David A. Davis
December 5, 2021
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It is easy to forget that the shepherds were terrified. “When the angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, they were terrified.” It is so easy to quickly move on from the shepherds and their fear. Luke’s narrative itself doesn’t linger. So, the reader, the listener, all who know the story by heart, speed right on to the multitude of the heavenly host singing, the shepherds going with haste, and Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger. Skipping over the fear is understandable, of course, because who doesn’t want to get to babe lying in the manger. Everyone wants to get to the “aaah” part. But there is not just “aaah” when it comes to creche building, there has to be some awe, as in awe and wonder. With the shepherds, comes the awe and wonder of the nativity of the Christ Child. But before there is awe and wonder, it was just out right fear. They were terrified. The King James says it better. Do you remember it? Yes, they were “sore afraid.” So afraid that their heart hurt.
The question then, has to do with the movement from fear to wonder. I have never had an angel speak to me but I thinking the fear doesn’t just miraculously disappear just because an angel tells you “do not be afraid”. Besides, that’s pretty much what the angels say every time. It’s sort of the angels’ way of saying hello. “Hey there, how’s it going? Don’t be afraid!”. It is sort of like the person at your arm with a needle. They all say, “now you’re going to feel a bit of stick”. That doesn’t magically make the feeling of the stick go away. Do not fear. I don’t even think that’s how the body works. It takes a while to recover some being “sore afraid.”
With a close reading of the so familiar verses in Luke, the reader discovers that amazement comes in v.18. “And all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” Now I have to admit to you that I have always thought that “when the shepherds went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger”, that the shepherds were only talking to Mary and Joseph. That Mary and Joseph and the baby were pretty much alone. So it seems like an odd expression: “all who heard it were amazed.” Who are the “all”. If there were animals in the barn all around, I’m not guessing they were amazed. And I know Jesus was fully human and fully God, but I don’t think the plural here is just to imply the infant was amazed too. “All were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all this words and pondered them in her heart.” So even Mary isn’t included in those who were amazed. She pondered and treasured. It’s “all” kind of confusing, really. What’s with the “all”.
The shepherds must have had their own transformation from fear to wonder at some point before they “they made known what had been told them about this child”. During Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany we are pairing characters from the nativity scene with pieces of artwork. This piece of art by the contemporary Chinese artist He Qi, might provide a helpful interpretation of the shepherds’ wonder and awe. Dr. Qi has most recently been a visiting professor and artist in residence at Fuller Theological Seminary in CA. As you can see in this painting, the brilliant colors and the shapes themselves communicate wonder and awe. It is difficult to miss the shepherd on the right side who is looking so straight up at the sky that it looks like it hurts. The sheep just below has that same head straight up pose but it’s unclear where the sheep is looking to the heavens or to the shepherd. It is striking that neither the shepherds, nor Mary and Joseph, nor the sheep, for that matter, are looking at the Child Jesus. All eyes, including the baby and the sheep seem focused on the shepherds. The cows are either looking at the baby, or more likely, the hay. Your interpretation is likely influenced by any experience you have had with cows. But I vote for the hay.
The eyes of the shepherds themselves are fixed on the angel who hovers over the entire scene. The depiction of the shepherds does not portray fear but more of intense focus. The only noticeable feature of the angel seems to be the outstretched and lifted up arms. The angel is in a position of proclamation. The shepherds seem to be hanging on every word. “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. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger”. Since there is only one angel and not a whole host, the painting sort of pauses on the angel’s words and the good news of great joy. And with Mary, Joseph, and the child looking at the shepherds, it is as if they are hearing the angel’s message right through the shepherds.
It was not the command to not be afraid that calmed the shepherds down. It was the good news of great joy for all people. It was the proclamation of the birth of a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. It was the promise of a sign. Dr Qi’s painting entitled “Nativity” pauses Luke’s narrative right at the angel’s words. It is as if the painting itself suggests that pondering the good news of a great joy, endlessly pondering the promise of a Savior enables the shepherds to move from fear to wonder and awe. “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
It is an essential when it comes to the life of discipleship: rediscovering the wonder of that good news of a great joy for all people. It is to behold afresh the gift of salvation made known in the Christ Child, our Savior, the Son of God. It is to discover again an unquenchable thirst not just for the words of the angel, but for all the stories of the Child’s life. To yearn again for Jesus’s words, his teaching, his example. To rediscover the wonder of the Nativity, it is to try to wrap your heart around a mother’s unconditional love for a newborn child while wrapping your head around that same child’s unconditional love for you. It is to be overwhelmed anew by his love that will not let you go. His grace that is new every morning, new every morning. It is to find yourself, not all the time, maybe even just every now and then, to find yourself, to allow yourself, to once again be in awe by “the glories of his righteousness and the wonders of his love.”
To rediscover the wonder and awe of the birth of Jesus is to realize that when it comes to that puzzling “all” in Luke, as in “all were amazed at what the shepherds told them”, that “all” includes you and me. The disciples, the followers of Jesus, the church, the Body of Christ, the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses, one and all, in amazement at what the shepherds have told us. Amazed by God’s promise of good news of great joy for all people. Amazed and in wonder, not by the beauty of a newborn child, not by the miracle of a virgin birth as attested to in scripture, not by the obedience of both Mary and Joseph, but amazed and in wonder at the promise of salvation made known to us in and through the birth, the life, the teaching, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus, our Savior, God’s Son. And you, know, of course, you know, that you and I are part of that “all”, if we find ourselves include with all those amazed by what the shepherds had to say, then we have to be included in the “they” in the same sentence. “They made known what had been told them about this child.” Part of creche building, part of rediscovering the wonder of it all, is telling, testifying, giving witness with your life, giving witness to “the good news of great joy for all the people.”
Just last Monday I was invited to participate in a panel discussion over at Princeton Seminary on preaching the Old Testament during the last week of the introduction to the Old Testament class required of all first-year students. I have done the panel many times over the years. I remember once quite a few years ago after the panel, a student stopped to ask a follow up question. “Pastor, why do we hear so much preaching now a days that is all about grace and love, so warm and fuzzy. What ever happened to hellfire and brimstone and judgment?” I joked with him that when you preach most weeks you don’t hear a whole lot of what others are preaching so I couldn’t really attest to his point. But I knew he his question was genuine and he was looking for a response. “I guess it has to do with the preacher’s own theological perspective which is broader than any one sermon. It has to do with the preacher’s own understanding of God and relationship to God. I don’t believe God is to be feared.” I told him, “When I preach, I am called to give testimony to the God who loves me.” I am guessing the student wanted a deeper, longer theological argument, a longer answer than my own discovery and rediscovering of the wonder of God’s love. The awe and wonder of the God who so loves me and you and this world that God gave of God’s only begotten Son. The awe and wonder of good news of a great joy for all people.
It’s not a bad prayer for Advent, really. Holy God, this Advent, this Christmas, in the power of your Holy Spirit and as gift of your grace, may the Christ Child once again enable me, allow me, empower me to rediscover the wonder of your love.
Even so, come Lord Jesus. Quickly come.
*This sermon references Nativity by He Qi. An image of this work can be found here.