Author’s Note: I’m taking a break from my African posts during December. At our church we celebrate the season of Advent which encompasses the 4 Sundays before Christmas. Among other things, we light a new candle each week, which helps us realize how fast the season is moving, and also points us toward some of the significant players in the heavenly drama that unfolded that first Christmas. The third week of Advent begins Sunday, and what I will share below is a part of that message that centers around the “candle of the shepherds.” Hope you enjoy it, and maybe even think about it a little bit! And in case I don’t get to write again before Christmas, let me say how much it means to me that I have a solid cadre of faithful readers. Your encouragement–and really just the fact that you read my stuff–is what keeps me writing. Merry Christmas!!
I love Christmas! I love the lights and the music and the food and the presents and time spent with people I love. And I love the message! Whether you recognize it or not, Christmas is but one more resounding echo of the Gospel, the Good News–promised, provided and proclaimed by God himself. It’s beautiful, it’s good, and it’s all so unexpected!
Think back to the Christmas text in Luke 2: An angel of the Lord appears to these sleepy little shepherds who are out mindlessly minding their own little business. Then suddenly the night sky is ripped apart by the very Glory of the Lord, as if God for just a moment in time tore the curtain that separates heaven from earth, and that glory leaked out. And the shepherds are just terrified! This is no little fright. It’s a “fall to the ground and hide” afraid, a “change your pants” kind of afraid, a “this is it, we’re all gonna die!” afraid. They respond appropriately, as anyone would when confronted with the brilliant glory of God. You see, you can’t hide there! God’s brilliance not only shows us his incredible lightness of being, it shows and reveals all the things about us we’d just as soon hide. But in the light of God, we can’t.
These little shepherds knew, instinctively, what they were dealing with. So there was nothing to do but fall on their faces and hope the coming obliteration would be mercifully quick and painless. We lack their sense, when in our own ways we each tend to avoid or run from the unwavering light of God and his Word trying in vain to cover up the disappointing truth of who we are really. We know that truth already, of course. And so does he. But in the darkness or half-shadows, it’s easy to live with our ragged-edged realities or imagine that maybe we are somehow able to hide the worst of it, if not from ourselves at least from others.
Our own response is an autonomic echo from Eden, when Adam and Eve chose the Devil’s lie over a perfect relationship with God. They had been warned, and they deserved to die. When God shows up he finds that they are trying both to hide and cover themselves with fig leaves and excuses that are equally flimsy. For the first time ever, they are afraid of God. But instead of obliterating them and starting over with better stock, God cuts them off from the relationship they’d previously enjoyed with him, and casts them out of Eden. And for the first time in their lives they inhabit the inhibited perspective of outsiders, no longer welcome in paradise. As God explains the resonating consequences of their choice and spells out the punishment, he tells the serpent—the Devil—“I will make enemies of you and the woman and between both of your offspring. He will crush your head, bruising his heel in the process.” This Gospel fore-shadow all the way back in Genesis looks all the way to the cross, to the time when Jesus would inflict an ultimately fatal blow upon Satan, but not without injury to himself.
At the cross, which is just a skip from Christmas, the sin of Adam was paid for and the excommunication undone. Through the cross we descendants of Adam are no longer outcasts, no longer cut off from the presence of God. Although our human nature, courtesy of Adam, makes us inclined to hide and cower and cover up the nakedness of our flaws in a kind of vain insincerity—the message of Christmas, and the cross, is that we don’t have to be afraid of getting what we deserve, and that in fact, punishment is not God’s objective.
So the message to the little shepherds is really still God’s big message to us: “Don’t be afraid!” And here’s why—“I bring you good news that will be of great joy to all the people—today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Don’t miss the message! “Your Deliverer has come!” God says. “You’re about to be rescued! No more living in the dirt east of Eden. No more barriers between you and God. No more need to live or walk in the darkness; you don’t have to hide in shame, and you don’t have to be afraid anymore!”
Even though we are very much like these little shepherds of Luke 2 and their little sheep as well—even though we are little and timid and prone to wander and get lost; even though we need lots of attention and we reek of the fallen-ness of humanity, rightfully made outsiders due to the stench of sin—still the angel army choir shouts their song to us: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to men and women on whom his favor rests.” The message is good news…a message of favor instead of fear. When the shepherds received it, they “…let loose, praising and glorifying God.” When we receive it, shouldn’t we do that, too?