Most of us don’t see obvious answers to our prayers as often as the New Testament might lead us to expect. While the Bible offers insight into why prayers are sometimes not answered (without ever making prayer into something mechanical), it also gives us examples of prayers God loves to answer.
One of those great examples comes in Paul’s description of his prayer for the Colossians – a church group he had heard about but most of whose members he did not know. I’ve used this powerful prayer many times to pray for our church, other churches, and for individuals.
Listen and enjoy. If you have comments, I’d love to hear from you.
A Muslim man once confidently told me that everyone born in the United States is a Christian, unless his family is Muslim or Jewish. I did not ask him what that means for people from Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Sikh, or Baha’i families, nor did I ask what it meant for people who intentionally convert to one of these religions later in life.
A convert is, simply, a person who has been converted – that is, a person who has chosen to be altered or transformed. In religious conversion, a person who believed certain things about God and existence comes to believe other things and adjusts his or her life accordingly.
I know little about the way other religions view conversion or the expectations they consider appropriate for converts. If they are anything like those placed on Christian converts, they vary widely from group to group. Among the many groups that claim allegiance to Jesus, some require only a verbal profession of faith. Others expect regular church attendance, participation in instructional classes, and personal accountability in an ongoing relationship with a spiritual mentor.
Whether a simple confession or many months of intensive training, most Christian groups see the process of conversion culminating in the admission of the prospective convert into the church family, usually at baptism. This, I think, is a mistake, which does not serve the convert or the church, and does not align well with the biblical data on the nature of transformation.
To communicate to prospective converts, even unintentionally, that membership in a church body is an end in itself is like communicating to an 18-year-old recruit that getting through basic training is all there is to being a Marine. He didn’t sign up just to wear the uniform but to serve his country. Likewise, the person entering the church didn’t convert just to get her name on the church membership roll.
To think that conversion abruptly ends when one is received into fellowship in a church is to misunderstand conversion. People sometimes talk about “the moment of conversion,” as if conversion is accomplished at a single point in time. Perhaps, from God’s point of view, it is. From our point of view, it isn’t even close.
It is helpful to think of conversion as a process, much as moving to a new home is a process. One investigates the house, the neighborhood, and considers the price. Next, a decision is made: we will move to the new home. Then the papers are signed. It’s official: this is now our new home. But the process is hardly complete.
Next comes the move. It is determined what stuff will go and what stuff will stay, since not everything will have a place in the new home. What will go is packed. What will stay is disposed of or left behind.
The date finally arrives for spending our first night in the new home and with it comes all kinds of adjustments. We learn which noises mean something and which do not. We learn how long it takes to get places, like work or the store. We do maintenance. We develop routines. We discover the best places in our new home for solitude and for entertaining, for getting work done and for relaxing. We orient our lives and our schedules around our new home.
Something akin to this orientation takes place in religious conversion. A person moves to a new spiritual home and begins orienting his or her life to it. In the case of Christian conversion, a person orients his life around Christ himself: his teaching, his ways, and his stated desire for people. Christ becomes their new home.
This is the kind of thing Jesus had in mind when he told his disciples to: “abide in me.” He expected them to move their lives into his: to take up permanent residence in an ongoing relationship with him and orient their lives around him.
This is more than taking catechism classes, though they may be helpful in making the move. It is even more than being baptized. It is starting a new life; so new, in fact, that Jesus once spoke of it as being born again.
Okay, so someone is bound to tell me it wasn’t Shakespeare but Chaucer who coined the phrase that love is blind. I’ll give you that, but Shakespeare popularized the phrase by his repeated use of it: The Merchant of Venice, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and HenryV all include it.
Before someone has the chance to object that some Persian poet who predated Chaucer really composed the line, I’ll concede the point, but the question remains. Was Chaucer and Shakespeare (and whoever else) right? Is love blind?
The answer depends on what one means by love. Eros, I think, is often blind. Friends and family watch the lover as he ignores glaring signals and stands poised to fall into a deep ditch. Love has made him blind to his situation and deaf to his friends.
Agape love, the kind supremely illustrated by Jesus, is anything but blind. The Apostle Paul understood that it is only love that truly sees. In his prayer for the Philippian Church, he asks God to cause their love to “abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best…”
The word translated as “depth of insight” is used only here in the New Testament in its noun form. A good translation would be discernment. The word implies the ability to distinguish between things, especially between what is good and what is bad.
My wife Karen and I once spent a couple of hours at the Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys, where we saw a quote attributed to a Senegalese poet named Baba Dioum: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, and we love only what we understand.” Paul, I think, would turn that around: “We understand only what we truly love.”
