Christmas Eve (12/24/2008)

Come to Bethlehem and See

Lessons:      Isaiah 9:2-7      Psalm 96      Titus 2:11-14      St. Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you made this holy night shine with the brightness of the true light. Grant that here on earth we may walk in the light of Jesus' presence and in the last day wake to the brightness of his glory; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

2.1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 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: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,  14 "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"

[15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.]

St. Luke 2:1-14 [15-20], New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Come to Bethlehem and see him whose birth the angels sing. Come adore on bended knee, Christ the Lord, the Newborn King. Gloria in excelsis Deo.

St. Luke's nativity is the shepherds' nativity. While it is arguable that the most important characters in St. Luke's narrative are Jesus and his parents, the shepherds are the ones who stand center stage as St. Luke invites us to Bethlehem for the birth of the Newborn King.

The shepherds are the ones who receive a visit from an angel in the dark of that night. The shepherds are the ones who become terrified by what they see. The shepherds are the ones who hear the standard-issue angelic words of comfort: "Do not be afraid." The shepherds are the ones who learn that the baby, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in the Bethlehem manger, is Messiah, the Lord. The shepherds are the ones who are inspired by the heavenly song of an angelic multitude. The shepherds are the ones who decide to go and see this thing, who find the Holy Family in Bethlehem, and who are the first to proclaim what God is beginning to do in the birth of Jesus.

Surely God could have chosen a more credible group of witnesses. (Perhaps some respectable, steady, church-going believers... or some religious professionals...) In the first century, shepherds were the dregs of society. Filthy. Unsophisticated. Ill mannered. More at home sleeping in a cave or under a tree than in a nice home. More at ease sitting in the dark, passing around a skin of wine, than sitting in the temple, discussing the word of God.

Yet it was to these miscreants that the angel spoke. It was to these outsiders that the angels sang. And it was through these unlovely ones that God moved, to declare that in the birth of Jesus, God had now come to be with us - Emmanuel.

There is much that we find to be beautiful about Christmas, but this is perhaps the most beautiful: that we are all welcome at the foot of the manger. Shepherds. Cows. Donkeys (asses?). Drummer boys. Various other travelers and vagabonds who can't always find a warm place to sleep indoors at night. At the heart of the Christmas celebration is the belief that God is Immanuel - "God with us." With every one of us. No matter how worthy or unworthy we may be. There isn't a one of us who is not included in the invitation. "Come to Bethlehem and see him whose birth the angels sing."

God has come to be with us, to bless us and strengthen us; to call us through repentance to new life; to move through us and be a light to the nations. The good news of Christmas is that it is good news for all the world: "good news of great joy for all the people." Even for people as flawed as you and me.

Dear reader of this devotional message, I hope you find a place to worship tomorrow and the next, as the church once again gathers to celebrate the good news of Jesus Christ. I hope you are welcomed warmly and genuinely by the people you meet there. And I hope that welcome is a reminder of how God welcomes you into the family of faith: with open arms, eager to embrace you and inspire you, to forgive you and empower you. And when you leave that hour of worship, I pray that you leave as the shepherds did, "glorifying and praising God for all [you have] heard and seen."

Merry Christmas to you all. May God fill your hearts and your homes with love and peace and joy this Christmas season.

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week's Text:

  • What, about the shepherds, caused them to live like outsiders - at a distance from first century society?
  • Who might we have chosen instead, to bring news of the birth of a Savior?
  • What does the fact that God chose these shepherds tell us about what kind of Messiah Jesus will be?

Connecting with This Week's Text:

  • When have I experienced what it means to have Christ be born into my life?
  • What does it mean for me that even when I am the most down about myself, God loves me fully?
  • Who, in my life, is in need of experiencing God's love, and how can I be the vehicle through which that happens?