“Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).
These are the words of the angels that appeared to the shepherds that night long ago, telling them the good news of Jesus’ birth. It must have been startling, to say the least. Here are the shepherds, going about their usual routine of caring for the sheep — feeding, watering and protecting them — when suddenly the sky explodes with angelic figures singing and praising God. I think I would have cowered in fear as well!
It was as if the angels themselves could no longer remain silent, their joy was so great. What an incredible event this must have been. The shepherds became so excited they couldn’t wait to rush to Bethlehem to see this miracle for themselves. After all, they had been waiting for years and years, hearing the promise of a coming Messiah, learning what to look for based on the words of the prophets, seeking the signs that foretold his birth, and now he was here. I often wonder if anyone was left behind to look after the poor sheep.
Joy and excitement can still be found on Christmas morning, especially if there are small children in your house. I can remember my mother telling me a story of how she, her sister and two brothers, sneaked down the back stairs of their house early one Christmas morning when they were young — probably in the mid-1940s — and in their excitement opened every gift under the Christmas tree. Everything was chaos with paper, bows and ribbons flying in every direction. When it was all done, no one knew what gift belonged to whom, and although she admitted they got into big trouble, she never gave any details on how that morning turned out.
And then when our children were young, I can remember their excitement on Christmas morning, and how eager they were to discover what the next gift might be. And then suddenly, it’s finished. All the gifts are opened, and while the children may be content playing with their gifts for a while, the excitement and joy that came with the anticipation of this day seems gone.
More than 2,000 years ago, that joy did not diminish, because those shepherds found precisely what they were looking for — a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. The promised Messiah had arrived, and the significance of this event, while not fully understood at the time, would change the world. God chose to enter the world in the form of a small, vulnerable baby. That child was God incarnate — God in the flesh, and until this moment, there had never been an event more significant since the creation of the world. The impact of this small child, lying in a manger, is still being felt. The message of Christ is still for all people. The joy of the angels and shepherds is alive still. And the joy of this season is not limited to just a few weeks in December.
Christmas is far more than gifts, tinsel and lights — it is about God’s gift to humankind and God’s promise to return once again. And the excitement we feel is not meant to end mid-morning on Christmas Day. Christmas can and should be about how we live God’s message of hope and reconciliation in our everyday lives. My prayer for you and your family this season is that the joy you experience in celebrating the birth of the Jesus child will extend far beyond Dec. 25. Merry Christmas!
Dave Downer is the pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Centre Hall.