People who try to understand God when they don’t love him never succeed. But the same is true on a more domestic level: we will never understand a husband or wife; we will never understand our children or parents, until we love them. When our kids do something that threatens to embarrass us or cause us harm, and our focus is entirely on ourselves, we won’t really understand why they did what they did. But when we are able to love them, to seek the best for them, then our understanding of them and their actions will grow. The depth of our understanding will always be limited by the extent of our love.
Every pastor has had people come to them, full of confusion and anxiety, and asking: “What should I do?” They need to discern what is best regarding a relationship, a job, a move, and the weight of the world is on their shoulders. They are so afraid of making a mistake. But if they are not loving God and others, they are already making a mistake. If we are not loving God and loving people, we cannot make a right choice. That’s not what people want to hear. They want a formula for discerning the will of God. It doesn’t work that way. We don’t need a formula; we need love.
Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5 ESV). Since abiding in Jesus is the condition on which fruifulness depends, it is imperative that we have some understanding of what is involved in abiding.
Is it something mystical? Not really. I abide in my home. When I go somewhere – whether to town or across the country – I come back to my home. My life is oriented around my home. That’s where I eat meals, where I sleep, where I work, where I communicate, where I relax. I know how long it takes to get from my home to most all the places I go. I know how long it takes to get back. I plan my life around my home.
To be homeless is an enormous trial. It disorients a person. It throws everything off. Some people are spiritually homeless. They are disoriented in their spirits. They are not abiding – not residing – in Christ and so everything for them is unsettled.
You begin to abide in Christ when you join him by faith. People sometimes refer to that as the moment of conversion, as if conversion only takes a moment. The truth is: conversion is like moving to a new home. The decision to move happens at some particular moment in time; the move does not.
When we make that move, we take lots of things with us and leave others behind. They were part and parcel of our life before but we know they are not right for our new home – for Christ. Better to leave things like selfishness, deceit, gossip, malice, rage, in the dumpster when you move. Even then, you’ll often find yourself reaching for those things – it’s a habit – but moving to our new home in Christ is a time for developing new habits.
(Listen to all of this sermon by clicking the link above.)
An exceptionally popular pastor and writer came out with a book in which he criticized the church’s “incessant habit of reaching back into the old covenant concepts, teachings, sayings, and narratives.” Later in the same book, he asked readers, “Would you consider unhitching your teaching of what it means to follow Jesus from all things old covenant?”
I haven’t read the book, which may have a lot to offer, and I realize his words may have been taken out of context. I certainly do not want to be unfair to him. But, that said, it seems to me the church has made precisely the opposite mistake. We have not reached back into the old covenant concepts, teaching, sayings, and narratives nearly enough. We’ve reached back into Reformation concepts, teaching, and sayings. And the great leaders of the Reformation were reaching back into the concepts, teaching, and sayings of the Scholastic period before them. But Jesus did reach back into the concepts, teaching, sayings, and narratives of the Old Testament, so we must do the same.
We will not understand Jesus by forcing his words into a conceptual frame he did not use. His frame was the Old Testament. If we try to understand Jesus without reaching back into old covenant concepts, teaching, sayings, and narratives, we will simply substitute our concerns for God’s and transform Jesus into a 21st century American rather than a first century Jew.
No one needs faith for something that has already happened. Faith, by its nature, requires a future component, a measure of uncertainty. In situations where there is no uncertainty – the package has already arrived, as promised, the test has been scored – faith is superfluous.
Does this imply that people of faith, like myself, will not be nostalgic, since nostalgia is about the settled past and faith is about the unsettled future? I hope not, because I sometimes wax nostalgic, particularly around the holidays. I remember winter mornings when my brother and I would run out on the front porch in our bare feet to retrieve the foil-topped bottles the milkman had left. We’d pour ourselves a glass, then chew the frozen milk crystals that collected on the top.
Such memories are pleasant to me. Nostalgia is not about times of loneliness and sorrow, but about times of peace and camaraderie. The past I remember seems simpler, gentler, and more manageable. Unlike the future, the past never incites fear.
When the term “nostalgia” first came into use in the 17th century, it denoted a kind of mental illness. The doctor who coined the term described it as a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause.” It was thought to be a type of home-sickness – the term coming from the Greek roots for “returning home” and for “pain.”
In recent years, however, social scientists have discovered various benefits that accompany nostalgia. John Tierney lists some of them in his New York Times piece, What Is Nostalgia Good For? He writes that couples who engage in nostalgia feel closer to each other. Nostalgia seems to counteract loneliness, boredom, and anxiety. On cold days, people who engage in nostalgia actually feel warmer. “The net effect,” Tierney writes, “is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening.”
