Traveling the sparse distance between Boulder and Denver, we were in Colorado to visit friends and see the city; younger and much more suited to cross-country road trips, we pulled over in the middle of the night amidst that long stretch of road. The whole of our group climbed out of the car to wander into a neighboring field and stare up at a memorizing depth of darkness and an abundance of stars; there were no lights, just a blanket of stars cascading around us. And then we heard the howl of a coyote off in the distance, which was followed not in short order, by a second set of howls, this time a little bit closer. We weren’t exactly afraid, we were terrified and extremely aware of how vulnerable we were in the openness of the dark.
I imagine that this is how the shepherds felt in our gospel lesson tonight. The shepherds were living in the fields so that they could watch their flock, and an angel of the Lord comes and stands before them and a brightness shone around them, piercing the darkness of field, and they were terrified. The angel said to them something so entirely counterintuitive. The angel greeted them as angels are known to do in Luke’s gospel with a quick reminder to not be afraid. Even with the brightness of the angel’s appearing and the fantastic nature of their news, the shepherds were startled by the good news; they were startled by the movement from darkness to light, it was unexpected and frightening.
“Don’t be afraid,” the angel said, “ I’m bringing good news!” The good news that the angel brought was the good news that we come here tonight to celebrate – that the Savior has been born. The Christ child will be wrapped in clothes and lying in a manger. Then the one angel was joined by a whole multitude of heavenly host, singing and praising God, “Glory to God in the highest!” The angels left, the shepherds were again left in the darkness of the field, and they turned to each other and made a plan to go to Bethlehem to see what that of which the angels had told them. They went and found Mary and Joseph and told them about the child and the angels and all of the whole miraculous event, everyone was amazed at what the shepherds had to say. Mary, the bearer of God, held these words in her heart; perhaps as confirmation to what she already knew deep in her soul, that the Messiah had been born of her body, and the shepherds go on, no longer afraid, excitedly glorifying and praising God.
Like the shepherds, I’ve been in some pretty dark places; and while I’ve never had this experience, I can’t imagine a bright flash of light and an angel telling me not to worry would do anything to quell my fear. Much like the shepherds, who, Luke tells us, are filled with terror at the sight, I too, struggle with my own fear in the dark moments. There is so much to be afraid of these days; it doesn’t take long to scroll through our newsfeeds to see tragedies play out around in the world or in our own country, our federal government shutdown, furloughing thousands of people, homelessness and poverty are on the rise in our own community. And even when we aren’t exactly sure what we are afraid of, fear creeps in, and we become extremely aware of how vulnerable we can be in the dark.
But be not afraid. “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” Do not be afraid.
One of the things that I find interesting about our gospel lesson is that on this night in which we celebrate the feast of the nativity of our Lord, it finds its home not solely in the manager, but also, and perhaps even primarily with the shepherds. Our lesson begins and ends with them; the narrative travels as the shepherds move in the field to Bethlehem and back. The light of the angel, perhaps even more curiously, isn’t found over the manager at the birth of the Christ Child, but over the fields, out there with the shepherds in the dark. Be not afraid; there is good news for all the people.
We, of course, know what this good news is; the good news is the birth of the Messiah, the Holy One, and still, I am drawn to Luke’s narrative because of the central role in which the shepherds play here. Why would Luke choose to focus on these people? Why would the angel of the Lord choose the common folk out in the field? I’m drawn to this, because it relays a truth about what it means to follow the Christ whose birth we celebrate tonight. The good news wasn’t just for Mary, or for Joseph, or even just for Elizabeth and John; the good news is good news for all, even the shepherds.
In many ways I identify with the shepherds in Luke’s narrative: out in the dark field, filled with a great fear, and once they heard the good news, they couldn’t stop talking about it. I wonder if there isn’t a focus on the shepherds to help us move forward. I think the focus of this holy night might be to help us move out of that darkness of the field in which we were called to wait and into the light and joy of the newly born, Messiah. It’s to help us move from darkness to light; it’s to help us move from a great fear to great joy. It’s to help us celebrate the newborn king, but also to remind us to continue to be transformed by that same Christ that was born that dark night. Just as Father Steve said yesterday, “blessedness is available for everyone”; it’s available to the shepherds and it’s available to us.
That blessedness could perhaps be what the angel described as the “great joy for all the people” This great joy is the birth of the Christ, but this great joy is also more. This great joy is not just that Jesus Christ was born, although, that is, indeed, a great joy. The great joy that the angels told the shepherd about was not just about the miraculous birth, but it was about the life that Christ would go on to live. The great joy is not just that out of a small town and humble beginnings was to be born the Savior of the world, but that this, the Christ child, would grow up to live and would eventually be crucified and resurrected. Those of us who call ourselves Christian we are to be filled with this great joy not just this night, but as we move about our days, trying to follow Christ.
In Luke’s gospel, the Greek word for this great joy is used only one other time, shortly after the resurrection as the disciples worship the risen Christ. This great joy is not just about a miraculous birth, but it is about an extraordinary life that we choose to follow. The light of Christ isn’t just found at his birth, but it is found throughout his life and even as he conquers death. And so, on this dark night even though we may be afraid, remember that you are loved by God and do not fear, know of the good news that Christ has brought to this world, and do all in your power to take the light of Christ out into this night with great joy.