The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, 24 December 2018
A Sermon on Luke 2:1-20 by Samuel Zumwalt, STS
Luke 2:1-20, King James Version
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. 2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) 3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) 5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. 6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. 8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. 15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. 18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.
THE GREAT PHYSICIAN: WILL TAKE YOUR HEART
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
They were in the dark. Those shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. Can you see them huddled around a campfire in the hills surrounding Bethlehem? There were wolves and thieves and other predators after their sheep. And so, they watched under a star-filled sky.
I imagine the scene something like a word painting from my 17th year: “There is a young cowboy, who lives on the range. His horse and his cattle are his only companions. He works in the saddle and sleeps in the canyons, waiting for summer his pastures to change. And as the moon rises, he sits by the fire, thinking about women and glasses of beer, and closing his eyes as the dogies retire, he sings out a song that is soft but it’s clear as if maybe someone could hear: ‘Goodnight, you moonlight ladies, rock-a-bye sweet baby James….’” (James Taylor).
It was a lonely life being a shepherd out in the dark. They probably passed around an old wineskin to keep away the chill in the air. Oh, it’s not as cold tonight in Bethlehem as it is here in Wilmington. The overnight low there is 47. We will get down to a chillier 35. But, in the hills that night, in the dark that night, they needed that campfire for warmth and to bring them light.
You probably don’t know that shepherds were not highly regarded in those days. In fact, even Congress and the media are thought of more highly by us than shepherds were back then. Their testimony was, like that of women, not accepted in legal matters. They didn’t receive any derivative honor from their work, even though everyone knew the psalm, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” They didn’t have any public acclaim even though King David started out as a shepherd boy. Nevertheless, an angel appeared to shepherds in the same way the angel appeared to the elderly priest Zechariah and to a 12- or 13-year-old virgin named Mary. He brought tidings of great joy.
Can you see that scene? Can you imagine the shock and wonder they experienced at the angel’s visit? Perhaps there is that nagging, nasty little voice whispering: “An angel? Really? Come on.”
We live in such a sterile world, where mocking and derision are the stock in trade of the new priests of deconstruction and despair. By their smug superiority, they repeat their narrative again and again until the Big Lie has corrupted with a seemingly endless drumbeat those who would believe the Christmass tidings. Their message is the original seduction: “Did God really say?”
The shepherds were in the dark when the angel appeared to proclaim that God’s Son, a Savior, had been born in Bethlehem. Were that appearance not enough, suddenly with the angel there was a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace good will among men.”
Only shepherds heard what they heard and saw what they saw until tonight. Until now. Neither Mary nor Joseph heard what they heard or saw what they saw. Did you catch you that? If God had wanted to make a great splash, a multi-media experience for the world, doubtless He would have waited until now when He could make use of broadcast and social media professionals. But instead He came to the unlikeliest of people, shepherds in the dark. Because the Good Shepherd, God in human flesh, had been born. And now the angel has come to you in the dark on this chilly night when it’s later, far later, than many people think and far darker than many know.
The angel said: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”
Dear ones, it is not too late for you. No matter how tired you are. Hurt you are. Sad you are. Lonely you are. Despairing you are. Fearful you are. Cynical and sterile you are. There is a hole in your heart that nothing else, no one else, can fill and make whole. The angel’s word is for you in the chill, in the gathering gloom, at this end of all the ages. Fear not! You have a Great Physician who knows you more deeply and fully than anyone, than ever you’ve been known.
His way is not like that of the pundits and politicians and purveyors of high-minded nonsense. He enters this world like every child of earth by slowly developing in His mother’s womb. The King of the Universe came not in a palace but a place for animals. His cradle was a stall.
So, the shepherds said, “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.” Called by the Good Tidings of great joy, they went with haste to see for themselves if this story was too good to be true.
Thirty years or more later, that baby had grown to Manhood. In Luke 15, He tells of a shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to find the lost one. The shepherds left their flocks in the dark to find the Lamb. They wanted the angel’s story to be so. Their hearts yearned for it to be true. They hoped against hope that the empty place in their hearts might finally be filled. And God said, “Let there be…and…it is so!”
Dear ones, the Great Physician, whose joyous birth we sing like angels, is here by His Word of promise in these Good Tidings and, once again, in the unlikeliest of places – a Host and Cup.
You do remember that Bethlehem in Hebrew means: “House of Bread.” Truer words were never spoken. For there in Bethlehem, the Father gave unto a darkened, broken world the Bread of Life. Those who come to Him shall not hunger. And those who believe in Him shall never thirst.
That Good Shepherd, that Bread of Life, that Savior of the world, that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the Great Physician who will take your heart and fill it with Himself. He is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Yours and mine. All of them.
Fear not, for unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
If you are not baptized, let’s begin a conversation. You may come to the altar tonight for a blessing. Simply cross your arms across your chest, and receive that blessing. Don’t stay in the dark. It’s cold out there. Come to the Light that lightens every darkness. He has come for you!
If you are baptized, please, come, with that empty, yearning place in your heart to receive the very Son of God who will fill you with good things – His true Body and most precious Blood for the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation! O, come, let us adore Him!
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
©Samuel David Zumwalt, STS
St. Matthew’s Ev. Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina USA