"Eternal Moments, Global Places"

December 12, 1999 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon  Luke 2:8-20

Every Christmas Eve in my family growing up, Dad would bring out the family Bible and read, from the second chapter of Luke, the awesome story of an emperor and an infant, shepherds and angels, and a young woman who pondered all these things in her heart. For me, this tale is wrapped up in the swaddling clothes of my childhood, with the scent of a pine tree, the glow of a candle, the excitement of expected gifts, and the warmth of a loving family surrounding me.

This story, as we have received it from the good news teller Luke, is a powerful one. The picture he paints with words opens up a rather ordinary moment and fills it to overflowing with that which is beyond time. In the process, a common place is transformed into something universal. That is true of the time and setting of the story itself. It also becomes true of the moment and place in which this old, old story is retold yet again.

Shepherds out in a field... Though few have us have any idea of what it must be like to watch over sheep in the middle of the night, this scene touches us. Not because it is so unusual, mind you. Rather, we are grasped by how ordinary it all is. These are men at work, just doing their job. If anything, they might remind us of broom pushers in any age, fellows who may not be known for the pride they take in their work.

In that era, shepherds were considered unsavory characters. Theirs was an entry-level position at best. It was a job reserved for the least or the last-born. Do you remember another shepherd from an earlier day? His name was David, the youngest son of Jesse, hardly anyone’s pick for "most likely to succeed." As his story goes, however, David was God’s choice, who went on to defeat a Goliath-size enemy (whether that be a Philistine warrior or his own burgeoning ego), and become king of Israel. David’s story started out, though, with an ordinary shepherd out in a field.

In Luke’s story, which we tell once again as this millenium draws to a close, a group of ordinary men are at work (or at sleep) out in the field, about as far away from the big events of the day as one can get. And yet, the biggest event explodes right before them. The everyday, or should I say the "everynight," was baptised in the eternal. Not a sprinkling, mind you, but a full under-the-water, get-totally-absolutely-soaked-in-it dunking in the glory of God. Here they were, these men at work, minding their own business, when the Lord nailed the bulls-eye with his heavenly baseball, which sent them in a dunking tank they had no idea was beneath them. As scripture says, these ordinary characters were downright terrified. You would be, also.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not trying to make a case for earth-shattering experiences being the norm by which we should judge our life in the spirit, as if our faith is not complete if we don’t experience something like what those shepherds did out in that field. If such were the case, how many of us would feel, when it comes to faith, like we’re tresspassing on someone else’s property if we can’t tell a similar story about our own experience?

No, it’s just that daily life is full of ground moving moments, when the ordinary touches eternity, like when a child is born or a loved one dies, or when an unexpected word is spoken and things change in an instant, or when a curtain is seemingly pulled back and we discover that something we thought was only our own, peculiar struggle is actually shared by persons we consider very different and distant from us. In such moments, at such places, it is as if the very ground beneath us shifts. That’s not necessarily a pleasant experience.

It wasn’t so for those shepherds. The first words spoken to them in the middle of it all were "don’t be afraid." Please take note, those guys weren’t frightened by hell. It was heaven breaking forth that terrified them. That’s something we need to remember. You see, for some it is standard evangelical practice to hand people bad news before giving them good news. We scare them with hell so that they are ready for heaven. But that’s not the case in this story as we’ve received it from Luke. Nor is it, I believe, how God shows us to relate with others.

Amid those already frightened shepherds, the first words from the mouth of God’s messenger weren’t, "shape up or ship out fellows. If you don’t straighten out you’re headed you-know-where, you and every God-forsaken person like you." No. Instead, the angel said, "Don’t be afraid; for see - I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people." In that place, as ordinary as they come; in that moment, as common as any, a door was opened to reveal that there is no ordinary place, no trite moment. Behind, beneath, around us, no matter where, no matter when, are "the heavenly host."

