Arrival of the Shepherds by Henry LeRolle
Bible Passage: Luke 2:1-20
Pastor: Pastor Schlicht
Sermon Date: December 24, 2017
There may be no other scene in all of history depicted as many times as the Christmas nativity. Thousands of artists have interpreted Jesus’ birth in unique ways. But tonight I’d like to show you just one. It’s called “Arrival of the Shepherds” by Henry LeRolle. There are no angels with crowns or harps and the birthplace is not changed into a garden or any other beautiful spot. Here, in all its simplicity, is just a cave stable with rough wooden supports for the roof. A donkey is standing by its feeding pail. Pitchforks are lying in the hay. The shepherds with their dogs have just come in. Mary and Joseph don’t have any elaborate clothing; they are just simple peasants. And baby Jesus, well he looks just like an ordinary baby. I like it because it is a plausible interpretation; it gives us a real picture of the first Christmas. And that is a rare thing these days.
You know sometimes we get lost among the candles and decorations and picture-perfect nativity sets. Everything seems so warm and wonderful in the Christmas season. Here in church too, we hear the music, we gaze into the candles and sing “Silent Night”. “All is calm, all is bright.” Right? We paint idealized images of Mary and Joseph and their babe lying in a manger amidst the friendly oxen. We visualize halos hovering over their heads while shepherds sing with angels and bejeweled wise men come to worship. Maybe it’s our longing for nostalgia or some sort of annual return to youthful innocence, but we love to get lost in the atmosphere of Christmas.
It’s so easy to do this both here and at home because it helps us forget. That’s right, forget. The way we tend to celebrate Christmas helps us forget the real world. The place beyond the carols and the Christmas cards where people are sick and in pain and emotionally distraught, a place where sin, not Santa, reigns supreme. My friends, God didn’t send us his Son so that we could dress him up and forget about the real world. He sent him to save the world, to save you and me from real problems and real fears. Jesus is a real Savior for a real world.
The Gospel of Luke certainly records the first Christmas as a real event. Firstly, it happened on a real day. “For unto you is born this day . . .” (v. 11). It happened on a day in history. Not a day in some fairytale, but a real day when Caesar Augustus was the emperor of Rome and “Cyrenius was governor of Syria” (v. 2). Secondly, it happened in a real place. “…in the city of David” (vs. 4,11) Not in Narnia, not in Middle Earth, not in “a galaxy far far away”. It happened in a town called Bethlehem which still exists today. Just like Madison, or Deforest, or Sun Prairie, this place is real.
It happened on a real day, in a real place, and it also happened among real people with real problems. You know how the story begins, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world” (Luke 2:1). Do you know why he issued that census? It was to make sure the Empire was bleeding every last cent it could out of the lands its armies occupied. It didn’t care if local economies were wrecked and people’s lives ruined. The Roman Emperor didn’t care if this meant some Jewish carpenter named Joseph and his wife Mary had to journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. There was no compensation for the hours lost at the lathe. No medical exemption for a woman 9-months-pregnant. They were forced to trek nearly 100 miles with poor Mary at full-term. (I doubt the atmosphere was magical for her on that trip.) And remember, Mary was pregnant not only outside of marriage but with a far-fetched story of who the father was. We don’t know what her family thought of this or how it must have affected her reputation. And how about Joseph’s personal struggle? One day he’s engaged to the girl of his dreams, the next he’s made to feel a complete fool, and a broken-hearted one at that. And yes an angel explained things to him in a dream, but every day he had to wake up and believe, against everything reason and experience had taught him, that his wife was not pregnant by another man. These are real people with real problems!
And finally, the first Christmas also happened in a world with real evil. Because tragically, there’s another part of the real Christmas story that is much worse. The pathetic puppet king, Herod, whom the Romans kept in power only because he let them pillage his homeland, ordered the deaths of all of Bethlehem’s baby boys, ages 2 and under. Why? Because he heard rumors of a new king being born there. And consider the soldiers who were sent to slaughter the boys in Bethlehem. Theirs was a crisis of conscience…commanded to kill infants or be killed for disobedience. These are the things we often leave out of the Christmas story, but they are part of it.
The first Christmas happened on a real day, in a real place, with real people, real problems, and real evil. Christ was born into a real world. The same one we live in, still teaming with hardship Like Mary and Joseph, some of us here tonight carry within us uncomfortable secrets, broken hearts, financial stress, and difficult relationships. Like those Roman soldiers, some of us here tonight have difficulty feeling forgiven for past sins which continue to haunt us. Many of us, like those poor parents in Bethlehem, feel the weight of loss and the temptation to despair this Christmas. And perhaps all of us are too often frustrated with a world that seems to be spinning out of control with the cold and cruel effects of sin at work all around us.
