Luke 2:8-18. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah,* the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And 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 favours!’*
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.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
Sometimes I wonder how that Christmas story would have looked if it had happened today. If it happened here, there probably would have been medical people involved, prenatal care for Mary, and so on. But in most of the world, the story might have played out exactly the way it did 2,000 years ago.
How many of you put out a Nativity set at Christmas time? That can be one of those things that becomes like an heirloom; it gets passed along through the family and has a story behind it. When I was growing up, every year, our family put the nativity set on a certain table in the same corner of the living room. It was ceramic; my mother made the figures from molds and fired them in the kiln in the basement. I think my brother has it now.
A few years ago, Kathy and I bought a Nativity set when we were in Israel, in Bethlehem. It’s very simple. There’s the usual Mary and Joseph, an animal or two, and baby Jesus in a manger. They’re all gathered in a 3-sided stable with a star over it and everything is carved out of olive wood. We bought it in a gift shop down the street from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem is on a hilltop like most ancient villages, and down below you can see the fields where the sheep still graze. Shepherds still watch them, and it’s not for show. Not a great job, not highly paid, not much respect, but this is how they make a living.
Down in that valley, this was the place where the angels came to the shepherds. Not those chubby kids with wings – in scripture, the only purpose of angels is to be messengers for God. That’s what “angel” means. They bring news, and God’s messenger bringing you news can be scary. I’d love to see an angel, but I suspect it’s a little too frightening. In scripture, most people see angels are not happy about seeing them. To calm everybody down, the first thing the angel has to say is…
“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 (Bethlehem) a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12) And the angel points at the hilltop.
The village where Jesus was born doesn’t look much like it did 2,000 years ago, but some things haven’t changed much. This is a place of trouble. When Jesus was born, Israel was occupied by the Roman army at the time and besides having no place to stay, Mary and Joseph must have walked past an armed Roman sentry (or two) who was watching for trouble. A few years ago, armed Palestinian protesters were holed up in the Church of the Nativity for several days – maybe you remember that.
Whenever the tour buses pull into Bethlehem, a crowd of peddlers crowd around the door, and you have to walk through them to get anywhere. They sell necklaces and postcards for a dollar or two and they’re really obnoxious about it. The tour guides tell you not to buy anything from them because if you do, they won’t leave you alone.
On this day, the group got off the bus, walked past the peddlers, and on into the Church of the Nativity. But it was dark inside and I needed the flash for my camera (typical tourist). I went back out to the bus to get it, but the bus wasn’t there; it had gone around to the exit on the other side of the building to pick us up. I walked around the plaza in front of the church looking for it, but it wasn’t there.
Something wasn’t right. The peddlers were gone too. I should have attracted a peddler or two, but they had disappeared. People were standing in doorways, but nobody was out on the street. A few seconds later, I heard a siren, and two jeeps with flashing lights and soldiers turned the corner. They stopped, grabbed their rifles, jumped out, and ran down the street. It was quiet.
While this was going on I was walking slowly back into the church. Nobody else in the group saw anything like this during the trip and I had a feeling that maybe I just saw something that I wasn’t supposed to see.
I read a story the other day about a mother who gave her children a Nativity set and came back a while later to find that the stable was filled with GI Joe men and surrounded by tanks. That was supposed to be funny, and it is, but it’s really not far from the truth. On my last visit, I picked up another Nativity set. This one has a wall in front of the stable.
Some days the news and world I live in can beat me down. I’m losing hope, I don’t know where to turn. Maybe you need good news, and there is good news. God may not choose to change your world, but God can change you. And then God gives each of us – and all of us – opportunities to bring some good news to someone else. To… “bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners,” as Isaiah says.
In Jesus, God reaches out to me, and you. That’s what the Nativity means. That’s what the candles mean. That’s what the lights on the tree mean. Christmas is God’s extending a hand to the human race and saying, “I know all about it. I know it’s a mess. I can give you hope. You can find the peace you’re looking for in me.” The peace – and joy – the world needs begins in each one of our hearts and it’s a gift from God. It comes through faith and I hope it’s the first present we all open this year.
O God, the best present anybody ever received is you. We need your love, your patience. We need your presence in our lives. Life is so chaotic and unpredictable, and we need you.
Our world is so dangerous, and we have so much to learn about ourselves. Why do we do the things we do? Help us live as you call us to live. Help us break the cycle of violence in ourselves and to give up the selfish attitudes that are the roots of the sin in our lives and in our world. We come to you with faith in the one you sent to save us, who gave himself up for us.