“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” Luke 2: 8-14
God’s message of love at Christmas brings a patience that helps us persevere through difficult times and accept the greatest gift ever given: the gift of the Christ child. That is true prosperity.
We need extra patience this time of year. The book, And God Created Laughter mentions the 1925 film Big Business which features Laurel and Hardy selling Christmas trees door to door from their Model T truck. A man answers his door to their Christmas greeting and closes the door because he is not interested, but a tree branch gets closed in the door. They knock again and the man opens the door. As they are explaining what happened they pull the tree out but this time Stan’s coat gets caught in the door as it is slammed. After a few more mishaps, the man brings out some clippers, clips the tree, and throws it in the yard. Stan concludes, “I don’t think he wants a tree.” Ollie gets so angry that he rips the man’s doorbell off of the house. The man tries to call the police and Ollie cuts the phone wire. The situation gets much worse as each side begins destroying the other’s property. How could what began as a Christmas greeting end with such malice and impatience?
Being patient at Christmastime helps the real meaning of Christmas absorb into the season. It helps us stop, ponder, contemplate, and reflect upon “the reason for the season.”
One of the reasons God chose shepherds to receive the message of the angels might have been the extreme patience shepherds had in order to do their jobs well. Shepherds spent a lot of time waiting for the sheep. Being patient was one of the main parts of the job.
God’s message proclaimed across the sky to those shepherds contained a powerful message of “Glory to God in the Highest and Peace on Earth.” They left immediately to see the baby in the manger. We don’t know what they did after that, but it could be that they returned to their jobs armed with the news of Christ’s birth. Yet they had to be patient to see when that Peace would come and how it would come.
Shepherds were pretty low on the social ladder. Families did not want their children to be shepherds because shepherds had bad reputations. Like the phrase, “curse like a sailor,” was the popular phrase, “lie like a shepherd.” Shepherds were not allowed to testify in court.
For the message of the angels to come to them was significant. Of everyone in society the shepherds were the ones that needed to experience the peace on earth that God would bring. After Jesus was born, Herod executed little children the age of baby Jesus, and the holy family had to flee to Egypt. The waiting began as soon as the baby was born.
What kind of peace were they waiting for? Jesus refused to be the political Messiah that would have challenged the Roman occupation. Jesus told his disciples when he left, “My peace I give you, but it is not as the world gives you.” (John 14:27)
Jesus was talking about a peace the shepherds could hope for. It was a peace that transcended the circumstances of earth and the ups and downs of life. It was a peace that was literally other worldly. Just a glimpse of the power of that peace would be enough to help anyone persevere in life as never before, but it was a peace that took patience and waiting.
Scripture talks about this waiting:
“For God alone my soul waits in silence” (Psalm 62:1),
“For Thee I wait all the day long” (Psalm 25:5).
“I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding His face …” (Isaiah 8:17).
Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. (Isaiah 64:4)
“As for me, I will look to the Lord, I will wait for the God of my salvation” (Micah 7:7).
The shepherds may have been uniquely equipped to absorb this peace. They were experts at waiting. One of our favorite Psalms is Psalm 23. Mother Teresa’s Life in the Spirit: Reflections, Meditations, and Prayers includes her version of Psalm 23. It embodies the kind of patient spirit a shepherd might have:
“The lord is my pace setter . . . I shall not rush,
He makes me stop for quiet intervals,
He provides me with images of stillness
which restore my serenity
He leads me in the way of efficiency
through calmness of mind
his guidance is peace,
Even though I have a great many things
to accomplish each day,
I will not fret, for his presence is here,
his all importance will keep me in balance,
He prepares refreshment and renewal
in the midst of my activity
by anointing my mind with his oils of tranquility,
My cup of joyous energy overflows,
Truly harmony and effectiveness shall be
the fruits of my hours
for I shall walk in the Pace of my Lord
and dwell in his house for ever.”
Many believe that this life is a training ground for the life to come. Part of the purpose of this life is to learn to grow in the spirit and be better prepared for life in the kingdom of God. Some liken that training to leaving a photography dark room and needing our eyes to adjust to the light. I liken our training to a journey that is filled with adventure, surprises, joy, and despair. Sometimes it feels like a battle between good and evil, love and hate, angels and demons. Our ability to persevere can be strengthened by God’s peace as we practice patience.
When the Jewish psychiatrist Victor Frankl was captured and placed in a Nazi concentration camp, he learned a deep patience. A manuscript for a book he had been writing was hidden in his coat, but his coat was taken from him. The coat he was given had belonged to another prisoner. In his sadness for losing his manuscript he found something in this other coat: one page from a Jewish prayer book containing the Shema:
“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one God. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
It was as if God had sent him that one prayer to focus his entire being upon it. From that prayer he found the strength to persevere in those terrible conditions. Maybe the shepherds found strength to persevere from the message of the angels. That kind of peace is very deep and yes, a lot different than what we might expect. Wars, disease, evil, and sadness persist. We are discouraged and disappointed in life. Yet peace from those things is only temporary. Real peace is eternal. It is peace that is relational.
During Christmastime our patience may wear thin. We relate in a different way during this season. With family, friends, or co-workers, the slightest friction can produce unbelievable conflict as Laurel and Hardy learned selling those trees. Did Jesus promise peace in relationships? Paul writes in Romans, “if it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (12:18) It seems as if you can try but it is not guaranteed. That is not the peace Christ promised. The peace that comes at Christmastime is the peace found in the relationship between you and God. You can have peace with God. That will bring true peace within. Peace with God means peace with yourself.
David Balducci writes about a nurse visiting a death row inmate in his book, The Simple Truth. The nurse, Cassandra,
was asked by an inmate, Rufus, to read the Bible to him. He wanted her to read the 103rd Psalm, yet as she read it she noticed his lips were moving. He admits that he had memorized the Psalm but asked her to read it not for his benefit, but for hers.
She paused and thought about her life. Her life was chaotic, lonely, filled with stress and pressure. And she felt empty and poverty stricken. She glanced around the ugly prison hospital walls and decided to keep reading the Psalm for herself.
“Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits–who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” (Psalm 103:2-5)
She did need that Psalm. She found new patience. She felt as if she had suddenly been filled with prosperity. Maybe the shepherds felt this way as well. They were the poorest of society, yet they were visited by a great company of angels. Literally this means, “more than can be counted.” The sky was suddenly filled with angels proclaiming this message of peace to them. How suddenly worthy they must have felt, loved and valued by God! Guilt from their past thievery must have been washed away. To continue with Psalm 103 above, “…as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12). This morning’s freshly fallen snow covered everything and made the outdoors so clean and fresh. Isaiah 1:18 says, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow….”
A census taker was going door to door. He knocked on the door of a small, unpretentious house and was met at the door by a weary mother. “I am here from the census and need to know how many there are in this family.” “Well,” she said, “There’s Johnny, Matilda, Reginald, Charles…” “No, no,” he interrupted, “I don’t want their names, just their number.” with much indignation, she replied, “They have no numbers. They all have names.”
When the angels filled the sky that night, those poor shepherds realized they were not insignificant numbers lost in the fields of life waiting for nothing. They were named, and filled with genuine prosperity. They could now wait for God. When God comes to our door this Christmas, he comes knowing our names, bringing eternal peace. How will we receive God’s message of love…with impatience, as Laurel and Hardy experienced…or like Mother Teresa, with the patience of a shepherd, calmly realizing God’s personal message right next to our heart? Amen.