According to Tierney, researchers have found a kind of cycle to nostalgia. While it has been found to occur in children as young as seven, it generally surfaces among people in their twenties. It fades in middle age, then returns strongly among seniors.
Whatever one’s age, nostalgia need not diminish faith. It may, in fact, encourage it. Research has shown that people generally have more confidence about the future after engaging in nostalgia.
This alteration between past and future fits quite nicely in a Christian framework. The Church, having learned from their Jewish forebears to honor the past while anticipating the future, has developed a kind of choreography which includes both. They celebrate the past, grounded in God’s historical revelation through Christ, with feast days and remembrances. At the same time they set their “hope fully on the grace to be given … when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:13).
The best example of this is the Church’s repeated practice of taking Holy Communion. Each time she does so, it is with the instruction to “remember” and with the knowledge that this truncated meal foretells a joyful future day when “its meaning is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” This back and forth dance, with both past and future steps, has the effect of strengthening one’s faith, not weakening it.
Nostalgia will, however, weaken faith if it becomes an addiction. Like other addictions, nostalgia can be used as a temporary escape from present pains or a bulwark against future fears. Advertisers play on nostalgia to sell their product. Politicians evoke nostalgia – with its feeling that the past was simpler, gentler, and more manageable – as they promise a return to past glory and warn against an apocalyptic future.
Like everyone else, the followers of Jesus live on the razor’s edge that separates the past from the future. But they are learning to do more than live there: they are learning to dance there. They plant their feet firmly on the events of the past but continually stretch – and sometimes leap – toward the future.
It is a difficult dance to learn and there are plenty of ways to stumble. The past is the ground on which we stand yet it must not become the box in which we’re stuck. The future is to be embraced but we must renounce the desire to grasp and conquer it.
The theme of this year’s Christmas Eve service was “Extraordinary Savior.” “Extraordinary” is, of course, a term of comparison: If there were no ordinary people, there would be no extraordinary ones. That got me to thinking: in order to appreciate the extraordinary savior, I need to understand what an ordinary one is like.
Is there such a thing as an ordinary savior? There is, and (sadly) Jesus is often presented as one. If you spend any time at all on religious broadcasting, you’ll run into the ordinary savior. He saves people from their circumstances – poor health, insufficient income, and troubling emotions. That’s one way of identifying an ordinary savior: he only saves people from, whilethe extraordinary Savior – the real one – saves people for. Let me give you a few examples.
An ordinary savior saves people from a religionless, churchless existence. He pities those unfortunates who sleep in on Sunday mornings, go out to eat, and travel. He wants to save them from their laziness, gluttony, and wanderlust, though they aren’t looking to be saved. I suspect most people who don’t really know Jesus – they’ve heard about him, of course, but have never joined themselves to him – think of Jesus as this kind of savior: one who loves organ music, 18th century hymns, and those rousing 19th century gospel songs. He doesn’t want people missing out on these good things.
An ordinary savior also saves people from hell; that’s why he came. People were going to hell in a handbasket (or maybe a shopping cart) and he stepped in to save them. The extraordinary savior does that too, but he does more: He saves people for heaven; he saves people for service in his kingdom. It is the repeated promise of the New Testament that Christ is saving us for something important. He has a role in mind for us. He intends for us to reign with him. The ordinary savior just saves from. The extraordinary savior saves for.
The ordinary savior saves us from punishment. God got himself into a jam by making people and, now that they have gone wrong, he finds he has no choice but to punish them. The ordinary savior feels very bad about this and steps in to take the blow. There is some truth to this, but it is not the whole truth. The extraordinary savior not only saves people from their punishment; he saves them from their sins. He knows the worst punishment people can suffer is to be left in their sins.
The ordinary savior saves us from suffering, which he (along with the rest of the world) considers the ultimate evil. The extraordinary savior does not save people from suffering – doesn’t even save himself from it – but he makes sure that his people’s suffering means something; that it accomplishes something for their good and for the world. The extraordinary savior didn’t suffer so that we wouldn’t need to, but so that our sufferings might be like his: full of promise and used for good.
An ordinary savior arrives on the scene every December as a baby (one who never cries – “…little Lord Jesus no crying he makes”), then fades from sight sometime after Easter. (Although, in some cases, he doesn’t even make it to the first of the year.) Because he never gets the chance to grow up, he remains powerless. Born into a poor family, he needs our pity and perhaps even our help. (I’m not sure we don’t prefer it that way.)
