St. Luke tells us that on the night on which Jesus was born, there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were scared to death. But the angel told them not to be afraid, that he wasn’t there to hurt them, but to bring them the greatest news ever. For unto you, the angel told them, unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. The angel told them how to find the Child: He will be the only Baby lying in a manger this evening. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, lots and lots of angels, singing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
And so, two-thousand years after that night, we sang the same song those angels sang, Gloria in excelsis Deo, glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. We sing that song because that message of the angels is still good news, two-thousand years of human history has done nothing to diminish how good that news was. We know why a Baby born in a remote village in the Middle East was good news, but have you ever wondered why the shepherds didn’t look at each other and say “Good news of great joy? A Savior? What the heck are these angels talking about? A Baby in a feeding trough? And angels, what the heck are those things? Forget this.” The angels were scary, and the news was strange: a Savior. How many of us ever think that we need a savior? A savior from what, exactly? How come the shepherds didn’t ask if they needed a savior?
They didn’t need to ask because they not only knew they needed a savior, but they were actually expecting a savior. The shepherds, and for that matter all of Israel had been living a four-thousand year Advent season, they had been waiting, expecting, calling out for God to send the Messiah, the One who would save them from their troubles. Shepherds were disreputable people, they were thought of as thieves, they were amongst the unclean along with tax collectors and prostitutes, shepherding was a despised trade. So Luke is telling us that, for all intents and purposes, the angels first announced the birth of the Messiah to the ancient equivalent of a biker gang, like the Hells Angels were the first to hear what God was up to. And what did that sheep-herding biker gang do when told that good news? They went to check it out for themselves.
And so here we are, two-thousand years later, still singing the song of the angels but still somewhat perplexed by that heavenly host, we’re still trying to figure out exactly what it means to need a savior, what it is that we are being saved from; we’re still trying to figure out why the birth of a backwater baby is good news. Most of us from time to time probably get passing glimpses, little shimmers of answers to these questions; maybe our hearts let us know that we are not so different from those shepherds, we are not so clean as to not need a wash, not so reputable as to not need an Advocate, not so righteous as to not need a savior. Maybe from time to time our hearts let us know that without the birth of that Child, without God making good on His promise, we would all teeter on the edge of hopelessness, that if that night in Bethlehem never happened, our fears would outweigh our hopes, our tears would outweigh our joys.
And so here we are. Some of you are here because you are always here, some of you are here because it’s Christmas and that’s what you do, some of you are here because someone else dragged you here. Whatever reason you are here, whatever or whoever caused you to come here tonight, you have, whether you meant to or not, made the same journey those shepherds made two-thousand years ago. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. Unto you, each one of you and all of us, is born this day the relief of those fears we are only sometimes willing to admit, the fulfillment of those hopes we don’t always know we have, the cause of that joy and wonder even sheep-herding bikers had to go see for themselves.
I don’t know what happened to those shepherds after they found that babe wrapped up in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Certainly they went on their way, back to their flocks, back to the life they had known. But I can’t imagine that having seen the Savior of the world lying in a feeding trough, those shepherds went back to their flocks unchanged; there’s just no going back to normal after seeing that Child, after seeing salvation Himself face to face. Tonight you have seen and will see again that same Child, you will follow that same Jesus from His birth in Bethlehem to His last supper in Jerusalem to His last breath on Calvary. You will partake of His Body and Blood, that heavenly Food and Drink of unending life in Him. Like those shepherds you will see Him face to face, unto you this day a Savior is given, who is Christ the Lord. Glory to God in the highest, and to you and yours peace and goodwill. Merry Christmas.