When the angels had left (Christmas Eve Service)
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’
“My friend,” wrote the author, “reviewed her young son’s fill-in-the-blank homework. One line stated: “At Christmas, we exchange gifts with ____.” His response: (At Christmas, we exchange gifts with) “receipts”.
I wonder if the fact that we routinely include a “gift receipt” with our gifts indicates that perhaps we have too much. On November 20th just past, I saw a news article: It's time to ban Christmas presents. The author (Martin Lewis) wrote: “With Christmas just five weeks away, there's still time to pull back and agree on NO PRESENTS THIS YEAR.” In order to help break the gifting habit you were directed to the website moneysavingexpert.com where you could create a Pre-Christmas No Unnecessary Present Pact (pre-Nupp). This web tool generates a nice email saying "I won't buy a gift if you won't". The automation is deliberate, so the recipient feels it's part of a widespread philosophy, not just you being frugal.
Let me be clear. I am not endorsing a ban on Christmas presents. At the same time, in what I am about to say, I would not want you to imply an endorsement of “go crazy” when it comes gift giving. Over the course of the sermons of Advent this year I have taken up the theme of “the magnitude of Christmas.” The theme that if we could fully comprehend the magnificence of the Babe of Bethlehem; if we could apprehend the true depth and breadth of the rescue operation God is inaugurating in this birth; if we could catch a glimpse of the scope that God has in mind to set all things to right through the child born of Mary; if we could see our sin as God sees it and know the extent to which God will go for our sakes in this child born to die; if we could know these things in a complete way we would agree that we couldn’t craft a celebration grand enough to do it justice.
1. Angels are everywhere in the Christmas story; angels delivering important messages. An angel of the Lord appears to Mary, to Joseph, to Zachariah the father of Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist, and of course to shepherds living in the fields. A great choir of angels also appeared in unison thundering that great praise of God: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace…”
I know that some of you have had an angelic messenger touch you in your life. After such experience we revisit the event wondering “what did I just experience”; yet the event’s actuality seared itself upon our imagination such that we cannot doubt its occurrence. We are so reluctant to talk about it lest others think us off kilter. We fear that talk of angels would be regarded in the same category as tiny reindeer pulling a sleigh around the sky.
“Angels we have heard of high”, goes that much loved Christmas carol. Have we? Have we heard the angels sing or are we simply singing about what some shepherds claimed long ago? You see when the angels had left them, this is when the rubber hits the road, so to speak. Luke tells us that while the angels appeared suddenly they depart slowly like an exiting choir; the word he uses to speak of the angels going back into heaven suggests a gradual withdrawal. The point being the shepherds were, without question, convinced that God was the author of the message. They go to Bethlehem to see this thing “which the Lord has made known to us.”
Friends, every invitation you have ever received in the course of your life to take this child as you own; every Christmas eve service you attended where the story has again been read; every time you have heard Handle’s Messiah sung; every Christmas card you have ever received with the Angel announcement in the greeting; every artist’s rendering of the nativity that you have viewed; every sermon that announced the good news of Jesus in your hearing; in every one of these we have heard the angelic message delivered that holy night. It is as if God took the Angelic message and with heavenly communication device clicked on “forward”, in the destination dialogue box is “to the whole world” and then hit send. In hearing the good news of Jesus announced this night, the angel choir sings afresh—this time for you and for me.
2. When a child is born it is typically announced with “It’s a girl” or “It’s a boy”. In the days before fathers were allowed in hospital delivery rooms a nurse might come out and say “You have a son”; no one announces “unto you a boy is born.” When I called my father to tell him of the birth of my sons it would have sounded strange if I had said, “Dad, this morning there was born to you a grandson!” Who talks like this? Angels do.
Without taking the time to speak of Greek grammar, the English translations get it right when they emphasize the words “to you” is born. When the angels had left and heaven pauses to see what these shepherds will do, the shepherds are motivated to go not only because they were convinced the message was from God but also because the angel had made it clear that the message was for them personally.
To say that shepherds were considered an underclass of society would be an understatement. To say that there were considered by many rabble would not be wide of the mark. But God’s message was to them and for them personally. In the birth of this child born for them, God inaugurates his great project to redeem and reclaim broken humanity.
C.S. Lewis in The Last Battle (The Chronicles of Narnia). "It seems, then," said Tirian, ... "that the Stable seen from within and the Stable seen from without are two different places." "Yes," said Lord Digory. "Its inside is bigger than its outside." 'Yes," said Queen Lucy. "In our world too, a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world."
In 1872 the poet Christina Rossetti wrote a poem that only appeared after her death. About thirty years later the poem was set to music and titled "A Christmas Carol." Today, we know it as "In the Bleak Midwinter."
But there's a fascinating back-story to this beloved Christmas carol. Rossetti was a devoted follower of Christ who for many years volunteered at the St. Mary Magdalene "house of charity," a refuge for women coming out of a life of prostitution. Rossetti's efforts for these marginalized women came through in some of her poems. As I revisited the carol, I can now see the hue of the theme of God’s great work to rescue us in our brokenness that colours its stanzas. Listen to the last stanza.
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him: give my heart.
When the angels had left; this is when the action begins. We have come again to Bethlehem to reaffirm our faith and to be called to faith in receiving this child as our own. We have heard the massage from God—it is to us and for us personally. May you each know the joy of Jesus in your life. Merry Christmas!