The extraordinary savior does not remain a baby; he grows up. He is not powerless; he is the Lord of men and angels. He doesn’t need our pity, but he does pity us. If the baby savior doesn’t cry, the adult savior does: He weeps for us. The extraordinary savior is more than a beautiful baby; he is the Man of Sorrows, who has been touched with the feeling of our infirmities.
The ordinary savior launched a religion, and it has done quite well. It’s like the amazon.com of religions – right at the top of the heap – which makes Jesus the Jeff Bezos of the religious world. The extraordinary savior doesn’t launch a religion. He launches a revolution. He will conquer the kingdoms of the world and bring them into the kingdom of our God. He will preside over the nations of the earth. The ordinary savior may be satisfied to preside over the denominations of Christendom; the extraordinary savior will have so much more.
The ordinary savior is interested in people’s spiritual life and wants them to do spiritual things, like pray, read the Bible, and go to church. This contrasts with the extraordinary savior, who isn’t so much interested in a person’s spiritual life (as though a person were sectioned like a grapefruit, with a dozen or so lives – a work life, married life, social media life anda spiritual life). A person has real life, which is inescapably spiritual, and that’s what he cares about.
The goal of the ordinary savior is to get you to behave well: no gossip, no getting drunk, no racial bigotry, no selfishness. And while you’re at it, don’t slurp your broth and be sure to brush your teeth. He wants you to always be nice and to look out for the underdog.
The extraordinary savior cares about good behavior, too, but that is not his goal. He didn’t die so that people would be made nice but so they could be made new. He understands that behaving well is a consequence of being new. Another way of putting it is: the ordinary savior wants to reform people but the extraordinary savior wants to transform them.
All this poses a question. Do we have an ordinary savior or an extraordinary one? It’s an important question, because the ordinary savior only produces the ordinary saved. The extraordinary savior produces the extraordinary saved: children, women, and men who live purposely, endure hopefully, and love freely. The extraordinary savior is developing humanity into a race of glorious, free, wise, and loving beings. That’s what he is saving us for.
This Savior whose birth we celebrate—don’t leave him in a manger, which leaves you in control. Don’t even leave him on a cross, which leaves you loved but unchanged. Find him where he is: on a throne, which leaves him Lord and King and you his soldier, his servant, his person. This is the extraordinary savior. His name is Jesus.
A few months ago, I jumped out of an airplane. After three weeks of weather delays, our group (Jeanette Dembski, Traci Disbro, Brian Ellis, and I) had to wait another four hours for all the other people who, like us, had waited three weeks but, unlike us, didn’t attend church that morning and got to the airfield before we did. I appreciate all of you who came to watch and who waited through the afternoon. I don’t so much appreciate those of you who were taking odds on how likely I was to chicken out.
Finally, after waiting and waiting, Jeanette Dembski and I were aboard the plane. We ascended 14,000 feet in just seven minutes. The door opened. One skydiver after another, including Jeanette, hurled out and into the blue. Then it was my turn. I stuck my feet outside the plane, my heels resting on a four-inch ledge. As we rocked back and forth, my instructor said in my ear, “One…two…three,” and then we were out.
I looked around me and could see for miles. The instructor tapped my shoulders, which meant I could release my grip on the halter and raise my arms. Below me I could see farm fields and roads. There were lakes, lots of lakes, which surprised me. (I hadn’t seen them from the road.) Some had dozens of boats on them, a few leaving white lines, like writing, on the surface of the water. I could see that one of the lakes was too shallow for boating and there were no houses around it. On the roads were Matchbox-like cars that hardly seemed to be moving.
My instructor signaled to me and I looked up – I had been looking down – and there was a photographer, fifteen feet away from me, as if perched in mid-air, taking video. Then he zoomed away, and I went back to surveying the landscape and trying to find the airfield, where we would land. Once again, the photographer flew up, signaled for me to smile, then zipped away. There was so much to take in that the passing of time didn’t really register. Whether a few seconds or a few minutes had passed, it was hard to tell.
As I was taking in the scenery, something suddenly happened – boom! – and I felt like I had been snapped back into the sky. I was shocked by the force of it and didn’t understand what was going on. In the midst of about a thousand visual, audio, and tactile stimuli, a sort of thought emerged: “What just happened?” I really didn’t know.
What happened, of course, was that my chute opened. I realized it almost immediately, but for a split second all I knew was that something had changed – and I wasn’t sure it was good change. In our text, St. Luke describes a similar moment. Life was going on as usual when, seemingly out of nowhere, something happened and the force of it was shocking. In that moment, I suppose, a sort of thought emerged in the minds of the people involved – the same thought I had when my chute opened: “What just happened?”
