Saturday, December 24, 2005

Lessons from the Shepherds

[Message shared with the people of Friendship Church on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2005]

Luke 2:1-20
A few nights ago, my wife and I welcomed some friends to our house for dinner. Not long before that, we were discussing what to serve when my wife said, “Why don’t we have Raclette?” I thought that was a great idea!

Raclette is something that our daughter and I learned about in Germany a few years back. It all centers on a Raclette grill, which you place in the middle of the table. You take small cuts of various meats--we usually choose steak, ham, and pepperoni--and cook them on the top, flat surface of the grill.

Then, everybody takes individual, small triangular pans and loads them with cheese, veggies, and macaroni noodles--whatever they want. On a lower level of the Raclette grill, each person cooks that food. While everybody tends their selections, they chat and laugh and enjoy each other’s company. It’s fun!

Fast forward a few days after our dinner party: I ran into one of the couples who’d been at our house. “We’ve been telling everybody about your little machine!” the wife said. And the husband told me: “It’s great! I told people about how it really creates a little community around that grill!”

I obviously was happy that they liked it so much. But later, this thought crossed my mind: We had created Raclette evangelists! These friends are even now making plans to buy their own Raclette grill and to invite others to their house for fun evenings around it!

It made me think of all the other things we tell people about. For several years, a friend of ours who works at the Apple Store kept telling us why Apple computers were so much better than PCs.

He kept urging us to buy one. “Besides,” he said, “I can get you a discount!” That got my attention and so when it was time to replace our old computer a year-and-a-half ago, we bought an Apple.

We so fell in love with it that our son went out and bought an Apple laptop. Now, we go around telling people how much we love our Apples! We’ve become Apple evangelists.

The word evangelist literally means good newswer. When you’ve got good news and you share it, you’re sort of evangelizing, good newsing. It’s what our friends are doing now as they tell others about our Raclette party. It’s what we do when we start rhapsodizing about our Apple computers.

Now, you know where I’m going with this. But stick with me, okay?

There are two Biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth. One of them is in the Gospel of Luke, which we read just a short time ago. The other is in the Gospel of Matthew.

Matthew has the magi or the wise men coming to visit Jesus. Luke has the shepherds. In a way, you can understand why heaven would want to get the attention of the wise men to announce the birth of Jesus. The wise men were people of influence, power, and importance. If you want to influence the world, get to the influencers, right?

But it’s sort of difficult to understand why heaven bothered letting those shepherds out in the fields near Bethlehem know about the birth of God-in-the-flesh. Shepherds were regarded as despicable, dishonest creatures who lived on the wrong side of the camel caravan tracks. Having them on your side was nothing to brag about.

And yet, Luke says that on the night of Jesus’ birth, a whole squadron of angels went to the shepherds to give the news. The shepherds were so revved up that they fairly ran to find the baby lying in a manger, the Savior of the world. Luke records that these shepherds--rough, uneducated guys--couldn’t stop evangelizing. First, they talked about it among themselves. Then, they told Joseph and Mary about what the angels had said. And then, Luke says:
...they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them...The shepherds returned [that means they went back to work], glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
They were carrying the good news that God was on the loose in our world, that God had become one of us, that the Savior long-awaited had begun His march to triumph, a march that you and I know will lead to a cross and a resurrection and the forgiveness of sin and hope that never dies for all who believe in and follow this Bethlehem baby. The shepherds couldn’t contain themselves. They had to tell everybody.

Yeah, Martin Luther said in one of his Christmas sermons at the church in Wittenberg, Germany back in the sixteenth century, they told everybody in sight about Jesus...for awhile.

But we have no record of the shepherds after this. If they became faithful followers of Jesus, we don’t know about it. If they kept telling others about Jesus, there is no documentation of it. My guess is the same as Luther's, that after a short time, their enthusiasm gave out. The pilot light of their faith in Christ seems to have died down.

You and I know people like that. Their passion for the God Who died and rose to give us life once gave off light for others to see their way through the tough passages of life and into the arms of Christ. But now, they never think about Christ. They may worship once or twice a year. They might whisper a prayer or two when they’re in a jam. And the notion of serving their neighbor is something that rarely crosses their minds.

What happens to people like that? How do they, as seems to have been true of the shepherds, lose their ways? What's behind their spiritual amnesia? How do they lose their grasp of the strongest hand that can hold them and of the greatest truth any of us can know, the truth that God is for us?

I suppose that there are lots of reasons. But one thing I know to be true is this: If we’ve lost track of where the God we know through Jesus Christ is in our lives, it’s because we’ve let it happen.

Once God gets you in His great bear hug of love and acceptance, He will never let you go. But He won’t hold you against your will.

Among the greatest things about God is the fact that no matter how far we may wander from Him, He is always willing, anxious to welcome us back. I’ve learned that personally in my life...and more than once.

I read this past week about a couple whose children were grown and away from home. It describes them on Christmas Eve:
Reggie and Oneita sat on the living room couch. They were close together, holding hands. They were waiting for their son and family to come from New Mexico, their daughter and family from Michigan. Preparations were complete. [Even the Santa Clause covers were on all the door knobs in the house!] Only the people were missing. Later that day, when everyone had arrived, it was time to celebrate Christmas.
Christmas is meant to be shared and not just tonight or tomorrow and not just with our families.

The Good News that draws us here and now is Good News for every day of our lives and for everybody and for all of eternity.

So, as an old year closes and we move to a new one, resolve to be good newswers, evangelizers who, unlike the shepherds, keep telling others and showing others that God has come into our world and is for us. Who knows, you might be the very person who can ignite the flames of someone else’s faith in Christ.

And if you are one whose faith has burned out, don’t give up! Come to the Christ Whose birth we celebrate tonight. Ask Him to hold you tight. Ask Him to forgive your sin and renew your strength for living and your hope for eternity. He will do these things if you let Him. I promise. And if you will, you can remember this as the Christmas that changed your life forever.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

[The true story of Reggie and Oneita is told in Christmas Is...A Treasury of Meditations, Stories, and Quotes]


LET'S TALK said...

God loves us unconditionally and theirs nothing we can do about it.
Now if we started to treat others and feel for others the way God feels for us then we will be OK.
Like the song says; He came from Heaven to the Earth to show us the way and most of us have not found that way.

Mark Daniels said...

Thanks for the comments...and the reminder of God's grace given in Christ!

Have a blessed 2006.