Monday, December 24, 2012

The Terror of Christmas Eve

By Donald Sensing

It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God, whereas the world fell into trembling when Jesus Christ walked over the earth. That is why we find it so strange when we see the marks of God in the world so often together with the marks of human suffering.... We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God's coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God's coming should arouse in us. 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Luke 2:8-20

....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, "Fear not! 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 Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
....Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill to all people."
....When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us 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.
My name is Isaac. I was one of the shepherds on that first Christmas night, two thousand years ago. I had been a shepherd all my life. My father, Abraham, had also been a shepherd. There were five of us on the top of a low rise in the ground when the angels announced the Messiah to us. We were tending our sheep. We had brought together three flocks for the night. It was safer for the sheep for them to be brought together and easier for us to watch them. Three of us would keep watch while the other two got some sleep, taking turns, of course.

Just before darkness fell we made a makeshift pen for the sheep by setting out rope strung between stakes to make a broad circle. The sheep could have jump the rope or pushed through it, but sheep are fairly dumb animals and all had been raised from birth staying in pens like that at night. When a lamb is small you simply whack it if it tries to cross the rope. After a few whacks it will not try any more, even after it is grown.

So we built a fire near one side of the rope pen to give us light and warmth and we warmed some broth to sip. You might wonder how we planned to separate the sheep the next morning into their own flocks. After all, sheep all look alike. How could we tell one from another? Well, we couldn't tell them apart, but they could tell us apart. Come morning we would open a gap in the rope and Eleazar, the youngest of us and with the smallest flock, would stand outside the gap and call his sheep. Every shepherd has a distinctive voice and a unique call. When Eleazar's sheep heard his voice they would respond. A shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own he goes ahead of them and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger. Our sheep would remain inside the rope until we each called them.

Around us were the hills of Bethlehem. King David had been a shepherd in these same hills about a thousand years ago, so Bethlehem was nicknamed the "City of David." The grazing areas had been wilder in David's day. He had contended with wild bears and lions. We never faced those beasts but there were wolves and sheep rustlers, too. At night the wolves and the thieves liked to come out. So two of us would sleep while three of us stood watch: one standing close to the fire where thieves could see we were alert, and the other two walking quietly around the pen, armed with hefty staffs.

Halfway to midnight I had spent two shifts patrolling the perimeter of the sheep pen and it was my turn to stand by the fire. Then I would get some sleep. We would walk before we stood by the fire so we could go to bed warm. I stood with my back to the fire, scanning the sheep pen.

Occasionally in the starlight I caught a dim glimpse of Benjamin or Jacob walking their posts. All was normal. The heat from the fire behind me warmed me well, but it diminished as the wood burned. The flames began to flicker low. One reason for the fire was to show my silhouette standing guard, so I decided that when I saw the shadowy figure of Jacob reach the left side of the sheep pen I would put more wood on the fire.

Before Jacob reached that point I noticed the light from the fire began to increase, so I knew that either Gedalya or Penuel, sleeping behind me, had stirred enough to add some wood. I kept watching into the darkness.

Something was odd. The firelight had increased quite a bit now but there was no more warmth. If the fire was burning more brightly there should have been more heat. Just when this thought occurred to me I heard Benjamin's urgent voice come from the darkness: "Isaac! Isaac! Behind you! Behind you!"

My heart leapt to my throat. Someone must be approaching me from the rear! Without a thought I lunged quickly to my left, whirling and bringing up my heavy staff, ready to strike. I stopped frozen with astonishment. I was struck dumb and almost blind by what I saw.

Gedalya and Penuel were sitting bolt upright, hands raised before their faces, shielding their eyes. Without thinking I was raising my hands before my eyes, too, because from a single point about five feet above the fire shone a light of such white purity and dazzling intensity that I could not look directly at it. It seemed to grow larger and even brighter until it shone round about us. I heard nothing but the pounding of my heart.

I was suddenly aware that Benjamin and Jacob had run up and stopped, open mouthed, beside me. I was more frightened than I had ever been in my life. In fact, I was terrified. Penuel found his voice and gasped, "It's the glory of the Lord!"

And then my terror almost overcame me, for I remembered suddenly the words of Isaiah: "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it."