Let’s read our text, Luke 2:8-18: 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, “Do not be afraid. 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 a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s 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.
The life of a shepherd didn’t vary much: up at dawn; graze the sheep; take them to water; graze them again; lead them to a sheepfold for the night; sleep; get up; and do it all again. And for a shepherd, this was not simply a daily routine, it was a lifetime routine. They had been doing this from the time they were old enough to go to the fields with their dads. In fact, it was not only a lifetime routine, it was a generational routine. Shepherds had been doing this around the hills of Bethlehem, from father to son, for fourteen generations.
On the night we’re considering, the shepherds were doing what they always did. As the evening deepened, they gathered their flocks. The sheep that were always first were probably first that night and the sheep that were always last were probably last. They sheltered them inside a three-foot high stone fence enclosure, as they had done a thousand times before. Then they made a fire in a fire pit over which many a dinner had been prepared – probably the same dinner they’d eaten every night that week. If someone could have recorded their conversation, it would have sounded like the same one they’d had countless evenings before – like the ones their grandfathers and great grandfathers had, stretching back into the dim past.
And then the parachute opened and snapped them out of their reveries with a shock. If, a few hours earlier, you had asked the shepherds if this night would be different from all the rest, they almost certainly would have said no. That is the way life is: everything stays the same—until it isn’t. We are lulled by the rhythms of routine (whether pleasant or painful) into a state of mind where we don’t anticipate anything new happening. That is the human condition. It is hard for us to believe that things will ever change. On that night, things changed – not just for the shepherds but for all of us.
In spite of the way things seem, we don’t live in a “steady state” universe. Things go along for a while – sometimes a long while – without change and then, suddenly, they are different. Sometimes the difference seems good and hopeful; sometimes it is scary and full of threat. What we need to learn is that the changes are not chaotic, not random, however much they seem to be to us. There is a God who ordains change and makes it serve his purpose.
In his second letter, the Apostle Peter mentions people who believe they live in a universe where things never really change. They clearly don’t believe in a sovereign God who interrupts the routine with intention. Peter wrote, “They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation”” (2 Peter 3:4)
Peter points out that the time frame within which these people live is so small, they have trouble recognizing the interruptions for what they are. Creation itself, he says, was an interruption – a “big bang” of an interruption – if ever there was one. He mentions the flood as another major interruption. If we had a bigger frame of reference – like the angels, who live for ages, not decades – we could see that these interruptions are not random. They are part of a pattern, the Great Pattern that has been unfolding for millennia; for ages, even. That pattern, St. Peter says, is leading to the end of the world and cosmos we know and to the beginning of a new world and cosmos – a new heaven and a new earth, as he puts it, where righteousness dwells.
Creation was part of that pattern, as was the flood, as was the call of an ordinary man living somewhere in the region of modern Iraq, whose name was Abram. It continues through other bold interruptions: the unexpected liberation of an enslaved people, the introduction of the law, the coming of a king, the going of a nation into exile. The pattern contains broad strokes and fine points, flourishes and arabesques. If you discern the pattern, you will realize that it is taking shape. You will begin to feel you know that shape, even though you can’t yet place it.
What happened on that night in Bethlehem was a major interruption, an intrusion – an invasion even – that had a profound effect on the overall pattern. To the shepherd’s question, “What just happened?” the answer comes: what God has been working on since before the foundation of the world. What was so unexpected and shocking to the shepherds had long been planned by God, and the execution of that plan had been taking place for millennia. The seemingly redundant pattern was not so redundant: it had just exploded new directions and colors.
The background for the pattern, which is set even before a word is spoken, is also important (verse 8): “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” Notice that it is dark when an angel appeared – the Greek has a suddenness about it: an angel set upon them. Their routine was upended and they were snapped out of it into another reality.
The fact that there is light shining on them in darkness puts us on notice that we are looking at the pattern. Isaiah had written, “The LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you” (Isaiah 60:2). Or the prophecy concerning the coming of the Child-King: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:1).
You may remember that recently we heard Jesus describe himself as “the light of the world.” I mentioned, at the time, that the light of the world was not a stationary light, but a moving one – exactly like the light of God’s glory that led Israel through the wilderness. In the birth of Jesus, the light of the glory of God has risen.
The angel tells the shepherds not to be afraid because he is bringing them “good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” He then tells them that in the Town of David – yet another indication that we are looking at the pattern – “a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” There are three titles here of great importance.
