The shepherds are struck dumb with fear, but when the vision passes, they have a choice to make. They can stay where they are, inside the status quo, unchanged by what happened, or they can take a risk and respond to the vision.
What would we do? I guess it depends on which we think is real.
Being raised in secular materialism we have been taught that only what the five senses tell us is real. Sheep and fields are real, but angels with a story about the Invisible Infinite slipping on flesh to come among us is unreal.
Better be logical and realistic and stay with the sheep than follow a crazy vision that might disrupt our settled lives.
Luke, however, isn’t telling us to choose between our senses and our visions. Rather he is telling us that these two stories belong together, that they are in fact one story, not just on that night but every night.
Singing the familiar carols in a festive church, we can almost believe both stories go together. It’s like my experience as a child on Christmas Eve in Atlanta: my father would gather me and my two older brothers together to tell us he heard on WSB radio that NORAD—The North American Aerospace Defense Command—is tracking an unidentified flying object, making its way from the North Pole, heading south. Then my father take out his tattered King James Bible with the words of Jesus in red, and he reads Luke’s Christmas story.
Later we put out cookies and milk for Santa and go to bed, but we sleep lightly, anxious for daylight, so we can wake up our parents and see if something extraordinary happened while we slept.
And sure enough, without fail it had! At least in my middle-class home.
But then, we grew up and learned that some of the magic was manufactured by our parents.
So maybe the story of Baby Jesus being “God with us” is just another manufactured story. Maybe the ordinary world is all we’ve got, so we’d better get all this nonsense out of our minds once Christmas is over.
How easy it for us after the decorations are down and the tree thrown out, to revert to our ordinary worldview in which the universe is empty and cold and the light of Christ is nowhere to be seen. The world we get in January is the real world, not the world we get on Christmas.
But I ask you: What is real?
Our mortal minds tell us the pews we’re sitting on are more real, more solid, than the Living God who makes the trees which become pews in a church. Earth is more real than Spirit, though Spirit holds earth in being. This makes no logical sense, but it’s what our senses tell us.
C. S. Lewis in his short, but profound story, of a bus trip from hell to heaven, called The Great Divorce, says that when the folks from hell get off the bus in the outskirts of heaven the grass hurts their feet, because the grass of heaven is more real than the feet of the people from hell.
Could it be that the angels singing about the birth of the savior are more real and solid than the shepherds and their sheep?
Well, I guess you didn’t come to church tonight to hear a lecture on philosophy!
What brings us out on this cold night, rather, is the hope that the Jesus story is not only real, but that it also includes us. That Jesus came not just to first century Palestine, but that he also comes into our world with the Light, Peace, and Healing of Christ.
Once the angels dissolve back into heaven the shepherds could stay with their sheep in the cold night, sunchanged by what has just happened, but instead the shepherds say to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.”
You and I have the same choice: we can forget the glory of God this night is revealed in singing and sacrament, family and friends. Then in the New Year we can return to our sheep, or whatever it is we do, to make money to try to give meaning to our lives.
The Christmas Story is not asking us to add a little faith to our lives, like tinsel on a tree. Rather, Luke is asking us to risk having our ordinary lives transformed by the power and presence of Christ. Jesus shows us a total way of life, a life where ordinary and extraordinary are One in Christ.
I imagine most of you are familiar with the William Holman Hunt painting that depicts Christ dressed in royal robes wearing a crown and holding a lantern. He’s gently knocking on a door that is overgrown with vines and weeds. It is a depiction of Revelation 3:20 where the Risen Christ says, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any one hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in to them, and eat with them, and they with me.”
In the painting it is up to us to open the door, because there is no handle on Jesus’ side of the door.
But opening the door can be hard because our imaginations have been inundated with negative thinking: we don’t think we are worthy because of things we’ve done and left undone, and because we are so mesmerized by the five senses, we can’t imagine the Creator of the Universe taking on flesh and blood and coming to my world, my house, to me.
But the Good News of the angels resounds across the millennia: if Jesus can show up in a stable, he can show up in whatever dark place a person may be. Show up at the border, in prisons, hospitals, and at the bed of the dying.
Show up in welcome, show up to “seize us by the power of a great affection”. Brendan Manning
And if we just can’t open that door, Jesus walks through it like he does in the Upper Room on Easter to unveil the nature of Ultimate Reality: The Eternal Love of God for us…made Real in Jesus Christ.