December 28, 2022 (The Third Day toward Epiphany)
TODAY’S SCRIPTURE REFERENCE:
“The shepherds returned to their fields glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen just as they had been revealed to them.” (Luke 2.20)
Have you ever wondered why there are only two recorded stories of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem? No, I don’t mean there are stories of Jesus born anywhere else. There is another Bethlehem in Israel and it is just a few miles west of Nazareth instead of 100 miles away southeast of Jerusalem. But, I am asking you to think about two distinctly different stories concerning the birth of Jesus which are recorded in the New Testament scriptures. Regardless of efforts to blend the stories together into one revelation, isn’t it strange that two thousand years later the story that is most told about Christmas isn’t about Jesus? Yes, the fantasized version of Saint Nicolas of Turkey is the the modern greatest story ever told. Imagine that! The cartoon version of a man who lived 1700 years ago and as a believer in the gospel story of Jesus spread hope to those who were hopeless is the most popular of all Christmas stories in today’s world. The fictional Santa Claus has overwhelmed the actual Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicolas. In fact, the original was apparently found so wanting that his entire ministry to the lost, helpless and hopeless was rewritten. And see, just the mere mention of Santa Claus and Christmas blinds us to the original question. What was that original question? Oh yes, “Have you ever wondered why there are only two gospel birth narratives and they being two distinct stories?”
This reflection is not about the differences between Matthew and Luke’s sharing of how and why Jesus was born. This reflection is about an epiphany of why we don’t have more stories concerning the birth of Christ. If not directly, then indirectly there should be stories about the stories. Consider today the story told of the shepherds to whom the angel and then the chorus of angels declared the “good news.” Their gospel was rendered in glory and glorious song concerning the birth of a savior of shepherds who would bring salvation to the entire world. As soon as the “heavenly lights” were doused and replaced by the coming dawn with its orange sun peeking over the horizon, the shepherds determined to verify the truth of what had been said. It wasn’t that they disbelieved the whole event. They were struck down in fear of the presence of God. Such a visitation was said to render death, not life. But, is that the real truth? What of Jacob and his heavenly visitor? Jacob wasn’t exactly afraid of the angel but clung to him in a battle for truth. To the victor belonged the spoils of a blessing from God. It included the change of name which symbolized that the truth had been revealed and validated by faith. And wait, Jacob, who would be called Israel, was a shepherd himself. In the middle of the night, probably in the hours just before dawn, he received his own “good news.” It came to him in a dream so real (and most dreams in our REM sleep come just before we wake up) that he grasped the Angel who had appeared in it and wrestled until the Angel relented in the battle. The angel even threw out Jacob’s hip, a disqualification should have been issued to the angel, but Jacob would not relent. He did not fear death as much as he feared missing out on the blessing.
Could that be said for those shepherds [and the storyteller in me sees that there were three of them]? Could it be that they were fearful because they were not sleeping but fully awake? They did not wrestle with angels but with themselves about what it was that had happened to them. Their only hope of knowing the truth was not a displaced body part but the visible and tangible evidence of what had been said. So engaged were they with this desire that they left their work behind, sacrificing their financial and occupational future, to “go and see” for themselves the savior who was born to them. Believing was seeing and seeing was believing. Believing was the blessing and the blessing was believing. And yet, in the midst of all that happened, no one but Mary and Joseph seemed to notice shepherds without their flocks stepping into the stable to gaze into the manger where a newborn was laid wrapped in swaddling cloth. It wasn’t the middle of the night and everyone was asleep. The day was nearly beginning with the break of dawn. Roosters were crowing. Cows were mooing. Dogs were barking. Wood was being gathered for fire to prepare breakfast and to still the chill in the house. Shopkeepers were stirring in preparation for the day’s sales. And, knowing that the census edict had been issued, there were a host of other people who filled every inn and stable and alley of Bethlehem. They would not slumber long in the chill of the night. They may have had fires to be tended and preparations for their own day’s agenda. Yet, everyone must have been so busy that seeing three out-of-place shepherds was missed. Or, it was such an unbelievable sight no one dared admit to it for fear of some reprisal by the owner of the sheep left unattended who was looking for missing shepherds.
Still, the shepherds came. They spoke the truth in awe and wonder. They saw what they came to see. Perhaps the sight itself was so unique and unexpected that they could hardly believe their eyes. In their hearts they knew it had to be true. But, who would believe it? Would their flocks believe it if they could understand what the shepherds were saying? Would fellow shepherds believe it? Would it even be told fearing the owner of the sheep would find out they had abandoned their stations for a “joy ride”? No one said much, if anything about it. Well, someone had to because Luke shares the story of the birth of a Savior named Jesus. While the story did not spread like wildfire on the day that He was born when the angels got together and decided to share a dream come true, when Luke spoke of it to those under his charge there was a change in the course of history that could not be stopped. Was it one of the shepherds who told it to Luke? We will never know. It wasn’t a part of the oral tradition which Mark drew upon in addition to the remembrances of Peter which comprised his gospel. It wasn’t a part of the beloved disciple John’s gospel telling and he was the caretaker of Jesus’ mother for decades. It is a curiousity to be sure. My point of this reflection is simply this: if more people had told the story of Jesus’ birth (instead of hiding it in their hearts as Mary is reported to have done) then how much more of an impact would there be on the world? And what of each of us today? We believe in the birth narrative but how readily do we share the “good news of a great joy” with the world we return to day after day especially in the season of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. We may have some nativity scene in the yard as a stand alone or it is accompanied by all the other “tales of Christmas lore” which the world has created. But, what of our voices in sharing the beginning of the greatest story every told. A true story of faith, hope and love. Am I missing something? Are we so privatized in our testimony that we have convinced ourselves others must stumble across it or have it “happen to them”? Are we not commissioned as disciples and messengers (the word in greek is angelos, or angels) to tell the story, the truth and nothing but the truth so help us as God has done? It is something to think about as we press forward in the seasons ahead preparing for the coming of the King.
Father, we have eyes to see and ears to hear but we also have mouths to speak. Empower the whole of us so that the whole of the world may hear the good news of such great joy…a Savior has been born to save us from our sins and a fate worse than death. AMEN.