"Heavenly host, what on earth is that?" we might ask. This story is so ingrained in our Christmastime memory for many of us, that we don’t even think to raise the question. Literally speaking, this "host" was an "army." In Greek, the language in which these words of Luke were written, the word is stratia, from which we derive the English word strategy. As a grown man, Jesus later spoke of God’s strategy involving a heavenly army in the garden of Gethsemene when his disciples pulled out some swords to defend him from being arrested. "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword," he responded . "Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?" (Mt. 26:52-54)

Around those shepherds on that ordinary night was a vast army of angels. No wonder they were frightened... John Paton, a pioneer missionary in the south Pacific, told of how

"hostile natives surrounded his mission headquarters one night, intent on burning them out and killing them. He and his wife prayed thoughout the night that God would deliver. When daylight came, they were amazed to find that the attackers had left, unexplainably. A year later, the chief of the tribe became a Christian, and Paton asked him what had kept him and his men from burning down the house and killing them. The chief answered in surprise, "Who were all those men you had with you up there?" The missionary answered, "There were no men there, just my wife and I." The chief argued that they had seen many men standing guard - hundreds of big men in shining garments with drawn swords. They seemed to circle the building so that the natives were afraid to attack. Paton realized it must have been angels."     (Celebration of Angels, by Timothy Jones, p.96)

In his account of Jesus’ birth, Luke tells us that some nameless, working men caught a glimpse of what is really real, in an ordinary field outside a plain, little town. Right there stood a "heavenly host." But this army of angels was not rattling sabres. They simply sang. Georg Frederick Handel tried to imagine what it might’ve sounded like in his oratorio, "The Messiah," a piece which has set many an imagination on fire since. Who knows, however, what that army of angels sounded like. All we know is that they weren’t there to destroy, but rather to sing good news. "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" (Luke 2:14)

Their song was not an exclusive one. It was not a blessing upon people who always do what is right. If that were the case, no one would be blessed. Neither was it a blessing upon only a select few. Again, if that were true, only the extraordinary folks need apply. The rest of us ordinary characters would be left out. No, the peace of God, the blessing of heaven is upon all people in whatever ordinary time or place they may dwell.

God’s gift of peace is for all people. And that peace, that gift was first offered amid the ordinary. Where did the angel direct the shepherds to find this "peace on earth?" Were they to head to the capital city, to the Temple, to most important places at the most significant times, as determined by the brightest and the best? No. They were pointed toward a rather obscure town whose glory was a famous son of long ago - that other shepherd who, strangely enough, became king. In his backwater hometown, the shepherds were directed toward a barn, of all places. Well, you know the story. In the feeding trough there they would see God’s peace, so the angel said.

Do you get the picture? These everyday workers received the best news ever while on the job. They went to a nondescript outbuilding to see what God was doing. There, amid the straw, was Heaven’s gift to all nations. Imagine that. It was all so ... well, so ordinary. Which should tell us something, folks. In the bigger picture of things, there are no ordinary places, no common times. That’s the impact of what we celebrate at Christmas upon our lives, how it’s lived out every day of the year.

"And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us," the gospel storyteller John reveals. Christ, through his spirit, continues to live in and among us, no matter where, no matter when. Sometimes this presence of heaven in our daily life becomes very obvious to us, even startling us with how close God really is, how each moment is filled with eternity, how each place touches the universe. Though appealing, that can also be a disconcerting, if not downright frightening thought. It was for those shepherds long ago. All Mary, the mother of Jesus, could do when confronted by a series of such moments and places was just ponder it all in her heart.

Maybe that’s a good signpost for all of us, this "pondering" bit. You see, I think if you ask your average person if they have had a ground shaking experience like those poor shepherds, chances are she or he would answer "no." However, we can all ponder it in our hearts. "I wonder as I wander," that old Christmas carol sings, a melody which travels with us all year round, not just in these days surrounding December 25th. In our day to day wandering, our ordinary places and moments, even on the job out in the field (whatever field that may be), we can wonder. And as we wonder, we hear echoes of glory.

1999Peter L. Haynes

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