(In this Christmas homily, the 86th installment of the UPI series of sermons, the Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson, senior pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, reflects on the terrifying effect of Christ's glory on the shepherds of Bethlehem.)
This sermon is based on Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14.
They were startled by glory. Doing what shepherds do at night, they sat there watching, on the sloping hills outside of Bethlehem, some eight miles south of Jerusalem. There the shepherds settled in for the night.
That day they had tended the flock while the census travelers made their way on the road that led to the city of David. They watched from a distance as all who traced their family line to King David made their way south for the registration in the city of his birth -- Bethlehem.
Had the shepherds noticed, late that afternoon, just as the sun was going down, a man leading a donkey carrying his young and pregnant wife? Probably not. Shepherds had little contact with the rest of the world. Regarded as shiftless, dishonest vagrants who grazed their sheep on others' land, shepherds were a despised lot.
So they kept to themselves, tending the sheep, venturing away only when there was a straggler or wanderer to bring in. Now they had gathered the flock, and settled into the night.
Just over the hill in Bethlehem, a newborn emerged with his first cry. At that very moment, an angel of the Lord stood before them with glory radiating a brilliance brighter than any noonday sun. The shepherds' comfortable cover of darkness gone, "they were terrified."
The older version of the King James Bible said, "They were sore afraid." I remember asking my third-grade Sunday school teacher what that meant. She said, "So scared that it hurts."
This was not quite linguistically correct, but it would do for a boy of 8. Standing in a field in the middle of the night, blinded by a blue-white light that seemed to drive away every shadow, they were so scared it hurt.
"Do not be afraid." The angel spoke the ancient yet ever welcome words spoken each time God appears in the Scriptures. "Do not be afraid!" -- words of assurance spoken whenever God has come to save his people. God's word for the shepherds this night is "Do not be afraid."
The angel brings good news of great joy for all people. A savior, the Messiah, the Lord has been born in Bethlehem. It is good news of great joy for everyone.
That news is more startling than the angel itself. A savior, for all people, even the shepherds of this world? The Messiah, the long-awaited Christ of God for more than Israel? The Lord God himself among us in human flesh? Is it any wonder that the shepherds stood there in wide-eyed wonder, mouths agape with arched brows and drooping hands?
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The long promised Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace has finally come to live among them.
But more startling than the news of his advent is the kind of people to whom this news is announced. The coming One is welcomed, not by kings, queens, governors, diplomats, priests or monks, but by shepherds. Can your mind take that in? Can the glory of that word stun you as well as it stunned them?
God comes, not in pomp, power, or royal splendor, but as a helpless baby, born to a recently married couple who are stranded without a room, and better than a hundred miles from home. God arrives, not as a world media event, but in an unobtrusive birth so humble that a feeding trough becomes his bed.
God comes among us as one of us, and begins just as you and I began, as a helpless child. God comes as one, so much for us, that he has become one of us -- one with us. And it is for everyone: the high and the low, powerful and powerless, rich and the poor, saint and sinner, the inside the outside, Jew and Gentile -- everyone!
This is the startling glory of the Gospel. God takes on human flesh to reveal the good news that all of us -- from the least to the greatest, from shepherd to king -- are welcome in the presence of God. "The grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all." God takes on human flesh to reveal himself to us. God takes on human flesh to reveal us to ourselves -- to show us what it means to be authentically human.
All of this will be confirmed by the sign of a newborn wrapped in bands of cloth, lying in a manger. Who puts their precious newborn in a cattle trough? Only God -- God for us. No wonder the night is filled with heavenly hosts singing their eternal song: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he favors."
God has come among us as one of us out of his own good will. He comes to favor us with the gift of peace.
Startled by glory the shepherds went to see for themselves. They returned in an equally startling way, "Glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, as it had been told them."
They went back to their fields and their flocks in the night, but as Beverly Gaventa has written, it was anything but business as usual. After what they had seen and heard, their nights in the field would never be the same again.
This night is for remembering, rejoicing, and praising God for what we have seen and heard. But, more, we gather at this table to be joined to the one born that evening who is now the risen Lord. He bids us come, to taste and see, to open ourselves to being startled by his glory. He brings peace so that the nights in the fields of your life will never be the same again.