December 24, 2020 /Christmas Eve / Richard Holmer
1st Reading Isaiah 9:2-7 / 2nd Reading Titus 2:11-14 / Gospel Luke 2:1-20
It Makes You Wonder
In Luke’s telling of the Christmas story, it all begins with an imperial decree calling for a worldwide census. It was a truly ambitious and grandiose venture. Caesar Augustus wanted to count all the heads in his vast empire. This Roman census is what caused Mary and Joseph to travel from Nazareth down to Bethlehem. The story begins with Caesar’s decree – but the story ends up being about something else: something greater and grander than an imperial census. It’s a story of wonder – actually two kinds of wonder. There’s the scratch your head, say what?, how can this be? kind of wonder. And then there’s the awesome, joyous, amazed wonder. Caesar issues his decree from his royal throne in Rome. And then God appears – of all places – in a feed box, born to a teenage girl in occupied Israel (what a wonder!). And who are the first ones to hear the news of God’s arrival – this gift of a savior? It’s some ordinary working stiffs: Lowly shepherds, on the job in the fields outside of Bethlehem. Those lonesome shepherds get the good news: they are the first to know of it, and the first to tell of it. They get to tell the wonder of what has happened. The shepherds go over to Bethlehem to confirm what the angel has announced to them. And they also go because when something truly amazing happens to you – you have to tell it someone. So the shepherds hurry over to town, both to see and to tell what’s happened to them. We’ve heard this story so many times – but imagine the awesome wonder of what those shepherds experienced that night:
The dazzling, glorious, overpowering light that suddenly shined all around them – turning night into day.
The heavenly song, voiced by a mighty chorus of angels.
The message delivered personally to them by an angel of the Lord.
The Good News – for them and for all people – news of great joy and peace.
Their wonder is increased when the shepherds arrive at the stable and discover everything just as the angel had said: a newborn baby boy, tucked in a bed of hay in a manger. Angelic message confirmed! This is the shepherds’ cue to tell Mary and Joseph, and the other unnamed bystanders at the stable, what they have seen and heard. Imagine their excited enthusiasm as they poured out their story! It may have seemed unreal – even to the shepherds – as they recounted what happened. Yet it must have happened, because here was the baby – just like the angel said. St. Luke tells us: “All who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.” (you can be sure they did!)
Did they wonder in the sense of : “Well, you know, I wonder about that?” Did they wonder if it was true? Did they wonder (as Mary did when the angel first came to her), how can this be? Did they wonder if a helpless infant could be a savior? Did they wonder what all this might mean for them? You and I might wonder such things as well.
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I suspect, however, that everyone in that stable experienced the other kind of wonder. They marveled at the story the shepherds told them. They were amazed, thrilled, filled with wonder. They marveled that though they were ordinary people, just trying to get by – they counted to God, they were favored by God. They were delighted to hear that what God intended for them was joy and peace. Amazed by the angelic promise: “Do not be afraid”: God is with you, (and while that may be awesome and overwhelming – it’s no reason to be scared, it’s reason to be hopeful). No doubt: they were filled with wonder.
I’ve actually experienced this story from a shepherd’s point of view. In high school, I once played the part of a shepherd in our church’s outdoor, live nativity. It was freezing cold. The wise men had thick, warm, velvet robes. I wondered why… We shepherds had thin, cotton garments. Our job was to stand still, watch, and try not to shiver. The word “pastor” literally means shepherd – and as a shepherd I’ve been telling this same, marvelous story for many years. Tonight, as I am once again telling you this story, you may again wonder at what you hear, wondering in that first sense: Is this just a nice sweet story – or is it something more? After all, there is a lot to wonder about. A beautiful carol ponders the deep mystery:
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the savior did come for to die
For poor ord’nary people like you and like I,
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.
(With One Voice #642)
After 2,000 years, and a world still plagued by hardship, injustice and suffering – what does this nativity story actually mean for us? If it raises questions and causes you to scratch your head, I also hope what you can sense, what you feel, is wonder of awe and amazement and joy. I hope you are marveling that this good news is good for you – because it truly is.
It’s not often that good news comes for all the people. When that happens, it’s truly a cause for wonder and elation. Those shepherds were dancing for joy, praising God, as they skipped back to their flocks. Likewise, those wise men rejoiced exceedingly with great joy when the star finally came to rest over the newborn king. People are like that. We are filled with wonder and joy when good news arrives for all – a blessing for everyone. Isaiah speaks of the joy that comes with a beautiful harvest. My parents told of the wondrous joy when Germany and Japan surrendered, and the war which had involved so many people they knew and loved finally came to an end. There is genuine joy right now for our world in the promise of a vaccine that can liberate us from an oppressive pandemic.
The news of Christmas is greater, more awesome, more enduring – so wonderful that it’s hard for our minds to grasp – yet at the same time so personal that it transforms human hearts. You have heard this story, this news, many times before. As your appointed shepherd, I tell you again the wondrous promise of Christmas:
Good news of great joy, which has come for all the people!
Love has come into this world!
Christ is with us – with you!
May all your days be blessed with the wonder of his love.
Thanks be to God.