Sermon: Shepherds in Bethlehem

Shepherds in Bethlehem
Luke 2:8-14
RUMC 24 Dec 2017
Pastor Paul R. O’Neil

Charlie Brown in his Christmas cartoon has the blues. He bought a tree, directed a play, but still could not get into the Christmas spirit.  He just mopes around and is depressed.  Finally he blurts out, “Is there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Linus, the one who sucked his thumb and carried a blue blanket over his shoulder replied, “Sure Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”  He walks to the center of a stage and says, “Lights please.”   Then he quotes Luke 2:8-14.
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!”

Maybe some of you can identify with Charlie Brown and also question the meaning of Christmas. In the end Charlie Brown discovered that the Christmas spirit was not found in lights and trees, gifts and special treats or drama productions, although that is a big part of it.  However it is about finding the Christ child who later grew up to be our Savior.

Christmas is the time when we hear the special Bible verses about the birth of Jesus, we see Nativity scenes on display, and we have warm thoughts about the characters who surrounded the baby in the manger. On this Christmas Eve night, I would like to focus on the shepherds who were such a big part of what took place so long ago.

Shepherds were an interesting group of men. They spent most of their time outdoors, and for the most part were crude in appearance and harsh in their colorful language.  Since they were constantly on the move to find new pasture for their flocks, they were often looked upon with suspicion.  If anything was stolen or found missing, shepherds were to blame.  And because of their rough manners, most people avoided them.  Using present day vernacular, some would consider shepherds borderline social outcasts.

Shepherds were not the most religious people. Their work prevented them from worship.  While everyone else made sacrifices in the temple or said prayers in the synagogue, shepherds were outside with their flocks.  And because of their unrefined lifestyle, they were looked upon with disdain.

However of all the people who might hear the angelic announcement and witness the child first-hand in the manger, it was the shepherds who were chosen. And that speaks volumes.

I can imagine the commotion the group of these men caused when they went into town, waking people up, asking for directions and telling the stories of what happened out in the fields. I’m sure they were laughed at, ridiculed and accused of drinking too much wine.  But these men were rewarded when they saw the babe face to face.

Here is an important spiritual principle. God reveals himself to those who are humble enough to receive him.  It happened then and it is still true today.

Now step back for a moment. Imagine if you were God and wanted to announce the most incredible event ever.  Who would you announce it to?  Who would you invite?

Earlier the press secretary at Buckingham Palace announced that Prince William and his wife Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, are expecting their third child in April. If all goes according to plan, that child will probably be christened or baptized at the Royal Chapel at St. James Palace like the other children of this famous family.  Before this takes place special invitations will go out to the dignitaries of both British society and the diplomatic community.  It is highly unlikely that a person outside of this exclusive social group would receive an invitation.

In a reversal of values, the birth of God’s Son was not announced to the elite of Jewish society or the religious community, but the lowly shepherds.  When God reveals himself, it is very much the same thing. It is to those who are sincere and humble of heart, those who desire to have a relationship with the Lord.

Going back to Charlie Brown, after Linus quoted the scripture, he walked off stage and said, “That is what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.” Charlie Brown put on his hat, went outside and looked up at all the stars.  Then a voice spoke. “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly host, praising God and saying, glory to God in the highest and on earth peace goodwill to all.” Charlie Brown then said with a bit of optimism, “Linus was right; I won’t let all this commercialism ruin my Christmas.” And he walked away, content. After that his friends surprised him with a decorated tree. With a transformation in his heart, Charlie Brown could now see the beauty of Christmas.

When we have a personal encounter with the Lord it forever changes our lives, just as it did with the shepherds and millions of those down through the ages who decided to believe.

Let me close with this poem.

Christmas is not about gifts and toys.
It is the time when people rejoice.
Christmas is not about food and drinks.
It is not about this world as everyone thinks.
Christmas is about everlasting love.
It is thanking the Lord for what we all have.
Christmas is about sharing and family.
It is about Christ who loves us fully.