Gedalya must have also been thinking of the prophets; he uttered the words of Haggai: "Thus saith the Lord of Hosts; Yet once, a little while and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come."

The light began to change before our eyes. Its blinding brightness became softer until we could look directly at it. As we watched the light expanded in size. In mere seconds it took a shape much like a human being, but far larger.

It hovered above the ground and then the light actually spoke to us: "Do not be afraid! I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the city of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

I caught my breath. Our visitor was an angel of the Lord God Almighty! A messenger announcing a Savior born of God! It was too glorious to comprehend!

Suddenly another, tiny point of light appeared beside the angel, incredibly bright though as small as the tip of knitting needle. Another appeared, then all at once so many shining points burst into view that I could not keep up with their advent. They swirled and swarmed around us in every direction, up, down, right, left, back and forth - a small galaxy of angelic visitors. We shepherds were encompassed in every direction by thousands of heavenly lights!

I laughed aloud and I heard my friends laughing, too. I raised my arms giddy with joy, astounded that the God of all creation would favor such lowly ones as we shepherds with the announcement of the birth of the Savior and this celebration by a multitude of the heavenly host. I raised my face toward Heaven, overcome by joyous excitement, and shouted, "Glory to God in the highest!"

Immediately, the multitude of the heavenly host took up my phrase . They sang in the purest tones of praise, "Glory to God in the highest!" Then they added, "And on earth peace, goodwill to all people!" I have never heard voices like those before and I know that in this life I never will again. But that night was enough. The angels sang it again and again and we joined in, too beside ourselves with amazement and thanksgiving, nearly delirious in our rejoicing. In a time - I don't know how much time - we noticed the lights were dimming. Their singing grew growing softer until at last there was only darkness again and the whispers of the chorus, "goodwill to all people." We stood speechless for moments, warmed all the way through even though our fire was only embers.

At last Jacob said with softly, "We need to go the Bethlehem."

"Yes," I breathed, "Let us go down to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." With no further thought we hurried off to the city of David.

"What of our sheep?" Penuel asked halfway there.

Benjamin huffed while we trotted, "The Lord will never abandon them. The angel told us to go."

That was good enough for us. Was not our Lord a Good Shepherd for his flock? We found the manger quickly, almost as if we were led to it. And I suppose we were. We found Mary and Joseph and the baby, who was lying in the manger, just as the angel had said: Christ the Lord.

"Angels sent us," I said to Mary.

"In a dream or in person?" asked Joseph.

"In person," I answered, puzzled at the question.

"Only in dreams for me," Joseph muttered, but I didn't know what he meant.

Mary smiled. "We don't doubt angels sent you here," she said. "We've had some experience with them ourselves."

I said, "The angel told us that this child is our Savior, who is known as Christ the Lord. What does it mean?"

Joseph said, "When an angel appeared to me in a dream, he said that this child was conceived from the Holy Spirit. We have named him Jesus, as the angel said to do, because he will save his people from their sins."

Mary added, "The angel Gabriel told me, 'He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.'" She fell silent for a moment, then said, "That's really all we know."

We stayed no longer, for it was late and the Savior was sleeping. Mary and Joseph looked like they wanted to sleep, too. We had seen the child and so we left the manger. But it was impossible to keep this amazing thing to ourselves. We went about Bethlehem spreading the word concerning what had been told us about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what we said to them. Then we returned to the fields, where our sheep safely waited, and we glorified and praised God for all the things we had heard and seen, which were just as we had been told.

When our Christmas season is over and we have returned to our usual routines, let us remember that the gospel we have and the salvation we are given is just that which we have been told. The grace of God is not mysterious or incomprehensible. It is just as we have been told in God's Word: A savior was born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago.

Like the shepherds, we live in a world when the memory of Christmas will be overcome by other events. The shepherds' sheep would still get sick or be attacked by wolves. Our cars will still break down and we'll still have bills to pay. On the outside, everything will seem the same.

But now our lives are different. God is with us! The glory of the Lord has shone around us, and through our doubts and fears there are heavenly words: Fear not, for behold, there are glad tidings of great joy. Unto you is born a Savior!

Merry Christmas!

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