And so this is Christmas: when once again we join the shepherds keeping watch in the night. Some of you may remember how last year we met up with them outside in front of this church. We sat on metal chairs in the street and sang carols into the night watch, and at some point, a fire truck entered the story: the fearful ring of its siren announcing an urgency heading toward someone in trouble.
Always at Christmas, we live in a world on fire somewhere. And always at Christmas, the same old angel comes to tell us, “Don’t be afraid.”
It’s what the Angel said to Mary when he told her she would bear a child. And tonight, he says it again to the shepherds, Don’t be afraid, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people.
Angels only say that sort of thing to people who are already afraid. And, likely, you and I are among those people. Often afraid. Often angry about — and fearful of — what’s going on in the world around us. The Angel, though, asks you to see what’s really there: the goodness of God half buried by your fears and worries.
For days now, our puppy Andy has been digging holes in the backyard. He heads out through a dog door all neat and tidy, and returns to us covered in mud. Apparently, it gives him joy to dig and dig and dig, as if toward the heart of the world. He’s a puppy, after all, so he has no fear.
To him the world is a backyard gift, smelling of water and moles, earth and grass. Though likely he’d surrender what he’s up to at the sound of a siren, I’m guessing he’d quickly return to whatever hope he draws from the muddy gift of the world.
It’s not the same for us. Of course, it isn’t the same for us. You and I are human beings, after all, awake to more than our own backyard. We hear the loud sirens, and wonder where they’re headed. And worry they might not get there in time.
Our trouble, though, isn’t the sirens.
It’s that we’ve forgotten how to hear the angels, too: the angels still with us, still asking us not to be afraid.
In the words of novelist Marilynne Robinson, “We live in a time when we’ve begun to think the worst thing we can say about something is also the truest.” Said another way, we’ve come to believe that hidden away in the heart of our world is something awful and fearful. And that somehow in making a list of all the awful fearful things, we’ll uncover the deepest truth we know about the world today.
Christmas has a better word: a first and a last and an utterly in-between word: the Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ.
Through the birth of Jesus, you’re to know there is something deeper than fear: deeper than any hole you dig for yourself. Through the birth of Jesus, you’re to know there’s something truer than knowing the worst of things. Something miraculous and joyful.
Christmas is the Feast of the Incarnation, when you’re asked to see the child in the manger. Asked to remember, that in him and through him, God dressed God’s eternal Self in the fraying muddy dress of your humanity. And did so with joy on a night full of fearful things.
And there, in the dark, God comes to you now to give you courage that you might enter the same joy the shepherds knew.
They were wide awake watching their sheep when the Angel spoke to them. Very likely there were wolves about. Certainly, the loss of even one sheep was costly. But somehow, in the middle of a night watch, they heard the angel, and found themselves on their way to Bethlehem. Somehow, they let go of their fears in order to see life as it really is: a world on fire where God is come to bring you peace and joy.
The shepherds, we’re told, fell down in adoration before the baby in the manger: Son of Mary, Son of God, come to bring them joy. And the story doesn’t end there. It does what Truth often does: it sends you home. To your own backyard. To your ordinary life and to the work and love of an ordinary day. Back to the world God made: a fiery gift shot through with deepest joy.
The shepherds returned to their fields, to their watchful place in the world. The difference was this: they returned praising and glorifying God. This tells you they were never quite the same. This tells you they became part of God’s joy.
That’s the Christmas invitation: to become part of God’s joy. Not for a night only, but through the faithful struggle of a lifetime.
So, Glory be to God in the highest heaven and peace to his people on earth. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.