Prayer: Holy God, heaven and earth are met this night in the newborn child, the Savior of the world.  We do celebrate his birth; for in him you come to be close to us, that we might be close to you.  We would ask that your Holy Spirit may be born anew in our hearts and that we may joyfully welcome him to reign over us.  Open our ears that we may hear again the angelic chorus of old.  Open our lips that we too may sing with uplifted hearts.   Send O lord into the darkness of this trouble world, the light of your Son.  Let the star of your hope touch the minds of this community with the bright beams of mercy and truth.  We especially remember those family members who are sick and cannot get out.  We ask you would comfort them this night.

Sermon: Christmas Eve Meditation

Christmas Eve Meditation
RUMC 2016

It was Christmas Eve 1914; soldiers from the German and English armies had fought for 5 months in the First World War. Both sides were in a stalemate as they shivered in the water logged trenches.

Graham Williams, aged 21, of the London Rifle Brigade was on night watch when he saw lights all along the German army trenches and said loud enough to be heard, “By God, the Jerries have Christmas trees!” Then he and his comrades heard a chorus of German voices began to sing, “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” or “Silent Night Holy Night.”

In response, the soldiers of the London Rifle Brigade cheered and they in turn sang “The First Noel.”  For over an hour, German and English soldiers in opposing trenches sang carols.  In between songs, there were calls for each side to come over and visit, but no one dared to make a move.

Finally on Christmas morning, German soldiers, with hands in their pockets, came out of the trenches. British soldiers did the same.  They greeted one another and shook hands, and peace had begun to spread through that no man’s land.

They all promised to keep the unofficial ceasefire throughout the day. It was truly an incredible sight as a multitude of soldiers walked arm in arm and took photographs.  Several soccer matches with tin cans were played, and if a man got knocked down, the other side helped him up.

All during the day, soldiers paid mutual trench visits and exchanged gifts of tobacco, jam, sausage, and chocolate. They traded names and addresses.  An English barber gave free haircuts while a juggler from the German side entertained the troops.  Soldiers from both countries respectfully dug graves side by side and held joint funerals.

When the Generals of both sides heard what had taken place they were alarmed. They were concerned what this open display of friendship might do to the war effort.  Unfortunately the truce did end, and shots were fired into the air.  Men scrambled back into the trenches to the cries of “Go back Tommy” or “Go back Jerry.”

However Christmas 1914 will always be remembered as the time in history of the most famous military truce. It was even made into a movie called the “Joyeux Noelle.”  That extraordinary event illustrates the powerful effect Christ has on history.

In the first Christmas so long ago, when the baby Jesus was born, a multitude of angels proclaimed to the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth goodwill toward all.”

In time, the baby Jesus grew up to become the Son of God; one of his divine names is “Prince of Peace.” When we invite Christ into our hearts, it is like God coming into our time, our space, our lives, to be spiritually recreated in a new way. One term I like to use, is “born from above.”

So tonight on this Christmas Eve, this is truly a time for the heart, more so than for the mind. In our worship service we have images of the Nativity through the tapestry on the wall, the songs, and the videos that remind us of what happened.  There is the bright star that shines in the East that leads the wise men to Bethlehem; there is the heavenly host that sings praises to God to the fear and amazement of the shepherds and finally there was the special baby boy who was born in a stable wrapped in swaddling cloth, cared for by Mary and Joseph.

Tonight, we come, not necessarily wanting to hear the proofs and reasons for some great truth or mystery of God. We want to feel and experience the warmth, love, softness and wonder of God that is with and among us.

This is a night where we want to feel what we believe: to celebrate the birth, not only of a wise man, a great teacher, a prophet, but of God in the flesh in the form of a baby.

In a few hours, families and friends will exchange gifts, but perhaps the best Christmas present we can give ourselves is to invite Christ into our hearts and live for him. Someday this little baby who grew up to be a man, will return as the Prince of Peace, and what happened on Christmas of 1914, will be like a foreshadow of greater things to come.  So in the meantime, let us keep Christ in our hearts, not only during this Christmas season, but every day of the year.