Is it any wonder that we tend to use Christmas to forget? Is it any wonder that we try to turn off the news and create at least one evening’s worth of “all is calm, all is bright,” just one silent night? But my friends this is not a solution. For even if we succeed in forgetting, even if we truly do shut out the real world, it doesn’t go away. And after we clean up the wrapping paper and take the tree down, we have to go back into it. What we need is a solution to what causes all that is wrong in the real world. And that solution comes when we stop trying to get lost in Christmas and realize the point of Jesus’ birth: the Son of God came into the world. He came into our world, not a Christmas card. He came, bloody and bawling, into the real world just like you and I did. He came, in order to be where the darkness and the pain and the sinners and the suffering and the death were. He came here, to the real world, so he could be its real Savior, my Savior, your Savior.
Jesus is the answer to what’s at the root of all struggle and suffering in this world. Not because he did random acts of kindness, or gave the best presents, but because he lived alongside the struggling, suffering with us, and even more than that…suffered for us even to the point of death on a cross. In him is something more enduring than the fleeting feelings of seasonal happiness. He came to give us a solution, not just an escape. He came down to bear the source of our brokenness; he took credit for our sin and shame, paid for it with his own blood, and buried it in his grave. He did not die for a happy holiday, he died to save us from sin and even death itself. He died not so those weeping mothers in Bethlehem would forget about their babies murdered by Herod, but so that someday they would see them again in heaven. Jesus is a real Savior for a real world.
Every now and again, people come up to me with a story of how God semi-miraculously answered a prayer or intervened in some difficulty they were going through. They are excited and energized that God came through in such a spectacular fashion. And I am flattered that they share these things with me, I take it not only as proof of a living God but I am also thankful they understand I believe them. But after their story is over and they have moved on, I wonder what those good people would think of God if he hadn’t done those things. And I wonder why God hasn’t done something similar for someone else who is in a considerably more desperate situation.
What I‘m getting at is, when you look for evidences of Jesus being the real Savior of this world, the one we need, the one who makes a difference, don’t look just for miraculous flashes of his power in the hard times of life, nor for the lightning bolts shooting out of his fingers in the manger. Simply go to Bethlehem and look for a poor baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. Just as the angel’s said, “This shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” Don’t look for a display of supernatural power, but the profound truth that this baby, as poor and ordinary as he may seem, is God himself. That’s what you look for through the eyes of faith. As the hymnist wrote, “In that unlikely place I find him as they said: sweet newborn Babe, how frail! and in a manger bed, a still, small voice to cry one day for me, a still, small voice to cry one day for me.” My friends, that small baby would one day cry out, “Father forgive them” on a cross, and he would die out of love for you. That’s who lies in the manger. That’s a real Savior for a real World. And if you have the faith to see God’s only Son, lying there in that lowly place, then he will also give you faith to know that he is with you in the ordinary parts of your life as well as the extraordinary, in times of want and in times plenty, in moments of weakness as well as strength.
You see, Christmas isn’t what we use to forget the world, it’s what we use to face it. To take it head-on with confidence, love, and spiritual strength. To practice the life which our Savior exemplified, a life of love, of humility, of quietness, of virtue, of faith, of sacrifice. This is the answer to making your life better, not more money, better gifts, or a perfect Christmas, but the gift of faith to see your real Savior lying in the manger, and the way forward to a better tomorrow through his Spirit’s work within your heart.
Finally, Christmas also gives you peace on this earth, just like the angels said it would. Because in a world that sometimes seems out of control, Christmas, as clearly as any other event, proves that the God who created this world still rules over it, no matter how things may look. Micah prophesied that the Messiah would be born in the city of David, and so God wielded an empire to move Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in order to fulfill his Word. And that’s the same reason God sent his Son in the first place: He fulfills his promises. Christians, do not think, because you experience adversity, the hand of the Lord is weak or he is not true to his Word. Remember, he is a real Savior; it is not our physical comfort, but our eternal salvation that he seeks with all his heart. And to that end, he rules the world and works among us.
That’s why, on this Christmas Eve, we will celebrate with joy. We will light candles and sing “all is calm, all is bright.” You all can and should have a merry Christmas for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. Amen.