Sunday, December 04, 2011
Our "guest speaker" today at church.
Have you ever had a crazy dream? A dream that seems so real but too crazy to have really happened? I want to tell you about a night I thought I must surely be dreaming, but it really happened.
My name is Hank. Hank the shepherd. I’m one of the shepherds mentioned in the second chapter of the book of Luke, verses eight through twenty. My name is not in the Bible and I’m not terribly important in the scheme of things and yet I had something wonderful happen to me many years ago. Allow me to tell that story in my own words.
Being a shepherd is hardly glamorous work. It is long hours and low pay and we are generally looked down upon by most people. I do not have much education nor much money and most of the time I smell like a sheep. One can see that with all of that going for me that I do not have many close friends.
There have been a few of us shepherds to go on to bigger and better things with our lives. King David is probably the most notable example. But most shepherds live and die in poverty and obscurity and to be honest that was fine with me. I never expected anything of note to ever happen in my life. I had gone to work when I was very young to support my mother when my father died and shepherding was the only thing I could do.
They were not even my own sheep. A man hired me to take care of his sheep but I took my job very seriously. During the day we would let the sheep graze on open land but at night we would round them up and put them in a makeshift corral and we would guard them there.
Nighttime was when thieves and wolves would come out so we would sit in the doorway of the corral and protect the sheep with our bodies. The secret was to have another shepherd there with you at night to talk to you. Not only did it keep you from getting bored and falling asleep but the noise kept away the thieves and wolves.
The other shepherds and I would talk about anything and everything during the night as one can imagine. Some of the other guys liked to talk about God and religion But I was not much into that. I had a hard time believing that there was more to this life than eating, sleeping and sheep.
The ironic thing about this one special night was that some of the other guys and I had just been discussing some of the prophecy in scripture about the coming of the Christ. They had been sharing with me that several prophets had predicted Christ’s birth. Moses, Micah and Isaiah had all predicted the coming of the Christ and that could be something I could get excited about if only I could really believe it.
They told me about the passage in Isaiah chapter seven that says, Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Also, Isaiah chapter nine says, A child will be born to us. A son will be given to us. He will rule over us. And he will be called Wonderful Adviser and Mighty God. He will also be called Father Who Lives Forever and Prince Who Brings Peace. The authority of his rule will continue to grow. The peace he brings will never end. He will rule on David's throne and over his kingdom. He will make the kingdom strong and secure. His rule will be based on what is fair and right. It will last forever. The Lord's great love will make sure that happens. He rules over all.
That passage says that Christ will reign on David’s throne! I like that. I can relate somewhat to David because he was a shepherd - a lowly shepherd. Then in the fifth chapter of Micah it says that the baby will be born in Bethlehem. That is where I am from. That is my hometown! I started to feel some hope where previously there had been just despair.
We were, in fact, camped just outside of Bethlehem that night. I will never forget it. It was a beautiful, quiet, starry night. Some of the others were talking and I heard a noise. It started out like a low hum and gradually built up to a sound like a huge herd of horses were stampeding across the hills.
My first concern was for the sheep and so I stood up and listened and waited. On a typical night the most exciting thing to happen might be a shooting star so one can imagine how shocked I was when a bright light flashed and an angel was right in front of me.
I thought it must surely mean I was about to die! My heart was pounding, my knees almost failed to hold me up. I thought I should avert my eyes but I could not quit staring at this incredible creature.
The first thing out of his mouth was, “Do not be afraid!” Easy for him to say! One minute I am counting stars and the next minute I am face to face with Gabriel himself. And yet, while he was an intimidating and exciting creature, huge, powerful and stunning, he was at the same time strangely calming. He was like a good military commander who knows what is going on and knows what to do. I felt immediately like I could trust him.
He said, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people”. He could have stopped right there. He could have said no more and I would have been thrilled! “For all the people” included me! Nobody had ever included me and here I am being included to an invitation by no less than an angel of the Lord!
The angel continued, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Before I could catch my breath, and to my continued amazement, more and more angels appeared. Millions and millions of angels dressed all in white and with a glow like the sun spread from one horizon to the other and they began singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests.” They were the brightest, loudest most perfect celestial choir and I was the audience.
Over and over again they sang “Glory to God in the highest!” Gloria in excelsis deo! “Glory to God, Glory to God!” I cried. I laughed. I sang with them! I worshipped. I hoped it would never end.
It felt like a dream but it was real. When the angels left I could not wait to accept Gabriel’s invitation to find the baby so we all left the sheep and ran into Bethlehem. I think I expected it to be easier to find the baby. After the unplanned angelic choir program I expected there to be long lines of people crowding to see a baby king laying in purple robes with bright lights and flying angels but there was none of that.
When we finally found the baby he was just…a baby. His parents were pleasant but looked a bit overwhelmed like every parent feels the first day and when we told them everything that had happened to us I was afraid they might not believe it. Joseph thanked us and Mary smiled with a mix of pride and gratefulness.
There is another passage in Isaiah chapter 61 that says, The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners. to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn.
I feel like that passage might have been written about me. I could not keep from telling other people about what I had seen and heard that day. I wanted everyone to know about the Christ. I did not know much about this baby Jesus but I knew that he was the savior and I needed a savior. I needed the Prince of peace in my life.
The time in which I lived was undergoing what they called the ”pax Romana” or Roman peace which was a good thing in that we were not involved in any war at the time but I had no peace in my own heart. In the quiet times in the field with my sheep I often felt like there must be more to this life! The starry nights and snow-covered mountains fairly screamed of a divine creator but I had no joy and no peace in my heart until I met Jesus.
One more passage from the book of Isaiah chapter forty: He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.
Being a shepherd has it’s rewards sometimes. Sheep often stray off and are easily in danger of wild animals or malicious people but when I find them safe and bring them back to the herd I know it is for their good. It lets me relate to other shepherds like David but I now realize I have a greater connection with the Good Shepherd since that special night in Bethlehem all those years ago.
I will never know why God chose to reveal himself to me the way He did or why He wants me to have a relationship with Him like He does but I know now that I have that peace and joy that He promises as well as life forever with Him in Heaven and I will continue to celebrate that as the true meaning of Christmas and the meaning of my life everyday.