First, there is savior. In the Roman world, that title had been given to the Emperor. In the Jewish world, “Savior” was a title of God himself. The angel gives it to a newborn baby.
Second, there is “Christ,” which is also a title. Christ is the Greek word used to translate “Messiah,” which means “anointed one.” The “anointed one” was a king, the coming King, promised by the prophets and hoped for by the people.
Third, there is “Lord.” Around the Mediterranean, everyone knew who the Lord was: he was Caesar. And the empire required people to confess Caesar “Lord” at least once a year and offer a sacrifice to him as a god. But Luke knows that Caesar’s rival – Caesar’s superior – has come and is lying in a manger. The Jews did not acknowledge Caesar as “Lord.” Only the Great “I AM,” Yahweh God Almighty, merited that title and they would give it to no one else. Yet the angel calls this baby “Lord.”
The shepherds, who had been mindlessly following their routine a few moments earlier, suddenly had been caught up into the pattern. The angel tells them they will find a sign: “A baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” A manger – a feed trough. Interesting that the “Bread of God,” the one “who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33) was first presented to that world in a feed trough.
It occurs to them, as they look at the baby in the manger, that they are seeing the pattern, the eternal pattern, and they are now living in it. It is a wonder and a joy to them: they are part of the beautiful thing God is doing.
Notice how this affected them. Luke says in verse 9 that they were terrified – the Greek is, “they feared a great fear.” But the angel announces joy, not fear: “I bring you good news of great joy” – great joy to replace great fear. By verse 20, the shepherds are “glorifying and praising God.” As great as their fear was, their joy was greater. That is what happens when people’s lives get taken up into the pattern and they know they have become part of it.
Mary, who was better than most at discerning the outlines of the pattern, knew that she and her son were a part of it. She (verse 20) “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” She understood that the pattern did not suddenly terminate with the birth of her child. It continued, and Mary continued in it. When, thirty-three years later, Mary stood (or perhaps lay prostrate) on a dusty, derelict hill outside Jerusalem, looking up at her beloved son, affixed to a cross by iron spikes, even then (I think) she felt the sharp, sword-like strokes of the pattern.
It’s good and right to celebrate Christmas – shepherds watching, angels chanting, a mother swaddling, wise men seeking – but let’s celebrate it as part of the pattern. There are lines (some beautiful and bold, some dark and harsh) that precede and flow into Christmas – creation, the flood, the call of Abraham, the birth of Isaac, the coming of King David, the going of the people of God into exile. And there are other lines that flow out of Christmas – the golden shades of the ascent of the King, the pouring out of the Spirit and the birth of the church, the dark chaos of great tribulation, and then the illuminating rays of judgment. What happened on that night in Bethlehem only makes sense in the context of what happened earlier, what is happening now, and what will happen in the days to come. The pattern is still emerging, growing, still taking shape.
I mentioned St. Peter’s second letter earlier. In chapter 3, he speaks of the ultimate “What Just Happened Moment.” He writes: “…the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare” (2 Peter 3:10). This will snap people out of their routine, like a car accident. They will be overwhelmed by a thousand visual, audio, and tactile stimuli and the question will present itself: “What Just Happened?”
This will be one of the last strokes of the pattern during this age, though the pattern exists “before all ages, now and forevermore.” With this stroke, we will see the shape complete, the image formed, and we will recognize it. For we have seen this image – without seeing – all our lives. We have seen it in the splendor of the stars. We have seen it in parents’ faces as they bend over a sleeping child. We have seen it in the strength of a warrior, in the tenderness of a mother, in the grandeur of a king. We have seen it again and again in the sacrificial love of the church.
And seeing the pattern, our minds will soar, freed at last from the imposed bondage of sin. Our hearts will swell. Our tears will flow. For always and everywhere, the image formed by this pattern has been the image engraved on our hearts and minds. It is the image that lies behind everything and is its source. It is the image that lies before everything and is its goal. We will see and adore: not the image only, but the baby, swathed in strips of cloth and lying in a manger; the man, swathed in blood and nailed to a cross; the king, the conqueror of death, swathed in glory and seated on his throne. It is the image of the Beloved, the Joy of the Whole Earth, the Desire of Nations. We will see, our own eyes will behold: Jesus Christ our Lord.
And in that “What Just Happened” moment (a moment that may last a million years) it will dawn on us – sinners, saved by grace – to our absolute amazement and everlasting joy, that we too bear the image. And that will be glory, “before all ages, now and forevermore.”
