In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 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: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.—Luke 2:8-11 (NRSV)
Luke's description of the circumstances surrounding Jesus' birth is stark and spare. He dates Jesus' birth during the reign of Emperor Augustus. Jesus' mother, Mary, travels from Nazareth to Bethlehem in the last stages of pregnancy; and, because there is no room in the inn, Jesus ends up being born in a stable. Luke also tells us that the baby Jesus is wrapped in bands of cloth and that his mother lays him in a manger. How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.
Yet out in the fields, angels herald the good news of the birth, causing fear in the shepherds who watch their sheep nearby. The angel's message is exactly what Luke has described earlier: a child has been born and wrapped in bands of cloth and placed in a manger. Yet now we hear that this is no ordinary child: this baby, born in such humble conditions, is the Savior of the world — the Messiah. So the shepherds go quickly to see for themselves, and they find the baby with Mary and Joseph just as they had been told. When they see with their own eyes, their fear turns to amazement, and they begin praising God. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.
We can hear this familiar story over and over, and it can remain just that—an old, familiar story. We think of it and become sentimental. But the true gift of this story resides in the promise that God really is "with us," that we are not alone in our sin and self-concern. This day we celebrate the best "good news" ever: that God came to live among us—and to die among us and live again — so that we might come to know God. Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
On this Christmas Eve, we pray, O God, that you will come to us and abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel. Amen.
The Rev. Susan Pendleton Jones recently retired as associate dean of United Methodist initiatives and ministerial formation at Duke Divinity School.
From The Upper Room Disciplines 2011. Copyright © 2010 The Upper Room. All Rights Reserved. Subscribe to The Upper Room Disciplines, online edition.