â€œFear not!â€ said he, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind.
â€œGlad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind
To you and all mankind.
â€œTo you, in Davidâ€™s town, this day
Is born of Davidâ€™s line
A Savior, who is Christ the Lord,
And this shall be the sign,
And this shall be the sign.
â€œThe heavenly Babe you there shall find
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swathing bands,
And in a manger laid,
And in a manger laid.â€
Thus spake the seraph and forthwith
Appeared a shining throng
Of angels praising God on high,
Who thus addressed their song,
Who thus addressed their song:
“All glory be to God on high,
And to the Earth be peace;
Good will henceforth from Heaven to men
Begin and never cease,
Begin and never cease!”
We sang this carol in church this morning, and I started thinking about the shepherds. Seeing the angels and the baby and hearing the promise of a saviour was probably the pivotal event of their lives. I doubt if anything so exciting and awe-inspiring had ever happened to them before, nor probably would it again. The Bible says that after seeing the baby the shepherds “returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.”
And then? The shepherds went home or back to the fields to check on the sheep. They told some people, family and friends, what they had seen and experienced. Some people believed them; others thought they were drunk or participants in a mass hallucination of insane proportions. And then? Nothing. Nothing else happened. The angels promised that a Saviour had been born, The Annointed One (Christ), Adonai (the Lord). They sang about God’s favor resting on men. But after all the hoopla was over with, what really happened? Nothing happened . . . for thirty years. (Other than a massacre of young boys —Matthew 2:16-18— hardly a sign of God’s favor!) The baby and his parents left Bethlehem, and the shepherds went back to their sheep.
We can read what happened next in the next few chapters of Luke or Matthew and get the impression that the angels said it and God immediately did it. But there were approximately thirty years between the birth of Jesus and the beginning of his ministry. The shepherds were all grown men with beards by the time they heard anything about that baby, now a grown man too, and some of them probably died while waiting for the fulfillment of the angels’ promise. The Romans still ruled; the tax collectors still collected the taxes; the Law was still an impossible burden to fulfill.
Isn’t that the way it is for us, too? We experience an epiphany, a connection with God himself. We get a message or a promise. We glorify and praise God for the great things He has done. And then . . . . nothing. It’s back to the sheep, back to the laundry, back to the quotidian tasks of an average life. We thought everything would be different now, after such an experience, but it all looks and feels about the same. Maybe our responses to situations are different, but hardly anyone notices. And as time goes on, we can feel ourselves settling back into the familiar patterns of daily life, wondering if anything that spectacular really did happen. Maybe we did just imagine it all.
But the angels were real. The baby was a real baby who grew into a real Saviour, Christ the Lord. Yes, things didn’t look much different after the birth of the Christ Child, but underneath the surface everything had changed. We live in the waiting time, between the promise and the fulfillment. And the time between Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of the story feels like a long wait. We’re tempted to doubt the Word, even to despair in the face of continued evil and suffering and waiting. But the Bible says, “Don’t give up!” “Unto us a Child is born, and unto us a Son is given.”
Advent has been a time of waiting for the coming of the Christ Child, and each year we reenact that time of preparation. Then Christmas comes, and what’s really changed? The world revolves, and we go on waiting. It’s tempting to give up, to think that God’s promises will be held in abeyance forever. But even if death overtakes each one of us before the Time is fulfilled and Evil is defeated forever, it’s only the time between the ending of one chapter and the beginning of the next. Such a short time really.
1 Peter 1:3-8: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fadeâ€”kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faithâ€”of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fireâ€”may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Merry Christmas to all pass through here as you wait on the revelation of the promise of God. May your New Year be filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy even as you wait and hope for the final goal of peace on earth, good will to men on whom God’s favor rests!
Reposted from Christmas, 2006.