So this is Christmas. This is why we celebrate. Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
You better watch out, you better not cry; Better not pout, I’m telling you why: Santa Claus is comin’ to town. He’s making a list and checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty and nice. Santa Claus is comin’ to town. He sees you when you’re sleepin’. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.
If that isn’t the most blatant example of propaganda ever, I don’t know what is. It is mind-control – plain and simple. St. Nicholas could sue for libel. St. Paul would decry it as a theology of works. Yet it plays on a thousand radio stations every December, and parents have it on their iTunes and Apple Music playlists. And when their kids start to act up, they just remind them that Santa is watching. Mind control. You ask me how I know this? I know this because that’s what my mother did. If my brother and I were getting a little rambunctious, it was: “Are you on the naughty or nice list right now?” When we were supposed to be sleeping but were instead goofing around, we were reminded that “Santa is watching.”
And my dad made things worse by putting candy canes on our window sills – it never occurred to us that they were the same candy canes he gave away in the barbershop at Christmastime – and made us think that Santa had been spying on us, peeking us through the windows. That’s creepy, isn’t it? A peeping Santa. I mean, how was a five-year-old supposed to think about that? I can remember going outside when I was little, and tracking Santa’s big boots – which were, suspiciously, size 10 and ½, just like my dad’s – with my pop gun at the ready. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I caught up with him, but I was hot on his trail. And then I lost him when his boot prints looped back around the house and became confused in the myriad of other prints around our back porch. He was clever!
“He knows if you’ve been bad or good.” Bad or good, that was the question at Christmas time. Get in a fight with your brother, even when you didn’t start it, and your mother was saying: “He knows if you’ve been bad or good.” It was paralyzing. For the month before Christmas, we couldn’t get away with a thing.
But listen: Bad or good is not the issue, and Christmas is not a tool to make children grow up into responsible citizens and reliable tax payers. Christmas is more than you or I realize.
I’m sure many of you have gone to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi in the past week or so. (And before you ask me what I thought of it, I haven’t seen it yet. You know, I’m more of a Star Trek guy, but that’s probably because the resident adviser in my dorm almost ordered me to go and see the first Star Wars movie. He kept telling me (and everybody else), “There is a guy in the movie that looks exactly like Looper. Exactly. You’ll know him when you see him. His name is Chewy.” (My hair and beard were a little longer back then.)
If you’re a Star Wars fan, you know the story now in theaters is part of a much grander narrative. Even that first movie I went to see in the ’70s was part of a much bigger story, though most of us didn’t realize it at the time. It had a backstory – a prequel – and would have a fore-story – a sequel.
That’s the way it is with Christmas. It is a satisfying story in itself – this tale of an unwed mother and an ostracized family, of an angel messenger and noble shepherds. We can enjoy it without knowing the rest of the story – or even knowing there is a rest of the story. We can enjoy it, but we can’t really understand it, not until we know how Christmas fits into the larger narrative. Christmas has a prequel and a sequel, and we’ll only understand it within the context of the larger story of what God is doing in the world. What makes this story different from all others is that we are not merely viewers; we are participants. This story is interactive: we have a role.
What is the prequel to the Christmas story? It would take more time than we have available to give much detail – you can get a lot of it from the Old Testament – but I’ll summarize. The backstory is that a superior intelligence created carbon-based, physical-spiritual hybrid beings and placed them on a planet – as it turns out, our planet. The creator designed these beings to be a race of godlike and loving protectors and rulers of creation.
Unlike the other creatures he designed, the Creator engineered the humans with a high degree of autonomy: they can make choices, formulate plans, and carry them out, as they see fit. This autonomy was a key part of the design. Humans were the glory of the creation.
But as the story progresses, the nascent humans are coopted by a dark power and drawn away from their creator and the result is disastrous. The spiritual part of humans, who were designed as physical-spiritual hybrids, underwent catastrophic failure. Without the spiritual component, humans became like other animals, only more intelligent. Chaos ensued: injustice, greed, hatred, and foolishness invaded human society.
The creator, though, does not give up on his human creatures. He rather communicates with the humans that are capable of interacting with him. There is no undoing the damage done by human rebellion, no going back, but the Creator plans to take humanity forward. He immediately sets in motion a plan to right what has gone wrong and restore humanity’s spiritual life. He begins shaping a millennia-long lineage chain among his human creatures. Within that lineage, he promotes a particular culture, and superintends a specific genetic line. He does this over a period of thousands of years. His plan is to enter humanity himself through the line he has prepared, in order to save humanity from the rebellion and restore its damaged spiritual function. That’s the metanarrative into which Christmas fits.
