And the Shepherds Were Living in the Fields, Keeping Watch

Meditation on Luke 2:1-20

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Pastor Karen Crawford

Christmas Eve

Dec. 24, 2022

I wasn’t going to put up a Christmas tree this year. We’ve just been so busy, and we are preparing to travel in January… And you know, whatever you put up, you have to take down after Christmas. Right?

Then, around the first weekend in December, after the two baptisms, I changed my mind. It just didn’t feel right to celebrate our Savior’s birth with no decorations when we have a basement full. And I just can’t have Christmas without a tree—and this year, we have two tabletop trees. Some ornaments take me back to when my children were small—Baby’s First Christmas in the late 80s and early 90s.

And those homemade ornaments of bells and snowmen the kids make in school with egg cartons, photos, felt, fabric, glitter, and yarn or ribbon.  Other ornaments are much older than that and came from my own childhood in the 60s and 70s. These are the ones that bring back memories of when it was primarily my job, with Dad, to decorate the family Christmas tree.

This will be our family’s fourth Christmas without Dad. Is anyone else here thinking of a loved one no longer with you? But now, when I look at my tiny tabletop trees, the memories don’t make me sad. They bring me joy and peace. It is as if he is still here with us.

Dad’s Christmas decorating passion, when we were young, didn’t end with the tree. I remember sitting on the bottom of a ladder while he climbed up on the roof of our rancher, hauling up strings of lights and extension cords, and, after some time with tools and through some kind of parent magic, the outside of our home would be all aglow with colored lights.  Oh, and somehow he got Santa with his sleigh up on the roof. It was wonderful to see it lit up at night, along with the nearly life-size Rudolph and was it Frosty the Snowman at the entrance to our long, gravel driveway? The plastic figurines were attached to long extension cords, too, and had rocks in their bases to keep them from blowing over in the wind.

Those decorations inside and out—where all the world could see as they sped by on our two-lane country road—was the way my father, a quiet man of few words, expressed his joy.

So, long before I understood what Christmas was really all about—the Coming of the Messiah, Jesus, Savior who is Christ the Lord—I knew Christmas was when our shadowy world was transformed and made more beautiful by light. And that no matter what was happening in the world around us—with politics or the economy or energy crisis, Vietnam or the Cold War—there was still hope and joy. 

It is a broken world in which the Messiah arrives, long ago. A world of corrupt, greedy rulers, puppets of Rome, who oppress and terrorize the common people. Power demands a census so the Empire can get richer and the poor poorer. This also means that more young men would be taken from their families and forced to serve as Roman soldiers. It is a world that compels a young woman in her 9th month of pregnancy to trek 90 miles from her hometown of Nazareth with her betrothed to the village of Bethlehem. This fulfills the prophecy of Micah of where the Messiah would be born. It is the hometown of David, a shepherd as a boy, who is anointed King and Shepherd of God’s people, Israel.

While Joseph and Mary are there to register for the census, the time comes for her to deliver the child, and we can only marvel that our God of eternity would pick such an inconvenient and dangerous time for the birth of the Son. The only place where Mary and Joseph can stay is the humblest of surroundings, where farm animals are kept. Mary wraps the babe called Jesus in bands of cloth and lays him in a manger, a feeding trough.

The other marvelous thing that happens in the Nativity story is when the army of angels show up, shining in the brilliant light of the glory of the Lord, bringing terror to the hearts of those who are the nobodies of society. These are the ordinary shepherds; in modern language, essentially homeless people living off the grid, sleeping in the fields with their sheep. They are probably hired hands of low status, often with unsavory reputations. Shepherds have few possessions, not just because they can’t afford them but because they didn’t need them; they would be a burden to life in the fields, where everything they have has to be carried on their backs.

The angels tell the terrified shepherds, who by the way haven’t obeyed the command to register for the census, “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.”

We are left to wonder why God would choose marginalized outsiders with such an important message. This idea would captivate Martin Luther, who identified the angels bringing the gospel to the lowliest of ordinary people as something that says more about God than the human beings God chooses and uses for divine purposes. God chooses the weak and humble of this world to fulfill God’s great plan for salvation—and to bring down the proud and arrogant.

 The lowliest people in society matter to God. The angels didn’t come to visit the homes of rich or royalty or rulers of any kind–not even religious leaders. God sends the angels to proclaim the good news to ordinary people who are willing to change their plans and interrupt their livelihoods to respond with gratitude, joy, and obedience to God.

The image that stays with me tonight from Luke’s gospel is the Power of the Light shining in the darkness. The only ones witnessing it are those who live in the fields and have to stay awake to keep watch over sheep.

God comes to us right where we are living and working and breathing. The things of this world that matter so much to human beings—status, wealth, and worldly possessions—don’t impress the angels who come to do the Lord’s bidding.  

When the angels leave the shepherds, they say to one another, (I think this is my favorite part), “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”  And they go with haste (they don’t overthink this decision!) to find Mary and Joseph—and the child, lying in a feeding trough. I imagine that if they go with haste, they couldn’t possibly have taken all their sheep with them. So they are taking a BIG risk with their livelihood to put their trust in God.

 They tell Mary and Joseph what they have heard and seen, what has been made known to them about this child.” And everyone who hears the message are amazed. Maybe part of their amazement is that God would trust shepherds with such an important message at all!

Faithful Mary believes them. She who has told the angel Gabriel that she is a servant of the Lord doesn’t look down on them, who have also heard from angels. She treasures their words and continues to think about them and ponder them in her heart. She doesn’t know what it all means, yet, and how it will all come to pass. These words and the promise of peace, hope and joy strengthen her and help her to persevere through dark times ahead.

When the shepherds have diligently done their job of sharing the good news, they have been changed by this intimate, terrifying encounter with the angels of the Lord and their calling from God. They have a new understanding of God’s love and grace and a new purpose, for they have been chosen to be bearers of the good news of the Messiah, who will bring peace on earth. They return to their former life in the fields with the sheep, but now they are “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told them.”

Like the angels who shared the good news with the lowly shepherds, Jesus trusts us now with the message. What will you do with it? How will it change you?

 Like Mary, we may not fully grasp how our faith will be lived out in this world of light and shadow, and what it means to witness to the One who shows favoritism to the poor, outcast, and ordinary people.

May we be stirred tonight and always, like Mary, to treasure the words of angels and shepherds and ponder them in our hearts. May they strengthen us with joy, peace, and hope through dark times.

As we leave this room filled with light and the love of the Body of Christ, and as we watch and wait and search the night sky for an army of angels to visit ordinary people like us, may we respond to the good news for all people like the shepherds—with gratitude, joy, and obedience, no matter what the risk.

Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Church. You matter to God!

“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people! to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Let us pray.

Thank you, dear God, for the good news of great joy, which is for all people and especially the lowly and ordinary people of the world you have created. Help us to keep the joy and hope of Christmas in our hearts all the year through and to share it faithfully and generously, taking risks like the shepherds long ago. Help us to witness to our life everlasting in the loving presence of Emmanuel, God with us, now and forever. Amen.

Published by karenpts

I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, New York on Long Island. Come and visit! We want to share God’s love and grace with you and encourage you on your journey of faith. I have served Presbyterian congregations in Minnesota, Florida and Ohio since my ordination in 2011. I am a 2010 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and am working on a doctor of ministry degree with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I am married to Jim and we have 5 grown children and two grandchildren in our blended family. We are parents to fur babies, Liam, an orange tabby cat, and Minnie, a toy poodle.

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