The Impossibilities of God in a Broken World, the story of Christmas, Meditations:
8. I didn’t see that coming!
Lk 2:8,9 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
Indifference: Familiarity not only breeds contempt, it also breeds indifference and that really is the only word to describe a malaise that can so easily creep in when we have heard the same story time after time after time. And I think that applies no more strongly than in the case of the story about the shepherds – but it’s not just ‘a story’ it is history, significant history. I don’t know what it is about the shepherds’ story but almost more than the nativity scene it seems to engender an, “Ah, isn’t that lovely,” response, but actually that was not what the shepherds thought about it until afterwards. Our verses above reveal that they were terrified and that means scared out of their wits.
Night-time scene: I mean, imagine this scene. It is the middle of the night. It is up in the hills above Bethlehem and there are sheep and there are shepherds who look after them. The shepherds have to live out there to guard the sheep because then, just the same as today, there was always the possibility of rustlers, even if it was just one person wanting to obtain a single sheep for some free mutton. But sheep are valuable and so you guard them in this fallen world otherwise someone else whose ethics are not very good will take a fancy to one or two of them. It’s a mixed blessing life being a shepherd. Yes, you are out on the hills in the beauty of the countryside where there is peace and quiet and freedom from petty village politics, but on the other hand ‘they’ think of you as outcasts because you are separated off from ‘polite society’ and, being answerable to no one except the owner of the sheep, you tend to be a law unto yourselves. Then there was the weather which wasn’t always wonderful, but you grew used to that. In fact you grew used to the lifestyle and days came and went, weeks, months and years passed and there was the security of ‘same old, same old’. Until an angel turned up. We weren’t expecting that! I didn’t see that coming!
Angels: There are two tricky things about angels. First, not many people see them and second, when they turn up you can’t be sure about them. First, it seems, there are the dead ordinary ones who just look like anyone else – until they start doing spooky things (check out Gideon in Jud 6:11-22, esp. v.22 when he realised who it was.) Second there are the glorious ones, ones who are big and shiny, powerful and even coming from the sky (Num 22:31, Judg 13:6,20, 2 Kings 19:35, 1 Chron 21:16, Rev 7:1,2 [77 times angels are mentioned in Revelation]) and they can be scary!
Hillside: So here are the shepherds in their natural environment, possibly some of them asleep around the main campfire while a few remained awake and on guard, minding their own business, doing what they do every night, sitting there quietly, gazing into the flames and making desultory conversation when one of the scary sort of angels turns up “and the glory of the Lord shone around them.” Whaaaat? Little wonder they were terrified. Again I fear that those of us who tend to be regular Bible readers may tend to be somewhat lackadaisical when it comes to angels because, as we’ve already noted, they appear quite a lot, and no less so throughout the Christmas story. Zechariah, we’ve already noted was “gripped with fear” (Lk 1:12) when he first saw the angel Gabriel. Mary wasn’t so much afraid at the appearance of Gabriel as at his words: “Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.” (Lk 1:29) Seeing an angel in a dream was not so scary for Joseph (Mt 1:20, 2:13,19), but a glorious angel in the middle of the night on a hillside, that is something altogether different!
Responses to the Unusual: Our problem in the West in the early part of the twenty-first century is that so much of the time life is predictable. Trains and buses and planes run on time (well they are supposed to), shops open and close at regular times, work tends to start at regular times, holiday dates are set, and so many other things say we live in an orderly predictable world – until either God turns up or some unanticipated crisis occurs. That is the thing about this fallen world. The nature of Nature is what makes scientists investigate it, observe the seasons or the movements of the sun, moon and stars, check the tides and so on. Yet there is still much disorder. We sound smug talking about El Nina or El Nino and we now observe jet streams as a determining factor of the weather, but none of these things seem predictable. We spend millions on great computers to forecast the changeable weather but still they often use words such as, “we think it might….” and are then proved wrong. We Brits are world-experts at this.
I think we’re actually better at handling unforeseen crises than we are God turning up unexpectedly. When He does, in big ways that affect the church, there are always those at the heart of it who are relishing the wonder of His presence, but further afield the Christian world generally is extremely good at being sceptical. In fact there are parts of the church where the unusual is almost guaranteed to be heretical. Permanence is here to stay! Well, actually with God, no, He sometimes breaks in, in unexpected ways. If you hear of revival breaking out somewhere around the world (that isn’t your back yard), don’t get sniffy and gritty, you might be opposing God. Never be part of that Christian world that says, “It’s impossible, God doesn’t do things like that!” Well He does; it’s just that you have never experienced it like that, so don’t be so insular and ignorant. Gamaliel’s wisdom in Acts 5:33-40 is worth emulating.
So, try and understand something of both the wonder and the scariness of what was happening on this Judean hillside as God breaks into the mundane lives of a bunch of outcasts in this well-known part of the Christmas story and perhaps allow it to challenge us as to how open we are for God to speak to us, perhaps even in ways we have not experienced before. Let’s make sure the complacency that we have over the predictability of living in this part of history, doesn’t rob us of the wonder in the story and then make us see God’s activity in our lives or the lives of others around us as a stumbling block. Let’s not close our ears to the wonderful, whether it was two thousand years ago, or today! We’ll look at some more of this story tomorrow.