful moments of all time. Tonight we are given the words “Do not be afraid”, and we are invited to make them our own, to come with the shepherds, to leave everything behind, and to look into the manger, to look directly into the face of God.
This story is a story of scandal, of outcasts and refugees, of the divide between rich and poor being leveled, and ultimately, of being invited to meet God.
And whether you are here tonight because church is a nice thing to do at Christmas, a family tradition; or because you grow tired of the world’s glitz and glamour and false promises, and are looking for something deeper; or because you have already drunk deeply of the wonder of knowing God and are hungry to know him better: this invitation to leave everything behind and to come on a journey is not just for the shepherds but for every single person here tonight.
“The angel said to the shepherds, ‘To you has been born this day’”, and with those words the status quo, the way the world worked, began to shatter. In these few words already rests good news for the shepherds, the good news that the Lord that is lying in that manger right now is not just for the privileged few, or the wealthy, or the elite. In choosing shepherds to be the very first people to meet God as a human, a message was being sent loud and clear that would ring out over all time: this is good news for all people, regardless of status, denomination, education, or culture. Shepherds lead the way so that everyone can come to meet Jesus.
Shepherds, after all, were the absolute lowest class of Jewish society. They were ritually unclean because of spending time with animals, and unable to enter the temple to worship. They were assumed to be thieves and trespassers without an honest bone in their body. They weren’t even legally allowed to give evidence in court. And yet God chose them – this uneducated, ragtag, dubious set of witnesses – to give the most important birth announcement of all time.
It’s not surprising that the shepherds were terrified, to begin with. Angels – God’s celestial messengers – were so frightening in appearance that almost everyone to whom they appeared in the Bible cowered in fear. The first words that these messengers inevitably had to say was “Don’t be afraid!!” – or in essence, “I come in peace! I’m not here to kill you!”
But there was something deeper behind the angel’s reassurance to not be afraid that night. These lowly shepherds were being invited into a company that they wouldn’t normally keep – that in fact, no one had ever kept – they were being invited into the presence of God himself. In all of the history of the Jewish people, there was one fact that that was well known – that the presence of God was not for the faint of heart. When the Israelite people gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai and the glory of the Lord covered the mountain, they trembled and only Moses dared to even draw near to God. When the tabernacle and then the temple were established, only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place to meet with God, and then only once a year, after intense purification. Even then he wore bells to show that he was still alive, and a rope around his ankle, so that if he was struck dead in the presence of God he could be dragged out.
The presence of God was something yearned for and yet feared. “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” the Psalmist cried out, and yet the people knew that to see God was to risk death.
The shepherds were being asked to take a huge risk that night – to risk leaving their sheep to the dangers of the night, to risk entering a town where they might be vilified, but most of all to risk coming into the presence of the Christ, the Messiah. And although they didn’t yet know that the Messiah was God, still they knew that this was not the company they would normally be allowed to keep. And so the angel’s words were doubly important: “Do not be afraid! This is good news of great joy, for everyone – including you!”
And thanks to the angel’s words, they found the courage to leave their fields and their sheep, and go in search of the Saviour. “So they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.” They found the Presence of God, “veiled in flesh” as the carol goes, so that humanity could the Godhead see.
We too are being asked to take a risk tonight.
This beautiful passage from Luke is an old, familiar story – one that is told again every year at this time. Its words may be so familiar, in fact, that they just wash over you comfortably – part of the tradition, part of the magic of the evening, but maybe something to be left behind on Boxing Day, to be packed up with the Christmas decorations and put away until next December along with the manger scene and the baby Jesus.
But the invitation, and the risk, that was extended to the shepherds that night wasn’t just for them, or even for all people of first century Palestine. The angel’s message is to us as well. It is an invitation to join in this journey, not just to the manger, to look at a cute baby at Christmas, but into the very presence of God. It’s an invitation to risk being seen, and being transformed. To come as we are, to be vulnerable, to allow that look into the manger and into the face of God to transform our lives. It’s an invitation to not turn away from the manger and put this story out of sight again, but to stay, to admit that we are hungering for something more than this world has to give, and accept that the good news for the shepherds is our good news too: that Jesus was born that day as our Saviour, that he lives and still ushers us into the loving presence of God. It’s an invitation to be transformed into the person we were always meant to be, shaped in the image of God. It’s an invitation to become in turn a messenger of God’s love and peace to an angry, conflicted, hurting world.
The shepherds were invited just as they were – unwashed, unkempt, scruffy and unshaven – and they dared to come and to be transformed by what they found. They left that manger different than they arrived. The first thing they did after leaving the stable that night was “to make known what had been told them about this child.” No longer afraid, they themselves became messengers of the good news to others, proclaiming as the angel proclaimed to them: “to us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is our Messiah, our Lord!”
This is journey to the manger is not for the faint of heart. Meeting Jesus and choosing to follow him means letting him be in control of your life, and that can lead very hard places. The road for Jesus led from the cradle to the cross. But it is also the journey of the greatest joy and fulfilment you will ever know, because it is the journey we were born to make. Any other road leads away from our purpose and our truest joy. And best of all we make this journey in the company of our Lord and our brothers and sisters in Christ, a great multitude of believers across all the world and over every century, with these shepherds leading the way.
In a few minutes we will be invited up to the table of the Lord, to receive the bread and the wine, or a blessing. And as you come I invite you to picture it as your journey with the shepherds, coming to meet the Lord, and being transformed by his presence. Come, meet this baby who is not just a baby. Meet the Lord of Glory, the Messiah, the Christ. Let the angel’s message “Do not be afraid” give you the courage to look into the face of God, to be seen and known and loved for who you are, and to be transformed.
“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.”
Oh come, let us worship.
Blessed are you, O Christmas Christ, that your cradle was so low that the shepherds, poorest and simplest of all earthly folk, could yet kneel beside it, and look level-eyed into the face of God. We praise you for we, too, are welcome in your presence, and we ask you to give us the courage to follow you from the cradle to the cross and into your glory. In your holy name we pray, Amen.