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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Christmas Eve 12/24/2012

Some of you remember that I did a sermon earlier this year that talked about angels.  I really can’t recall now what prompted it, it was one of our Family Worship Sundays I know that, but I think of all the sermons I’ve ever done, that one may have elicited the most discussion.  I found out that a lot of people have angel stories; a lot of people believe in angels and I think even some who don’t really wish they did.

Luke’s Christmas story of course features angels quite prominently, not only in what we heard tonight in their appearance to the shepherds but also in the stories that lead us up to this, the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary foretelling Jesus’ birth and the visit of an angel to Zechariah foretelling the birth of John the Baptist; angels are present at the key moments.  Tonight though, the angelic presence is even greater, with the glory of the Lord surrounding them as they bring good news of great joy for all people, the multitude praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

We love the angels, we sing about the angels, “Angels we have heard on high; Hark the herald angels sing” and so forth.  Even for angel skeptics, tonight I would think that these heavenly messengers manage to find a sentimental spot in you as you hear the familiar story again.  But lest we become too sentimental about it all, not that some sentimentality isn’t OK on Christmas Eve, but lest we become too sentimental, let’s think for a moment about the angels and what they do. 

Picture God in heaven, surrounded by the divine heavenly council, making decisions about what’s going to happen on earth.  With decisions made the news needs to be communicated to the world, the message has to be delivered.  In the Bible those messages sometimes come in dreams and visions, sometimes it’s in fire and earthquake, sometimes a voice, and sometimes in what sounds like the appearance of a heavenly being, those winged creatures that we know from pictures and icons and statues, they deliver the message. Whatever the means though, it all represents angelic communication. 

That’s what happened in the fields of Bethlehem on that first Christmas night.  The shepherds received a heavenly message from the angels, a message about the birth of a baby, a message of joy that was good news for all people. 

The shepherds are often portrayed as unlikely recipients of this message.  Probably mostly from children’s Christmas pageants we kind of romanticize the shepherds but we also know that they were not well respected people in that time and place.  They are unlikely recipients of this news but it fits in with Luke’s emphasis on the elevation of the lowly as part of his gospel message.

But there’s another way to think about the shepherds, a way that might cause more of us to identify more closely with them.  In addition to being somewhat on the illicit fringes of society, the shepherds can also be understood to represent the routine, sometimes grim, work a day reality of business as usual.  They were just out there in the fields, doing their job as they had done it yesterday and as they would do it tomorrow with no expectation that anything was going to change.  They were shepherds and that was that.  Some days would be better than others but mostly it was doing whatever needed to be done to get by, to survive, just taking care of the sheep.  With minor ups and downs life would pretty much be what it had always been.

That was the shepherds on that first Christmas night, maybe it’s some of us here tonight.  Maybe tonight we’re the shepherds, stuck in a business as usual life without expectation of anything different, just kind of resigned to the way things are with the most recent bad news of the day wearing you down even further. 

But the angels are out there.  The angels were out there for the shepherds and the angels are still out there still bringing “good news of great joy for all people” and I often think that on this night, of all nights, we are able to hear the angels and the news they bring.  In the dark and quiet of this night, our guard is down.  That rational side of us that only wants to allow for the future to be based on the sameness of the past is overcome by imagination, imagination that allows for angels.  With his storytelling, Luke captures our imagination and allows for angels to bring a different message.  Tonight, with imagination we’re able to experience more than the work a day reality of business as usual.

There’s a poem by Charles Wright called “Lives of the Saints” that includes the line, “We yearn to be pierced by that occasional void through which the supernatural flows.”  I think we do have that yearning.  We yearn for something more than what business as usual gives us.  We yearn for the supernatural, the divine to find its way through that void and into our life, but then, trapped in the day to day we don’t let our imagination pursue that yearning.  If the shepherds had remained trapped in the routine of their life they would have missed the angels, perhaps attributing them like Ebenezer Scrooge to a slight disorder of the stomach, an undigested bit of beef (or maybe lamb), a crumb of cheese, a fragment of undigested potato.  The angels are out there though, and like the shepherds we need to hear their words and we need to go to see this thing that has taken place.

What has taken place and what the angels announced was God’s decision to change the course of history.  We love the story and Luke does capture our imagination and our sentiment in the way that he tells it; but sentiment can’t be allowed to overshadow the profound truth that the story conveys and that truth is about change.  Even if humanity was inclined to turn its back on God, God would not turn his back on humanity, instead deciding to engage with the reality of this world and the people in it even more closely, physically becoming part of it in the unlikely baby born to an unlikely couple, with the message announced to unlikely shepherds.

That’s the message of the angels and that’s what Christmas is about but I fear that in the commercialization and sentimentality of Christmas it’s a message that gets lost.  Christmas isn’t about the presents, it isn’t about parties and food, it isn’t about snow, it isn’t even about family even though my own unscientific study of TV shows and holiday movies at this time of year concludes that for the wider culture being with family is the true meaning of Christmas.  All of those things are nice; I don’t mean to come across as Pastor Scrooge here, but Christmas is about God revealing once and for all that he is for us and that because of that, we and the world are changed.

On this night the divine slips through the void and pierces us with the words of angels.  Those words tell us about God and about ourselves and it is goods news of great joy for all people.  “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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