Have you ever had a Christmas where nothing turned out the way you thought it would? Maybe it was the year you didn’t want to fight for the last cabbage patch doll or you were too late for the rubix cube, or missed out on the new Nintendo. (And if you don’t recognize any of these things, chances are you were born after 1985.) Maybe it was the year that your dog ate all your Christmas Cookies, the power went out on Christmas Eve leaving your family in the dark, or all the poinsettias for the church froze so that just a few days before Christmas not one of the over 100 plants ordered showed up at the church. (Yes a true Story!)
Maybe this is the year your Christmas celebration isn’t going to look like what you thought it would. Your family isn’t coming this year, or maybe the problem is that your family is already here. Perhaps you still have to go shopping for your wife (not much open now guys, sorry) or maybe it’s that the gifts Santa promised to bring don’t come assembled or with batteries so you know it is going to be a long couple of days. Maybe your tree has already dropped all its needles or maybe your Christmas tree contained a hidden nest of spiders that have all hatched and are now invading your home. Believe it or not, that happened to my nephew and his wife on their first Christmas last year. It was an invasion of spruce spider mites. This year and in all years to come they will now have an artificial tree. It happens to all of us at times, our vision of Christmas just doesn’t look like what we thought it should.
Last January as I was walking up a hill and I thought to myself, this doesn’t look like what I thought it would, but then again much of the Holy Land didn’t. The shepherd’s field outside of Bethlehem was rocky and barren. There weren’t green pastures with tall grass for the sheep and shepherds to settle into and there were no rolling fields just steep hills. It didn’t look like what I had always thought the fields of Bethlehem would look like. In this field we entered a chapel that was actually inside a cave and it was here that we heard the Christmas story. Luke 2:8-20.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 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.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
I sat there thinking about how the shepherds may very well have been in a cave with their sheep on the night the angels arrived. While it wasn’t what I had ever pictured, in that moment it made a lot of sense. On those hills there was no good way to protect sheep at night. The terrain was steep and rocky so it would have been hard to keep the sheep together and even harder to keep the wild animals away. If you could push all your sheep into a cave for the night, that would have been the safest and most secure place for them to be.
Just because they may have been in a cave, however, doesn’t change the story. There was still a heavenly host of angels whose glory was so bright that it woke the shepherds. The shepherds would still have been terrified at the sights and sounds outside the cave so the greeting of the angels, Fear Not would have made perfect sense. In fact, maybe it was those words, Fear Not, that drew them out of the cave in the first place. The story didn’t change, God still came into this world that night, things just didn’t look like what I thought they would. Sometimes Christmas is like that, sometimes life is like that.
Sometimes life doesn’t look like what we thought it would. We never thought of ourselves as being 50 and single – or single again. We aren’t doing the work we thought we would. Our children and families aren’t turning out the way we thought they would. Sometimes life doesn’t look like what we thought it would, but like with that first Christmas, the important things don’t change. God still comes to us and the steps the shepherds took show us what we need to do if we want to experience the fullness of God
For the shepherds, they knew what their night was going to be like. They were going to graze the sheep, push them into the cave and then rest. That’s what the night was supposed to look like, but then the sudden lights from heaven changed everything and in that moment the shepherds had a choice to make, they could stay in the comfort of the cave or they could step out and see what was going on?
It’s the same choice we have today. We can stay in the comfort of our lives or we can take a risk and step out to see what God has for us. When the angels appeared on the night Jesus was born the first thing the shepherds did was leave the cave.
Leaving the cave is risky because it means leaving behind the comfort and security of what we know. Even if our lives don’t look like what we thought they would, at least they are familiar which means they are comfortable and stepping out of what is comfortable to see what God might have for us is risky. It takes courage to leave the cave and step out into the light of God, but that’s part of the Christmas story. This Christmas story calls us to leave what we know and step out into the life God has for us. Mary had to do this. Joseph had to do this and now the shepherds are being asked to take that same step of faith.
Tonight God asks us take a step of faith and leave our cave. Can we let go of what is comfortable and familiar so we can take hold of God and all God has for us? We might need to let go of fear and try that new job or enter into that new relationship. It might be to let go of hurt and anger so we can enter into a time of healing for our marriage or family. It might be to let go of the control money, status and power has on our lives so we can have some breathing room and live with more humility, simplicity and purpose. The Christmas story is a call to take a risk and leave what is comfortable behind so we can venture out into the light of God. Tonight can we leave our cave and enter into the light of God?
After stepping into the light and hearing the message of the angels, the shepherds then took another step and went to find Jesus. That’s right, then didn’t leave the cave and then say, that’s far enough – I’m done. I’ve heard the message and now I’m going back to where it is safe and secure. The Shepherds started out on a journey to find Jesus. Tonight we have to be willing to continue on in our journey to find Jesus. We’ve all started the journey. If you are here tonight then you are on the journey in some capacity. Like the Shepherds, you may be hearing this story for the first time, or maybe you are just hearing it for the first time with an open heart, but you are here and you are not here by accident. The shepherds didn’t hear the news by accident, God knew they would be there and so He sent the angels. God knew you would be here tonight so He is here to tell you of His love and that He has sent a savior just for you.
That’s the message of the angels that has really spoken to me this year. The angels said, tonight I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. While a Savior had come to all the people, the shepherds heard that the savior born that night had come for them. Tonight a Savior is here for you and me. Tonight God is here to tell us that he loves us and that He forgives us and that He has something wonderful for us if we will step out and search for him. When we go looking for God, God will be there. God said through the prophet Jeremiah, when you search for me with all your heart you will find me, so if we will keep searching for Jesus tonight, we will find him and when we find Him we will find all that we are looking for.
The Shepherds found everything they were looking for. They found a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and laying in a manger which meant that they had found the Messiah and all the love and life God had to offer. When we search for Jesus tonight we will find everything that we need. If we need forgiveness, we will find it. If we need hope, we will find it. If we just need to know we are not alone, we will find the presence of God. If we need healing, direction, comfort, security, peace – we will find it – but we won’t find anything unless we are willing to leave the cave and step out to find Jesus.
After the shepherds found Jesus they took one more step and went into the streets of Bethlehem to share God’s love. This also has to be part of the Christmas story tonight – sharing Gods love with others. Our world is in desperate need of love and understanding. From city streets right here to countries far away being torn apart by disease, despair and destruction, our world needs the love of God and God has said that we are the ones who need to share it.
We are now the hands and feet and heart of Jesus and as we serve people we share God’s love. As we give to people around the world, we share God’s love. As we serve dinner in our own community, we share God’s love. When we reach out and ask others to forgive us, we share God’s love and when we offer forgiveness and grace to those who have hurt us, we share God’s love. God so loved the world that he shared his one and only Son, Jesus, who came to live and die for us so that we might lie and never die. When we receive Jesus as our Savior we receive the love of God and as we share this story we share the love God. It’s risky to share God’s love, but it is part of this story.
So the hillsides of Bethlehem didn’t look like what I thought they would. Sometimes Christmas is like that, sometimes life is like that, but it doesn’t change the story. Here’s the story: in Jesus, God has come to be our savior. Jesus is here tonight to love us in a way that can change everything. We just need to follow in the footsteps of the Shepherds and leave the cave, search until we find Jesus and then share with others the love of God that changes us, brings us life and life eternal.