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Shepherds in the night: The glory of God revealed

Actors dressed as Mary and Joseph carrying a baby representing Jesus, lead other actors in front of the Supreme Court and U.S. Capitol (background) in Washington, December 5, 2012. | (Photo: Reuters/Jason Reed)

Merry Christmas season! I love Christmas. I love this time of year. Jesus Christ is Lord today, tomorrow and every day. I need Him now. He reigns over reality and He lives in me. He lives in me, He lives in you, and much more, He reigns over the universe, over all of history, and over reality itself. In fact, His presence holds reality together. He is present everywhere.

Christmas is the time when we recall with joy the coming of Jesus into human history. Jesus was born, but the son of God is eternally existent. Before God established time, space, and physical matter, Christ was. And Christ is, and will always be. This is a concept insanely difficult for us as finite beings to understand. To understand infinity would mean setting aside time itself. Yet Christ left timelessness to become finite like us. Why leave aside such glory? Why set aside such majesty? Why come into the world He made?

He'd probably walked in human form before. Angels do it all the time. He exists throughout His universe, without being specifically united to it. Yet He came into the world in the same way we did, as an unborn baby, coming into the womb of his mother, and he was born, on some date, we don’t know what day, it wasn’t necessarily December 25th, though it could’ve been, but in any case, December 25th is the day we recall the fact that Jesus came.

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time being amazed about all of this. It all seems so normal and often repeated that I can’t seem to summon amazement or much wonder. But I’m like that. I’m not easily impressed and I’m often at least a bit pessimistic.

God came in human form? Why is that such a big deal? God can do anything, why does coming in human form mean so much? I’m not sure exactly. It’s mysterious and beautiful. It’s also quite simple. Jesus was born, in Bethlehem, in the middle east, about two thousand years ago. I wish I had video of this event, I’m a visual learner, that’s how I understand things.

But in Luke chapter two we see this event play out in beautiful form. There are flocks of sheep in these hills. It’s at night, probably very dark. I wonder what kind of night it was? Was it particularly cold? Was there dew settled on the grasses? Were the sheep loud that night or were they eerily silent? Was it like one of those nights that make you feel like a blanket of darkness is wrapped around you and you feel oddly safe in the failing light? I bet it was just like that. I bet there was a sense of anticipation in the air, like the moment before a storm, when everything is charged with energy and pressure. Sometimes the anticipation is greater than the release, and you feel exhausted once the storm begins. But I suppose at this event it would’ve been quite different.

Was there a wind blowing through the valley? Or was it totally still? Many were probably caught off guard completely, but I bet there was one or two who felt or knew deep down something special was about to happen. I’ve known people like that, they seem to have a sixth sense for how time and history play themselves out. Yet I’ve also known people who dream about things that are to come. Think of Pontius Pilate’s wife who warned him that she had been having dreams about Jesus and pleaded with Pilate to not harm Jesus. Maybe there was a dreamer there that night. Maybe not.

The glory of God cuts forth into reality that night. And what’s the reaction of the shepherds? Total fear. They are so afraid. That’s the common reaction, fear and trembling at the incredible glory of God. They are shocked. I wonder what it was like. The glory of God is an interesting concept when looked at topically in the scriptures. It’s woven through the books of the Bible like a beautiful mystery. It seems to be the presence of God at least partially unvarnished.

Jesus came not in full glory, but in human form and there was nothing about him physically that distinguished him from other people. So the world didn’t recognize him. They couldn’t understand him. Many resisted him, they feared him, and they tried to kill him. But for others they celebrated his coming and welcomed it.

So God’s glory breaks into the night. I’ve witnessed parts of God’s glory, I think many of us have, when we hear a beautiful sermon, or during worship, or watching a beautiful sunset, or looking up at the moon at night. But this expression of God’s glory seems to be a moment where God relays his own beauty to us. He shows us the beauty of who He is in an expression of the unified complexity of his being. We witness his timelessness, we witness his power, we witness his beauty, we witness his creative genius and we realize and feel a fuller expression of his own love for us. That’s what it means to experience the glory of God. Yet to experience the glory of God is to come face to face with God’s holiness, meaning the full just nature of God. It’s the realization of God’s perfection, how perfect he is in every way, how wonderfully just his system is and the perfect justice of his mind and personality. This is both beautiful, and terrifying, because at that moment we both realize the incredible beauty of God’s perfect just nature and we also realize the incredible depths of how low we fall short and how filthy we are in ourselves. Our own selfish attitudes and selfish ways of living and our own debased desires seem to totally rule over us. Oh, it’s so terrible, and when we see that glory of God we realize God’s love for us and we also realize our own utter guilt before Him. That’s why they were afraid.

And God came forth to them, and apparently “the angel of the Lord” appeared. The angel of the Lord gives a message to the shepherds: Jesus is coming. Go check it out yourself.

They’re given a sign, and told that they’ll find Jesus in a manger. Then something crazy happens, apparently a heavenly host appears around this single angel and they praise the Lord singing glory to God in the highest heaven and peace to those on whom his favor rests.

Peace is a rare commodity in this life. Jesus came to bring peace to us, and hope for those in the shackles of sin. Sin is the real problem. We like to call it a “slip up” or a “mistake” or a “an issue we have” or other curt answers. But sin is what it really is. Sin, seated beneath our composed figure, our quick jabs and intellectual answers and scientific examinations, sin is that selfish, plotting self-interested obsession beneath the surface that attempts to guide all situations to our own favor. It’s the selfie stick. It’s the me me me lifestyle. And Jesus came to set us free from that, so we can be free to put God before self, and to serve others instead of constantly serving ourselves.

That’s what the world needs more of, and it all began with God coming into the world, and calling out to the shepherds, to spread the word, that hope was kindled. Hope is sweet, like nectar. It’s rare in this crusty dark world when every day our soul grows a little colder, and a little more empty. I suppose that’s why just a word from God, just a moment of the realization of his presence with us, is enough to bring us to tears.

God revealed himself and a big chunk of his plan to the shepherds in the wilderness tending their flocks at night. And he reveals himself to us during the Christmas season, if that is, we can slow down long enough to ponder his presence. If we can slow down long enough to take in the Christmas spirit, to smell the Christmas air, to enjoy the Christmas times with friends and family and children and grandchildren.

So Merry Christmas, and don’t miss those moments when God speaks to us in the darkness, in the quiet times, when we’re tending our flocks, and God bursts forth onto the scene sometimes in words, sometimes in feelings and stray thoughts that float in to transform our lives.

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