Once we are aware of the prequel, we realize that Christmas is not a stand-alone story about the birth of a beautiful child under trying circumstances. It is the story of a rescue, the story of an invasion. It is a bittersweet story, because when the creator entered his creation through the line he had spent thousands of years preparing, his creatures did not know him. So St. John writes, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him” (John 1:10). Not only did they not recognize him, they did not accept him: “He came to His own,” the line and the people he had been preparing for millennia, “and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11).
Of course, in the tale we know as the Christmas story, there is all kinds of excitement: there is a tyrannical ruler who serves an Empire which is under the sway of the original dark power. As soon as the tyrant becomes aware that the Empire has been infiltrated, he makes an attempt on the creator’s life. There are bad guys aplenty in this story, but there are also friends and unexpected allies. There are covert messages. There is a dramatic escape.
But here is the thing we need to understand about Christmas: It is the middle of the story, not the beginning nor the end. And it is full of surprises. Instead of the creator going to war against the rebels, as we might expect, he goes to war for them. He could have impressed them with his vast power, or intimidated them with threats of punishment, or appealed to them on the basis of their greed or selfishness – the same old story of the ways of power in the world. But he did none of those things. His sights were set something on more radical than conformity to a set of rules: He was out to change humanity from the inside; to change us from the inside.
To that end, the creator lived among humans as a human, modeling for them the life he makes possible and instructing them in how to live it. But they needed more than instruction. They needed the kind of life they had lost and didn’t even know was missing. To make that possible, the creator had to give his life on their behalf. He did this by dying and rising again. That is the climax of the story, and you can read about in the New Testament Gospels.
It is the climax of the story, but it is not the end of the story. The story continued on, as chronicled in the book known as The Acts of the Apostles. And the same story is going on still, and still being chronicled. (Remember what St. John wrote: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.” And what’s recorded there will no doubt include the heroics and bravery and extraordinary faith of God’s people in this generation. We are a part of the story now and have a role to play in it.
Think of it! We’re in the same story as Mary, only at a different point in the plot. What happened to Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi – that’s the prequel to our part of the story. But while ours is a sequel, it is not the final installment. That is still to come, when the king who came comes again; this time, not a baby, but a hero; not in weakness, but in strength; not in poverty, but in glory.
And that final installment of that story is the beginning of the great story that goes on forever, in which each chapter is better than the last (Lewis). We join the heroes of the faith – Abraham and Moses, David and Jeremiah, Mary and Joseph, Paul and Timothy, and many others we don’t yet know. And we join them because of God’s grace delivered through the baby, the man, the king.
So, let us worship the babe, laid in the straw. And the man, nailed to a cross. And the king, crowned with glory. The king who came and is coming. Our Lord Jesus Christ.
A shepherd’s perspective is, you know, close to the earth. We’re earthy guys. We don’t put on airs, even though we smell like sheep. We have tough hands and quick eyes. We have strong bodies and, by the time night falls, weary bones.
Most people consider us irreligious. Though Moses was a shepherd and David was a shepherd and even God called himself a shepherd, people nevertheless think of shepherds as unspiritual. That’s because our work makes it impossible for us to go to the temple or even to synagogue. It’s not our fault. We were born into shepherding. Our dads and grandads and their grandad’s grandads were shepherds, but nowadays the posh people say that shepherding is one of the seven disgusting trades and consider us untouchables.
But shepherds are like everybody else. Some of us are deeply spiritual, some aren’t. Some of us trust God and hope in his salvation. Others don’t.
The hypocrites off in Jerusalem think they know shepherds but they don’t know us at all, but shepherds know each other. Most of us are related – fathers and sons, brothers and cousins. Outsiders may consider us untouchable, but we consider each other family.
What did that first Christmas Eve look like from our perspective? Well, for one thing we saw that God did not consider us untouchable. God is better than the people who think they’re better than us. On that night, God was our shepherd, and he was leading us in paths of righteousness.
And where did He lead us? Right to the Lamb of God. You know, those of us who shepherd around Bethlehem aren’t like other shepherds in Israel. All of are sheep are raised for the temple –born and raised for sacrifice. We all know that one of the lambs in our pen might be the Pascal lamb chosen for the coming Passover. Ours is an important job. The lambs we raise will be sacrifices for sin and offerings for fellowship with God.
The angel said that a savior had been born to us! Not to other people, not to religious people, but to us! So we hurried off to see this savior and what did we find but a Lamb, the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. And we got to see him first1 Not the priests or synagogue rulers or teachers of the law, but us. I guess that proves that the Lord who is a shepherd loves shepherds. No one is untouchable to him.
“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” (Luke 2:20)