Sermon by the Rev. Terry Elsberry on Sunday, December 20, 2020.
Every year for a long time, at Christmas I’ve done the same thing. I’ve tried to imagine what it might have been like to actually be there, be in Bethlehem, see the baby Jesus born of Mary and laid in a manger. Every year, the Lord has helped me. Every year He’s given me an idea of what it might have been like to be one of the characters at the creche. Some were there for sure, we know that from the Bible. Others MIGHT have been there. So come with me now. In your imagination, leave 2020 far behind and journey with me to a land far away and a long time ago and to the holiest night of all.
When you’re a shepherd, your sheep are everything to you. And since they’re prone to wandering away from the flock and getting themselves in predicaments, you learn to keep a constant eye out.
On the night I’m here to tell you about, I suddenly looked around and discovered to my horror that one of the lambs was missing.
His mother, one of my favorite ewes, caught my attention by her pained bleating and desperate pacing.
I told one of my fellows where I was going. I left them and the rest of the sheep in their good hands. I headed off, as fast as I could, to find the little guy. If I’d be able to find him.
One of the boys had seen a lion by the creek the day before. Was our flock being stalked? It was cloudy. Night fell early.
My destination was a steep ravine leading down to a canyon on the side of the hill opposite Bethlehem.
It didn’t take long.
My instincts proved right. Before I saw the little guy, I heard his desperate bleating for help. There he was, not much more than a white fluff of wool, trapped where two boulders come together.
anguished look in his eye stabbed my heart. I extricated the tiny tortured leg, took the little guy in my arms, rubbed a bit of ointment into his wound, gave him food and water from the provisions I’d thought to bring.
I was ready to head back to camp when I realized we wouldn’t be able to make it. Not before morning. The clouds obscured any light from moon or stars.
“It’s overnight here for us,” I told him. He nestled into my arms. I found a soft bit of earth under a spreading tree. Wrapped in my warm winter robe, we both slept.
It was the light that woke me. I’ve been to Jerusalem, seen Solomon’s Temple, seen the palace of King Herod, but no earthly wonder could touch what we saw next.
I raced back to camp. There I found the other shepherds, crouched around the fire, unable to move, glued to the rocks like stones themselves.
What had brought them to their knees was a heavenly panoply beyond imagining. It was as if the stars were landing on the earth around us. It was as if the Milky Way had descended upon us and around us. We were bathed in light, outlined in light—glimmering, sparkling, shimmering, radiant light.
Tiny flashes and sparks of light danced and leapt and seemed to collide overhead and all around us and for a minute I was blinded, while at the same time pierced with a joy so intense, I realized I was laughing though my face was wet with tears.
The sparkling, colliding flashes stopped, though the light stayed—bright as noonday, brighter than any noonday I’d ever seen, even in summer here in sun-washed Judea.
Then we heard it. A sound like nothing you can explain, overhead, a whirring noise as if giant fans or enormous eagles were stirring the air.
The whirring sound came closer in a new bolt of light, like a giant tongue of fire, and out of the flames stepped a man but not a man; blazing white, with pale, clear eyes and a swirl of gold-colored hair and a voice that more sang than spoke.
He was too glorious for mere mortals to look upon. No one had to tell us. We knew what he was.
But his voice was piercingly sweet and, if you can imagine, in a scene such as that, actually comforting. I’m amazed that with all that was happening we could take in what he said at all, but his words seared my heart:
“Fear not. For behold I bring you good tidings of great joy. For there is born to you this day, in the city of David, a Savior—who is Christ the Lord. Go. Go, and this will be a sign to you; you will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
There was more. Came now out of the heavens, voices praising, shouting with joyous abandon, yet sounding with great sweetness, and the sound of instruments—harps, lyres, trumpets—and the voices—singing: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace!”
The light lifted. Again, a thousand whirring wings sounded overhead. The music echoed down across the valley toward the sea and was lost.
We stood blinking at each other—too dazed to speak. Then one of us gave the call to run.
The light had formed into a single, enormous, streaking star and was moving majestically, like a long-tailed comet, toward the town.
We ran as though possessed. We WERE possessed—by joy, by emotion so intense I thought at one point I’d explode from the glorious burden of it.
We ran. And the sheep scattered, forgotten by us, chased and nipped back into place by our faithful dogs.
I couldn’t feel my feet on the street, only hear the clattering of our sandals on the cobbles.
“How can they sleep?” I remember wondering looking at the shuttered houses. “How can the world still sleep as if this weren’t the most wonderful night in the history of the world?”
Then the great star stopped, and so did we.
It was a cave out back, where they kept the animals.
And we saw Him there, just as the angel had said, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger full of sweet-smelling straw.
After the sound of the mighty chorus, the sudden hush was so sweet, so gentle, I was filled with a different kind of awe.
I remember thinking: “So this is the one come to save us. Only a baby.”
His mother was lovely, little more than a child herself. I remember a wash of pale blue around her shoulders and face. The father, rough, grizzled, a workman, he might have been one of us, so simple and genuine he looked.
But we only had eyes for the baby.
I remember thinking, asking myself as I have every day of my life since: why was I chosen to be there? I was no one special. The reverse. There was a time when being a shepherd was considered a high calling. The great King, David, tended the sheep. Now I felt like little more than a hired hand, love my sheep though I did.
But the Lord didn’t care who we were. He had chosen us shepherds to see the light, to hear the angel, the music, to find the Babe, and to see his mother, with that strange, shining look in her eyes, and to feel the hush of the stable.
And today it’s the light I still remember. I’ve gone through dark times since. You here today know something about dark times.
Yet the birth of that baby, God’s coming to earth, was really about two things: love and light. God came into the world to show us how much He loves us. Every time we see light, we have the reminder. Love revealing itself in light. Light to help us remember that no matter how hard the times we may be going through, the hard times never last forever. But God’s love does. His love forever with us, holding us close as I held the tiny lamb against my heart that night until the light came to show us the way.
I can still close my eyes, all these years later, and see the light. The true light, the light coming into the world—the genuine, perfect, steadfast, never changing light, the light pointing to, shining around, beaming forth from the baby, proof that love is the greatest light there is. Look for the light.