Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
All who heard it were amazedat what the shepherds told them...
According to biblical scholars who apparently have time of their hands to study such things, the word amazement, along with its derivatives and synonyms, appears some forty times in the writings of the Evangelist Luke; that is, in the Gospel of Luke itself and in its companion volume, the Acts of the Apostles. And in Luke’s writings, it is most often the simple people, the everyday people, who are by turn amazed, astonished, astounded, in awe, and spell-bound by what they see happening around them as the plan of God in Christ unfolds before their very eyes. Indeed, the Gospel of Luke has sometimes been called the Gospel of Amazement, although in fairness I should also say that the other three Gospels also record their share of pretty amazing things.
Now, our Gospel account this Christmas morning is taken from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, part of his well-known and much-loved Infancy Narrative, the story in other words of our Lord’s birth. Angels suddenly if improbably appear to shepherds, of all people, bringing them, as the text tells us, “good news of great joy for all the people.” And what is this good news...? Well, that “to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah...” All of which in itself is pretty amazing, when you stop to think about it; that news of such importance to the world should first be proclaimed not to the Emperor in far-off Rome, nor to the priests of the Temple in nearby Jerusalem, but to simple farmers in their fields, “keeping watch over their flock.”
On the other hand, the great King David of centuries before had himself started out in life as a lowly shepherd boy of no consequence, so perhaps it is not so astounding after all that the advent of his successor, the Messiah, should first be broadcast to, well, shepherds outside David’s ancestral home of Bethlehem. When seeking spiritual grounding and meaning in life it is often best to go back to one’s roots in faith, family, and among friends; to the milieu where one is at home.
We will never know of course who it was precisely who first heard the shepherds words and was amazed by them. Was it the mayor of Bethlehem perhaps...? The local rabbi, assuming there would have been one...? The nearest Roman official...? All unlikely, I think. For, if the message of the angels was first proclaimed to unassuming shepherds, it is
likely that they in turn first made manifest what they had seen and heard to the man and woman in the streets and country byways of the time, to neighbours and family members in village and town. Nor will we ever know precisely what those shepherds proclaimed to “all who heard” their words; what is was exactly which brought such astonishment and wonder. But the shepherds’ boldness in telling the world amazing things is will us still.
It has been said lately that the world of twenty-first century Israel and Palestine is a lot like the first-century Israel into which our Lord was born; a land of contrasts and contradictions; a land of competing interests and ethnic and religious tensions almost too many to count, even if we had the time to do so; a land of violence which would ultimately take the life of the Messiah proclaimed by those shepherds. Perhaps the shepherds quoted the words of the angel spoken to them: “Do not be afraid;” a message difficult to credit, then or now; but a message which needs desperately to be heard nevertheless. For, it is fear which leads to conflict; which leads not to amazement but to despair.
According to one sage and scholar, it is paradoxically bewilderment itself which ultimately leads to comprehension. And perhaps he is right. For, if you are not bewildered by the turn of events at play in our world today, you are probably not paying sufficient attention. Even the most cynical among us must wonder at the depths or heights of human depravity and evil unleashed all around us: war, violence, corruption in high places and low, endemic poverty, and perhaps worst of all, a sense of helplessness and hopelessness among all sorts and manner of people. Where, we might well ask, is the comprehension in all that.
Yet the shepherds of old overcame their fear and understood exactly what the Lord was bringing forth in the birth of a baby; the birth of a baby in a ramshackle shed in a poor village overrun with no doubt cranky and bad-tempered strangers displaced from their own homes by the edict of a distant monarch determined to register and count them, no doubt to tax them and take their youth as booty, as soldiers to fight battles in yet other distant and unfamiliar places. Understanding that humankind, left to its own devices alone, will ever be so, bewildering as this truth may be, is indeed the beginning of comprehension; the beginning of faith in the words of angels; the beginning of amazement.
Twentieth-century Hungarian poet, Sándor Reményik, in one of his most beloved poems, Csendes Csodák, or Quiet Wonders, suggests that we not waste our time expecting the earth to splinter and Sodom to burn, as he describes it, references no doubt to the social convulsions of his age not so long ago. He urges rather that we ponder the little things of life too often ignored or overlooked amid the tumult and terror of this world: the beating of the human heart, silver points of light in an endless night sky, the heavens reflected in still waters, gently falling snowflakes, and the very shadows we cast.
All of these are, in other words, silent wonders, as Reményik intimates. And, all of them are also amazing; as is forever the birth of a child. Just ask any shepherd. Reményik ends his poem with the evocative voice of God spoken to an expectant world: Jövök. I am coming, says God. I am on my way.
I do not know about you, but I think that is pretty amazing. Amen.The Revd Canon Dr Frank Hegedűs