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.
Preached at Lockwood Community Church, 12/22/2019