19 December 2006

A sermon on the first Noël

When we hear about the night when our Lord Jesus Christ was born into this world, we of course hear about Mary and Joseph, and their difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We hear about the wise men bearing gifts. We sing many songs like "O little town of Bethlehem", "We three kings", and "O Holy night". But think about the words to "The First Noël":

The first noel the angels did say
was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay

We know what happened that night so long ago. But imagine yourself being there that night when those angels sang that first noel. Bethlehem was what might be called a little backwater town. Although it was the birthplace of Israel's most beloved king, King David, no one paid much attention to it. Nothing ever really happened in Bethlehem. Kinda like living in Rockwood. Now, imagine you were a shepherd in Bethlehem about 2000 years ago. You're out watching your sheep one night. And it's a night like any other night. It doesn't feel any different than all the other countless nights you've spent out here.

Having spent enough nights outside, you know what the sky should look like. You know what belongs and what doesn't. You've tried to count the stars, you've seen a few of them shoot across the sky. But tonight, when you look up, you notice something. And this thing you notice looks very different than any other thing you have ever seen before. Then, you notice something else about it. It's getting bigger...and brighter...and closer. Suddenly you realize this is no ordinary star. Whatever it is, you can't seem to take your eyes off of it. Then something occurs to you. You think to yourself, "If I didn't know better, I'd swear that looks like a...man?"

Your eyes grow wide with a sense of almost disbelief as you realize this is no man, this is an angel of the LORD. At first you're overcome with joy at being visited by this messenger from GOD. But then you wonder, "Has he come to perhaps fulfill GOD's wrath on this falen world?" And you begin to get scared. But then the angel speaks in a mighty voice.

"Fear not. For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy,
which shall be for all people."

Joy?! An angel bringing news of great joy from on high!?

"For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour,
Who is Christ the LORD.
And this will be a sign for you:
you shall find Him in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger."

Of course, being Jewish, you're hearing this in your native Hebrew. You hear three words that grab your attention: "Yasha", or "Savior". The Jewish name "Yeshua", which we know as "Jesus", and from which we get the name "Joshua", comes from this word and means "Savior". You hear the word "Michiach". We know that word as Messiah. The prophet Daniel wrote that this Messiah would bridge the gap, as it were, and bring peace, between GOD and man. "Adonai", the LORD. The One who is above all. You wonder "Has the LORD Himself come to us?" Yasha Michiach Adonai. Our Saviour, Christ the LORD.

And then it's almost as if heaven itself opens up, and you see and hear a great company of angels singing, "Glory to GOD in the highest heavens and on earth! Peace, and goodwill toward men!" And when it's all over, your heart still pounding, you want so bad to go and tell your fellow shepherds. So you start towards the next pasture. Then you realize something. "They're never gonna believe it! An angel came to ME?" But then you see another shepherd coming your way. He stops before he gets to you. Because he's thinking the same thing. You both realize you've both seen the same wonderful sight, and heard the same glorious words.

Maybe heaven really did open up this night! And you both run to each other and rejoice, and sing praises to GOD! And he tells you, "Ya know, I heard that the prophet Micah wrote that although Bethlehem was small, out of it shall come the One who is to be Ruler in Israel! One who has existed since before the beginning!" You look around, and see other shepherds talking amongst themselves in the same joyous manner. Suddenly, it's like a shepherds' convention. Before you know it, it occurs to you that sunrise is close at hand. None of you is going to sleep this night. So one of you says, "Let us go into Bethlehem, and see this thing that has come to pass, that the LORD has made known to us!"

So you gather up your stuff, and head into Bethlehem. Maybe your sheep are still with you, maybe they're not. But right now, all you know is that something wonderful has happened! Along the way, you remember hearing an elder reading from the book of Isaiah. You think, "Could this be what he meant? Is this the One that shall have the rule of Earth upon His shoulders? The One Whose name shall be Wonderful Counselor? Mighty GOD? Everlasting Father Prince of Peace?" You look around the city, and without knowing how, you find the manger the angel spoke about. And there you see a young lady, with her husband, and a newborn child which they lovingly wrapped in "swaddling clothes."

Time out: Ask 100 people "what are swaddling clothes?" I dare say 90 of them will give you this answer: (insert blank stare). For many years, I didn't know what they were. Think about what you see at nativity scenes: They show Mary, and Joseph. Jesus lying in that manger wearing only a cloth diaper. Well, that's not quite right. Swaddling clothes were strips of cloth that the parents would wrap around the child and were meant to keep the child still, and keep Him warm. It was a sign of a great love that parents would show their child.

Now, back to our shepherds. You hear one of your friends ask this young lady, "Are you a virgin?" She replies, "Why, yes I am." You're puzzled. You ask your friend why he would pose such a question. He tells you, "Because I heard one time what Isaiah wrote. That GOD would give us a sign concerning our coming Savior. That a virgin would conceive and give birth to a son, and call his name Immanuel, because GOD would be with us." The girl looks up and says, "As a matter of fact, He was conceived by GOD's Holy Spirit." You look at her husband, and grab him, and say, "You are truly blessed!!! For you have a wife who has found great favor in the eyes of the LORD!!" After much joy and celebration, you all return to your homes, knowing you have seen something many of the greatest men of GOD have only dreamed about.

Maybe none of these shepherds understood why this child was born of a virgin. They may not have known that this was the Great Shepherd that David wrote about in his 23rd Psalm, who would restore their soul, and lead them in paths of righteousness. They may not have lived to see the day when the hands that were wrapped in those clothes would be pierced for them. Or the day when that tender forehead was cut by a crown of thorns. They may never have seen the day when He was wounded for their transgressions, and bruised for their iniquities. They may not have lived to see Him after He rose victorious from a borrowed tomb. But if you were one of those shepherds, you knew, beyond anything else, that you were indeed looking into the very face of the one, true, living GOD. And one day, whether you know it or not, you will see that face again, surrounded by the most wonderful glory, beyond what you could even imagine.

And think about this: one day, we're gonna get to talk to those shepherds. Because 2000 years ago, in the city of Bethlehem, on a night like any other night, GOD came to us, so that one day, we could go to be with Him.

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