Glory to God!

Glory to God!
A Message on Luke 2:8-20
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Dec. 27, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

Luke 2:8-20 (NRSV)

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 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: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

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How many of you are disappointed that Christmas is over? Raise your hand if you are disappointed because it’s 363 days until Christmas?

As a kid I remember experiencing the reality of a post-Christmas letdown. It wasn’t a sadness, but just missing the anticipation and excitement that I had been having for the last couple of months. Christmas day came, it was great, and then the day after Christmas, even though I had new toys to play with, there was kind of a void where that anticipation and excitement had been.

Well if you are kind of feeling that way I have good news for you: It’s still Christmas!

Yes, indeed! The church calendar lists this time as “Christmastide.” It’s a short season, only lasting until Epiphany on Jan. 6, but it’s an important season nonetheless!

You know the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”? (I love Jeff Foxworthy’s Redneck version. “… and some parts to a Mustang GT.”) Well it is not about the 12 days before Christmas, but the 12 days after Christmas. Yes. So we are in Christmastide and can continue to celebrate the birth of the Christ child, Jesus.

The scripture we read today from the Gospel of Luke tells us of the first people to learn about the miraculous event that happened that we now call Christmas: the shepherds!

We have to remember that in the First Century the people had an agrarian based economy. People’s survival depended on the crops they grew and the livestock they raised. We also have to remember that barbed wire was still 1,867 years from being invented, so what very few fences they did have were made of rocks and maybe some timber.

If you raised livestock in those days you had many challenges. You had to find something for your livestock to eat. You couldn’t go to Attwoods and pick up some sacks of horse and mule feed (which I am convinced is where we get granola). Most of the livestock diet consisted of forage, of grasses and plants growing naturally that the animals could graze on.

We also have to remember they didn’t have mechanized farm machinery. If you wanted hay you had to cut it by hand with a scythe, bundle it and tie it together by hand, haul it to wherever you were going to store it, and then feed it to your livestock during the winter.

So the livestock were semi-free-range, and even in the winter time their survival depended on roaming the countryside and looking for forage for the animals to graze on.

While cattle were an important livestock for the people at the time (because they provided not only meat but also milk, leather, and were used as draft animals), sheep and goats were more important to the economy for several reasons.

First, they required less land to raise. On average, according to those who know such things, it takes one to two to 25 acres of land to raise a cow, while sheep and goats require only one-half an acre per animal.

One of the reasons for that is that they aren’t as picky eaters as cattle. Sheep, and especially goats, will eat almost any kind of plant that will grow. When they bite off the grass, they do so closer to the ground than cattle. (Fun fact: None of these three ruminants have any top front teeth to graze with. They only have bottom incisors. They have a tough pad on top that the teeth press against to bite grasses in two, but no top incisors like we do. If you want to play a practical joke on someone ask them to check a cow/sheep/goat’s top teeth. It’s great fun.)

And because there was no refrigeration back then, when an animal was slaughtered for food that meat had to be eaten before it went bad. There were a few forms of preservation, like drying the meat to make jerky or salting, but that was pretty much it. Sheep and goats, being much smaller, made more sense for a people without refrigeration.

I tell you all of this because I think it’s important background information to know about when we talk about the shepherds that the angel appears to on Christmas night.

The shepherds were out in the fields that night because, well, it’s what they normally did. At the end of the day they would gather the sheep up (sheep normally stay together anyway) and find a place to speed the night. It was usually on the top of a little hill for several reasons: 1. It provided better line of sight for the shepherds to watch out for nocturnal carnivores hoping to have a late-night snack of mutton. 2. In case such critters did show up, it was better to fight them with gravity on your side than having to fight them and gravity both. 3. In the winter time it would be a few degrees warmer than at the bottom of the hills since cold air sinks.

So in my mind these shepherds are on the top of a hill outside Bethlehem. One or more of them are awake and on watch against the aforementioned carnivores, and others would have been sleeping on the ground with their big cloaks over them, keeping them warm.

And then suddenly the darkness of the night is pierced by the blinding light of the angel showing up with the “glory of the Lord” shining all around them. The scriptures tell us, “And they were terrified.” Well, yeah! Who wouldn’t be!

Then the angel says what angels usually say when they appear before humans: “Do not be afraid.” Yeah, easy for you to say. Man, I’d be shaking so hard and be so scared I would pass out!

And then, as the shepherds quit freaking out and no longer feel like they are going to pass out, the angel tells them what is happening in Bethlehem.

This is how it is paraphrased in The Message translation: “I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.”

Now for the shepherds those last two sentences would have seemed like an oxymoron, a phrase that contradicts itself. Being Jewish, they would have known the scriptures that prophesied about the messiah coming, but for the messiah to be a baby and, most shocking of all, to be lying in a manger!

Now we have romanticized the manger so much that we have forgotten what its primary purpose was. We see nice replicas in manger scenes and come to see it almost as a piece of furniture. But its real purpose was to hold hay or feed for livestock. That’s it.

To help us understand how the shepherds would have perceived it, let me add a little East Texas to it. “…you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a feed trough.” Not as romantic, huh?

The shepherds would have all known what a manger was, and how it was used. So for them to hear that the messiah, the hoped-for savior of the Jewish people, was a baby in a feed trough, it had to be confusing for them.

Now here’s what I think is an important aspect to the scripture we read today: The angel doesn’t tell them to go visit the baby Jesus. The angel tells them what had happened, and where Jesus was, but did not say, “Therefore, go with haste to see the babe.” Nope. The shepherds decided to go see Jesus on their own.

I think that’s a good metaphor for our understanding of evangelism. We can’t force someone to come to Jesus. We can, and should, tell them. We can, and should, share with them the difference Jesus has made in our lives. But we shouldn’t command them. We shouldn’t tell them, “You better find Jesus or you’re going to burn in hell.” No. Please don’t exclusively represent Jesus as fire insurance.

So the shepherds talk it over and decide to go to Bethlehem. So they do.

Now here’s something that my brain wonders about. Did they just leave all their sheep out there and go to Bethlehem? I guess they could have taken the sheep with them to Bethlehem, but I kinda doubt they did this. That would have been very difficult to do, especially in the dark.

I think they did something like leave the youngest or whoever was lowest on the shepherd pecking order behind to watch the sheep. They may have drawn straws to see who would stay behind to watch the sheep. We just don’t know.

But we do know that they went. They went and saw the baby Jesus.

Now it is also important what they did after finding baby Jesus. They didn’t just show up, see the baby, and then go back to tending sheep. No. Here’s what the scriptures tell us: “…they made known what had been told them about this child.”

They told others. They told everyone they met. They spread the good news!

That’s what we are to do as Christians still today. We are to “make known” to others just how life changing Jesus is. The Good News isn’t something to keep to ourselves, but something to share.

The Great Commission, found at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, tells us, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” We are to go and tell people about Jesus Christ!

Christmas isn’t over! We may take our trees down and put the decorations away, but Christmas needs to live on in our hearts. We are to share the Good News of how Jesus came to earth in a very humble way, how he grew up to perform miracles and teach us about God and how to live. And we need to share how Jesus willingly went to the cross to pay the price for our sins that we could not pay ourselves. And because of that, because of God’s great love for us, our sins are forgiven and we are promised life everlasting. That is the greatest gift, ever!

So my challenge to you during this Christmastide is to not put Christmas away with the decorations. Let the joy of the birth of Jesus be present in your mind, in your words, and in your actions. Like the shepherds, tell others about Jesus.

After all, Christmas isn’t over.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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