“This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And sudden;y there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:12-14)
The shepherds were on the hillsides not far from Bethlehem. When you visit Bethlehem, one of the places you may be taken is the “shepherds’ fields”-two hillsides separated by a valley. The ruins of ancient churches dot one hill, as well as two chapels and an interesting cave that gives you a glimpse of what a cave dwelling may have looked like at the time of Jesus. You’ll also likely see, down in the valley, a shepherd or two grazing some sheep.
After the messenger of the Lord had explained that the Savior had been born, he encouraged the shepherds to leave behind their sheep and go to Bethlehem to see the Christ Child. They were to look for a newborn child, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a feeding trough for animals (a manger). What a sign! They would find the Savior of the world not by a star-that was the sign for the magi-but by finding a child laid to sleep in a makeshift crib!
And then, suddenly, as if the heavens could no longer keep quiet, a host of strangers appeared singing and praising God. I wonder if you’ve seen the video of the “flash mob” singing the Hallelujah Chorus is a mall food court. An unsuspecting crowd of people are eating their lunch in the food court when one woman begins to sing, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hal-le-lu-jah!” Then another joins her, and another, and another, until several dozen people are singing together in perfect harmony as a stunned crowd watches. This is how I picture the angelic chorus appearing and breaking into song that first Christmas night.
In the shepherds’ fields, the heavenly chorus sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” The order of these two ideas may be important. First come praise, and then comes peace. Glory to God. Peace on earth. I find in my own life, as I praise God, I begin to experience God’s peace. When I’m frightened or anxious or feeling down, I sing hymns and choruses. Sometimes, when I remember the tune but not the words to the hymn, I make up my own words. But the act of singing God’s praise to others often gives them peace.
Years ago, while I was serving as the youth director of a church in Texas, I took the youth to do repairs at the homes of two elderly women living in a blighted south Dallas neighborhood. Some of the other homes in their neighborhood were boarded up. Some had been torn down. Some were drug houses. These women had lived in this neighborhood for decades, but the world seemed to have forgotten them.
The women were excited when we arrived. As we scraped and caulked and painted their homes, they prepared cookies and lemonade and told us stories of their lives. These women knew they were teaching the youth that day. When we left their homes they were so grateful, and our youth were filled with joy.
The following Christmas, we decided to take the kids back one night to carol for these two women. Our youth took up an offering among themselves to give the women, and from their own money they collected two hundred dollars for each woman. They all signed Christmas cards for the women and tucked the money inside.
I’ll never forget what happened at one of these homes. We emptied the bus, and forty-five youth stood around the doorstep of Miss Violet’s home. We began to sing, and as we did it seemed the whole neighborhood came outside to see what was happening. It had been a long time since any of them had seen a caroler on that street. Miss Violet turned on the front light and slowly opened the door as we sang. Then one of the youth stepped forward and presented her with gifts and the cards. The young woman said, “Miss Violet, we came to remind you that God loves you. These gifts are a sign of his love and ours, too. Merry Christmas!”
Miss Violet stood there, dumbfounded. Her hands shaking, she opened the card and read it, then looked at the money that fell into her hands. Tears began to roll down her cheeks, and she said in almost a whisper, “Ever since my husband died, I thought God had forgotten me. Tonight, you reminded me that he still remembers I’m here.” It was one of the most moving experiences in my ministry at that church.
I wonder if this is what the night-shift shepherds felt that night, as the heavenly host sang carols to them.
Lord, help me to be one of your angels, reminding others of the “good news of great joy” that is Christmas. Help me, with my words and deeds, to be a visible sign that you love those around me. Amen.